Foam Rolling: Fabulous or Fad? [Teach me to love the roller!]

by Charlotte on October 24, 2012 · 44 comments

See, THIS is how I use foam in my workout: to stuff fake pieces of candy to pin to my Katy Perry costume for our annual celebrity- themed Turboween workout tonight! And seriously, how hot do I look with blue hair? I kinda want to dye it cobalt blue. Because kickboxing for an hour in a wig is something not even Smurfette should have to endure. 

“Hurts so good!” “Absolute must-do!” “MIRACULOUS!!” It was that last one that got me and not just because it turned exercise into a religious experience on par with seeing the Virgin Mary in a pancake. For all my professed cynicism (not really, I’m like an eager puppy), I’m as interested in the next fitness “miracle” as the next girl. Twitter schooled me. As is often the case with me in social mediums I don’t understand, I was randomly eavesdropping on other people’s conversations and came across several people singing the above praises of the foam roller. One personal trainer even called “magical.” Magical! Yes, this thing:

My first reaction was, “Really?!?” We have used foam rollers before, both in stretching and in actual workouts. The Gym Buddies and I even dedicated an entire month during the Core Performance for Women Great Fitness Experiment to getting intimate with this cheap piece of plastic (made even more awkward by the fact that our Y only has one roller basically making all of us sloppy seconds.) We were, to a woman, unimpressed. The tennis ball produced more of a good massage and muscle release although Gym Buddy Megan broke my heart and refused to share hers. Did I mention I love the tennis ball to get deep into my glutes? It’s probably all for the best we did not share the butt ball. (Also: I won’t tell you about the time that I tried rolling out my upper back while still wearing my warm-up hoodie, causing the hood to roll underneath and strangle me until Gym Buddy Allison pointed out my jacket has a zipper for a reason.)

My second reaction to all the hype was, “Clearly I’m doing it wrong.” After all, all those Twitter folks are way smarter than I am. (And I’m not being facetious – they really are a bunch of smart sugar-free flourless protein cookies.) But after watching this video tutorial where a girl (whose hair I deeply covet even though it is not blue) demonstrates how to use a foam roller, I realized: I’ve totally been using the foam roller right! And it hasn’t done a thing for me! Stymied! By a piece of bike-helmet foam!

What to do? Consult the experts of course! I started by asking my LifeTime fitness trainer and all-around smarty pants, Steve. When I asked him if I should foam roll he cocked an eyebrow and said, “You? Yes.” (I like how he implied I was a special case. As if there were someone to whom he would say “Noooo! Not you! The horror!”)  “But it doesn’t do anything for me!” I protested. “Then don’t,” he finished. Well, then. Hard to argue with such practicality.

But I hate missing out on a party where all the cool kids are posting their foam-roller pain pics on Facebook and I can only watch from afar and pout I wasn’t invited. So I Googled it. The first link I found, the CrossFit Nor’easter blog, commands you to repeat, out loud, “I want to roll everything! Rolling is good! Rolling is our pal!” Which I did. And then snickered. Because I’m immature like that. They add,

“Foam rollers offer many of the same benefits as a sports massage, without the big price tag. The foam roller not only stretches muscles and tendons but it also breaks down soft tissue adhesions and scar tissue. By using your own body weight and a cylindrical foam roller you can perform a self-massage or myofascial release, break up trigger points, and soothe tight fascia while increasing blood flow and circulation to the soft tissues.”

Well, now I see my problem. First, I have never had a sports massage. (Confession: I have an irrational fear of being naked alone in a room with a stranger. On second thought, that fear seems totally rational.) So I have nothing to compare the beautiful torture of the foam roller with. Second, I have no idea what a myofascial release is. But it certainly sounds like something I would want – especially because then I would only have to get naked with myself! Ahem. The Nor’easters to the rescue again, quoting

“Myofascial release is a body work technique in which a practitioner uses gentle, sustained pressure on the soft tissues while applying traction to the fascia. This technique results in softening and lengthening (release) of the fascia and breaking down scar tissue or adhesions between skin, muscles and bones. Myofascial release has also been shown to relieve various muscle and joint pains such as IT band syndrome and shin splints as well as improving flexibility and range of motion.”

