Like many people working from home during the pandemic, Veronika Javor, 39, traded in a supportive desk chair in her office for a soft sofa in her living room. It was comfortable at first, but the new seat soon took its toll, as Ms. Javor, a Houston-based content creator, developed a sharp, radiating pain in her left buttock. She tried to ignore it, but after a particularly hard glute-focused Pilates workout, the discomfort became unbearable.
“I would wake up in pain every morning and eventually it would hurt so much that I was afraid to exercise,” said Ms Javor.
Her physical therapist said the problem was tightness in her buttocks and suggested she roll her leg over a foam cylinder three times a day to release the tightness. After a month on the continuous plan, she began to have less pain and is able to exercise more.
Muscle tension, whether it’s the result of sitting all day or an intense workout, can make it hard for you to move the way you want. An hour on the massage table can relieve pain and improve performance, but some experts say you can get similar benefits of a foam roller at home. The research supporting the practice is still developing, and some scientists are skeptical about it, but there are a few things you should know if you’re going to try it.
The case of the foam roller
Every muscle in your body is held in place by layers of connective tissue called fascia. According to Cedric X. Bryant, president and scientific director of the American Council on Exerciseboth exercise and inactivity can cause this tissue to become stiff or dense, creating tension throughout the muscle or tightness in a more localized area (the so-called trigger point or knot) and restricting flexibility and range of motion.
When stiff or misaligned fascia prevents muscles and joints from moving effectively, exercise can be uncomfortable and risky. “If you can’t move your shoulder because the joints or muscles are tight, you’re usually going to end up with an injury when you try to strengthen it,” said Theresa Marko, a New York City physical therapist and assistant professor. at Stony Brook University.
In theory, rolling a muscle over a stiff, cylindrical piece of foam does something similar to a massage. “Like massage, foam rolling uses friction to release tension and realign fascia,” said Dr. Bryant.
a recent one systematic review of 49 studies concluded that foam rolling for 90 seconds to two minutes at a time often reduced muscle stiffness and increased range of motion, or the ability of joints to move. Other small studies have found that foam rolling can also improve flexibility, or the ability of soft tissues to elongate, at least in the short term. long-term studies have found that rolling the hamstrings three times a week for four weeks also improved flexibility.
Adding a foam roller to your cool down can also prevent or reduce post-workout soreness by promoting blood flow. A 2014 study suggested that foam rolling after resistance training attenuated muscle soreness while improving exercise performance, as measured by vertical jump height and range of motion.
Maillard Howell, a Brooklyn-based personal trainer and head of fitness for Reebok, said most of his clients breathe a sigh of relief when using foam rollers. “If you feel better lying on a foam roller before or after you exercise, I don’t see any reason not to use it, as long as it’s done correctly and doesn’t make your problem worse,” Howell said.
The Case Against Foam Roller
However, not everyone likes foam rollers. Dr. Elizabeth Gardner, an associate professor of orthopedics at Yale School of Medicine, said the people she treats often trust her too much.
“Oh foam rollers, how my athletes love them!” she wrote in an email. “But unfortunately, her obsession with foam rolling has no scientific basis.”
He said most of the studies supporting foam rolling are small and often use different methods from one another, making it hard to know why they work.
Dr. Bryant admitted that there aren’t enough large, well-designed studies to confirm the effectiveness of the practice. A 2015 meta-analysis of 14 articles concluded that while foam rolling appears to improve movement and reduce muscle soreness, there is no agreed-upon way to do so.
Judy Gelber, an Omaha-based physical therapist, said the time people foam roll “would be better spent addressing why your body feels like it needs to foam roll.” For example, she suggested warming up with a full range of motion (meaning up, down, sideways, and more) or strengthening muscles at the end of their range (exercise when muscles are longer or shorter).
Foam rollers can also cause injuries in some people. People with arthritis can damage their joints, for example, and rolling over an injury, whether it’s a broken bone or torn muscle, could exacerbate it. People with mobility issues or anyone unable to control their body weight on the ground should also exercise caution or ask a physical therapist for a safer alternative.
If you decide to try foam rolling, Dr. Michael Fredericson, professor of sports medicine at Stanford School of Medicine, suggested a stiff roller. You can also find some with textured ridges and bumps, which Dr. Bryant says can relieve deeper muscle tension.
Jean-Michel Brismée, physical therapist and director of the International Academy of Orthopedic Medicine, recommends starting with lighter pressure, without putting too much body weight on the roller. A minute or two is usually enough time, but you can start with less.
Here are five foam roller exercises to try at home before or after a workout. If you’re not sure if foam rolling is safe for you, talk to your physical therapist or primary care provider.
Sitting for prolonged periods can strain your glutes, as can exercises like deadlifts, squats, and lunges. Place a foam roller on the floor and lay it flat. With your knees bent or straight (or one leg bent and the other straight), press your feet into the floor and roll back and forth on your buttocks until you find tender spots. Lean to one side as you roll to avoid hitting your tailbone. If that feels too intense, try lying on your bed in the same position and slide a tennis ball under the trigger point.
shoulder blade roll
Dumbbell presses, push-ups, and rows can cause tension around your shoulder blades. To relieve tension, lie on the floor with the foam roller perpendicular to your spine and roll your muscles around your shoulder blades. It can feel good to hug yourself or open your arms in the process.
The hamstrings, which start at the hip and connect to the knee, can become tight after a leg workout. Lying on your back, lift one leg at a time as high as you can, using a towel around your foot to create resistance. Pull on the towel to stretch your hamstrings before rolling.
Then, in a seated position with your legs straight, place the roller under the backs of your thighs. Roll back and forth all the way up and down your hamstrings. If you notice smaller areas of tightness, stay there. Afterward, you should be able to stretch deeper.
Foam roll in the middle of the back
Rotating your mid-back can provide relief after working on a computer or doing upper-body exercises like push-ups or pull-ups. Position the roller under your back, parallel to your spine, then gently roll from side to side over the muscles surrounding your spine. Roll each side of the spine separately and avoid rolling the bones. Keep in mind that rolling could trigger acute injuries or chronic back conditions, if you have them.
Too much time hunched over a desk can strain the muscles that support your head and lead to headaches. Dr. Marko said that using a foam roller as a mobility tool can lengthen the cervical spine and promote relaxation and flexibility of the surrounding muscles, and gentle pressure on the foam roller can relieve trigger points.
Lie on the floor with the foam roller behind your neck, parallel to the base of your skull. Keep your knees bent with your butt and feet on the ground, and slowly turn your head left and right. Alternatively, keep your head still and try gently rocking your knees back and forth, creating traction with your lower body. Avoid this exercise if you have neck pain or pre-existing nerve problems, as it could put pressure on your nerves and make the problem worse.
Ashley Abramson is a freelance writer based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.