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How To Use a Foam Roller (and Which Ones Actually Work)

Foam rolling is kind of like putting on sunscreen. It’s one of those things you should probably be doing every day, but just haven’t gotten around to yet. Perhaps you haven’t been properly schooled in the benefits or don’t know where to start. Well, have no fear, we’re here to inform and encourage you to incorporate foam rolling into your routine.

The science doesn’t lie: Foam rolling is incredibly beneficial for easing muscle tension and soreness while increasing flexibility. Your body harbors tons of aches and pains on a daily basis — we’ve all felt tightness in our legs after a long car trip, soreness after a workout or a knot in our shoulder from sleeping poorly. A foam roller can help alleviate those ailments through what’s called self-myofascial release (SMR), which can eliminate those trigger points, help the body recover more quickly and offer increased range of motion for better performance.

Regardless of whether or not you’re an athlete, foam rolling can help your body function better, which we can all get on board with. In this article, we’ll cover the major benefits of foam rolling, common mistakes and instructions on how to foam roll on different body parts. We’ll also recommend our favorite foam rollers to help you get your mobility journey started.


Foam Roller Benefits

To gain a better understanding of how to use a foam roller, we chatted with Sam Moses, a Certified Personal Trainer and movement-based strength coach who’s dedicated a ton of his practice to exercise that increases mobility and decreases pain. Moses — who holds a Masters in Applied Exercise Science and Bachelors in Kinesiology — also created UltiRoll, an impressive five-tools-in-one foam rolling kit that rivals many of the big-name options on the market.

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Moses groups the benefits of foam rolling into three categories: corrective, recovery and performance.

On the corrective side, foam rolling can help improve pain and increase function in the body by reducing those knots in specific areas, almost like getting a massage. It also helps prevent injury by increasing flexibility.

“When joints lose range of motion, it forces other joints to compensate which wears them down and causes them to fail,” Moses said. “If you focus your rolling to regain flexibility in the right areas, you can reduce your risk of getting hurt. Essentially, foam rolling is a tool that can fix your body.”

For performance, foam rolling offers a great warm-up that increases circulation and gets your body ready to move (not to mention that injury-preventing flexibility), all of which contribute to more speed, power, agility and strength. Lastly, foam rolling is a critical recovery tool proven to cut down on your body’s recovery time after intense exercise.

“For me, that is very practically applied in the days after a hard workout when I or my clients are sore,” Moses said. “Rolling out makes that soreness go away quicker, which I think we all can agree is worth it.”


The Most Common Foam Rolling Mistakes

So you’ve read the benefits and realize — yeah — foam rolling is definitely something worth investing time in, regardless of your level of performance. But before you get too carried away, it’s helpful to understand the common mistakes, which can prevent you from getting the most out of your quest for flexibility, decreased recovery time and increased performance.

Have a Plan

According to Moses, one of the most common mistakes with foam rolling is not having a solid strategy.

“When most people use a foam roller they kind of sit on it and roll around without really knowing what to actually do,” Moses said. “In self-maintenance and taking care of your body, foam rolling is an incredibly powerful tool. Everyone should take a half-hour to learn how to use one properly and address their body’s specific issues.”

Part of that education comes with the understanding that a traditional foam roller isn’t the only SMR tool at your disposal. In fact, having a collection of different tools to utilize on different body parts is a great way to maximize the benefits.

Find the Right Tool

“Foam rolling doesn’t necessarily need to utilize a foam roller,” Moses said. “The way I describe it is that to your muscles, pressure is pressure. Whether you use a lacrosse ball, the edge of a table, or even a PVC pipe, what your tissue responds to is physical pressure. So then the question becomes what tool is most effective?”

Traditional foam rollers are around two feet long and opt for low-density foam. This can be a helpful tool if you’re targeting an area that’s particularly sensitive, as it won’t apply as much pressure. But, according to Moses, these softer foam rollers don’t have enough pressure to create a serious change in tissue, and often are so soft that they lose stiffness after a couple of months. On the flip side, those long PVC pipes you’ve seen at the gym offer too much pressure creating a painful experience that can cause your muscles to seize up. Moses recommends the Goldilocks foam roller then — a medium-density option that’s not too soft or too firm, but just right. 