Now I definitely want a piece of that! Google tells me that a fascia is “band of fibrous connective tissue separating or binding together muscles and organs.” Obviously you would not want those to get overly tight (except perhaps in the bladder region and then, you know, all of us moms would like them to cinch back up like a paper bag if you please) and I hope I don’t have scar tissue either.

Rachel Cosgrove (of The Female Body Breakthrough GFE fame) is totally on the foam rolling bandwagon as well. At the end of each workout she instructs you to do “15 minutes of foam rolling” even on off days. I’ve ignored her advice. First there’s the one diseased roller issue (although they’re not that expensive so I suppose I could invest in one. Either that or I could sew a cloth foam-roller condom and instruct the Gym Buddies not to wear shorts.) and second there’s the whole disaffected problem. But after today, I am resolved to give the roller a second chance.

So help me out: The whole reason I didn’t think much of the roller in the first place was it never felt like anything. People talk of screaming pain and crying and whatnot and all I got was a little shaky from having to hold myself up on my already-worked out arms for so long. I want to cry too! Why don’t I feel anything? Should I add weights? Have someone sit on me?

Help me to love the roller! – how can I make the foam roller work for me? Do you love the foam roller? Do you use it before or after a workout? Both? What benefits have you seen from it? Do you have to be injured to benefit from it?

{ 44 comments… read them below or add one }

Di October 24, 2012 at 11:58 pm

I never foam rolled until I went to my NASM PT workshop last year and was converted. Doing it right and knowing modifications/progressions is key to getting a good roll on. Love the tennis balls for my glutes though (for piriformis you can’t beat it!). Also look at yamuna bodyrolling. I tried that earlier this year and it was pretty good, but again NOT a workout. But cheaper than a massage ;)


Alyssa (azusmom) October 25, 2012 at 12:14 am

I’m more of a fan of using the roller in my workouts, especially Pilates. Lying lengthwise while doing the Hundred=FUN!!!!!! Plus, you can lie down, out your feet on it, lift up into bridge and roll it towards you and away again. Lots o’ different fun exercises can be done.
I’m not sure I ever got the hang of massaging my muscles on it. I never felt anything.

P.S.: LOOOOVE the costume!!!!!!


Amanda October 25, 2012 at 12:18 am

LOL all I heard when I read the title was “teach me to walk in the light of His love…”. ;)


Pam October 25, 2012 at 12:20 am

I love my foam roller; it has allowed me to run again! Not the best for getting into the glutes (I agree, a tennis ball is better for that), but the only thing that fixed my IT band issues. I roll the outsides of my thighs both before and after runs, that’s enough to keep everything loose. Before, I was limping after less than a km, now I run 5+ km several times a week.
I think if you have IT band (or similar) tightness, you will just *know* when you hit the right spot on the roller…because it will hurt. A lot. If you’re not feeling anything, maybe you just don’t need it? That’s not necessarily a bad thing.


Morgan October 25, 2012 at 12:21 am

LOVE the costume almost as much as I love foam rolling.

I didn’t get it until I YouTubed a variety of exercises. My favorite involves sitting on the roller with my arms behind me, crossing one leg to set the ankle of top of the thigh, and then tilting laterally to the same side as the leg that is crossed. HELLLLLLO piriformis.

I also love using it to crack my thoracic spine, right where my stress builds up at the shoulder blades. Sit in front of the roller, cross the arms to spread the scapula, and roll that part of the back on the roller, experimenting with the height of the hips.


Kathryn October 25, 2012 at 12:35 am

you don’t have to love it :-)


shayna October 25, 2012 at 12:50 am

You really gotta relax and put some weight on the area you’re rolling. If you tense up, you won’t feel it. Hurts so good…but I wouldn’t say magical or miraculous. It’s not a freakin’ Sham Wow.


