When you enter a gym or any kind of fitness studio, you’ll find foam rollers of all shapes and sizes lying around. What are the benefits, how do they actually work, and what should you not do with your foam roller? Let’s find out!
Foam rolling is a self-massage technique that improves blood circulation, reduces muscle fatigue, and stimulates the lymphatic system. It also aids in and speeds up recovery, helps break down lactic acid buildup in your muscles, and works on the fascia, eliminating waste and increasing circulation.
It’s an amazing way to “detox” your body or help it recover and regenerate, and all you need is a simple foam roller.
Foam rolling techniques are a powerful and targeted way to really get into your various muscle groups and massage your tissue. Naturally, you have to be careful with certain areas, like your neck and spine.
Believe it or not, some people think you can foam roll while multitasking. That’s how things can go wrong. You might hurt yourself without even realizing it. When you foam roll, you have to focus on what you’re doing to minimize the risk of injury.
Here are some examples of what not to do with your foam roller.
Rolling Over the Spine
Rolling over the vertebrae in your back can cause pinched nerves and bruising because the skin around the vertebrae is very thin and delicate. It can also cause tingling and numbing sensations in your hands and feet if you overstimulate the nerves, which can happen if you roll too vigorously.
Instead, focus on the muscles around your spine and always pay attention to the signs your body gives you. It might be uncomfortable with what you’re doing without you even realizing it.
Be very gentle with the lower back and avoid rolling up and down on your spine. Unlike the upper back, where the spine is more protected and supported by wider muscles and the connection to the rib cage, the lower spine is much more vulnerable to pressure and damage.
Skip the up and down rolling motion here. Instead, place the roller sideways (aligned vertically with your spine) so you can roll gently from side to side instead of up and down. This is more efficient because you stretch the muscles away from the spine while simultaneously supporting it.
What you definitely can use the roller for is stretching. Lying on a roller and using it to passively open your front body does wonders for your spine. Used this way, it’s more like lying over an exercise ball. You can focus on the lower- or mid-back area just under your shoulder blades and stay there for five to 10 long breath cycles.
Not Engaging Your Core
When working your back muscles (especially the lumbar region), you need to keep a very engaged core in order to protect your spine and hips.
The majority of people don’t even think about their abs when rolling. They relax their front so much, they end up with a completely compressed lower back. This doesn’t even work the muscles, aid in recovery, increase the blood flow, or stimulate the detox process.
Activating your whole front core creates an extension in your back and helps you control the movements, one inch at the time.
Rolling Too Fast, for Too Long
When you walk into your gym or studio, what do you see? Likely, someone will be furiously rolling on a foam roller like the faster they smash their muscles, the better.
Faster does not mean better. Keep it slow and controlled, breathing through each move. Use your body weight to work certain areas more than others.
All you really need is a few minutes on each area of the body, and you’re done. No need to roll around for half an hour—actually, you shouldn’t. When you foam roll, you flush the buildup from your myofascial tissue and muscles into your bloodstream. Your body’s role then is to eliminate the waste. Too much rolling around can cause inflammation.
Aggressively Rolling the IT Band
The IT (iliotibial) band is a long, elastic connective tissue that runs from your hip to your knee and shinbone. It’s often confused with a tendon, although their compositions are different.
Foam rolling the IT band can be pretty painful, and it’s one of those weird pains you get used to when you roll on the regular. Some people even say they crave the pain. If you’re new to foam rolling, you’re probably thinking, “Crave the pain? Are you insane?”
A good IT band roll is definitely one of those “hurts-so-good” kind of things.
Foam rolling the IT band has its benefits—we gave it a well-deserved shoutout in our foam roller power moves list. However, it can have some unwanted consequences. Our quad muscles are pretty big and the IT band is long, which is one of the reasons it gets super-tight despite our best efforts to stay loose.
Foam rolling the IT band directly up and down can sometimes irritate it and cause it to tighten up even more. When something hurts, we tighten up naturally, anyway.
Rolling it farther, faster, or longer (because we sometimes hear how we need to focus on the sore spot until it stops being sore) won’t help in this case. The band will just get more irritated.
So, what should you do? Focus on the glutes, hips, and the small areas around your IT band. Let it relax a bit before you tackle the thick fascial tissue itself. And don’t forget your calves—they’re just as important as your thighs.
Rolling the Back of Your Neck
Unlike the rest of your spine, which you can very gently stretch and (in the case of the upper back) roll, do not roll the back of your neck. Period.
You might see people do it—even professionals—but there’s no reason to risk causing serious damage. If you have neck issues, there are techniques to roll the sides of the neck (especially the areas toward the shoulders). However, we urge you to see a massage therapist instead.
Your neck is one of the most delicate areas of your body, and it takes very little pressure to cause harm. If you’re worried about tension or pain in this area, the last thing you want to do is injure or exacerbate any existing issues.
Skip the foam roller in this area and seek a qualified professional to help you investigate any neck pain.
Holding Your Breath While Rolling
As with everything else, we tend to forget about our breath. When foam rolling becomes painful, what do we tend to do? We hold our breath.
Pay attention to your inhales and exhales. Use them to get through any knots in your upper back muscle or that tight area around your hips. It will help with oxygen dispersion and cause you to go deeper into the fascia.
Foam rolling is an amazing way to get healthier and more vital, but only if performed properly. Before you embark on a self-massage journey, do a bit of research or pop into your local gym and take a class on foam rolling and muscle release. You’ll learn all about the basic techniques and prevent self-inflicting any injuries.
Karla Tafra Karla is a certified yoga teacher, nutritionist, content creator and an overall wellness coach with over 10 years of international experience in teaching, writing, coaching, and helping others transform their lives. From Croatia to Spain and now, the US, she calls Seattle her new home where she lives and works with her husband.
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