The foam roller is a tool used by physical therapists, fitness professionals and athletic trainers to help their patients or clients release tension and trigger points in muscle and connective tissues. This method is called self-myofascial release (SMR), and you can use it to ease stiffness and tenderness in specific areas of your body, like in your buttocks, back and calves. For lower-back stiffness, SMR can be done anywhere at anytime and is a valuable tool for flexibility training.
When muscles and surrounding connective tissues get tight, they decrease your range of motion and tissue extensibility and become sensitive to pressure, causing stiffness and discomfort. These trigger points can cause pain within the muscle, the muscles close to the area or joints close to the trigger points. SMR breaks apart the adhesion within the fibers, which reduces the sensitivity and relaxes the muscle. SMR also increases blood circulation and tissue extensibility.
Sit on a foam roller with your arms crossed over your chest. Slowly crawl forward with your feet as you roll your lower back over the roller. Tighten your abs to control your balance but keep breathing. When you roll over a sensitive spot, hold that spot and breathe into the area. Slowly massage the area by gently rubbing the tender spot up and down until the tenderness decreases.
You may also roll onto your entire back to release further tissues that may be causing back stiffness.
Take your time to learn this exercise. If you rush through, the speed and excessive pressure can cause the muscle to contract reflexively, causing more pain and possible damage to the tissues. Also, never do SMR exercises when your muscles are stiff and cold. Always warm up your body before doing them.
Types of Foam Rollers
Exercise professionals use two primary types of foam rollers. Styrofoam rollers contain hollowed cells that make them light and are the most economic version. However, with frequent use, these foam rollers lose their hardness and structure in less than nine months.
Molded foam rollers are made up of compressed, tiny pieces of foam that do not contain air. They usually last two to four times longer, depending on how frequently they are used.
According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine guidelines, do SMR on your tender area first and then stretch the area to elicit relaxation in the tissues. After the stretch, perform an exercise that strengthens the muscle groups that are opposite of the tight area.
For example, after you do SMR on your back, stretch your back to further alleviate its tension. Then perform one or two exercises that emphasize the core musculature, such as standing against the wall and pressing back.
Consult with an exercise professional before attempting any workout if you experience extreme pain or stiffness.
About this Author
Nick Ng has been writing fitness-related stories since 2003, focusing on nutrition, injury prevention and exercise strategies. He received his Bachelor of Arts in communications from San Diego State University in 2001 and is a certified fitness coach from the National Academy of Sports Medicine since 2002.