Getting the Most Out Of your Foam Roller
You’ve seen them in the gym, your personal trainer uses them, but you’re not certain whether they are floating devices stolen from the pool or colourful props to brighten up the gym. Other gym-goers swear by them, and spend an hour every day religiously rolling around on them. They are of course, foam rollers.
Foam rollers are used throughout the training community, and Chichester-based Davies Training is no exception. They have been widely touted to reduce soreness and improve flexibility, though to what extent many experts are divided on. For some coaches they are merely props to turn on their end and sit (rather uncomfortably) on. Whereas other coaches prescribe daily marathon rolling sessions for personal training clients.
Whilst you can find the occasional foam roller that resembles something you would find in a medieval dungeon, most come in a much more friendly, non-threatening form (like a spongey rolling pin here). The premise is simple; before you start training you jump on one of these implements and roll around for a while until those aches and pains disappear!
As a coach who regularly deals with athletes involved in contact sports (specifically Chichester Rugby Club players), many of my clients arrive at the gym Monday morning sore and “tight” from the weekend’s game. Whilst other personal training clients arrive feeling similar from a day sitting at the wheel/desk/PC. The last thing we want to do is chuck them under a heavy barbell before we have spent time warming up and preparing the body for the work it’s about to perform; but how does foam rolling specifically fit into that? Do I just get them to roll around for 10 minutes at the beginning of each training session? Or do we have a more targeted approach at Davies Training?
Foam Rolling 101
So what does foam rolling do? Does it really live up to the hype some personal trainers would have you believe, or is it the most useless piece of equipment at your training facility? Whilst the evidence can vary from study to study, the bulk of the research identifies the following benefits to using a foam roller.
- Temporarily reduce sensation of “tightness/stiffness” throughout muscles.
- Reduce sensation of pain & aching through affected soft tissue.
- Temporarily increase range of motion & flexibility.
- Promote blood flow to area being “rolled”.
- Make a great prop when stood on its end for your iPhone selfies
The truth is most of the benefits are neurological rather than physiological; there is little proof to suggest that foam rolling (or other soft tissue work) can change tissue quality by getting rid of “knots” in the muscle. To achieve this you would have to use a tremendous amount of pressure, which would be incredibly painful to withstand.
Knowing that, how do we implement tools such as foam rollers & lacrosse balls?
Option 1) Warm-Up & Movement Prep
When warming up for the coming training session, utilising a foam roller/lacrosse for specific areas can be a great preparation method. As a personal trainer I recommend to target those specific, often “tight” areas. For example if performing an upper body session that includes the bench press, it can be wise to get a lacrosse ball into the pecs before hand. Many of us have an overly-rounded posture from sitting and slouching, and doing chest & arms 8 days a week! Digging into the tissue around the pec insert (near the shoulder as shown) can help to improve the mobility around the shoulder for the training session, and reduce the sensation of “tightness” too. The key is to do a little in between other warm up exercises.
- 30 seconds each side with a lacrosse ball into the pectoral muscle.
- 30 seconds foam rolling “lats”.
- 30 seconds slow and controlled dumbbell bench press (focus on loading the muscle in a stretched position).
- Repeat 2-3x as needed.
As you can see the key is not to spend too long on the area, 30-60 seconds is adequate. And then to load the tissue in the stretched position. Taking 5 minutes or longer on any muscle does not increase the effect, so keep it quick so you can crack on with your training (rather than spending 45 minutes warming up).
For a workout where you are going to squat you might use the following protocol:
- 30 seconds foam rolling adductors (groin) & glutes (butt cheeks).
- 30 seconds holding bottom position of a squat loaded with a dumbbell/kettlebell.
- Repeat 2-3x as needed.
For a training session where you are running/sprinting, or you have less than stellar ankle mobility, implement the following protocol:
- 30-60 seconds lacrosse ball into the sole of your feet (make sure to remove shoes).
- 30 seconds foam rolling the calves.
- 30 seconds weighted calf raise with toes elevated (use a box or a step).
- Repeat 2-3x as needed.
Option 2) Post-Workout
Once the workout has finished the goal is to get out of that heightened, stressful state so the recovery process can kick in. Learning how to relax and switch off post-workout is an often overlooked but key component to the training process. Performing 3-5 minutes of foam rolling can give you the time to allow your heart rate to lower, promote some general blood flow and relax. Spend 120-180 seconds on each of the following areas, moving across them slowly:
- Lower back.
- Upper back (focus on “lats” specifically).
- Quadriceps (thigh).
- Glutes (butt cheeks).
Following this routine I recommend taking 3-5 minutes to perform some relaxed breathing in a comfortable position (see photo). Inhale for a 4 count, exhale for a 4 count, pause, and repeat. You’ll notice the foam roller is used here too, but only to prop the head up as most will find this more comfortable than having the head placed on the floor. In the absence of a foam roller a pillow or just a rolled up top will suffice just as well.
Option 3) Off Day & Recovery Aid
One of the best (and worst) things about the foam roller is you have to do it on the ground. The ability to get up from the floor is essential to your survival, but you’ll be hard pressed to find anybody (myself included) that can move between standing and lying down with grace and poise. This is why many personal trainers prescribe exercises such as TGUs (Turkish Get Ups), and the dreaded “burpees” when it comes to conditioning. Put simply; they are tough as hell.
So on your days off from the gym, jump onto a foam roller for a minute or two throughout the day. You’ll take your joints through a full range of movement, you will promote blood flow, and before you know it those “up-downs” will feel a little easier. The great thing is that you can do this in front of the TV. So when you’re sitting in front the screen like me, and the break between episodes of
Gilmore Girls I mean Dog The Bounty Hunter comes on, grab your lacrosse ball and get a minute or two in!
Finished Foam Rolling?
So, should foam rolling be included in your weekly routine? For the majority, definitely. Should it take up a significant amount of your time every week? Definitely not.
Always use in a targeted manner; pick a specific muscle, apply pressure and move on, rather than spending half your training session rolling over every single muscle in the human body!
Also don’t feel as though you have to go out and spend £50 on the latest fancy looking roller; a basic and robust (preferably pink) roller will do absolutely the same job. Save yourself some pennies and grab a couple of lacrosse balls too (you will inevitably lose one immediately).
For any further information on soft tissue work, and to find out how to prepare for training to maximise your results, get in touch with Davies Training today!