Sarah October 25, 2012 at 2:13 am

I found that I had to use a firmer roller. Now I use a PVC pipe. Foamrollers come in a variety of firmnesses, and try to experiment with different levels until you find one that you can feel.


Tara @ Sweat like a Pig October 25, 2012 at 2:38 am

When I first started foam rolling, I couldn’t understand the hype either. I foam rolled about once a week for six months, before eventually doing it every day – which I have been doing for the past six months or so. I have a lot more tension in my muscles and a lot less flexibility now than I did then, so the foam roller really helps with relieving that. At my previous job, I barely spent any time sitting and I was stretching for about five hours per week so the roller did nothing for me. Most people find it excruciating because they are a wound up ball of tension.

My tip is to wait for a day you feel really sore (after leg day, for example!) and try it then. It will hurt like mad, but you will feel better afterwards. The type of foam roller you use also makes a huge difference. I only use the short orange Trigger Point grid roller – they are more expensive but well worth it because the cheaper ones don’t give me enough pressure. Make sure you’re applying as much weight as possible to the roller – for example, if you’re rolling your hamstrings, cross one leg on top of the other. Make sure you are holding the spot of tension, rather than rolling back and forth.

Gradually start incorporating it as part of your warm up, and you will see that it allows you to get deeper in your squats and activate your other muscles (eg glutes, lats) better.


Lindsey October 25, 2012 at 3:59 am

I have used it and felt the pain from it when I have IT band issues. Once the IT band is relaxed, I can foam roll without pain. So I think no pain is a sign of no injury and is a good thing!


Naomi/Dragonmamma October 25, 2012 at 6:48 am

I’m guessing that you’re flexible enough and do a wide enough variety of full-range movements that you’re constantly breaking apart your muscular adhesions, anyway.

For instance: I do not feel the need to foam-roll my back after I do somersaults or front rolls; it’s like I’m doing the foam roller on my entire back using the floor; the foam roller (even my Rumble Roller) is a poor substitute.


Jess October 25, 2012 at 7:16 am

I love it. Have a trainer, who knows how to use it properly, show you how. I’d be really surprised if you still thought it made no affect.


Hannahviolin October 25, 2012 at 7:47 am

I only get that “hurts so good” after a long run or when I’m dealing with extreme soreness in my legs. As I was reading this, I was thinking, well, Charlotte isn’t a distance runner, so why would she need to foam roll? I dunno, or maybe try a harder one–my trainer claims he uses pvc pipe rather than a foam roller. Maybe you just don’t get sore in the areas that the roller works, and the tennis ball does enough in the other areas. I really wouldn’t stress over it!


Emily October 25, 2012 at 7:53 am

For me, the foam roller does nothing. I suspect that people like you and I are just bend-y, flex-y, stretchy people who have prevented the buildup of fascia through a combination of genetics and stretching or other flexibility work, like yoga, maybe. So the roller doesn’t have much to work with in terms of tension/fascia.


Abby October 25, 2012 at 8:18 am

I used to foam roll after workouts and while it hurt, it never really felt better later and I certainly didn’t notice any difference in my fitness. Same thing when I stopped doing it. I refuse to stress over it when there are so many other things I could stress about.

Also that girl in the video looks like she has extensions to me. I’m pretty sure no one’s hair is naturally that blunt and thick at the ends! It is pretty though.


Renée October 25, 2012 at 8:51 am

Can’t help you with the whole loving the foam roller. In our house it’s known as the ‘Roll du Sade” … my husband uses it for his iliotibial band friction syndrome (the man is a surgical tech and can stand in one place for hours, depending on the length of the surgery).

I could sympathize with you and your hoodie….I tried it for upper back tightness several years ago and rolled my pony tail under ;-) Brought back memories!


DW October 25, 2012 at 8:52 am

Foam rollers, yeah, they’re OK. What really works for me are the massage sticks — the plastic bar with the rotating plastic “beads” on it. Using that is much less awkward for me as a way to loosen my IT band, quads, glutes and back than rolling out on the foam. I’ll warn you — it hurts like hell at first, but the next day, I wake up and feel so much better all over. If foam rollers just aren’t doing it for you, maybe try one of those? It helps to have someone else do it — the hubs usually does it while we watch TV at night.


