How to Use a Foam Roller After a Workout

woman foam rolling her back muscles

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Foam rolling. You love it; you hate it; or maybe you love to hate it and hate to love it. It's the kind of self-massage that hurts so good. But to enjoy the benefits, you have to do it the right way. And you have to have a good grasp on what the benefits actually are.

If you are electing to use a foam roller after a workout, you need to understand what the purpose of this activity is so that you can foam roll effectively. Here's what you need to know about using a foam roller after a workout.

Benefits of Using a Foam Roller

Here's the thing about foam rolling: It has its place. But it may not always live up to all the hype. If you have been foam rolling with the hopes of improving flexibility, reducing post-exercise muscle soreness, enhancing exercise performance, and preventing tightness, well, you may be expecting too much.

Multiple studies reviewing the scientific literature on foam rolling have found that the benefits of using foam rollers and other self-myofascial release tools are largely acute. In other words, rolling out your muscles may temporarily improve range of motion, or may temporarily relieve muscle soreness or tightness, but those benefits are fleeting.

And while some people claim that foam rolling can improve athletic performance, there doesn't seem to be any solid evidence to back this claim. That said, just because the benefits of foam rolling are acute, that doesn't mean they are not worthwhile in some circumstances. For instance, rolling your major muscle groups before a workout can help increase the range of motion, reduce stiffness, and prepare your body for exercise.

"I don't use or recommend a foam roller much, but when I do, it's for neuromuscular stimulation before a workout—basically telling your muscles to 'wake up, let's go,'" says Megan Daley, PT, DPT, Cert DN, CF-L1, founder and clinician at Move on the Daley.

Likewise, if you are feeling tight and sore after a workout and you find that foam rolling helps ease some of your pain, certainly the short-term benefits of pain relief carry weight, and may help improve recovery—although more research needs to be done.

Daley also points out that post-workout foam rolling may be a good option for those who need extra time to recover after a workout routine or those who want to use it as part of a mindset/meditation routine.

"In the case that you're a highly competitive athlete doing two-a-days, then there's value in a recovery routine including foam rolling, sauna/cold plunge, compression tools, journaling, and the like," Daley says. "If you like incorporating foam rolling with meditation because it helps you relax, then great! But if you're trying to get rid of muscles that always feel tight, and you feel like you're constantly having to foam roll and stretch? You're probably doing the wrong thing. Our muscles can guard and feel tight if they're weak. What you probably need is targeted strengthening."

Tips for Using a Foam Roller Effectively

Using a foam roller is a fairly straightforward process. You identify the muscle group you want to target, balance on top of the roller as you place pressure on the identified muscle group, then use your arms or legs to help guide you as you slowly and steadily roll along the length of the targeted muscle.

The pressure of the self-massage is created with gravity and your own body weight, while your supporting limbs provide the strength necessary to control the intensity of the routine. In other words, if you want a less-intense massage, you need to engage your arms and legs more fully to prevent your body from sinking deeper onto the foam roller.

Of course, sometimes straightforward concepts are a little trickier to implement in real life. If you struggle with balance and coordination, or if you don't have the strength to help control the amount of pressure you're placing on the foam roller, you may need some practice to get the skill right. Here are some additional tips for using a foam roller.

Work With a Trainer or Physical Therapist

It is always a good idea to have a professional walk you through a new skill the first time or two you do it. A personal trainer or physical therapist with foam rolling expertise can make sure you are targeting your muscles the right way and aren't doing anything that could result in pain or injury. This is especially important if you've had previous injuries and you hope to roll out the sites adjacent to those injuries.

Align Your Goals

Now that you know the benefits of foam rolling, think about your goals for the activity. Are you hoping to ease some post-exercise muscle pain? Then a post-workout roll may be worthwhile. Are you hoping to help prepare your body for exercise? Then a pre-workout roll is likely the better choice.

Focus on Large Muscle Groups and Soft Tissue

Especially when getting started, focusing on large muscle groups is helpful as you grow accustomed to the movements—thoracic spine, latissimus dorsi, quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves. You can practice on these larger muscle groups and work on your balance and coordination before trying the more controlled movements necessary for smaller muscle work.

Move in Slow, Controlled Motions

Foam rolling is not intended to be done in a fast and furious manner. It should be slow, controlled, and thoughtful and can even be included as part of a mindfulness recovery session. After selecting your desired muscle group, position yourself carefully on top of the foam roller to place pressure on this muscle. Use your limbs to help control the amount of pressure on the muscle. Slowly roll up and down the length of the muscle—not horizontally across—to provide a self-massage.

Spend More Time on Tighter Spots

If, as you are rolling, you find an area that feels particularly tense or tight, focus on that area. Roll in smaller movements across the spot, or even stop and allow gravity and pressure to help ease some of the tension. Remember, this release of pressure is likely to be temporary. But if it feels good and helpful, it's worth doing.

Focus on Soft Tissue, Not Bony Spots

Foam rolling is intended to help massage soft muscle tissue. Consequently, it is not beneficial on bony areas or joints. Avoid rolling too close to the knees, hips, ankles, or other bony protrusions.

Target Each Muscle Group for About 90 to 120 Seconds

The most recent evidence indicates that to enjoy the acute benefits of flexibility and soreness relief, the minimum amount of time you should roll out each muscle group is 90 seconds. And while rolling longer isn't necessarily detrimental, there doesn't appear to be a greater advantage for rolling more than 120 seconds per muscle group.

With that in mind, think about how much time you have to dedicate to foam rolling, and choose the most important muscles to target in that time. For instance, if you have 10 minutes to foam roll, that limits you to roughly five to six muscle groups.

