When it comes to having a busy lifestyle and working out regularly, knots (unfortunately) become part of the equation. And, if you’ve ever struggled with chronic knots or tightness, you know that it’s notably uncomfortable—and in some cases, downright painful. Fortunately, there are foam roller stretches that you can do at home or at the gym following any workout or even as a wind-down from a long day at the office. “Foam rolling, also known as self-myofascial release, helps release muscle tension by making the top layers of tissues more flexible,” says Nicholas Poulin, founder of Poulin Health & Wellness. “It's a very inexpensive way to help alleviate pain as well as break down some of those trigger spots that develop in the fascia.”
Meet the Expert
Nicholas Poulin is internationally-certified and a member of the International Sports Science Association where he's noted as a corrective exercise specialist. He is also certified at the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM).
Kate Ligler is a certified trainer and Mindbody wellness specialist who focuses on endurance training in both functional strength and conditioning, as well as technical program creation for cyclists, runners, triathletes, and multi-sport endurance athletes. She is a NASM CPT in addition to a NASM CES (corrective) and PES (performance) specialist.
Foam rolling has many benefits, but it's important you know how to properly roll each area of your body for the best results. As always, we’re here to help. Ahead, some of the industry’s top trainers share their top seven foam roller stretches for a full body release and video how-to's from personal trainer Vicky Justiz.
Neck, Chest, and Upper Back
Take it from someone who has chronic neck and shoulder knots: Knowing how to roll out this area of the body is nothing short of a godsend. If you have a desk job, these foam roll stretches may improve your posture and help prevent neck pain. Look for a high density foam roller that has crevices or curves to avoid putting direct pressure on your spine, such as the Rad Helix High Density Foam Roller.
According to Poulin, the best way to do so is to lie face up on the floor with your knees bent, feet, and butt on the floor, and a foam roller directly under your shoulder blades. “Support the back of your head with hands and extend your spine backward, then return to the starting position,” he says, noting to continue rotating backward and forward. As you work up your spine, pause every now and again to really dig into the muscle.
From there, he urges you not to forget to stretch your chest. “Commonly, shoulder pain is due to poor posture, which consists of the pectoral muscle and latissimus dorsi muscle being tight,” he explains. “Stand in the middle of a doorway with your arms extended at the sides at a 90-degree angle. Holding onto the doorframe, have one leg forward, and start shifting your weight forward on the front leg until you feel the stretch in front of your shoulders and across your chest.” This technique ultimately works to improve spinal mobility as well as your muscles.
Whether you have just finished a round of narrow push-ups or simply over-exerted the backs of your arms in a full-body workout, knowing how to roll out your triceps and shoulders will come in handy. A semi-firm, medium density foam roller, like the Gaiam roller, is a great beginner option for your arms. If you want a deeper trigger point release, look for a textured foam roller.
To perform the stretch, Ligler says to lie on your side with your foam roller in your armpit. “Start at the insertion point of your triceps in the armpit (think under your shoulder) and gently rock from side-to-side as you roll along the muscle to the elbow," she says, pointing out that it’s important to remember that the triceps connect in two spots on either side of the elbow, so spend 30 seconds to a minute rolling out each.
Hip Flexors and Lower Back
When you perform leg lifts, V-sits, and other core exercises, there’s often a good chance that your body will take tension out of your core muscles and displace it in your hip flexors to help lift the weight. "As a result, hip flexors can feel pretty wonky if not properly rolled out. And, once hip flexors are tight, it’s often only a matter of time before the lower back is too. A tight hip flexor (the muscle where your legs meet your hips) often tugs on your lower back and results in aches in that area,” Poulin explains.
As such, it’s important to know how to cater to this area of the body. A high density foam roller will provide enough pressure to loosen up those knots. You can also look for foam rollers with notches or ridges, such as the TriggerPoint Foam Roller to help release trigger points.
Ligler says her favorite way to target and alleviate tension in this area of the body is to sit on a foam roller in a figure four stretch. While this works the back of the leg, it actually helps to release tension in the back of the hip which subsequently releases tension in the hip flexors. To further target the area, she says to flip over and place the foam roller at the top of your thigh at the insertion point of your hip bone. “Gently shift your weight back and forth—pausing to increase pressure on any sensitive areas,” she instructs, noting to spend up to five minutes per side.
