Got tight muscles? You can take a stretching class or even book a massage, but you might also want to consider adding foam rolling to your routine. For a recovery-focused practice you’ll want to do on repeat, just add foam roller exercises pre or post-workout to help alleviate muscle tension, help with movement and performance, and even prevent injuries.
From how to use a foam roller to foam roller exercises, here’s how to get started.
What Is a Foam Roller?
Foam roller exercises use a cylindrical tool called a roller that’s made of compressed foam or a polymer blend. Rollers can range in density from soft to hard, but they all do the same thing: “Foam rolling is a DIY myofascial release technique where you push your muscles against a hard surface that rolls to alleviate muscle tension and soreness,” says Peloton instructor Hannah Corbin, who teaches foam rolling classes.
If you’ve ever felt like you’ve got a “knot” in your shoulder, that’s your myofascial tissue. Got a tight neck or back? It’s connected to your myofascial tissue. Think of myofascial tissue as your body’s scaffolding, a network of tissue connecting your muscles, joints, and bones while also providing essential support to your organs too. Tight myofascial tissue can impact and restrict the range of motion in your muscles and joints leading to a potential indirect effect of further stress and strain to other areas. Myofascial release is massage technique that helps alleviate this discomfort or tightness by stretching out and moving your muscles and fascia.
Foam rolling not only relieves tight muscles but can also help make you a better athlete, Hannah says. Rolling increases your range of motion and helps correct muscle imbalances from repetitive or dysfunctional movements.
No matter what your fitness goals are, regular foam rolling can make a big difference. “Foam rolling gives me the peace of mind that I am caring for my body the way it needs,” Hannah says. “I've found more length with it in my stretches and more emotional well-being from the tension relief it provides. I honestly don't know where I would be without it—probably hunched over a pulled muscle somewhere, wishing I had used a foam roller!”
Is Foam Rolling Safe?
Yes, foaming rolling is generally considered a safe exercise to do for uninjured muscles and if you regularly exercise—but like with any other exercises or equipment, it needs to be practiced correctly. If you have a serious injury such as a broken bone or torn muscle, it’s best to speak to your healthcare provider and follow their guidance before trying foam rolling. There are also some health conditions where foam rolling is not advised unless practiced by a professional. This includes rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis, advanced diabetes, and cellulitis.
If you’re pregnant, foam rolling may help with relaxation and tension release, but make sure to get guidance from your healthcare provider on what foam roller exercises to do.
Always make sure you’re following approved foam rolling exercises before starting. Applying pressure to areas of the body improperly can cause damage or injuries. Avoid foam rolling over small joints like knees, elbows, or ankles as this could hyperextend them.
The Benefits of Foam Rolling
From easing pain to improving posture, grab your foam roller and discover how it could help your body and wellbeing.
1. Eases Muscle Pain and Soreness
Generally thought to open up tight muscles and help give a myofascial release, foam rolling applies pressure to areas that are sore or tight, helping them to relax. It helps to lengthen muscles, stretching them out—which can be effective for alleviating pain or discomfort, while also warming them up ahead of a workout. Increasing the temperature of your muscles before a workout is key to preventing injury or strain, and foam rolling as part of your warm up could be helpful in loosening up the tissue, helping you move better during your workout.
2. Post-Workout Recovery
A recent study found that foam rolling immediately after exercising can help with preventing or treating DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness)—when your muscles ache 12-24 hours after exercise. It showed a decreased intensity of muscle soreness after a workout when the participants used foam rollers, making it a great go-to option for warm-down exercises.
3. Increased Range of Motion
Foam rolling combined with static stretching has been shown to help improve range of motion—vital for flexibility and performance. Potentially helping you be a better and safer athlete, recent research suggests foam rolling helps correct muscle imbalances caused by dysfunctional movements, stress, poor posture, repetitive movements, or an injury.
4. Helps You Relax
Foam rolling can be a relaxing practice, reducing the tension in your body and helping to forge that mind-body connection. That perceived stretching and “releasing” effect can increase your serotonin levels and help you feel like you’re unwinding and de-stressing your body.
There’s also many who swear by foam rolling before bed to help roll out the tension from the day and improve their sleep.
5. Improves Posture
Prolonged sitting can cause certain muscles to get stiff, tight, or weaker over time, while others may tighten. These postural imbalances can cause soreness, tension, or at worst, injury. This kind of tension can compress your body—especially your spine and shoulders when hunching over a laptop. Consistent foam rolling can be helpful in reducing the types of muscle tension that can lead to poor posture, while working out knots and improving blood circulation.
How to Choose a Foam Roller
When you’re deciding on the right foam roller, there are three main things to consider.
Choosing between a soft or hard foam roller can be down to pressure preference and experience.