Maria October 25, 2012 at 9:20 am

I also didn’t understand what foam rollers were all about, until I got a rumble roller. It has little knobbly foam bits, that really dig in and give a good massage.


Geosomin October 25, 2012 at 9:22 am

My friend is a massage therapist and he told me that anywhere I rolled over with a foam roller that hurt needed to be rolled. I suppose if you don’t feel it much, perhaps you’re doing lots of stretching or you’re really flexible soyou are already doing well at working out muscle issues.
I bought one a while back and on days when I’m stiff it feels amazing. I usually just do it when I’m stiff though.


Jasmine October 25, 2012 at 9:32 am

I use a roller occasionally to work out a tight band in my hip area, but otherwise I find dynamic stretching works well enough. Only when I was doing Olympic lifts at really high weights did I find the roller gave me that “hurts so good” feeling, and that’s a borderline sensation for me, quickly turning to “oh god, please stop, I don’t wanna any more” feeling (my trainer was using a firm roller on the back of my calves like I was overworked cookie dough.

It’s not for everyone, and Charlotte, you really don’t have to like everything other people are gaga over. Just find what actually gives you a benefit and roll with it.

Now to contradict myself: a sports massage is something you should totally try someday. No therapist will EVER make to take your clothes off if you are uncomfortable. A good one should be able to help you even if you’re wearing a full-body condom made out of Lycra, they’re adaptable as all get out. The therapists, not the body-condoms. I’ll stop now.


sara-hare October 27, 2012 at 3:47 pm

Hahaha I needed that laugh!


Barb October 25, 2012 at 10:21 am

I’m a massage therapist and as I tell my clients; where there’s pain, there’s problems. If you don’t have pain when you’re rolling it’s because (as folks have said above) you likely don’t have the adhesions and sticky fascia that other people are breaking up with the foam roller. You’re active and conscientious enough with your workouts that your soft tissue is healthy and soft already, so yay!


Nicky October 25, 2012 at 10:33 am

I generally use the foam roller when I have specific tight spots that I want to work out (usually IT band, glutes, low back). I use a regular roller to loosen things up, then hit the really bad spots with the Rumble Roller. It works wonders and I should probably do this every day, but I don’t. I also have a street hockey ball (so Canadian!) that I sometimes use for glutes and for tight spots on my upper back, a knobbly golf-ball-sized thing for the soles of my feet and a Tiger Tail (massage roller stick) that works well for the tops of the shoulders, quads and calves. The massage toy collection seems to keep growing.


Kevin Grant October 25, 2012 at 10:38 am

I use it because I work out at Rachel Cosgrove’s gym and I’m afraid she’ll kick me if I don’t. That said, I’m not sure it really does anything. Shhh. Don’t tell her. Please.


Sarah October 25, 2012 at 10:48 am

I injured my IT band when I ran a half-marathon last year. When I started researching ways to avoid injuring myself in the future, I also kept reading about the miracle of the foam roller. So, I bought one and rolled my left side (the injured side). OUCH! But it only hurts if there is a problem. I could put my full body weight on my right side, but when I rolled my left side, it was intense can’t-catch-my-breath pain and I had to do a weird balance between my arms and my right leg to hold some of the weight off. After a few weeks of rolling, I was finally able to put my full body weight on my left side. And after a few months, rolling felt good in the way it feels good when someone rubs your neck or shoulders when you’re tense.

My apartment building burned down in March and I (obviously) lost foam roller and I haven’t replaced it yet. I do some stretches specific to my IT band after I run, but I’ve been itching to roll, so I think it’s time to invest in another foam roller.

So in conclusion, like everyone else said, if it didn’t hurt, you probably don’t need to foam roll. But if you do have issues, it can provide great relief.


