How to foam roll properly

If you’ve stepped inside a gym lately, you’ve probably seen a large foam cylinder propped up in the corner. Or, you’ve at least seen someone rolling aimlessly on some type of bolster thing in the stretching area. Well, this contraption is cleverly known as a foam roller, and it is used to perform Self Myofascial Release. To help explain exactly what that is, we’re going to hand the reigns over to our favorite personal trainer and resident fitness expert, Dr. Hunter Vincent

Hey everyone! It’s Dr. Hunter here. So you might be wondering what Self Myofascial Release is… right? I like to think of SMR as a kind of self-massage: It’s a way for us to iron out the knots in our muscles and promote localized relaxation in a specific muscle that may be tight or sore. This is important for aiding in recovery after workouts and promoting better biomechanics during our workouts, both of which can help decrease injuries and help us improve our functional fitness. There are several ways to perform Self Myofascial Release, but the foam roller is best for starting out. Other options like a tennis ball or lacrosse ball are great options for more focused SMR, but can be more difficult when starting out.

So, when do you do SMR? Great question…

There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to foam rolling, but I believe it is best to do some foam rolling with every workout. You may not need to do the total body routine that I will share below, but at least hit the trouble areas (meaning muscles that feel especially tight or sore). Some people do their rolling before, some people do it after their workouts; There isn’t any research to suggest one is better than another. However, warm muscles are more adaptable and malleable, so getting a proper warm up or performing SMR after a workout may potentially provide more lasting results. A more complete foam-rolling regimen is a great supplement to any active recovery day… Not to mention that it also pairs well with a glass of wine and some Netflix. Let’s get to it, shall we?

Beginner Tips:

The basics of foam rolling

1. Relax & Breathe.
When you first start rolling, it is very common for it to be painful (in a good way). This can cause people to tense up, which can potentially promote tightness in other areas. As you work through each muscle, remember to breathe and try to relax your muscle.

2. Go slow.
There will be certain areas of a muscle that are tighter than others. I like to call these areas foam rolling hot spots. When you find this spot, hold it here for about 30 seconds (and reread tip #1!). Many times, people will feel their muscle actually release into the roller, which is exactly what you want.

3. Roll in all directions.
It’s a common tendency for people starting out to only roll in one direction. As you roll from head to toe, it is actually best to try to find a hot spot and then slowly roll from side to side. This will give you a multidimensional approach to ironing out your muscle tightness.

4. It gets easier.
I’m not going to lie to you… The first couple foam rolling sessions can be rough. But, if you stay consistent, it become easier and you will have less trouble areas to work on. A metaphor for life I guess….

5. Be a baller.
Once you get the hang of foam rolling, you can add more precision with a lacrosse ball or tennis ball. Using these types of balls to roll over your muscles can have the added benefit of being extremely travel friendly, and perfect for those long work trips or travel plans.

Ready? Let’s roll….

Now that you know the basics, here are the main muscle groups you will want to hit during your foam rolling routine…

Foam rolling your IT band

1. IT Band:
This is probably the best place to start because it’s one of the most important! The IT Band is a long tendon and that runs from the hip to the knee on the outside of the thigh. So when rolling out your IT Band, make sure you roll the entire length of the thigh from both head-to-toe and side-to-side if you find a hot spot. It’s easiest to have your top leg out in front of your body because it will help you move up and down the roller, and can also decrease the force on your possibly quite tender IT Band (see positioning above). If you need a little more force, you can also have your legs stacked on top of each other.

Foam rolling glutes and other muscles

How to release tension in your muscles

2. Glutes / Piriformis:
This is another go-to exercise on the foam roller… For anyone out there with hip problems or low back pain, there’s a pretty good chance this area will be very tender for you. Start by sitting on the foam roller and crossing your right leg over your left so that your right ankle is resting just above your left knee (see above). Then, move your body so that only your right butt cheek is on top of the roller. From here, you are going to roll up and down trying to roll the muscles in your right butt area, most importantly the piriformis muscle. This is a great muscle to use a tennis ball or lacrosse ball with to get a little bit more focused attention.

How to foam roll sore calves

3. Calves:
Sitting on the floor, place one of your calves on the foam roller, then place your other leg on top. Roll up and down the leg, finding sensitive areas and holding until you feel the muscle release. It’s important to roll both major muscles in your calves (the gastrocnemius, the bigger muscle; and the soleus, the muscle closer to your heel). For a stronger force, you can use your arms to lift yourself off the ground.

Releasing tension in hip flexors and quads

4. Hip Flexors / Quads:
While lying on your stomach, place the foam roller under one of your thighs. I recommend starting with the foam roller under the front of your hip. Also, by moving your body more towards the side of the foam roller, the other leg can be resting on the floor, allowing for better control during the exercise. The goal is to roll from the hip joint all the way down to the top of the knee, covering the entire hip flexor and quadriceps muscles. Be sure to avoid rolling over the kneecap, as that can be painful and dangerous for your knee joint.

Tips on releasing tension

5. Shoulder Girdle:
This exercise is a great one to loosen up muscles in the shoulder area and help with range of motion and posture. Lying on your side with your arm straight over your head, position the foam roller on the back portion of the armpit. There are several muscles in this area. Small controlled movements up and down and side to side will cover the muscles in this region, so no need to cover a lot of ground with this exercise.

Try these foam roller exercises out, and see how you feel! Then, let us know in the comments below which ones worked or if you’re are having any trouble. And if you don’t have a foam roller at home, they’re pretty affordable. Click here to get one of your own.

Will you give this foam rolling routine a try before or after your next workout?

XO Team LC

P.S. Feel free to message Hunter @drhuntervincent on instagram with any questions or blog post suggestions you may have! We’re always looking for new topics to write about here in the Get Fit section.

Photos: Jessi Burrone for