You’ve been there. The tight muscles. The soreness. It hurts to move.
You’ve made gains in the gym but you’re paying for it the next day or the next.
You’re experiencing what is called DOMS, delayed onset muscle soreness.
Enter: the foam roller (aka this trainer’s favorite self-care tool for a deep tissue massage).
A foam roller is a densely packed foam cylinder used for Self-Myofascial Release, SMR for short.
SMR is a form of self-massage. You can also use tennis balls, lacrosse balls, or even the heel of your hand.
Today, let’s focus solely on the foam roller.
What Is Foam Rolling?
Before we get into the common mistakes of SMR, let’s discuss the basics.
Everything in your body is connected with fascia. It is the connective tissue surrounding your entire body.
Think your bones, your muscles, your joints.
This means your right foot is connected to your left forearm.
How cool is that?
This fascia can get tight causing tender spots, discomfort, and even pain.
When it does get tight, it creates trigger points.
These points are where knots can form and hold tension.
This can also be where many of your nerves come together.
SMR targets these trigger points to release the tension being held in the muscle with your body weight and a roller.
Foam rolls can hit multiple muscles at different angles to provide the relief you need.
There are other benefits of foam rolling as well!
Myofascial release can relieve fatigue, tightness, soreness, and inflammation.
It can also increase your flexibility and your joints’ full range of motion.
It’s also great for injury prevention.
So how do you relieve your muscle tightness?
First, pick the right roller.
Some are smooth, some have ridges. You can also use a softer roller if that’s what your body needs.
To target your front body, you can start in a plank position or on your elbows in a forearm plank.
It’s a good idea to keep your upper body supported at all times.
But before you grab your foam roller and mat, let’s cover with mistakes you should avoid so you don’t bruise or further injure yourself.
10 Common Foam Roller Mistakes To Avoid
A foam roller massage is recommended as a warmup, cool down, or as a rest day activity.
You can even roll right when you get up in the morning!
Regardless of when you roll, the first step is adding it to your routine. And the most important step is to do it safely.
Here are 10 common mistakes to avoid, especially when learning how to use a foam roller.
1. Foam Rolling Your Lower Back
Low back pain can be caused for a variety of reasons, like poor posture or an arched lower back.
It’s tough to know exactly why you’re experiencing it.
Applying pressure to your lumbar spine can separate the discs and aggravate it further causing even more back pain.
You need to have good posture, take care, and be gentle with your spinal column.
Using the roller can also put stress on your lumbar spine by taking it out of its neutral position.
It can cause strain or hypertension.
And since there are no other bones in that area protecting your organs, you risk harm to your kidneys and liver.
Long story short, avoid rolling your lower back.
Instead, you can use a tennis ball or two around the vertebrae of the spine.
You can also release the knots in parts surrounding your lower back such as your hip flexors, buttocks, hamstrings, and quads. Try loosening both your right and left thigh!
Targeting your upper back, torso, and abdomen can also help.
Foam roller for back: If you want to roll your thoracic spine, target one side of the spine at a time. Place the roller under your right lat on the middle of your back.
Roll down from your right armpit area to your mid-back by your ribs. Use your left hand for stability. Switch sides.
2. Only Rolling up and Down a Knot
By only rolling up and down a tender spot, you can actually make the problem worse.
Your body may tighten as a reflex to protect itself, making the muscle even more painful.
As you know, fascia surrounds your body. Naturally, you should move in all directions to disengage the tension.
Try moving through the muscle’s range of motion while applying pressure.
Start to roll. Once you hit a trigger point, pause. Maintain the pressure and move the limb (such as flex, bend or extend) until the knot releases.
3. Rolling Directly on The Pain
With experience, you’ll find that the muscle that is the tightest is often not the only culprit for the tender spot. Remember, everything is connected.
Rolling directly on the pain can cause bruising or even injury.
You can also put pressure on your nerves or limit the blood flow.
This will cause tingling or the sensation that your limbs are “falling asleep”.
Start by rolling the muscles adjacent to the tight spot.
This will loosen the fascia in the problem area so that when you do get there, it’s easier to loosen the knot.
4. Foam Rolling Too Quickly
Like driving, the faster your car goes, the less of the tire meets the road. Same concept with this type of self-massage.
By speeding through your rolling, you are only hitting your superficial muscles, aka the ones right below the skin.
You’re not going to reach your transverse abs by quickly running over the soft tissue of your stomach.
You want to dig into the deep tissues and find the trigger point of the muscle group you’re targeting. Take your time so you’re getting deep enough to reach the muscles you’re actually aiming for.