Use in Moderation

If foam rolling feels good and you enjoy the activity, by all means, there's no harm in the exercise when performed correctly. That said, like other forms of exercise, it's best to approach it with a mentality of moderation.

Keep sessions relatively short (5 to 15 minutes). Focus on the most important muscle groups and drink plenty of water after each session. You also should avoid rolling every single day or with excessive force.

Foam rolling should not result in muscle or tissue damage (like bruising). If you end up in pain following a session, take a break for a few days and go lighter on the pressure in future sessions.

Muscles to Target with a Foam Roller

When starting a foam rolling routine, the best muscles to target are the larger muscle groups. These groups are heavily used during most forms of exercise, making them good groups to target before a workout and after a workout for short-term pain relief.

They also give you more areas on which to practice. Then, once you have grown accustomed to how to roll correctly and how foam rolling should feel, you can start adding in some of the smaller muscle groups.

"The most common areas I end up recommending to people are the TFL (tensor fasciae latae, a smaller muscle group close to the hip and above the IT band on the outside of the thigh), the lats, and the thoracic spine," says Dr. Daley.

Given that you have to target the TFL muscle and the lats independently on each side while foam rolling, if you just roll these five areas for 2 minutes each, you have a full, 10-minute foam rolling routine you can add before or after a workout.

Other spots you might want to include as part of a post-workout mindfulness massage include the glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, and calves. Regardless of which muscle group you're targeting, position the roller at the top of the muscle. One thing to keep in mind is the IT band is not worth trying to roll out—while it might feel "tight," it's a band of fascia, not a muscle, and it's intended to be tighter than the soft tissue of a muscle.

"Please stop foam rolling the IT band," emphasizes Dr. Daley. "You're not doing anything, and it probably doesn't feel good."

Other areas that would be harmful to roll are anywhere with a bursa sac, such as the greater trochanter (the part on the outside of the hip that's painful to roll over) or the ischial tuberosity (your sit bones), Daley adds.

"Also, anywhere with superficial major nerve/vascular bundles [should be avoided]," she says. "For instance, don't hang out on the armpit or the femoral artery at the groin—you can palpate to find these pulses to make sure you avoid them."

Safety and Precautions

The main concern when it comes to foam rolling is that you place too much pressure on your soft tissues, leading to bruising or damage. By its nature, foam rolling can be a little painful, in the same way, that a sports massage can be a little painful.

But it should hurt in an "oh, that's going to make my muscles feel better" sort of way, rather than an "I'm trying not to cry" sort of way. In the same light, foam rolling on muscles that have recently sustained injury isn't advisable, as you could further the damage to the area.

And finally, rolling over bony tissue or joints isn't going to help you "loosen up," as those areas aren't meant to "loosen." It's best to stick to healthy muscle groups and soft tissue, avoiding any area that causes non-muscle-related pain.

It also bears noting that if you have balance issues, or if you have a known bone or muscle-related illness, like osteoporosis or muscular dystrophy, you should consult a healthcare provider before trying foam rolling.

Physical therapists or personal trainers are good resources for learning how to foam roll correctly. If you'd like to try the activity, but feel nervous about going it alone, consider enlisting a professional for a session or two to get the instruction you need.

A Word From Verywell

The benefits of foam rolling include short-term increased range of motion prior to exercise and short-term reduction in muscle-related soreness post-workout. While it's not a critical part of an exercise routine, many people find that it feels good, and that they enjoy doing it.

If you'd like to add foam rolling to your exercise routine, consider getting clearance from a healthcare provider or physical therapist, particularly if you have muscle or bone-related injuries or illnesses, balance issues, or other physical ailments that might make foam rolling ill-advised.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is it better to use a foam roller after a workout or before?

    Using a foam roller before or after a workout depends on your personal preferences and goals. Generally speaking, using a foam roller pre-exercise as part of an active warmup is going to help mentally and physically prepare you for the work ahead. In terms of performance, a pre-workout foam roll may carry greater benefits.

    That said, if you'd like to use foam rolling as a post-workout massage with the goal of reducing muscle soreness, it's a good option, too. Just remember, foam rolling isn't going to lengthen your muscles or lead to long-term changes in tightness. The benefits, whether pre-workout or post-workout are short-lived and acute.

  • How does foam rolling aid recovery?

    Research is inconclusive on how much foam rolling actually aids in recovery. Most studies indicate that foam rolling can help reduce post-workout muscle soreness, but only in a short-lived fashion.

    That said, even short-term relief from muscle pain may provide the mental boost a person needs to get back in the gym. If foam rolling helps you feel better, there's no reason not to use it as a type of post-workout self-massage.

  • How long should you spend foam rolling?

    Current research indicates that you should spend between 90 to 120 seconds foam rolling each muscle group targeted for best results. Using this information, you can calculate how much time to spend on your foam rolling routine based on how many muscle groups you plan to target.

    Just keep in mind that if you plan to target your left quad and right quad separately, rather than simultaneously, that means you need to spend 90 to 120 seconds per side.

    To keep sessions relatively manageable, you may want to choose five to eight muscle groups per session to keep your foam rolling between 8 to 20 minutes.

4 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.
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  2. Wilke J, Müller AL, Giesche F, Power G, Ahmedi H, Behm DG. Acute effects of foam rolling on range of motion in healthy adults: a systematic review with multilevel meta-analysis. Sports Med. 2020;50(2):387-402. doi:10.1007/s40279-019-01205-7

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By Laura Williams
Laura Williams is a fitness expert and advocate with certifications from the American Council on Exercise and the American College of Sports Medicine.