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A Concise (But Valuable) Primer on Foam Rolling

In my current  place of employment, foam rolling (also known as soft tissue work) is a bit of an overlooked component when it comes to our programs. This is primarily because of two things:

  1. Our 45-minute sessions don’t give us the time to effectively address every area of the body with soft tissue work, inevitably causing us to limit our work to the “most important areas.”
  2. Clientele often do not understand why we foam roll, thus they don’t want to do it.

In a typical workout (not at my studio), here’s how foam rolling might look. A gym-goer might bring a foam roller or grab one at the gym. Gym-goer proceeds to sit on the foam roller, as if to roll their coccyx, for approximately ten minutes in order to check emails, Tweet that they’re at the gym, post selfies to Facebook, and chat with other gym-goers. Afterward, gym-goer might attempt to roll the upper back (upper back being the most comfortable to foam roll because it typically isn’t excruciatingly painful and you get to lie on your back while you do it).

Then the foam roller gets tossed to the side, only for gym-goer to complain to his gym-friends of the all the shoulder, knee, and lower back pain that he’s been having and that he needs to stop squatting and only bench and leg press for the next few months.

Might want to skip any pulling work as well, just in case.

If you found this passage funny, congrats. You probably foam roll and/or know what a coccyx is and that you cannot foam roll it. However, if you didn’t find this funny, then this post might be for you.

How many of you like massages? Answer: everybody.

Everybody likes massages. Massage therapy is a great way to relax, release tension, and feel better overall. But it comes with a price tag. And many of us simply cannot afford massage therapy on a weekly basis. Enter the foam roller.

“But Josh, what iz foam rolling?”

Foam rolling is similar to a massage. The benefits of foam rolling are numerous:

  • Release of trigger points
  • Breakup of scar tissue and adhesions
  • Extensibility of muscles
  • Decreased tension/tone of tight muscles
  • Overall improvement in ROM and mobility

Also, you will look like a bad-ass when you show someone else how to roll their IT band and it hurts like hell.

A major benefit of foam rolling can be the reduction of referred pain (pain that occurs somewhere other than the cause). For instance, releasing a trigger point in the IT band or quadriceps can often reduce a painful area in the knee. Due to the body’s system of myofascial meridians, releasing a trigger point at the bottom of the foot could theoretically relieve pain in the back of your neck. Whoa!

Beside releasing trigger points, foam rolling is known to actually make you stronger! This is accomplished through decreasing tone in overactive muscles (simulating tension to stimulate the golgi tendon organ, relaxing the muscle and effectively resetting actin filaments to optimal alignment with myosin cross-bridges).

Additionally, foam rolling helps relieve soreness by increasing blood flow to the affected area.

What Can I Foam Roll?

Let me summarize what you can’t foam roll first: bones and joints. Bones will hurt to roll. Not because they’re full of tension. But because they’re calcified, rigid organs that make up our skeletal system. Rolling joints is also a no-no. Because putting a lot of direct pressure on an unstable joint like the shoulder or knee could cause more trouble than it’s worth.

You should roll muscles and tendons. That includes the quads, IT band, adductors, calves, anterior leg muscles, hamstrings, gluteals, upper back, lats, triceps, forearms, pecs, and a host of small muscles that you’ll probably hit just by getting these ones.

Here’s a quick video by Eric Cressey on foam rolling. “Like a monkey humping a football.”

The one area I don’t necessarily foam roll is the core (i.e. the lower back and abdominal muscles). This is because the core has no skeletal structure other than the spinal column and core musculature itself and putting a lot of direct pressure on the lumbar spine probably isn’t worth the risk-reward. If I want to foam roll the lower back, I’ll throw a lacrosse ball against a wall and roll there. That way, I have more control over the force and surface area of applied pressure.

When Should I Foam Roll?

Any time, really. But especially before sessions. Before stretching. For me, foam rolling is the second thing I’ll do, after a few minutes with a jump rope or something to get myself warmed up a bit more.

Foam rolling before static/dynamic stretching allows us to work out trigger points and relax tight muscle before attempting to stretch the muscle, putting further tension on an overactive muscle or trigger point. Furthermore, getting up and down off the foam roller will help warm you up a bit more, further facilitating productive stretching.

I find foam rolling to be great after a session as well. Again, this helps to relax muscles that may have some extra tension on them after a hard training session.

And if we’re talking about relieving soreness, nothing beats foam rolling on off-days, helping us recover quicker and feel better overall.

What Should I Foam Roll With?

Well, a foam roller is a good start. There are many types and densities, but I always start clients with the black foam roller (probably the most common). You may see white and blue foam rollers, but I find them to be overly soft and easily misshapen.


You can also roll with the following implements:

  • golf ball
  • baseball
  • lacrosse ball
  • tennis ball
  • Tiger Ball (basically a lacrosse ball on a string, but it makes rolling the traps against a wall very easy)
  • PVC pipe (not for the faint-of-heart)
  • Olympic or other weightlifting bar (especially on the thick part)
  • The Stick

I may have missed a few, but that’s okay. You get the idea. Basically anything that allows you to roll on it will work. My go-to’s are the PVC pipe and lacrosse ball. You can buy these two things for less than $15 and they’ll make you feel 15,0000 times better.


There are obviously no shortage of reasons why you should be doing a little daily foam rolling. Maybe you’re a runner and you need to relax that IT band. Or maybe you have a stressful office job and develop a lot of trigger points in your upper traps. Or maybe you’re just lifting heavy and need a way to stay mobile and recover from your sessions.

Whatever your reasoning, I can almost guarantee that foam rolling will make you feel better, move better, and perform better. In short, it will make you more awesome. And since being awesome is the first step to being awesome (as well as looking awesome), we should all take steps to be awesome.

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