5. Foam Rolling The Trigger Point Area for Too Long
How long is too long? You shouldn’t be spending more than approximately 90 seconds in one spot.
Let’s say you have painful spots on the back of your thighs from one lunge too many. We’ve all been there.
Let’s use your left thigh as an example.
First, use static pressure on the adhesion for 30 seconds. This is holding the roller in one spot.
Then, apply another 30 to 60 seconds using dynamic pressure.
This is moving the roller across the muscle.
You can keep the roller in place and twist side to side or up and down the length of the muscle. Aim for rolling the full range of motion.
If the tension is still not releasing, try the areas above and below.
For example, if your left foot or left side calf is tight, try rolling the buttocks and outer thigh of the left leg.
Try a hamstring roll! Don’t forget the opposite side.
6. Rolling the Wrong Areas
Other than your lower back (see #1), there are a few other areas of your body that foam roller exercises are not recommended such as your neck and groin.
The muscles in these areas are not dense enough to safely roll. Instead, you can use a tennis or lacrosse ball.
Use these for smaller joints such as your ankles or along your spine like between your shoulder blades.
Consider using the top of the foam roller to dig into the smaller areas.
The biggest mistake however is rolling your Iliotibial Band. Your IT band is a ligament. Ligaments cannot be loosened.
It starts at the outside of your hip, travels along the outside of your thigh and knee, and then connects to the top of your shin.
If yours is tight, try rolling your glutes, quadriceps, and around your right and left knee.
7. Rolling Only In One Direction
While we’ve already covered why only rolling up and down is a no-go, rolling only in one direction is also problematic.
Your fascia is everywhere, not just up and down or side to side.
You want to make sure that you’re covering ALL directions of movement.
If you focus solely on vertical movements, you’ll miss the lateral and diagonal movements.
Unsure of what’s next? Keep the roller stationary as you twist from side to side.
Then roll the entire length of the muscle. Try this on your tricep! Move through all directions to feel the difference.
8. Not Using Proper Body Alignment
Proper body alignment is always imperative regardless of the activity. You want to move in your body’s natural movement pattern.
Forcing your fascia and muscles into directions they are not supposed to move is inviting injury. So where do you start?
Begin rolling from comfort to discomfort.
Find your least tight area and move to the tightest, targeting your adhesions.
For example, if your right calf is tense, foam roller rolls around the right hamstring, knee, and right ankle.
The general rule of thumb is to start at the origin of the muscle and roll to the insertion of the muscle.
In other words, start closest to the core and work away.
9. Foam Rolling a “Cold Muscle”
What is a cold muscle?
It’s a muscle that is not warmed up from activity. Foam rolling a cold muscle can cause bruising or injury.
You need to ease into it using a softer pressure.
This will gently allow your body to warm up which will loosen the tense points.
Keep this in mind if you’re rolling first thing in the morning!
Too much pressure right away can damage your muscle tissue and exacerbate the aches. If you do experience bruising, try icing the area.
10. Using the Wrong Pressure
Not every body part requires the same amount of pressure.
You’re not going to use the same amount of pressure on your right side pectoral muscles than you are on your calves or thigh of your right leg.
By using too much or too little, you can hinder your body’s ability to repair the damaged muscle tissue.
Listen to your body. You’ll learn with experience what is too much or too little.
While rolling isn’t a comfortable task, you should not be in intense pain. Tailor your pressure to each body part to get the most out of the experience.
Foam rolling isn’t just for physical therapists, professional athletes, or Olympians anymore.
Self Myofascial Release (SMR) is for everyone! It is especially useful after ripping your muscle fibers in a tough workout.
You can practice SMR with foam, balls, or even the top of the roller.
You can do foam roller exercise anytime you’d like such as when you wake up, before and/or after a workout!
This is a different way to stretch your muscles, relieve tension and work out knots that may be hindering your mobility.
It improves your flexibility and increase of range of motion.
Admittedly, it’s not the most comfortable activity but the discomfort should not be overwhelming.
Take your time and take care of your body. You’ll thank yourself in the long run.
A lot of people experience back pain. Upper back pain can be rolled out however avoid the low back directly.
Lower back pain can be caused by your back muscles, thighs, lats, or any of the surrounding areas. (See above for how to use a foam roller for the back.)
Note that all pain cannot be resolved with foam.
If you’re experiencing knee pain, neck pain, or shoulder pain, for example, consult a medical professional.
Keep these 10 mistakes in mind when you add foam rolling to your self-care routine!