Have you been using a foam roller wrong this whole time?

January 30, 2018

Love them or loathe them, foam rolling almost always seems to be something that is recommended to patients and clients being seen by many health and fitness professionals. The problem is, a lot of the time the advice goes along the lines of 'just roll it out'. Whatever that means...


So, how do you actually use a foam roller? 


Hopefully we can shed some light on this, although this is more a way of explaining the different ways a foam roller can be used in an attempt to achieve certain changes. It isn't really a step-by-step guide on how to use a foam roller for every single part of your body! Keep reading for the different ways we love to use foam rollers.




1. The simple roll


Placing the foam roller under the muscle of choice, you can easily roll along it to find tender spots. This technique is commonly used for more bigger muscles or ones that are easier to target such as the quadriceps, hamstrings, gastrocnemius/soleus and latissimus dorsi.


The trick is not to aimlessly and endlessly roll back and forth, gritting your teeth. Trying to be a bit more specific can actually help stop this from being a painfully tedious activity.

  • Slowly roll until you find a tender spot

  • Hold your weight over it and take nice deep breaths 

  • The pain should slowly decrease over the next 10-20 seconds

  • Once the ache/pain is bearable, you can apply more pressure by leaning more bodyweight onto that spot

  • Repeat 2 or 3 times

  • Move onto other tender spots in that muscle or another muscle group



In my opinion, holding sustained pressure for more than 20 seconds at any one time is just pointless. If you feel you aren't getting much change, then move on and work on other areas and come back to any particularly stubborn parts. 


Remember to work the whole length of the muscle as well...



2. Active muscle release


This is slightly more complex than your basic rolling but, in my opinion, a nicer way of using a roller and can help improve the mobility of joints. 


Similar to the technique above, this is done on large joints and muscles such as the shoulder, hips and knees and the muscles that surround/cross these joints. 


  • Start by placing the roller on the desired muscle and apply a good amount of pressure (but not too much)

  • Move the joint through the entire range of movement in the desired plane, or as far as possible. You should feel the muscle stretch as you do this. E.g if you're rolling the quads, flex your knee after you apply the pressure

  • Slowly repeat this movement between 5-10 times

  • Re-apply the roller to another area of the same muscle

  • Repeat the above steps and then move onto other regions




The movements should be slow, smooth and controlled, as well as not too painful. A slight ache is probably expected but nothing horrendous! 


If needed start with small amounts of joint movement and then, depending on how you feel, gradually increase the range of movement each time.



3. Active Thoracic spinal mobilisation


Slightly different to the previous exercise, but still aims at improving the movement at a joint. However, this aims at the thoracic spine more directly rather than trying to influence the muscles that act on the joint.


There is a reason why we will only focus on the one area of your spine. Foam rolling your lumbar spine isn't too comfortable and based on the direction of its curve, sticking a foam roller under it can only end up hurting even more. As for your neck, there aren't many foam rollers small enough and it probably isn't going to be too effective as you won't be able to safely use your bodyweight.


For thoracic mobilisation;

  • Place the foam roller across a portion of your thoracic spine (either on the floor or against the wall)

  • Push your weight onto the foam roller and very slowly start rolling up and down continuously(don't worry if you hear any clicks or pops, that's normal!)

  • Move from top to bottom of your thoracic spine, avoiding the lumbar or cervical regions

  • Allow your head to slightly drop and your back to arch gently over the foam roller with control as you move along your thoracic spine

  • Repeat the above steps with your arms in various positions (modified hug, outstretched, above your head, out to the side)



Using different arm positions means you will inevitably work on surrounding muscles as well. So it's a bit of a win-win situation. 


Be slow and controlled, keeping your weight centred. Don't rush around and think it will be a quick fix. 



4. Static Thoracic spinal mobilisation


This is almost the same as the above technique. The only difference is you don't roll up and down continuously. 


  • Place the foam roller across a portion of your thoracic spine (either on the floor or against the wall)

  • Push your weight onto the foam roller gently 

  • Once you have placed the foam roller under the area you want to affect, slowly arch your back and let your hips drop to extend that portion over the foam roller

  • Return to your start position and repeat the movement 5-10 times over that area

  • Move onto another area you wish to work on and repeat



With this, start small and build up. It should feel nice and therapeutic, not painful. Ease into the movement and try to time movements with your breathing, which can help make huge differences. Another tip is to try this with your arms in different positions, similar to the active thoracic spinal mobilisation technique. 




Hopefully this helps you understand different ways that a foam roller can be used, instead of collecting dust in the corner of the room or as an awkward pillow. 


As always, it is always best to talk to a healthcare professional about when and how to use a foam roller and if it is definitely safe to do so. 


If you have any queries or would like to book an appointment, please send us a message or call on 02083047237. 



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