3 Tips for Crushing It on Your Foam Roller

The foam roller. It’s impossible to miss them at the local gym. Those brightly coloured cylinders of soft tissue destruction litter our local weight training facilities like confetti at an electronic music show.

If the tubes weren’t so hard to miss, it would be impossible to miss the fervent sawing back and forth of gymgoers and athletes across them, hoping to massage out some mobility and looseness from their muscles.

But how many of them are doing it properly? And is there a point where rocking back and forth on the foam roller is counter-productive?

Here are three tips for hitting the foam roller like a total gangster:

1. Choose foam roller by firmness.

These cylinder-shaped weapons of mass soft tissue destruction come in a variety of colors, yes, but also different levels of firmness. The most common are the grid-shaped rollers that Trigger Point produces (the orange ones that are so ubiquitous at most local gyms). There are also the near-pillow like blue rollers that are easier and recommended for those just starting out with rolling. Once you get a hang of it there are also my personal favorite—the rumble roller, a torture, err, recovery device that has hard plastic lumps that mimic the thumbs of a massage therapist. Perfect for digging into those hard to reach areas like in and behind your scaps and shoulder blades.

2. Remember that it’s part of the approach, not the whole approach.

Discovering the magic of SMR (self myofascial release) is awesome, but it doesn’t replace everything else in your recovery and warm-up regimen. In fact, more often than not, it’s a lousy substitute for things. Spending half an hour rolling out your upper back might make you feel accomplished, but not when you consider you could accomplish the same thing with a dynamic warm-up and some arm swings in far less time. The foam roller isn’t a cure all or a replacement for other protocols and mechanisms—it’s best used in partnership with those other dualities. Stretching is a perfect example. Stretching on its own is boring, not always very effective, and can sometimes lead to injury. When you tag team it with a foam roller it brings out the best of both tactics, supercharging your mobility efforts.

3. Treat problem areas by avoiding them.

Whenever we feel an injury creeping on, or we experience something acute and cringe worthy, we tend to grab our recovery tools and apply them against the affected areas. Which is too bad—because the problem almost always occurs because of a dysfunction, fatigue or mobility defencies in nearby areas. The knee is a fantastic example. I have had recurring tweaks in my left knee over the years, and it’s not because my knee sucks (even though I do curse it out on such occasions…) but because my hip flexor in the left leg is way too tight. Same thing with swimmer’s shoulder—often it’s because the chest muscles are far too tight that it ends up causing problems downstream.

The foam roller is a tool for better health. Just that—a tool. Not a cure-all, or some miracle tonic for our mobility woes.

Although we tend to view newer additions to the workout equipment arsenal with big eyes and bigger hopes, the foam roller’s limitations are readily apparent. In terms of providing performance benefits, whether you are engaging in a strength training workout or hitting the pavement for a 10km morning run, they are quite limited.

It’s benefits show themselves primarily in terms of recovery, of helping to jostle the soft muscle tissue to better facilitate rejuvenation and recovery of the target muscles.

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