Heather @ Bake, Run, Live October 25, 2012 at 11:07 am

I have had issues with my IT band for about a year, but just did some light stretching for it. It bothered me, but not too badly. About a month ago, I ran a half-marathon and the course was banked towards the river the entire way. Yup, on my bad side. I had to walk across the finish line, I was hurting so badly. I came home and bought a foam roller. My right side hurts when I roll (my bad side), but there is no pain or discomfort on my left side. I’m still trying to get in the habit of rolling on a regular basis. Oh, mine is a travel size: 4″ x 12″. That way I can pack it in my suitcase!


Irene October 25, 2012 at 12:35 pm

I think the above comments are pretty much on the money, but I’ll just add that if you’ve only tired a crappy (probably cheap) old roller at your gym, it likely doesn’t have the needed stiffness left to do anything. My gym had one that was super squishy and didn’t do a thing. Things felt completely different when I bought my own (about $20 on amazon). You want a high stiffness one so it will last. I’m guessing you will also need to play around with the motion and positions to be able to roll with enough pressure to get the release since I would guess from your photo you are pretty light weight and it is just your body weight that produces the pressure to release your muscle.
But even still, it won’t hurt everywhere, but I think most people who are very active can benefit from incorporating foam rolling at times.


Aurora October 25, 2012 at 12:55 pm

Whoa, you’ve never felt anything from using the roller? Wow. It feels like taking my already-in-pain muscle and squashing it massage-style. Ow, but nice.


Meghan@themeghamix October 25, 2012 at 5:54 pm

We use lacrosse balls at our CrossFit box and will actually use weights to get the full effect against the ball. I’d suggest Googling “Mobility WOD” – Kelly has some great ideas that go way beyond the run of the mill foam roller stuff.


Jonathan Aluzas October 25, 2012 at 7:29 pm

Foam rolling is an absolute YES for me. I get really sore from running and training, so I roll out almost every day, sometimes twice a day. I highly, highly recommend it, though the pain nearly sends me through the roof sometimes (IT Band).

Maybe it’s just not your thing.

For me, hitting the piriformis, IT band, hip flexor and calves is essential. I’ve never gotten much out of the quad and hamstring stretches. But a ball is much better for the piriformis than a roll; I recommend a well-inflated medicine ball. Also, you may need a harder roll. The best one I’ve found is a big PVC plumbing pipe about 6″ in diameter, wrapped with tape so it doesn’t slide around too much. Hurts.


Krista October 25, 2012 at 7:50 pm

I strongly suggest you go to Trigger Point Performance Therapy’s website – – they will get you some rollin’ pain stat. They’ve pretty much invented differently shaped rollers and balls for various body parts and I reckon they can get you to love it if anyone can! I describe it to clients as foam rolling x 10 in terms of discomfort but also in terms of effectiveness :)


Jody - Fit at 54 October 25, 2012 at 8:09 pm

Between my Rumble Roller – a foam roller from hell that I love (search my site for the review) AND my Body Wrench – really help me thru it all! I have had especially tough times with my calves & the glutes & especially that tie in between glute & hamstring – both these have made a HUGE difference!!!! PLUS I stretch in general too! :) OLD AGE really makes me HAVE to do this!!!


Bek @ Crave October 26, 2012 at 6:36 am

The foam roller helped me with my knee injury and now I do it daily! I love it! Put heaps of pressure on it and really lean into it.


Matt October 26, 2012 at 8:03 am

I think the roller is like a lot of other things in fitness. It’s great for some things, okay for others and doesn’t do much for everything else. Knowing exactly what it does and does not do is key in using it effectively.


Barefoot Rose October 26, 2012 at 9:45 am

Tennis balls and foam rollers are the same thing just different levels of pressure. If you aren’t getting anything out of it then you don’t need it other than the occassional preventative massage. I’m a big fan of dynamic stretching. I made the most gains in my hip pain from that versus foam rolling.