“A medium-density roller offers enough pressure to create change without causing too much pain as you roll,” Moses said.

That medium-density foam roller is a great starter tool, but Moses recommends different tools for other body segments:

  • Foam roller — an all-encompassing tool for bigger body parts.
  • Lacrosse ball — round, rubbery and firm for extra pressure on targeted areas.
  • Peanut ball — shaped like a peanut with two rounded sides.

“The foam roller is a great tool for larger body segments like your legs, hips and thoracic spine,” Moses said. “The lacrosse ball is perfect for knotted up areas that require more targeted pressure, which is different in everyone.  Finally, the peanut ball is specially designed to address the spine, thighs and calves.  All three tools are a powerhouse of rolling potential.”

Roll it Out

Now that you have your foam rolling tool kit, it’s important to learn the proper motion.

“In general, larger sweeping motions across muscles are better for warm-ups and recovery, while more localized pressure is an effective modality to get rid of trigger points and sensitivity,” Moses said. “The great thing about rolling is it’s a freely-incorporated modality, meaning there are so many different SMR benefits, tools and protocols, it’s really simple to find something that fits into your routine.”


How to Use a Foam Roller on Your Back

Though lower back pain is often the big reason people turn to foam rolling, it deserves its own section, so we’re going to start with the upper back. This area is so often ripe with knots and tension from long days clacking away on a keyboard or a poor night’s sleep.

Instructions: Using a longer foam roller, place it underneath the middle of your back and raise yourself into a low bridge position, with your feet flat on the floor, your knees bent and your butt raised off the ground. Roll yourself up and down, pausing and focusing on particular areas of tension. To target the lats, you can rotate onto your side, placing the foam roller beneath your armpit. This area can be particularly sensitive, so reaching for a lower-density foam roller can help make the process a bit more comfortable. Find an area of tension, lean into it and rock slowly back and forth on the spot.


Foam Roller Lower Back Movements

Lower back pain is an incredibly common ailment that plagues even the best of us. And when it comes to rolling out, there’s a tendency to place the foam roller directly against your spine on the lower back, hoping that will alleviate the pain. But your lower back lacks the support of your rib cage, so when you add the pressure of a foam roller, you can cause all kinds of damage to the fragile discs and vertebrae of your lower back.

Taking that misconception a step further, it’s important to understand where lower back pain actually comes from so we know how to properly address it. According to Moses, most lower back issues stem from a structural defect in the spine, like degeneration or a herniated disc, which affects the nervous tissue.

“The body’s response is a phenomenon called guarding, which means the muscles around the spine contract in an attempt to lock it down,” Moses said. “This is what happens when someone ‘throws out their back.’ Although that doesn’t feel great, the good news is that rolling can get those muscles to calm down and feel better.”

To alleviate that pain, you have to roll the muscles around your spine, not the spine itself. For instructions, we’re going to leave it to the professional here.

Instructions: “To roll your back, you should utilize either a lacrosse or peanut ball,” Moses said. “With a lacrosse ball, lie on your back and place the ball in the soft tissue residing outside of the spine, below the ribcage and above the pelvis. Roll through that area slowly and feel for spots that are more sensitive. When you find one, stop on it and relax. It can be uncomfortable so make sure you keep breathing and don’t contract your lower back. Relax into the pressure. Spend two minutes doing that, with the option of adding a small back and forth motion as long as you stay in the same one-inch area. Do that for each sensitive area you have time for. You can use the same technique with a peanut ball, just ensure that your spine is in space in between each ball so that it does not receive any pressure.”


How to Use a Foam Roller for Legs

For athletes — particularly those leg day enthusiasts and daily runners — the legs are often a major source of tension and soreness, which has a way of creeping into our everyday lives in unfortunate ways (try getting out of bed after running a marathon or hitting 500 pounds on the squat rack).

Luckily, foam rolling offers athletes the chance to warm up those legs, recover more quickly and iron out any kinks from your last intense workout. A standard foam roller will do wonders for your legs in general, but Moses recommends using a peanut ball for your thighs and calves, which are particularly prone to targeted areas of tension.

You can foam roll your entire lower body, including your quads, calves, shins, hamstrings and glutes. For specific instructions, we recommend checking out the video below, which is pretty all-encompassing.


