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Are you using your foam roller right?

foam rolling May 20, 2021

A foam roller is a fantastic tool to break up tight fascia, loosen muscle tension, and decrease your pain. Likely, you've hopped on one before, rolled around for a bit, then thought: "Wait...am I doing this right?"

There are a million videos of “how to foam roll” out there. How can you tell which tactic is going to work the best for you? The short answer is: it depends on what result you're looking for.

Want to warm up your muscles before a workout? Increase your mobility? Relieve pain? All are possible with a roller, but all these goals require different tactics. Here's a quick breakdown of how to use your roller correctly for the results you want.


 Rolling Lengthwise Up and Down


The most common foam rolling style I see is “rolling up and down” along a muscle. This motion, that goes with the direction of muscle fibers, creates some heat within your muscles (from friction), breaks up some of your superficial (shallow) fascia, and can help your body detox.


This rolling method is the best choice for:


  • Warming up before you work out: You will create some heat in your muscles with that friction and increase your blood flow which prepares your body for movement/an increase in your heart rate.
  • Cooling down: Rolling can help move lactic acid out of your muscles post workout which can prevent you from being super sore the next day.
  • Detoxing: Your lymphatic system lives in your superficial fascia. This system is responsible for flushing both cellular and environmental toxins from your body. Gently rolling with a roller can help flush out stagnant fluids and inflammation.


Note: Although this method remains the most common way to use a foam roller, please note it will not affect the deeper layers of your fascial system. Your fascia is an intricate, 3D web that wraps around and through everything in your body. If you are looking to eliminate pain and release deeper layers stuck together, look to the Compression/Shearing section.

 Pinning and Stretching 


Pinning and stretching is exactly what it sounds like. You find a spot on your muscle with your roller and “pin” in, aka press downward into that spot. Once that spot is pinned, you slowly contract and shorten that muscle.

For example: Say you pick a tender spot on your calf. Press straight down into that spot with as much weight as you can, then slowly pull your toes back towards you (lengthen your calf) and then point your toes away from you (shorten your calf).


This pinning and stretching method is best for:


  • Warming up: like rolling up and down, this method will create heat in your muscles and increase blood flow, bot of which prepare you for exercise
  • Improving flexibility: Pinning and stretching can help create length in your muscles. It stretches both muscle fibers and fascial fibers and can help you to feel more loose
  • Improving mobility: the “stretching” aspect of this method requires movement from a joint. Focusing on slow, complete movement of the joint can restore lost space in your fascia around it, therefore making it more mobile.


Note: In my experience with myself and my clients, the more powerful the compression of the “pin,” the better the results.

 Holding Trigger Points


When fascia becomes tight, it often contorts the muscle it is wrapped around into painful “knots” called trigger points. Most of us are familiar with what a trigger point feels like, typically from a massage or foam rolling. You know you’ve hit one when you roll across a spot that lights up your body with sensation! 


There are some of us masochists who work through those spots with determination. I admit, I am one of them! I take the opportunity to practice deep breathing and go for it. There are many however, who experience that level of intense sensation and feel panicked or unsafe to move through it.


For that group, you can use your foam roller (or other fascia release tool) to find a painful spot or trigger point, and simply hold that position. Let your body feel what it needs to feel and take slow, deep breaths. 


With the other methods mentioned here, typically as you move the pain increases because you are actively creating space and change. As you keep weight on a trigger point, however, the pain and sensation should recede. This can be calming for your nervous system and allow your body to feel safe and relaxed.


This method is best for:


  • When the other methods listed here are too painful
  • Training your nervous system to feel calm when working into tough spots
  • Temporary pain relief: Trigger points and knots can eventually relax with compression, although if that point is not the root cause of your pain (it’s typically not), your pain is likely to return.

 Compression and Shearing


Fascia (aka connective tissue) does not change easily. Getting deep layers of fascia to release and stay in that new, changed position can be challenging! This is why the three previous methods have limited uses when it comes to dramatically reducing pain, improving mobility, and optimizing your movement/workouts.


One of the many roles of fascia is to protect you. It absorbs shock and bounces back to its original shape as a defense mechanism. It typically resists outside force wanting to change your current state. ⁣

This is crazy helpful when you take a fall bouldering, trip and hit your knee when hiking, or even just bang your elbow on the door frame (I've done all those things many times). If your fascia allowed change freely we would all be struggling through life!⁣

This is why most passive treatments and methods such as static stretching, stem machines, vibrating massage guns, and even simply rolling up and down on a roller rarely creates lasting change. If your other systems (muscular and nervous system especially)are not actively engaging in the treatment, your fascia thinks it’s helping you by going back to its original state!⁣

The good news is that even though it’s not easy to change your fascia, it is possible.


Fascia, even the deep layers, changes through powerful compression and shearing. Find a spot in your fascia that feels dense or tight, and compress that tissue down with as much weight as you can. Then, while it’s compressed you want to actively cross-fiber that area through movement.


For example, if you are compressing your adductor (see photo above), instead of rolling along the muscle going with the muscle fibers, you want to shear them perpendicularly. So you would either keep your knee bent and drop your heel down to the floor and up to the ceiling or you would straighten your leg and roll your whole leg back and forth like a log. 


Shearing your fascial fibers is one of the few ways to get fascia to change. Going through this movement yourself engages your nervous system, which helps your brain accept changes being made and quickly build new neural pathways. Your nervous system can override that “resist change” mode. (Note: Having an outside force, such as a therapist, attempt to cross fiber your tissue as you lay there passively does NOT engage your nervous system in the same way, and therefore does not get the same result).


Shearing also helps restore hydration in your tissues. It will help increase blood flow to the area, restore vital extracellular fluid into the fascia (the liquid that allows your body to glide easily and absorbs shock), and even stimulates the production of hyaluronic acid (retains water in your tissue so it stays ultra hydrated).

The Compression/Shearing style is best for:


  • Reducing and eliminating pain (tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, low pain back, neck pain, knee pain, carpal tunnel, shin splints, shoulder pain, headaches, etc)
  • Improving mobility: your ability to move your joints freely and completely
  • Optimizing athletic performance: improve recovery, proprioception, and strength without the need to overtrain. 


Using any of these tactics will help you reduce pain, move easily, and recover faster. Use your new found powers for good!

Want to learn the compression/shearing method so that you can quickly eliminate your pain on your own schedule at home? Check out Roller Club! This virtual membership gives you simple, follow along routines for specific pains, live classes, a supportive community, and more!


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