Like many people working from home during the pandemic, Veronika Javor, 39, swapped a supportive desk chair in her office for a plush armchair in her living room. It was comfortable at first, but the new seat quickly took its toll, as Ms. Javor, a Houston-based content creator, developed sharp, radiating pain in her left buttock. She tried to ignore it, but after a particularly intense glute-focused Pilates workout, the discomfort became unbearable.
“I woke up in pain every morning, and eventually it hurt so much I was scared to train at all,” Ms Javor said.
Her physiotherapist said the problem was tightness in her glutes and suggested rolling her leg on a foam roller three times a day to release the tension. After a month on the rolling plan, she started to have less pain and can exercise more.
Muscle tension, whether the result of sitting all day or intense training, can make it difficult 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 from a foam roller at home. The research supporting the practice is still building and some scientists are skeptical of it, but there are some things you need to know if you want to try it.
The case for foam lamination
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 Exercise, exercise and inactivity can make this tissue stiff or dense, causing tension in a muscle or tightness in a more localized area – a self. -so-called trigger point or knot – and restricting flexibility and range of motion.
When stiff or misaligned fascia prevents muscles and joints from moving efficiently, exercise can be uncomfortable and risky. “If you can’t move your shoulder because your joints or muscles are tight, you’ll usually end up with an injury when you try to strengthen it,” said Theresa Marko, a New York-based physical therapist and adjunct professor. at Stony Brook University.
In theory, rolling a muscle on a rigid cylindrical piece of foam does something similar to massage. “Like massage, foam rolling uses friction to release tension and realign fascia,” Dr. Bryant said.
A recent 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 shown that foam rolling can also improve flexibility, or the ability of soft tissues to elongate, at least in the short term. Longer-term studies have shown that rolling the hamstrings three times a week for four weeks also improved flexibility.
Adding a foam roller to your recovery can also prevent or alleviate post-workout soreness by promoting blood circulation. A 2014 study suggested foam rolling after strength training alleviated muscle soreness while improving physical performance, as measured by vertical jump height and range of motion.
Maillard Howell, a Brooklyn-based personal trainer and head of fitness at Reebok, said the majority of his clients breathe sighs of relief when foam rolling. “If you feel better lying on a foam roller before or after a workout, I see no reason not to use it, as long as it’s done correctly and doesn’t make your problem worse,” said Mr Howell.
The Case Against Foam Rolling
However, not everyone is sold on foam rolling. Dr. Elizabeth Gardner, associate professor of orthopedics at the Yale School of Medicine, said the people she treats often put too much faith in it.
“Oh foam rollers – how my athletes love you!” she wrote in an email. “But unfortunately, their obsession with foam rolling is scientifically unfounded.”
She said most foam rolling studies are small and often use different methods from each other, making it hard to tell why they work.
Dr. Bryant admitted that there were not enough large, well-designed studies to confirm the effectiveness of the practice. A 2015 meta-analysis of 14 papers concluded that while foam rolling appears to improve movement and reduce muscle soreness, there is no agreed-upon way to do it.
Judy Gelber, an Omaha-based physical therapist, said the time people take to foam roll would be “best used to explain why their body feels like it needs to foam roll”. For example, she suggested warming up with a full range of motion (i.e. up, down, sideways, and more) or strengthening the muscles at the end of your range ( by exercising when the muscles are longest or shortest).
Foam rollers can also cause injury to some people. People with arthritis can damage their joints, for example, and rolling over an injury, whether it’s a broken bone or a torn muscle, can make it worse. People with mobility issues or anyone who cannot control their weight on the floor should also exercise caution or ask a physiotherapist for a safer alternative.
If you decide to give the foam roller a try, Dr. Michael Fredericson, professor of sports medicine at the 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, physiotherapist and director of the International Academy of Orthopedic Medicine, recommends starting with lighter pressure, without putting too much weight on the roller. A minute or two is usually enough, but you can start with less.
Here are five foam rolling exercises to try at home before or after a workout. If you’re unsure if foam rolling is safe for you, talk to your physical therapist or primary care provider.
Sitting for long periods of time can tighten your glutes, as can exercises like deadlifts, squats, and lunges. Lay a foam roller on the floor and sit it horizontally. With your knees bent or straight (or one leg bent and one straight), press your feet to the floor and roll back and forth on your buttocks until you find tender spots. Lean to one side as you ride to avoid hitting your tailbone. If that feels too intense, try lying in bed in the same position and slipping a tennis ball under the trigger point.
Shoulder blade roll
Dumbbell presses, push-ups, and rowing can cause tension around the shoulder blades. To relieve tension, lie on the floor with the foam roller perpendicular to your spine and roll over the muscles around your shoulder blades. It can feel good to hug or open your arms in the process.
Your hamstrings, which start at your hip and connect at 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 back of your thighs. Roll back and forth all the way through your hamstrings. If you notice small areas of tightness, linger there. Then you should be able to stretch deeper.
Foam roller in the middle of the back
Rolling your mid-back can bring relief after working on a computer or doing upper-body exercises like push-ups or pull-ups. Place the roller under your back, parallel to your spine, then gently roll side to side over the muscles surrounding your spine. Roll each side of the spine separately and avoid rolling the bones themselves. Keep in mind that riding can cause acute injuries or chronic back problems if you have them.
Too much time hunched over a desk can strain the muscles that support your head, leading to headaches. Dr. Marko said using a foam roller as a mobility tool can elongate your cervical spine and promote relaxation and flexibility in surrounding muscles, and gently pressing 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 buttocks and feet on the floor and slowly turn your head gently from side to side. Otherwise, keep your head still and try to gently rock 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 you could press on the nerves and make the problem worse.
Ashley Abramson is a freelance writer based in Milwaukee, Wis.