Soft foam rollers are a great place to start your foam rolling journey or if you like a gentler touch in general. With a much lower intensity than a hard roller, the softer density has more flexibility and cushion, delivering a lighter pressure.
If you prefer a firmer pressure or find that the soft foam roller just isn’t doing enough for you, a hard foam roller will be the way to go. Giving a deeper myofascial release and massage, hard rollers may feel more intense, but they can be super effective in targeting tension and alleviating tight muscles.
The texture of your roller is another way to create a more targeted foam rolling experience. A smooth roller gives a more even pressure and a lower intensity massage—again, helpful if you’re just starting out or want a more balanced touch. Texture rollers have multiple types of ridges and protrusions arranged in different combinations for a more intense pressure that targets specific pressure points or areas of tension.
Shape and Size
Foam rollers come in different shapes and sizes. Hannah recommends opting for a long roller—around 36 inches, which may make it easier to use as it’s long enough to run along the length of your spine and it tends to be more stable than shorter rollers.
Shorter rollers are usually around 24 inches and are good for targeting smaller areas such as calves or arms.
And, don’t assume you have to shell out big bucks for the most expensive version. “Some of my favorite foam rollers are the cheapest ones,” Hannah says.
How To Use a Foam Roller
Once you’ve got your roller, try a 10-minute foam rolling class (which can be found under Stretching on the Peloton App). You want to take these classes regularly—at least a few times a week, or every day if possible, because you get the most benefits from the exercises when you stay ahead of muscle soreness. “If you’re waiting until your muscles are overly sore to do foam rolling, it’s like throwing onions at somebody who’s already crying,” Hannah says.
As you start rolling, remember that you control the amount of pressure on your body, so you can always modify as necessary. Start off using light pressure and then gradually apply more. Pro tip: If you find a particularly tight spot, hold the roller on that location for about 30 seconds before releasing.
Basic Foam Roller Exercises
Foam rolling is something that all Peloton instructors incorporate into their fitness routine–as it takes stretching and recovery to a whole new level. But how do you know you’re hitting all the important areas? We’ll show you how.
Foam Rolling For Specific Movements
Whether you target a specific body part each day or roll out your whole body in one session is your call. Of course, doing the whole body is the most beneficial, but if you have just a few minutes, you might want to focus on the muscles that feel the most tight or sore, or muscles that you’ve been using a lot in the activities you’re doing, Hannah says.
For example, cyclists might want to focus on their quadriceps, glutes, and hips, while runners may prefer to roll out their calves and hamstrings. Or, if you’re dealing with general desk fatigue, you might spend most of your time taking care of your chest and back.
Just make sure you devote equal time to both sides of the body. For example, if you’re rolling your hamstring on the right leg, make sure you do it on the left leg too. The goal is to maintain balance.
Don’t Forget Your Adductors
Tired quads, calves, and hamstrings get all the attention after a long ride or a tough run, and with good reason. While these are great places to start, Peloton instructor Andy Speer reminds you not to overlook your adductors, the muscles along your inner thigh that stretch from your knee to your groin. “Your adductors ‘adduct’ or move your legs in toward the centerline of your body and play a role in hip stability and hip flexion,” Andy explains. “When your adductors are ‘tight’ or full of trigger points, they may not stabilize as effectively and your stride may be altered which will decrease your running efficiency.”
Just Add Lats
Peloton instructor Matt Wilpers notes that when you’re training your upper body, the muscle that’s often skipped is the lats. Located on the back side of the body, these are the muscles connecting your upper extremities to your vertebral column. “It depends on how tight your muscles are but I usually spend one to two minutes on either side,” says Matt. “Over time, if this area gets too tight you will lose mobility if you constantly forget to loosen it up.”
Practice On Your Pecs
Another hidden area that Matt says not enough people pay attention to is pec minor, the small muscles on either side of your chest that allow your shoulders to move forward and down. “By sitting all day we can become very tight in our upper body, and our shoulders tend to roll in” explains Matt.
If the reason you’re not foam rolling this area is simply the awkward position required to get to it, Matt suggests using a lacrosse ball to really target the muscle. “Spending one to two minutes in this area can really release and open this area up in order to strengthen your back muscles,” says Matt.
When Should You Use a Foam Roller?
As to when you should foam roll, it comes down to personal preference. Hannah likes to do a light session before exercising to mobilize and release her muscles, and then a more intensive round afterward to target any areas that bothered her during the workout. But you can use your foam roller any time during the day or even before you go to bed, so it’s worth experimenting to find what works best for you.
“My treat-yourself version of foam rolling is at the end of a long day, run an Epsom salt bath and foam roll after,” Hannah says. “It feels absolutely heavenly.”
Remember: The most important thing is that you’ve got a regular date with your foam roller to give those muscles relief. “The more you do it,” Hannah adds, “the better it is.”