These days, foam rollers are wherever, the gym, your physical therapist’s office, your living room and even your suitcase. After all, foam rolling has emerged as the jewel of the fitness world and the remedy for many various aches.
Typically, foam rolling is a form of self-myofascial release, or self-massage, that gets freed of adhesions in your muscles and connective tissue. These adhesions can “build locations of weakness or susceptibility in the tissue,” according to Chris Howard, C.S.C.S., and LMT at Cressey Performance. “If the muscle isn’t contracting uniformly from end-to-end, it could lead to injury and pain.” Foam rolling also improves blood stream to your muscles and creates better movement, helping with healing and increasing performance.
Sounds great, right? Yes, foam rolling offers enormous potential to alleviate pain and help you move better — if used correctly. If not, you risk irritating and possibly injured, your body further.
Here’s a breakdown of five common mistakes people often make when using the foam roller.
Mistake #1: You roll right where you feel discomfort. When we feel pain, our first impulse is to massage that spot immediately. But, this might be a significant mistake. “Areas of pain are the victims that result from tension imbalances in other regions of the body,” says Sue Hitzmann, MS, CST, NMT, manual therapist, creator, and author of The MELT Method.
Let’s use the IT band, for instance. Foam rolling is a generally prescribed remedy for iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS). While religiously rolling out your IT band might feel great, “the idea that you are going to relax or release the IT band is a misconception,” Hitzmann says. The expression roll out your IT band itself makes it appear like you are rolling out a lump of dough, but your IT band is anything but elastic. It’s a remarkably strong piece of connective tissue, and research has shown that it cannot be released or manipulated by manual techniques such as foam rolling. “If you iron out areas of inflammation, you can enhance inflammation. And if you are in pain, your body will be too stressed to repair itself,” says Hitzmann.
The fix: Go indirect before direct. “If you find a spot that’s sensitive, it’s a cue to ease away from that area by a few inches. Take time and work a more localized zone around areas that feel sore before using larger sweeping movements,” suggests Hitzmann. For the IT band, go on the main muscles that connect to the IT band first — especially the gluteus maximus (the largest muscle in the buttocks) and the tensor fasciae late, a muscle that runs along the outside edge of the hip.
Mistake #2: You roll too fast. While it might feel fabulous to roll back and forth on a foam roller fast, you’re not reducing any adhesions that style. “You need to give your brain enough time to tell your muscles to relax,” says Monica Vazquez, NASM certified personal trainer and USA Track and Field Running Coach.
The fix: Go slower so that the surface layers and muscles have time to adjust and manage the compression. Know where the tender points are with the roller and use small, slow rolls over that point. “There’s no reason to bang up the whole muscle if there are only a few sensitive areas,” Howard says.
Mistake #3: You waste too much time on those twists. We’re often told that if you feel a kink, give time working that place with the foam roller. However, some people will use five to 10 minutes or more in the same area and attempt to put their entire body weight onto the foam roller. If you put sustained pressure on one body part, you might hit a nerve or destroy the tissue, which can cause bruising, according to Vazquez.
The fix: “Spend 20 seconds on each fragile spot then move on,” Vazquez recommends. You can also manage how much body weight you use. For example, when working for your IT band, plant the foot of your leg on the floor to take some of the burdens of the roller.
Mistake #4: You have poor posture. Wait, what does your posture have to do with foam rolling? A lot. “You have to hold your body in certain poses over the roller,” says Howard, and that demands a lot of strength. “When rolling out the IT band, you are holding your upper body weight with one arm.” When you roll out the quads, you are mostly continuing a plank position. If you don’t give awareness to your form or posture, you may exacerbate pre-existing postural deviations and cause more harm.
The fix: Work with an expert personal trainer, physical therapist or coach who can show you precise form and technique. Or, consider arranging your smartphone to videotape yourself while foam rolling, suggests Howard. That way, you can see what you are producing right and what you are doing wrong, like bending in the hips or contorting the spine.
Mistake #5: You use the foam roller on your lower back. “The thing that makes me cringe is when people foam rolls their lower back. You should never do that,” said Vazquez. Hitzmann agrees. “Your spine will freak out, and all the spinal muscles will engage and defend the spine.”
The fix: According to Vazquez, you can use the foam roller on your upper back because the shoulder blades and muscles protect the spine. “Once you reach the end of your rib cage, stop.” If you want to release your lower back, try child’s pose or foam roll the muscles that attach to your lower back — the piriformis (a muscle found deep in the glutes), hip flexors and rectus femoris, one of the inner muscles in your quads.
Most importantly, know what the source of your pain is before you begin. Know what you are trying to accomplish through foam rolling and how to do it correctly. And don’t ignore to stick with it. “To get the advantages of self-massage, it’s repeated exposure that’s most important,” says Howard. “You have to show up and put in the work.”