Foam Roller Hamstrings Movements

As a large, injury-prone tendon, the hamstring offers a great case study in foam rolling best practices. Its size means you might have to spend a bit of time hunting for the areas of tension. But it’s that due diligence that makes all the difference in the world of foam rolling. As the video below indicates, start by rolling on the outside of the hamstring, and rotate your leg to work your way toward the center and inside. Once you identify an area that’s particularly tight, lean into that pressure and use subtle movements to alleviate it.


The Best Foam Roller

Of course, you can’t reap the benefits of foam rolling without an actual foam roller. We’ve covered the best foam rollers in depth before, but sourced and listed seven for your convenience here.

The best foam roller for you will come down to a combination of size, strength and features. Shorter 12-inch foam rollers are more portable and still allow you to target one body part at a time, while longer ones offer a larger surface area for tackling two legs at once. Softer, more forgiving foam will be a lot easier on your limbs, but some more experienced foam rollers want that ultra-intense pressure. You can snag a standard foam roller for anywhere between $15 – $50, but we included some vibrating foam rollers (which rely on batteries or a corded charge) in case you want some technology in your recovery. And if you really want to take foam rolling seriously, you’ll heed Moses’ advice and opt for multiple tools designed to target different areas of the body, like his UltiRoll.


1. Amazon Basics High-Density Round Foam Roller


If you’re looking for a basic foam roller without any ridges, bells or whistles, check out this option from Amazon, which comes in seven different colors, along with 12-, 18-, 24- and 36-inch length options. The standard foam build gives it a softer feel than some other foam rollers, and at only $15 — and with nearly 70,000 reviews on Amazon — this is a great gateway into your foam roller journey.

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Courtesy of Amazon

2. Gimme 10 Foam Roller (2-in-1)


This foam roller from Gimme 10 offers the best of both worlds — one softer foam roller tucked inside a hollowed-out, firmer option. Both choices have trigger point “massage zones” for more targeted pressure when you need it. At 13 inches in length, this foam roller is small enough to throw in your gym bag, or even a suitcase when you need to keep your legs loose on the road.

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Courtesy of Amazon

3. TriggerPoint GRID Foam Roller (26-Inch)


TriggerPoint’s popular foam roller blends a durable design with — as the brand name aptly suggests — trigger points in all the right places. They offer smaller, more portable lengths for easier transportation, but this longer version is a great choice for knocking out a larger surface area, or two legs at once. It has a 4.8-star rating on Amazon based on more than 3,000 reviews.

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Courtesy of Amazon

4. 321 STRONG 5 in 1 Foam Roller Set


This handy foam roller packs plenty of other fitness tools inside, including a muscle roller stick, stretching strap, double across peanut and spike ball for plantar fasciitis. This is the perfect portable mobility kit. It’s only about a foot long and has all the tools to help your body stay loose wherever you go.

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Courtesy of Amazon


5. Therabody Wave Roller


Known for its ever-popular Theragun massage gun, Therabody also boasts a pretty impressive vibrating foam roller. It uses Bluetooth technology to connect with your phone, allowing you to control the five different vibration options. This 12-inch foam roller lasts about 3 hours on a full charge. The corded charger is included, but you can tack on the brand’s wireless charging dock if you’re fancy enough to own multiple Therabody products.

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Courtesy of Therabody

6. Hyperice Vyper 2.0


A competitor and alternative to Therabody, Hyperice features its own line of massage guns and electric foam rollers. It’s priced identically to the Therabody Wave Roller, but only has three vibration settings and doesn’t last quite as long (it runs on rechargeable lithium-ion batteries). Still, reviewers speak favorably of the Vyper 2.0 — and it’s endorsed by some notable athletes — so it’s definitely worth your consideration in the electric foam roller game.

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Courtesy of Amazon

7. TriggerPoint Performance GRID Vibe Plus Vibrating Foam Roller


Given the popularity of TriggerPoint’s standard GRID foam roller, it’s no surprise to see the same quality as its vibrating counterpart. This cordless and rechargeable foam roller features four different vibration frequencies and arrives $50 less than the Therabody and Hyperice options. The included charger is also backed by a 1-year limited warranty.

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Courtesy of REI

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