Foam Roller Exercises: Tips And Techniques To Release Sore Muscles

Do your muscles feel like they’re tied up in knots? If you’re looking for a DIY way to relieve sore muscles, foam rolling might be the answer.

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To say that I have a love–hate relationship with my foam roller is an understatement. This sphere-shaped torture device brings me equal amounts of pleasure and pain—often at the same time. Even though my foam roller has this sneaky way of hitting every sensitive trigger point in my body, I always find myself going back for more. That’s because the myofascial release that comes from properly using a foam roller gives me instant relief from those nagging knots that never seem to go away. If you’ve never been up close and personal with a foam roller, it’s time you give it a try. But before you do, there is some important information you should know.

What is foam rolling?

Take a look around any fitness facility, gym, or yoga studio, and there’s a good chance you’ll see someone using a foam roller. Also known as self-myofascial release, foam rolling is a method of self-massage used to release muscle tightness and trigger points. “The idea behind myofascial release is to essentially break up trigger points,” explains Alex Tauberg, DC, a Pittsburgh-based chiropractor. “A trigger point is a small part of the muscle that remains contracted even after the muscle has relaxed,” he adds. It can cause pain and muscle soreness either directly over the trigger point or in nearby tissues. While you are foam rolling, you use your own body weight on a foam roller to apply pressure on the soft tissues and trigger points. The rolling motions enable you to exert direct pressure while stretching the soft tissue and creating friction, which results in a release of the tissues.

What are the benefits of foam rolling?

If you’re new to foam rolling, the movements may not make much sense. But once you spend a few minutes using a foam roller, you will understand exactly how these exercises can benefit you. Josh Cox, certified personal trainer at Anytime Fitness, says foam rolling is like the deluxe form of stretching. Since foam rolling alleviates the strain on the tissue, it provides more long-term relief than static stretching alone. This can lead to improved flexibility and increased range of motion in your joints. That’s why Cox recommends foam rolling in conjunction with static stretching. Probably the most notable benefit of using a foam roller is a decrease in delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)After an intense workout, your muscles are often sore. Since foam rolling increases blood flow, it can help to break up trigger points and relieve sore and painful muscles, which helps speed up recovery.

How do you choose a foam roller?

If you Google the term foam roller, the options are seemingly endless. You can get spheres, hand rollers, ones that vibrate, ones with all kinds of grooves, ones that you freeze, and ones that are heated—which makes the decision difficult. But don’t worry too much about making the wrong choice—Tauberg says choosing a foam roller is all about preference. “It doesn’t matter which one you pick; you pretty much can’t go wrong,” he says. But you need to choose a foam roller that is comfortable, and, of course, one that you will use. Most people start with the basic or standard long, cylindrical foam roller. These are typically three feet in length and six inches in diameter. When you get more familiar with using a foam roller, you may want to try one of the shorter rollers that help target smaller areas of your body, such as your calves. They’re also great for travel because you can pack them in a suitcase.

When done correctly, foam rolling helps release trigger points and ease muscle pain. But if done incorrectly, a foam roller can cause you to be in more pain than when you started.

Foam rollers also come in different densities or levels of firmness. The standard foam roller has a medium firmness, which makes it ideal for myofascial release. If you need more of a cushion, you can try a soft density roller. These softer foam rollers are a good starting point, especially if the standard roller is too hard. But if you want a deeper, more intense massage, you might want to try a firm density roller.

What is the proper technique for foam rolling?

When done correctly, foam rolling helps release trigger points and ease muscle pain. But if done incorrectly, a foam roller can cause you to be in more pain than when you started. The good news is that there are only a few basic techniques and tips you need to follow when using your foam roller. Cox says that when you find a particularly tight and uncomfortable spot, stop and hold your position for 30 to 60 seconds before releasing. For example, if you are using the foam roller on your left leg (hamstring muscles) and you find an area of tension, work around it for about 30 seconds, pausing and using short rolls. Follow this up with a few longer strokes over the entire length of your leg. Having trouble picturing what any of this looks like? In our fascia release video, Courtney Tucker, NASM-certified personal trainer and creator of EMPOWER U, shares her foam rolling tips—and does some myth busting!

