7 Foam Rolling Exercises to Relieve Muscle Tension

woman foam rolling her mid-back

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Feeling stiff and being barely able to walk a day or two after a tough workout is nothing short of dreadful. What you probably wouldn't give for a moment of relief. The good news is that adopting a sound warm-up and workout recovery plan can not only ease soreness and reduce recovery time but also prevent pain and stiffness after workouts in the future.

You also can look at different tools or practices to help reduce soreness. In addition to the option of seeing a massage therapist or using a therapeutic massage gun, you may find that a foam roller will become your new workout accessory. Here is what you need to know about foam rolling, including how to foam roll different body parts.

How a Foam Roller Works

Foam rolling is a type of self-massage using a tool called a foam roller to alleviate tight and sore muscles. You can use a foam roller before or after a workout—or both. There is a small body of research available supports these options.

For instance, a review of the literature on the use of foam rolling concluded that foam rolling may reduce muscle stiffness and range of motion, especially when combined with dynamic stretching and an active warm-up. Other studies have found that foam rolling before a workout is more effective than dynamic stretching and can improve flexibility without reducing muscle strength.

Some studies have even demonstrated that foam rolling after a workout can reduce muscle soreness and improve performance. Though the benefits of foam rolling seem promising, the effects only last a short term. Regardless, foam rolling does provide immediate relief from sore and stiff muscles and could become one of those love-hate parts of exercise you come to enjoy.

To use a foam roller, pinpoint the muscle group you want to target. Then, balance on the foam roller targeting the muscle group you would like to focus on. Slowly roll your body back and forth over the length of the muscle, using your arms and legs to provide stability and control. That's it.

It may take some trial and error to get the hang of it. But before you know it, you will be a foam rolling pro. Here are some exercises to help you get started.


You can use a foam roller to roll out your hamstrings before and after a workout if they're feeling sore and tight. This is especially helpful for someone who sits all day—foam rolling your hamstrings can help relieve tightness and improve flexibility. Here is how you use a foam roller on your hamstrings.

  1. Start in a sitting position with your legs out in front of you.
  2. Place a firm foam roller under your leg on either side.
  3. Use your hands for stability and gently and slowly roll back and forth on the foam roller.
  4. Move more slowly in the areas where you experience the most pain or tightness.
  5. Do this for 30 to 60 seconds before switching to the other leg.


Anyone who is active uses their quad muscles quite a bit and they can quickly become tight. And tight quads can lead to knee pain. Use foam rolling to loosen tight quads and improve blood flow to help alleviate knee pain. Here is how to foam roll your quads.

  1. Start by laying on your stomach.
  2. Place a foam roller underneath the front of one leg.
  3. Use your hands and the other leg for stability and slowly roll back and forth across the length of the upper leg.
  4. Move more slowly or stop over the areas that are the most tender. If this is too painful, move your other leg onto the foam roller and use your toes and forearms for support.
  5. Do this for 30 to 60 seconds before switching to the other leg.

You also can try moving in a circular motion to target a greater area of muscle.


Tight glutes are often the cause of—or contribute to—lower back pain. Using a foam roller can loosen glute muscles helping to indirectly relieve back pain. Here is how to use a foam roller on your glutes.

  1. Sit on the foam roller with your weight on one side.
  2. Place one or both hands on the floor behind you for stability.
  3. Roll in a circular motion over the foam roller finding the area with the most tenderness.
  4. Do this for 30 to 60 seconds before moving to the other side.

Lateral Rollout

Range of motion and posture are two things negatively affected by tight and frequently worked lateral muscles. With poor posture comes a myriad of other pain and ailments. Try the lateral rollout to relieve muscle stiffness in your back and improve range of motion and posture. Here is how to do a lateral rollout with a foam roller.

  1. Lay on your side with knees bent and legs stacked on top of one another.
  2. Place the foam roller underneath your upper back, horizontally, with the arm on the bottom out in front of you.
  3. Roll back and forth gently over the foam roller, moving more slowly over the most tender points.
  4. Do this for 30 to 60 seconds before moving to the other side.


Tight shoulder muscles can lead to tension and stiffness in the neck and upper back. This can be painful, especially when sitting at a desk all day. But foam rolling your shoulders can help alleviate pain and relieve tension. Here is one way to use a foam roller on your shoulder.

