Bumpy foam rollers and handheld batons really do the job…
Before foam rollers gained so much mainstream popularity, they were a favorite of professional athletes who used them to prevent injuries and alleviate aches and pains.
What’s new: More sophisticated foam rollers—coming in a range of shapes, sizes and textures, such as spiked or nubby—now offer even greater benefits for people who know how to select and use them properly for targeted self-massage.
Should You Roll?
Studies show that a foam roller helps ease age-related muscle tightness, reduce exercise-induced muscle soreness and prevent injuries by warming up muscles before workouts and improving range of motion.
Foam-rolling is also helpful for a variety of common conditions, especially any kind of tendinitis (such as patellar tendinitis affecting the knee or Achilles tendinitis affecting the foot and ankle)…and muscle imbalances due to overuse (such as tennis elbow or golfer’s elbow). Rolling out the tighter side of the muscle helps bring both sides into balance.
Why does rolling help so much? Moving your body back and forth across a foam roller increases restorative blood flow that helps promote muscle healing. A foam roller can also help reduce muscle soreness by physically dispersing lactic acid—a substance that accumulates in your muscles during intense exercise.
New Shapes and Sizes
Manufacturers of the new spiked, nubby and waffle-cut rollers, as well as baton-style and ball-shaped rollers, claim that these different shapes and textural cutouts allow users to get closer to the muscle for deeper penetration.
This hasn’t been shown in studies, but if a bumpy texture feels good to you or a rounder roller seems to offer more pinpointed pressure, it makes sense to try one of the newer products so you get the benefits of using a foam roller.
Before any form of physical activity (from typing to tennis), you can help prevent aches and pains if you warm up by stretching. After the activity, cool down by stretching and using a foam roller wherever you feel muscle tightness. To target specific parts of the body, do each of the following exercises for 15 to 60 seconds daily. Common problem areas and some of the best new foam rollers…
• Hamstrings. Tight hamstrings (the back of your thighs) are a common problem for people who sit for long hours (at a desk or behind the wheel of a car), run or bike. Tight hamstrings often lead to low back pain. Because the hamstrings tend to be less sensitive than other muscles in your body, the increased stimulation provided by a textured roller (as opposed to a smooth roller) often works well.
One example of a good-quality textured roller is the Stott Pilates Two-in-One Massage Point Foam Roller ($69.99, Target.com). Its spikes target trigger points and deeply massage muscle tissue.
What to do: While sitting on the floor with your legs extended in front of you, with knees slightly bent, place the textured roller directly underneath your hamstrings, perpendicular to the muscles. While using your arms to support your weight, slowly roll your hamstrings up and down the roller, from buttocks to knees and back, adding pressure to the roller.
When you reach a trigger point (an area of tightness or increased soft tissue tension), either move back and forth on it or hold steady for 30 seconds (or until the knot “releases”). You’ll feel the tissue soften and tightness melt away. This process may be a bit painful, but the discomfort should dissipate when you move off the roller.
• Quads and hip flexors. Walkers and runners and people with knee tendinitis often have tight hip flexors, the muscles that extend from the pelvis to the knee. Anyone who sits a lot needs to stretch and roll the quadriceps muscles on the front of the thighs and the hip flexors.
Baton-shaped foam rollers have handles on either side and are ideal for rolling out the quadriceps muscle or anytime you want to better control the pressure and intensity of the rolling (as opposed to lying atop a roller and applying your body weight). For this reason, baton rollers are especially helpful for people who are sensitive to pain. They also allow other people, such as a physical therapist or spouse, to roll your muscles for you.
What to do: Begin by sitting down on the floor with your legs extended in front of you. (For stability, place a rolled-up towel beneath your “sit bones”—at the base of your buttocks.) Bend your right leg slightly, with your knee falling out to the side, and position the baton at the top of your left leg, perpendicular to your thigh. Roll down and away to just above the left knee, as if you’re rolling out dough with a rolling pin, then lift up, return to the top of the leg and repeat. Do the same steps on the other leg.
Good products: The GRID STK Foam Roller ($34.99, TPTherapy.com) has a three-dimensional surface…the TheraBand Roller Massager ($18.49, Amazon.com) is ridged. The texture you choose is a matter of personal preference.
• Back and shoulder blades. Ball-shaped massagers work well for hard-to-reach knots such as those in your upper or lower back, between the shoulder blades or in the piriformis muscle in the upper buttocks. A good choice for back and shoulder blade pain is the Tiger Ball Massage-on-a-Rope ($27.95, TigerTailUSA.com). If you’re looking for deeper penetration, try a textured ball such as the RumbleRoller Beastie ($24.95, OPTP.com).
What to do: For a tight or painful upper back, stand with your back to a wall, placing the ball in the space between your shoulder blades. Bend your knees slightly and push your body weight into the ball, making small circles with the ball. Avoid letting the ball directly press on your spine, which could be painful.
Minifoam rollers are another option that allows you to pinpoint trigger points on your back and shoulder blades. A product such as the GRID Mini Foam Roller ($24.99, TPTherapy.com) easily fits in a desk, gym bag or suitcase.