This is the second part of a 2-part article by guest author Cameron Stache.  See this for Part 1.  Cameron currently works as a Fitness Coach/ Assistant Fitness Manager at the Rush Fitness Complex in Greensboro, NC.  He’s pursuing his Exercise Science degree and plans to use this degree to either work at a large college and be a strength and conditioning coach, or go into ergonomics. If you are interested in brands Cameron supports, check out .

How to properly roll your major muscle groups

While last time I discussed the importance and benefit of self-myofacial release (SMR, or “foam rolling”) this time I am going to cover how to properly foam roll each of your basic muscle groups.  Before I can do this, however, I need to cover a few basic rules of foam-rolling:

  • Always roll toward the midline (spine) of your body.  For example, one rolling their leg would start at the bottom and work up to the hip.  A person who rolls their arm extended to the right of their body rolls from the right, to the left (wrist up to shoulder).
  • Roll one side of your body then the other.  In other words, don’t roll both calves at once; you should roll your left then your right, or vise-versa.
  • Roll across a muscle at a speed of approx. one inch per second.  This allows you to find a knot in your muscle without passing over it too quickly and missing it.
  • When you DO find a knot (feels like someone digging a knuckle into your muscle at the location of the foam roll) you must hold the roll on that spot for 25-30 seconds.  After you are done counting continue rolling across the muscle.  You might stop every 1/4 inch, inch, 3 inches, or one random time; no one really knows.  It depends on your muscle on where you stop.  I will tell you from my experience though that most people have a side that is usually tighter (and more painful) than the other.
  • The foam roll will always be situated between yourself and the floor.  By using body weight to apply pressure to the muscle you cause the muscle spindle to contract and apply the force for you.  This is the main difference between a deep tissue massage and foam-rolling.

Here are the basic muscles to foam roll and the proper technique of rolling them.  I will try to be as detailed as I can, but a few of them can be quite complex.  For you visual people I went into MS paint and made you some visuals:  (It was quite tough though for someone artistically impaired like myself so please don’t make fun of the TOO much because I find them quite good.)

  • Calves – Probably one of the more common muscles.  95% of lower back pain is caused by tightness in the calves.  Start by sitting on your butt with your legs straight out in front of you.  Lift a leg and set the foam roll near the bottom of your ankle (near your Achilles’ tendon). Roll up until you get to just below your knee.  Normally the closer you get to your knee the tighter your muscle feels, don’t be discouraged if you don’t feel it right away.  Your toe should be flexed back to the ceiling the entire time.

  • Quads – Lay on your stomach.  The foam-roll should be situated just above your kneecap.  You should look similar to being in a plank (prone iso-ab) position.  Roll up to your hip.  When your feel a knot on this one go ahead and bent your knee to about 45 degrees and leave it there until you get to the end of the leg.

  • Hamstrings –  This is basically the exact same as the calf except you start above the knee and roll to your gluteals.  Really the only time you would roll your hamstrings however is for soreness.

  • Inner thigh/hip flexors –  Lay prone on the floor.  Set one knee to the side of your body with the inner thigh and inside of the knee on the ground.  Put the foam roll on the inside of the tight of the sideways leg, just above the knee.  Roll your body towards the roll to move it up your leg.  Go to the end of your leg.  For those looking to foam roll their hip flexors (basically anyone who goes parallel in a barbell squat) should continue past the end of the leg.  This means when it hits the groin area, you would roll on top of the roll.  The roll should then be on the front of your hip, basically holding your whole side off of the ground.

  • IT band (outer thigh) –  Sorry people who have tight outer thighs, but this is probably the most painful of all of the areas.  Start in a side plank position and set the roll under the bottom thigh just above the knee.  The top leg then bends down to the floor in order to put the top foot there for balance.  Using your shoulder/forearm (the one on the floor) as support roll to the hip bone.  It is important to keep your foot off the ground.  You should always have a straight line from your shoulder to foot.  Your toe should be flexed up and pointing the direction of your chest.

  • Piriformus – This is probably the hardest to explain, so please bear with me.  Start sitting on the foam roll with only one side of your body on the roll.  The other side should be hanging off the end; both legs straight ahead.  Cross the foot on the side you are sitting on onto the opposite leg just above the knee.  Then raise the opposite leg.  Roll until you fall off of the cylindrical devil.

  • Upper Back –  Start with your roll on the middle of your back.  You should be looking up toward the ceiling.  Cross your arms in front and try to grab your shoulder blades.  Roll up until you get just below your neck.

  • Latisimus Dorsi –  Lay on your side on the floor.  Extend the arm you are laying on over your head to make a straight line from your hand to your foot.  Place the foam roll just above your armpit.  Lean back ever so slightly.  Roll down to the top of your ribs.

As I said last article, I will reiterate what NOT to Roll:

  • Joints, lower back, and neck- DO NOT ever roll these muscles with a foam-roll.  These specific areas of your body don’t really have very many protective muscles, and the ones that are there aren’t very strong.  I would like to point out one exception.  You may roll your erectors in your lower back with a tennis ball, golf ball, of some similar object.  The same can be said about your feet.  The smaller size of the objects allows you to get to your muscles without putting any strain on your spine.  The only exception to this is that you ARE able to roll your lower back, or feet, with a tennis ball, baseball, golf ball, etc.
  • Ribs- due to the small amount of muscle in the rib cage area and the large amount of bodyweight isolated in a small area in the ribs you shouldn’t roll here due to a risk of cracking or breaking a rib.  While the chances are slim, it’s not really even close to the risk of it happening.
  • Calves during pregnancy- Foam-rolling your calves during the third trimester of pregnancy can cause you to go into premature labor.  (I’m mainly talking to you ladies here.)  Your lower body nerves are all connected and it could send you into labor earlier than intended.  Personally I never tell anyone pregnant to foam-roll calves.  Even if they aren’t near that term.  I’d just rather not deal with it.

Progressions/ and regressions of foam-rolling

The last thing I want to cover is how to progress and regress the exercises.  When foam-rolling you should be a little uncomfortable but not in excruciating pain. On a scale of 1-10 with 1 being the lowest amount of discomfort and 10 being excruciating pain you should be between an 6-8.  So it should be uncomfortable with maybe a little pain on the tighter parts.  This being said, anytime you wish to reduce the pressure on your muscle it is considered a regression, and anytime you add more pressure it is called a progression.

Simple ways to regress the exercise:

–   Lay on a softer floor.

–   Add more surface area that the pressure is being applied to.  An easy way to do this is to add an extra foam roll.  That spreads the pressure of your weight onto a wider area, reducing the pressure on a specific spot.

–   Buy a newer foam roll.  After a while the rolls get compacted after some use and have less cushion.

Simple ways to progress the exercise.

–   Lay on a harder floor.

–   Reduce the surface area.  (see next point)

–   Decrease the diameter of the roller.  A smaller diameter reduces the contact surface area, allowing you to work a tight area in a more focused way.  (see next point)

–   Increase the hardness of the roller.  Although it is intended to apply to this bullet point, it very easily applies to the previous one that you can use things such as a barbell to roll on.  Be warned, however, that it is QUITE uncomfortable.  You can also use a tennis ball, golf ball, baseball, softball, small medicine ball, etc.

–   Add more bodyweight.  An example of this would be crossing your leg on top of the rolling one while rolling calves.  Or even lifting your butt off the ground.

This is Darrin now – I found a great video from Eric Cressey, featuring Tony Gentlecore (one of the funniest fitness writers out there).  Here it is:

Let’s hear some comments and questions for Cameron!

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