Leth October 26, 2012 at 9:53 am

I mostly use the Trigger Point roller that many people have mentioned above, and I love it. My PT also recommended using a PVC pipe at one point, but my muscles are far too tight for that. If you’re looser and can stand it, a PVC pipe might be the firmness you need in your foam roller. The soft soft soft foam rollers at the gym almost aren’t worth my time and energy, as they don’t really do much for me.


deb roby October 26, 2012 at 10:48 am

I regularly use a foam roller and enjoy it. Just because you are not feeling pain when using it, or feel little difference afterward does not mean it’s not working.

My favorite “test” was to have someone touch their toes before they rolled, and afterwards. After, almost everyone gained about 2-3″ of additional movement when they rolled. (even a college football player!). This easing in motion means all exercises will be easier for your body to do.


marie October 26, 2012 at 11:07 am

I love MY foam roller, which is an extra-firm one. It hurts so good! However, when I use the foam rollers at the gym, I don’t get much out of them because they’re not as firm. Have you tried the really firm ones, or just the easy/medium ones? Don’t write it off ’til you’ve tried the firmest roller you can get your hands on. I’ve also heard of people who are really hardcore (I’m not!!) you can also try rolling with a large-diameter piece of PVC pipe, so you could try that, too.


Annie October 26, 2012 at 12:31 pm

Shhhhh – don’t tell anyone, but tennis balls and yoga blocks do the same thing as foam rollers…and they are usually cheaper (tennis balls especially – hello ebay!). The one advantage of the foam roller, in my opinion, is greater surface area.

Myofascial release is a big deal – it’s made a huge difference for me. I have achilles tendonitis and a few minutes with a tennis ball does magic for my warrior poses.


Stefanie October 26, 2012 at 3:05 pm

I am a big fan of foam rollers. I findit helps sore muscles and relieves muscle tension. It takes a little while to get used to, but worth a try for sure. I like the Trigger Point Performance The Grid Revolutionary Foam Roller If you have never used a foam roller, still choose a high density roller but without the knobs of the Grid. The SPR EVA foam roller is a great choice .


Dennis @ Fort Collins Personal Trainer October 26, 2012 at 5:18 pm

As a personal trainer, I can go either way with foam rollers. I do advocate for those clients who have super tight muscles to use it as a warm up. But for everyone else, simple dynamic and static stretching will suffice.


Kirsten October 28, 2012 at 7:47 am

I’ve seen hardcore people do their “foam rolling” using a nalgene bottle. Or I guess a klean kanteen if you don’t do plastic. :) I can’t even imagine trying that, it sounds super painful, though I hear it works… The white squishy rollers don’t do much for me unless I’m already reaaaallly sore. My gym has the black foam ones which are firmer and great for my front/outer quads. Added bonus, I always look like I’m slow-motion humping the ground while rolling my quads. :) My hamstrings never need it much, but my calves do, and the only way I get enough pressure is to have someone else push down against my shins while I roll my calves.

I finally went and ordered a few lacrosse balls for cheap on amazon, and they work way better for me than tennis balls. I don’t really need them on my glutes too much, but they’re really amazing on my upper back. I have this one spot just to the inside of my shoulder blade that always seems to have a gigantic knot, so I lie on the lacrosse ball and hold my arm in the air and do circles with it. Hurts so good. :)


Tammy @ Home Workout November 1, 2012 at 8:55 am

I had to laugh when I read this article. As much as I love the foam roller stretches, they always seem to lose their shape or squish a bit too much as I work out kinks and stretch pushed muscles, and I’m 115lbs!! As a Yoga buff, I’ve actually found that Yoga blocks and firm pillows or rolled up mats seem to be a better option for me, although I’ll still keep looking for that super firm foam roller. Until I either invent or locate the impossible, I’m still a firm (no pun intended) believer in the foam roller.


Christopher Rupert October 1, 2013 at 4:43 am

Yes Tammy I second on that. Foam Roller actually help to relax the overworked muscles, soft tissues and for the myofascial release. After the workout I got good performance in running again. I would recommend for runners to read the Runnersworld Foam Roller articles foam roller which could provide the accurate information.


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