Should You Foam Roll After At-Home Workouts?

If your muscles are aching now more than ever, try this.

April 21, 2020 — 2 p.m EST

If you’re feeling achy and more stiff than usual lately, you’re not alone. Your entire daily life is upended, so it makes sense that you’re probably not getting in the movement that you’re used to. One way to combat this is to foam roll after at-home workouts. This can have a real effect on the relief you feel in your muscles and joints after working out. You may not be used to having to schedule in exercise — maybe you walk to work, coach a soccer team, etc. — but now more than ever, it’s important to make time for moving. 

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I've been a certified personal trainer for the last 20 years, and I have always told my clients to foam roll. Foam rolling is a form of self-myofascial release, or SMR. The fascia is a system of densely woven connective tissue throughout the body that surrounds and connects the body's different units — bones, organs, muscle, nerve fibers, blood vessels, etc. It's basically the glue that holds everything together. Just like muscles, fascia can become restricted due to trauma, scarring and inflammation. When this happens, the fascia tightens up and loses flexibility. Foam rolling is an easy adjunct to our training in the gym that they can do at home while watching TV or after a home workout. The National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) (through which I am certified) encourages it as well, but still, I know it can be uncomfortable and confusing. 

Researchers from the American Council on Exercise (ACE) recognized the lack of info regarding the effectiveness of foam rolling and tried to fill the gap and make it clear why foam rolling should be a part of your exercise routine. In addition to the lack of enduring research, the problem, says ACE, is that a standard protocol for foam rolling techniques is non-existent. 

The 2019 ACE study was led by John P. Porcari, PhD and included a team from the Department of Exercise and Sport Science at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse. The specific goals were to evaluate the effects of foam rolling on lower-body flexibility, mobility and performance. The team recruited 34 volunteers who were divided into a foam rolling group and a control group. During instructor-led sessions three days per week for six weeks, participants in the foam rolling group targeted the lower back, buttocks, quadriceps, hamstrings, calves and iliotibial bands for 20 seconds each. The sequence was repeated three times. At the end of the six weeks, the group who foam rolled had statistically significant increases in lower body flexibility as measured by a standard sit-and-reach test. In addition, participants reported feeling more flexible and as if they could jump higher than at the start of the trial. So it looks like there are some serious benefits to foam rolling after all.

How to Foam Roll At Home

There is more than one way to foam roll. The way I was trained by NASM and the method used in the ACE study are slightly different techniques. For both methods, you want to find a firm surface — a gym mat or a yoga mat on a hard floor, or even just a hard floor. A thick carpet won't work well because it has too much give. As for the type of foam roller you should use, don't get anything fancy. Some of them have knobs and dull spikes that look like they might be some sort of medieval torture device. You're not ready for that, trust me. For now just choose your run-of-the-mill dense, smooth foam roller that you can get on Amazon for about $10. 

The ACE Technique

  1. Sit with your legs extended. Place the foam roller under your right leg just above the knee — not behind the knee. 
  2. Bend your left leg and place your foot flat on the floor. Place your hands behind you and lift up your hips. 
  3. Keep the right leg straight and the foot relaxed. 
  4. Slowly begin to roll back and forth along the length of the hamstring. Move in small sections. 
  5. When you find a tender area, hold on that spot for a breath or two, putting more of your body weight on it. 
  6. Move on to the next spot, rolling farther up the hamstring. You can also rotate your leg in or out to hit the hamstring from different angles. 

The NASM method is a similar setup to the ACE method. The difference is that you hold on the pressure points for 30 to 90 seconds until the tenderness dissipates. This could be considerably more uncomfortable than the ACE method, so make sure to breathe. 

Try the ACE method as they did in the study — three times per week for 10 to 15 minutes after (or before) your workouts, hitting all your major muscle groups, including your upper body. The lats are another area that often needs some attention, as well as the pecs and the mid and upper back. You don't have to do all body parts in the same session. Target the areas most in need, or the ones you worked that particular day. Doing this before working out may also help alleviate stiffness, especially when you’re working out at home and don’t have the typical range of motion a day outside offers you. 


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