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Foam rolling…the why, what, when and how?


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The what

Every few years there seems to be a different trend that catches on in the health and fitness industry. In the last few years a simple, but very effective technique called foam rolling has become very popular. As the name suggests, this self treatment method involves rolling a body part up and down over a tube of foam in order to relieve pain, reduce muscle tightness and improve mobility. As I recommend it to at least 75% of patients I see, I thought I would run through some techniques and a bit of the reasoning behind it. If done correctly it can be a fantastic tool in helping to self manage back and limb problems. I am often using one on these on my own back between patients in order to keep myself functioning well… adjusting people does take its toll on your body!

The why

I normally advise foam rolling exercises to help achieve one of two things: to help ease muscle tension, or to improve movement in the thoracic spine (the mid-back). With an increasing number of us sitting at a desk for long hours and hunched over our phones at every spare minute, we are becoming a nation of slouchers!

The effect of this on your spine is often pain: the vertebrae in your mid back can stiffen as they become fixed into more of a kyphosis (forward rounded) posture. When this happens the small spinal joints (facet joints) can lock up giving us a variety of symptoms including headaches, breathing difficulties, pain, spasm, and even numbness and tingling. When this happens, a course of Chiropractic and some self mobilisation will free things up, helping the symptoms to resolve. Foam rolling can help to reverse these postural changes. As you do it, you might feel a click or two from your back- and that’s good; as the joints stretch, gas escapes from the fluid inside the joints and makes the popping noise- much like cracking a can of coke!

The foam roller also acts a self-massage device, for those awkward bits you can’t reach to dig your own fingers into. The pressure of your bodyweight over the muscles will reduce tension and release the trigger points within them. Trigger points are painful tight spots within a muscle that either develop from a lot of exercise or use, or being kept static (like when you stare at a screen all day!)

The When and How

You might have seen a few different types of rollers available; I suggest you start with the solid, flat rollers instead of the ones with bumps embedded into them. These are called ‘trigger point rollers’ and are for the more experienced or for those with no pain threshold! It can often be sore when you begin so ease yourself in gently. 2 minutes per day on the spine moving up and down will normally be enough. At the start even just 30 seconds may leave you feeling sore, so start small and build up gradually. If you are rolling a specific muscle my advice is 10 up/down movements over one part of the muscle. This is enough to loosen that area without bruising it.

Thoracic foam rollingExercise 1: Foam rolling your thoracic spine

Place your hand behind your head, with your knees bent at 90 degrees. Elevate your hips 3-4 inches and push and pull through your legs to move your spine over the roller. You can also lean left or right in order to release your back muscles.

Exercise 2: Extending your thoracic spineThoracic foam rolling

Leave your hips resting on the ground. Lift your chest and extend your shoulders backwards over the roll using it as a point to lever over. Keep your neck in a neutral position and place your hands around your lower neck for support. 

Foam rolling chest stretch

Exercise 3: Chest stretch

Place the roller vertically along your spine. Relax your arms towards the ground, slightly above shoulder height to stretch your chest.   Holding a couple of light weights or 1 litre bottles of water will help to achieve a stretch.

Glute foam rollingExercise 4: Foam rolling your glutes

Sit on the roller and lean 45 degrees over to one side. If you can, cross one leg over the other, resting the ankle on the knee or thigh. If you can’t quite do this, keep both legs next to each other. Use your other leg and supporting arm on the ground to roll your hip forwards and back gently. Repeat up to 10x per side.