A Beginner’s Guide to Using a Foam Roller

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Ever wish you could have a personal masseuse to work on those tight muscles after every intense reformer class? Well, you can—and you don’t need a celeb budget either. This personal massage therapist comes in the form of a short, sometimes vibrantly coloured cylinder that costs less than a tube of lipstick. I’m obviously talking about a foam roller. Chances are, you’ve seen a fellow gym-goer rub their rear on one before. But if you’ve been too intimidated to try it out yourself, don’t be! The foam roller is easy to use and a total game-changer. Here, a beginner’s guide to using a foam roller.

First off, what is foam rolling?

Foam rolling is a self-myofascial release technique (science speak for self-massage) popular in the fitness and rehab communities. It is a cylindrical piece of foam that ranges in length and in density. First time foamers should opt for a lighter roller to ease into the pressure. As you get more accustomed to the sensations you can gradually up the thickness ante.

Who can use one?

You don’t have to be a seasoned gym goer to reap the benefits of rolling. According to Victoria, B.C.-based chiropractor and certified strength and conditioning specialist, Dr. Jaritt Ptolemy, “Everyone who sits at a desk all day should be using the technique to improve mid back mobility, helping to counteract the 40-plus hours of sitting in a flexed position each week.” Of course, he also recommends rolling to anyone who suffers from stiff muscles.

“Everyone who sits at a desk all day should be using the technique to improve mid back mobility, helping to counteract the 40-plus hours of sitting in a flexed position each week.”

Why roll, though?

Because we work hard in the office and in the gym and in life, and weekly spa treatments are just not in the budget. “Foam rolling is a useful tool because it allows people to take charge of their self care,” says Jaritt. He claims it’s most often used as a tool to reduce muscle tension and inflammation but it can also be beneficial to increase range of motion and mobility in our bodies, especially in the mid-back.

How do I foam roll?

The best way to relieve chronically tight muscles is to place the cylinder under a sore area and slowly roll over it. Jaritt explains, “Roll up and down the length of that muscle scanning for tension and sore spots. When you find a good spot, use small oscillating rolls until you feel a release. This could take between five and 30 seconds.”

As for helping with mobility in the back, Jaritt suggests lying on the roller and breathing deeply. “Lie on it so that it runs perpendicular to your spine between your shoulder blades. Give yourself a hug or use your hands to support your head. Your butt and head should be off the ground. Take a deep breath in, and drop your butt and head to the ground as you exhale and repeat several times.”

When should I do it?

“The best time to foam roll will depend on what your goal is,” explains Jaritt. If better body mobility is what you’re aiming for, using it before a tough workout can help with stiffness (easier movements), range of motion (deeper squats) and making your workout more enjoyable overall (one less reason to curse your trainer). If you’re looking for tension reduction, a post-exercise sesh may be the answer. Though Jaritt admits you can really do it at anytime, he claims rolling right before bed can have added benefits. “The endorphins that come with a release in tension may also help you sleep.”

No time to roll and stretch? No problem. According to the chiro a good, full-body rolling session can take the place of a regular stretch. “The benefits of foam rolling are maximized when the muscle is in a lengthened position (i.e. stretching the muscle). So when most people foam roll, they are already performing a stretch.”

Rolling right before bed can have added benefits. “The endorphins that come with a release in tension may also help you sleep.”

Where on the body should I foam roll?

Without question the best time to reach for the roller is on #legday! “I suggest targeting muscles along the inside of your thigh, glutes, hamstrings and the muscles of your mid back,” Jaritt says. Personally, I also use it on the outside of my thighs (also known as the IT band) because I find it hard to release that area with other stretching techniques. But Jaritt warns that he doesn’t recommend it for everyone, as the IT band can be an extremely sensitive and often painful point.

Disclaimers

Ever heard the phrase “It hurts so good?” Well, that’s the sensation you’re looking for when rolling. Don’t get it twisted, the technique can be an intense experience, but Jaritt advises differentiating between tolerable discomfort and straight up hurting. He explains, “I describe foam rolling as a ‘sweet pain.’ If you can’t breathe through the discomfort and you find yourself holding your breath, that is a good indication to stop or find a position that requires less pressure.” Noted.

He also warns that this tool should not be a replacement for a therapist. “If you are constantly in pain during an activity, then you likely have an injury. In that case, put the roller away and go get assessed by a professional.”

“If you can’t breathe through the discomfort and you find yourself holding your breath, that is a good indication to stop or find a position that requires less pressure.”

Finally, don’t be shocked if you work up a sweat. Jaritt says that the pressure from the massage as well as the muscles required to help stabilize the body over the tool can be tiring, “If someone has a plethora of tight muscles, use of the foam roller to help release tension may be taxing on that individual. There is also a certain amount of core strength required for some positions of foam rolling and may be fatiguing in that regard as well.” Consider it a bonus workout.

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