Poulin, on the other hand, prefers skipping the foam roller and opting for lacrosse balls or spikey massage balls. The TriggerPoint foam roller comes with a massage ball to help you try out both methods.
“Using a [small] ball is better for targeting lower-back pain than a foam roller because it can get deeper into the tense tissues,” he explains. “To do so, lie face down with a lacrosse ball under your hip flexor, easing your weight into it. Roll in small circles until you hit a tight spot, then stop and let the muscle sink into it. Bending your knee behind you and letting your lower leg fan in and out can also help.”
Quads and Knees
According to Poulin, knee pain often comes from tightness in the iliotibial (aka your IT band) running up the outside of your thigh or from tight quads as a whole. A semi-firm, medium density foam roller, like the Gaiam roller that was used on the triceps, is a good choice for your thigh. Because your IT band may be more sensitive, a high-density roller can be too firm for some people and cause too much discomfort.
To roll your way to a sense of relief, he says to lie with a foam roller just above your knee on the outside of your leg. “Make sure it's perpendicular to your body,” he instructs. “Move your body back and forth, so the roller moves along the IT band from your knee up to your hip. Then roll your quads, pausing when you hit a tight spot.” For an even deeper release, he says that bending and straightening your knee will help get deeper into the muscle.
To get even deeper into your quads, ditch the foam roller and kneel in front of a couch or wall. “Keeping your left knee on the floor, raise the left foot behind you and rest it against the couch or wall,” Poulin instructs. “Step your right leg out, so the right foot is flat on the floor, and the right knee is bent, thigh parallel to the floor.” Hold this pose for 20-30 seconds, breathing into the stretch as you go.
Tight hammies are the worst—to help release them, sit with a foam roller beneath your thighs. “Supporting your upper body with your hands, slowly roll from your hip all the way down to your knee—leaning toward your right or left leg specifically to increase the intensity if needed,” Ligler says. Roll your way to relief, spending up to a few minutes per hamstring.
A high-density foam roller is your best bet for your hamstrings. The TriggerPoint foam roller that was recommended for your hip flexors is a great option. If you want to take it up a notch, the Nextrino Vibrating Foam Roller is touted to increase circulation and release muscle soreness. This would be a great choice after a workout.
Tight calves may be a common result of everything from running and Pilates to boxing and cycling. A foam roller might help increase circulation and improve flexibility to this area. If you are prone to calf cramps at night, foam rolling this area before bed may help. A semi-firm, medium density foam roller, like the Gaiam roller you used on triceps and thighs, is a good option. Look for the smaller 18-inch foam rolls for your smaller muscle groups like the calves, versus the larger 36-inch foam rolls.
To roll them out, Poulin says to sit up with a foam roller beneath your calf and your hands on the floor to assist in distributing your weight on your calf muscle. "Start from your ankles and work to the back of the knee," Poulin instructs, noting to go one leg at a time.
Whichever muscle group you’re working, Lee Wratislaw, manager of digital programming at Gold’s Gym, says to ease into it. “Start by applying gentle pressure on the muscle that you're rolling out,” he notes. “You can increase the pressure gradually as you are rolling out the area. Avoid excessively intense pressure that causes pain by easing back on the amount of pressure you're applying to the muscle. And remember to relax the muscle that you are rolling out and breathe steadily and calmly as you go.”
You should also consider whether or not you should be rolling (or doing something else) in the first place, especially if you find that foam rolling isn't adequately alleviating your muscle aches. According to Poulin, foam rolling is for acute pain that consists of tight muscles, which should feel achy and comes and goes with the workouts you perform. ”Foam rolling should give you signs of relief,” he says, noting that chronic pain is a whole other story. “For any sharp chronic pain or tingling that lasts more than 12 weeks, or started after some traumatic incident, you should see your doctor. A doctor can advise about more serious muscular or skeletal injuries while a physical therapist can analyze your movement to pinpoint the problem.”