How to Use a Foam Roller: Myofascial Release for Beginners

Most people who know a thing or two about fitness and recovery have heard of foam rolling. But foam rolling isn’t the only method for myofascial release. Really anything that you can pin between your body and a stable surface can be used for myofascial release, even something you already have around the house, like a tennis ball.

(I keep saying myofascial release – since you landed on our website, you’re probably already an active person so I’ll save you the in depth explanation and point you to The Basics and Why It Works if you need a little more info.)

If you’re new to myofascial release and don’t know how to use a foam roller yet, we’re sharing three basic steps you can follow to get some relief:

1)      Identify your target. The painful area of your body.

2)      Select your weapon. The right mobility tool for the job.

3)      Fire away. Use our three recommended techniques to release restrictions.

 

Step 1: Identify Your Target

If you’re feeling pain in a particular area, think of that pain as a “check engine light” for your body. Basically, pain lets you know you’ve got something to fix somewhere. Pinpoint the painful area and plan to use your foam roller or other tools on the surrounding area to alleviate the pain.

Sometimes instead of a constant pain in one area, you only feel pain during certain movements. In this case, think about the muscles you use during the painful movement and use your tools on the muscles that support that movement.  Get to work mobilizing those areas and try to fix the are of pain during that movement.  Roll then retest.  You should feel an improvement with each mobility session.  

For example, if your knee bothers you when you’re going up stairs, you may want to foam roll your quads, hip flexors, hamstrings and inner thighs. They all surround your knee and assist with the movement of going up the stairs.

If you’re having trouble pinpointing where on your body to begin, try a full-body approach from the ground up. Start with your calves and move upward:  calves, quads, hip flexors, IT band, glutes, lats, traps/neck. You’re sure to find some tender areas as you move along the body, and those are the areas you’ll want to spend more time rolling.

Or, to make it even simpler, try these mobility “cheat sheets”:

·         Lower back pain? Work on hamstrings, glutes, IT band, obliques, and lats

·         Pain in the front of the hips? Work on quads, hip flexors, abdominals, obliques, and chest

·         Pain in the front of the shoulder? Work on front shoulder, chest, triceps, bicep, serratus, and traps

Step 2: Select Your Weapon

Now that you’ve identified the areas that need work, you need to pick the right mobility tools to actually do that work.

Are you rolling on broad surfaces like the IT band or the lats? Start with a tool with a larger surface area, like a foam roller or a sphere with a large diameter.

If you’re targeting smaller, more specific muscle groups like the front of the shoulder or the traps, try a smaller mobility ball about the size of a lacrosse or tennis ball. You can also use a small mobility ball for deep tissue work in large areas like the glutes.

Step 3: Fire Away

So you’ve pinpointed the painful area and chosen your mobility weapon. Now you need to know how to use a foam roller or other mobility tool to work on releasing some of that pain!

There are three basic movements you’re going to be using:

1)      Slow Pressure Roll

2)      Rotate

3)      Pin and stretch

 

Next, let’s break down the slow pressure roll. With your tool, apply pressure in the direction of tissue stiffness at the pace of roughly 1 inch per 2 seconds. When you come to a painful area of restriction, stop and hold pressure on that area until that painful area releases.

You could be holding for 30 seconds – even up to a few minutes – before the area starts to release. Be patient! As the area releases, you may feel a burning sensation in the tissue. Don’t worry, and don’t stop. The burning sensation means there is a chemical change taking place, which in turn means what you’re doing is working.  But keep in mind, if it feels wrong, it probably is, so you use your best judgment when beginning to use your mobility tools to release painful trigger points.

Once you find a painful trigger point:  Gently Rotate. 

Once you find a painful trigger point, gently rotate on the area back and forth with continuous pressure on the mobility tool to release restrictions in the tissue.  You are basically giving your

Now, the pin and stretch trigger point technique. Press into a painful area with your mobility tool (pin it). Once you have a good “grip” on the knotted tissue, stretch and extend the nearby joints, moving slowly through a full range of motion. The pinning part of this technique penetrates to the deep layers of soft tissue and the stretching part encourages full range of motion in the area.

While you’re working on painful areas with the above three techniques, make sure to keep breathing. With each exhale, press a little more deeply into uncomfortable areas.

Always listen to your body and remember that using your mobility tools should not be excruciating. If you feel pain, it should be the kind of pain that feels like it will result in relief (think deep tissue massage), not pain that feels like it’s doing damage.


Don’t be overwhelmed – if you’re new to foam rolling and myofascial release, it’s okay to start small. Choose a couple of target areas you’re comfortable starting with and try the three basic movements we described on those areas first.

Mobility work is like any other new skill; it may feel awkward at first but with practice and time you will feel and move better while learning more about your body in the process.

What is one of your usual trouble areas when foam rolling?

Disclaimer: Performing daily maintenance on your body through myofascial release should not take the place of professional care. If you are injured or experiencing a high level or pain, or dealing with chronic pain, it's important to seek a professional's guidance and advice before and/or during your self care routine.