  1. Lay on the floor face down.
  2. Place the foam roller beneath your shoulder; it should run vertical with your body.
  3. Allow your shoulder to rest on the foam roller completely.
  4. Slowly roll from left to right over the foam roller.
  5. Continue for 30 to 60 seconds and then switch sides.


Foam rolling your calves can help improve flexibility and relieve tight calf muscles. This can be helpful when climbing stairs or if you're a runner. Here is what you need to know about foam rolling your calves.

  1. Sit on the ground with your legs out in front of you.
  2. Place the foam roller horizontal under your calf muscle of one leg.
  3. Cross the other leg over the top of that leg.
  4. Place your hands behind you on the floor for stabilization.
  5. Roll slowly over the foam roller, shifting your weight to massage the muscle. If this is too painful, place your top leg on the ground. Switch and repeat with the other leg.
  6. Roll the length of your leg (ankle to knee) for up to 2 minutes per leg. Use sustained pressure over a single point of pain for 30 to 60 seconds.


Foam rolling your back can alleviate pressure points, release muscle knots, and improve blood flow to the muscle. Doing so can reduce back pan, alleviate soreness, and increase the range of motion. Here is how to use a foam roller on your mid-back.

  1. Lay down on the floor and place the foam roller beneath your upper back.
  2. Bend your knees and place your feet firmly on the floor. Your back should be resting on the foam roller at this point.
  3. Put your hands behind your head with your elbows bent and pointing toward the sky.
  4. Lift your body slightly off the ground.
  5. Roll slowly up and down your upper back, stopping just below your shoulder blades.
  6. Continue for 30 to 60 seconds.

A Word From Verywell

Though foam rolling exercises may not be a long-term solution, they can provide short-term relief for tight and sore muscles when performed regularly. Start by pinpointing the muscle groups you're struggling with the most, grab a foam roller, and get moving.

If you're not sure how to foam roll effectively, a physical therapist, certified personal trainer, or a coach may be able to help you determine what foam rolling exercises are right for you. If you continue to experience tightness, soreness, or pain, you should see a healthcare provider.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What body parts should you not foam roll?

    The lower back and neck are fragile areas to foam roll. They're both comprised of delicate spinal discs that could be damaged by the harshness of a foam roller. For this reason, you should avoid foam rolling these areas.

  • Is it OK to foam roll everyday?

    Foam rolling is a form of self-massage and provides an acute effect, meaning it is short-term. Because of this, foam rolling is safe to perform every day. Additionally, more research is needed on the long-term effects of foam rolling.

  • How long should I foam roll every day?

    The amount of time you spend foam rolling every day is up to you. That said, many people spend about 30 to 60 seconds per muscle or until you feel relief.

5 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Hendricks S, Hill H, Hollander SD, Lombard W, Parker R. Effects of foam rolling on performance and recovery: A systematic review of the literature to guide practitioners on the use of foam rolling. J Bodyw Mov Ther. 2020 Apr;24(2):151-174. doi:10.1016/j.jbmt.2019.10.019

  2. Su H, Chang NJ, Wu WL, Guo LY, Chu IH. Acute effects of foam rolling, static stretching, and dynamic stretching during warm-ups on muscular flexibility and strength in young adults. J Sport Rehabil. 2017 Nov;26(6):469-477. doi:10.1123/jsr.2016-0102

  3. Macdonald GZ, Button DC, Drinkwater EJ, Behm DG. Foam rolling as a recovery tool after an intense bout of physical activity. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2014 Jan;46(1):131-42. doi:10.1249/MSS.0b013e3182a123db

  4. Wilke, J., Müller, AL., Giesche, F. et al. Acute effects of foam rolling on range of motion in healthy adults: A systematic review with multilevel meta-analysisSports Med 50, 387–402 (2020). doi:10.1007/s40279-019-01205-7

  5. Pagaduan JC, Chang SY, Chang NJ. Chronic Effects of Foam Rolling on Flexibility and Performance: A Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2022 Apr 4;19(7):4315. doi:10.3390/ijerph19074315

By Shoshana Pritzker RD, CDN, CSSD, CISSN
Shoshana Pritzker RD, CDN is a sports and pediatric dietitian, the owner of Nutrition by Shoshana, and is the author of "Carb Cycling for Weight Loss." Shoshana received her B.S in dietetics and nutrition from Florida International University. She's been writing and creating content in the health, nutrition, and fitness space for over 15 years and is regularly featured in Oxygen Magazine, JennyCraig.com, and more.