How to Use a Foam Roller for Stretching and Massage

man using foam roller
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Foam body rollers are equipment originally used in rehab training that have crossed over into exercise like stability balls and exercise bands, They are inexpensive, lightweight and versatile making them ideal for a home workout or studio. They are simply a cylinder of high-density foam. Exercise rollers can be put to all kinds of uses, such as stretching, self-massage, body support, and stability exercises.

Stretch, Exercise, and More with the Foam Body Roller

Rollers are those white cylinders that you see piled up in the corners of Pilates studios and gyms. Many Pilates instructors are incorporating foam rollers into their classes, and that is an ideal way to get ideas for using them. But they invite experimentation and you really can't make a mistake unless you try to stand on it without something nearby to aid your balance.

Massage Tool

Don't you love it when a massage actually gets to just the spot you need to release? Well, try rolling that muscle or area on the foam roller. Notice I said "on the roller," not "with the roller." That means you actually put your body weight on the roller and gently rock and roll your way to stress relief.

Body Part Prop

Try putting it under the knees, for example. Lie on your back in rest position and let the foam roller support your slightly bent knees. This position will help lengthen and relax your spine. There are lots of other ways to use the foam rollers as props, but that is my favorite. Other places you might see a foam roller used as a body prop are under the hips or to support a limb.

Stretch Support

One of the very nice things about using a foam roller as a support for stretching is that you have a curved surface to work on. But you are not far off the ground and chances of tipping off are slim (unlike exercise balls) so you can really relax into your stretch. You can find many creative ways to work a stretch off the foam roller. For example: Sit with your leg straight and the roller under the calf (don't lock your knees). Leaning forward over your leg will give you a nice extra stretch.

Stability Exercises

Pilates is famous for taking advantage of the core-strengthening potential of an unstable surface. As a person tries to maintain balance while working with an unstable surface, all of the deep muscles of the back and abdomen are recruited to help maintain balance. Pilates instructors are inventing many ways to enhance mat exercises and mimic equipment exercises with the foam rollers. Some you might try are exercises like plank or push-up done with your hands on the foam roller instead of the floor.

Buying a Foam Roller

Foam body rollers come in a variety of lengths and diameters. The most popular size is 36 inches long and 6 inches in diameter. Most are made of high-density packing foam that does not crush under body weight, though the surface is soft enough to be comfortable as one rolls body parts on it.

Over time, foam rollers do tend to "break in" and may become lumpy or collapse in the middle. Some people don't mind this effect in their own rollers - kind of like breaking in your shoes or your perfect spot on the couch - but it's not so pleasing to find a roller like that in a studio. If you anticipate a lot of heavy use for your foam roller, you may want to invest in the slightly more expensive rollers that are made from closed cell foam or super high-density EVA foam.