You've probably noticed that every gym or PT clinic you pass through these days has a stack of foam rolls piled in some corner of the facility. As ubiquitous as the foam roller has become in the gym, we continually notice that people don't know when to or how to use it correctly to maximize performance and recovery.
So let's go over a few basics to understand why foam rolling is helpful, how to do it the right way, and when to plug it into your physical routine.
Static stretching is so 80's. When you sit and hold a muscle in a stretched position, you are mainly stretching the weakest and thinnest part of the muscle. This type of stretching (static or held stretches) doesn't usually create real change in the pliability of a muscle or decrease your risk of injuring that muscle.
Foam rolling is a targeted form of self-massage that hunts down the tightest parts of your muscle tissue (often the thickest part of the muscles that don't respond to normal static stretching) and melts those tough spots like a hot knife through butter. If you want to cure your chronically stiff quads, this is the place to start. This brings us to:
Let's use your stiff quads for another minute. Consisting of 4 muscles running vertically down your thigh, this group of muscles does some major work in terms of hip and knee function. Unfortunately, in the sedentary world of today where we spend between 70-85% of our waking hours in a seated position, the quads in particular get brutally short and stiff.
If you were to watch the novice guy or gal at the gym foam roll their quads you'd notice a few things.
First, they would continuously roll up and down the front of their thigh with the roll, never taking a second to stop on a spot that felt particularly tight, sore, or painful. The direction of the rolling would always be in line (vertically) with the muscle. And you'd never see them try to move to the inside or outside of the thigh or try to bend or straighten their knee.
Here's how you help the gym newbie (and yourself) get more out of the foam roller.
STOP on the spots that hurt. The roller is a diagnostic tool. It's putting a micro-stretch into the muscle and if it hurts that's a sign of abnormal (non-stretchy) muscle tissue. The WHOLE POINT of the roller is to find and work out those spots.
Once you stop on that spot, start working into it. Rolling up and down your quads just pancakes the tissues together, it doesn't work out the stiff spots. Stay on your hot spot and start rolling side to side-we call this "The Pressure Wave"-until you start to notice some improvement. Alternately, you can keep pressure directly on that spot and perform the "Tack and Floss" technique-the foam roll keeps the stiff spot "tacked" down while you begin flexing and extending your knee to "floss" the tissue out. Again, stay on it until you start to notice some change for the better. This could take anywhere from 2 to 5 minutes so ante up!
These rules apply pretty much all over your body but the angles of your body and the foam roll will change based on where you have the roll. Flossing (moving) the nearest joint to the muscle you're rolling out always brings about a tremendous change in your overall mobility in short order.
If you've ever had a massage, take a minute now and think about how you feel when you're done....how relaxed did you feel? What did you feel like doing next? I'll give you a few options:
OPTION #1-Taking a nap.
OPTION #2-Driving home and then taking a nap.
OPTION #3-Looking for someone to drive you home because you're on the verge of falling asleep.
OPTION #4-Setting a new World Record in the Deadlift.
Here's a hint: any answer except #4 is the correct answer. Same for what we want you to do after your foam rolling session. Take a nap or call it a night. Foam rolling (and most forms of massage) stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The PNS is also known as your "Rest and Digest System" and when activated makes it easier for you to go to sleep. Not so much to hit a new PR at the gym.
NEED MORE HELP?
If you have more questions about how to recover better from your workouts and continue to grow strong and age gracefully, feel free to reach out to us by clicking the "Inquire Now" button on this page or reaching out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org or via phone at (913) 396-9726.
Podcast: Episode 29 Getting Our Minds Right with Amber Reed
Blog: Sleep to Perform by Dr. Tim Cummings
YouTube: Quad Smash with Foam Roll
Dr. Tim Cummings is a strength coach, physical therapist, writer, speaker, and, along with his wife, Jess, the founder of Restore/Thrive. Tim splits his time between helping athletes, parents, and coaches fix acute and long-standing orthopedic injuries and programming post-rehab training programs for individuals looking to get back to their active lifestyles after an injury. He received his Bachelor of Arts in Exercise Science from the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 2004, and his Doctorate of Physical Therapy from Southwest Baptist University in 2010. He was certified as a Titleist Performance Institute Certified Trainer in 2011. He was certified as an IMPACT Concussion Management Provider in 2012 he was the first physical therapist in Kansas City to earn recognition as a MovNat certified trainer in 2014. He was the first physical therapist in Kansas City designated as The Ready State Certified Practitioner in 2015. He earned the Power Athlete Block One Coach certification in 2020. Tim’s background as an athlete includes a history of competitive baseball, basketball, cross-country running, and performance weightlifting. In his free time, he enjoys spending time with his wife Jess and their three children, Aiden, Evelyn, and Connor, their Cavachon puppy Coco, weightlifting, golfing, obstacle course racing, competitive eating, and wrestling with his kids.