Sample Foam Rolling Exercises

You can use the foam roller on most areas of your body, including the glutes, calves, and upper back. Both Tauberg and Cox use a foam roller to work their upper and lower bodies. Tauberg says he likes to roll the gluteal region and the upper back and shoulders since they tend to be the most common spots for trigger points to develop. And Cox likes to hit the lower body with a focus on his glutes, outer quads, and calves. If you’re ready to give the foam roller a test drive, try this sequence of foam rolling exercises that target the tightest parts of your body.

Foam Rolling Rundown

How often: Foam rolling exercises can be done daily or as needed. Time: The time it takes to move through each exercise depends on your comfort level and how much pain you’re experiencing. Plan for 10 to 15 minutes total to work through these exercises. When to do them: Foam rolling exercises can be done before you perform static or dynamic stretches. They can also be done after your workout to roll out the areas of your body that you worked the hardest. How to target a tight spot: When you feel a tight or sore spot, stop and hold the position for 10 to 30 seconds, then release and continue rolling. Remember there will be some pain when you hit a pressure point, so go easy until you learn what your body can handle. Do not continue foam rolling if you are experiencing severe pain or discomfort.

Upper body

Lats: Place the foam roller horizontally on the floor and lie on your right side with your right arm stretched out. Start with the foam roller under your armpit and slowly roll back and forth until you find the tender spot. This is a small and tender area, so you will be using shorter rolls. Repeat on the other side. Mid-back: Place the foam roller horizontally under your mid-back (below shoulder blades). Put your hands behind your head and look up at the ceiling. Press your feet into the floor (lift the hips) and slowly roll the foam roller from upper to middle back. Repeat as needed.

Lower Body

Quadriceps: Place the foam roller horizontally on the floor. Lie down on the roller with your thighs on top. Lift your upper body (use your abs to help) and roll between your hips and knees. Repeat as needed. Calves: Start by sitting on the floor. Place the foam roller under your right calf, and cross your left leg over the top the other. Put your hands behind you. Slowly roll from the ankle to the top of the calf muscle (just below the knee). Switch legs and repeat. Hamstrings: Place the foam roller horizontally on the floor. Sit with your right leg on the foam roller and bend your left knee. Cross your left ankle over your right ankle and put your hands behind you. Start at the bottom of the glute muscle and roll toward your knee. Repeat as needed. Glutes (piriformis muscle): Sit on top of the foam roller with your legs out in front of you. Cross your left foot over your right knee. Lean into your left hip and slowly roll to find the tender spot. This is a small area, so you will be holding on the spots more than rolling. Switch legs and repeat. If your iliotibial (IT) band is bothering you, focus on the muscles around the IT band. Working on the tensor fascia lata, the glutes and the quads can actually help them relax, which may take pressure off the IT band. One final tip: Before you do any of these exercises, make sure you understand why you’re foam rolling. Do you have chronic tight hamstrings or calves that you’re trying to release? Are you using the foam roller to help prepare your body for an activity or athletic event? Identifying what your goals are will help ensure that you have a safer and more effective experience using a foam roller.

Sara Lindberg
A native of the Pacific Northwest, Sara Lindberg, MEd, is a fitness expert and full-time freelance writer with 20+ years of experience. She holds a BS in exercise science and a master's degree in counseling. She has spent her life educating people on the importance of health, wellness, mindset, and mental health. She specializes in the mind–body connection, with a focus on how our mental and emotional well-being impact our physical fitness and health. When she’s not interviewing experts, researching the latest trends in health and fitness, or working away at her computer, Sara can be found at the gym lifting weights, running the back roads and trails to train for her next half-marathon, and spending time with her husband and two children.