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If you've been following our site for a while now, you likely know how much I value using a foam roller to keep muscles and ligaments healthy and well perfused with blood. In my experience, having a foam roller is almost as good as having your own personal massage therapist. You can use a roller to apply therapeutic massage to just about any muscle group. And if you combine foam rolling with stretching all of your major muscle groups, you can expect to be highly flexible and decrease risk of injuries that come about from "brittle" muscles and ligaments that are congested with waste materials and lacking optimal blood flow.
When first starting with a foam roller and rolling out larger muscle groups like your thigh and back muscles, generally, I find it's best to use a smooth EVA foam roller. But for certain areas of the body, it can be extremely helpful to use a roller with more texture to apply a deeper level of pressure.
Over the past year, with the help of several testers among patients and high level athletes, I went through six unique designs with varying densities and patterns of texture (rounded knobs placed at specific intervals). Our therapeutic roller is the fruit of all of those trials over about twelve months of designing and testing prototypes.
This roller can be used with all muscle groups, but it's especially effective in providing therapeutic massage to the muscles that line the following areas:
Back and sides of your neck
Arches of your feet (muscles and ligaments that line the soles of your feet)
Dense muscle bellies that make up the lower portion of your calves (soleus muscle)
Hip flexor muscles
External hip rotator muscles
Your upper sacroiliac and lower lumbar joints
Forearm flexors and extensors
Posterior deltoids and upper lats
Our therapeutic roller is about 12 inches in length and about 5 inches in diameter, making it highly portable and maneuverable. Given its size and light weight, it's easy to take it with you when you go to the gym or on longer trips.
To give you an idea of relative size, here's a look at our therapeutic roller as it compares to our 18-inch smooth EVA roller:
The rounded knobs were arranged in a way that allows for deep, therapeutic pressure to dense muscle and ligament groups, but we clustered them closely enough to minimize jabbing-like sensations.
The knobs are made of premium EVA foam that is supported underneath by a hollow black tube that is virtually indestructible.
Because the knobs are made of premium EVA foam, there is a bit of give when you put your body weight on this roller, but the number of knobs and their arrangement allow for a high level of therapeutic pressure.
We actually like using this knobby therapeutic roller in conjunction with our smooth roller; the therapeutic roller is good for especially dense muscle groups like those found in the back of the neck, hips, lower calves, soles of the feet, and the back of the shoulder area, while the smooth roller is excellent for doing your entire back and your thigh muscles (quads, hamstrings, and upper calves).
I haven't had a chance to shoot photos or video with our therapeutic roller in action, so if you're new to foam rolling and can't imagine how you can use it to apply therapeutic massage to your muscles and ligaments, feel free to have a look at the following video clips that show a longer smooth foam roller (36") in action:
How To Foam Roll Your External Hip Rotators:
How To Foam Roll Your Hip Flexors:
How To Foam Roll Your Hip Abductors:
How To Foam Roll Your Calves:
How To Foam Roll Your Posterior Deltoids and Lats:
More On The Benefits of Foam Rolling
New to foam rolling?
The idea is simple enough: Using your own body weight and agility, you roll specific muscle groups against a firm foam roller to mimic a deep, gliding massage.
With a foam roller, you can control how much pressure you apply to the tissues that you're working on, and you can locate and focus on areas that are problematic.
I've long been a fan of soft tissue therapies like deep tissue massage, myofascial rolling, and active release technique (ART), and I continue to use and recommend these therapies in many situations. I think of foam rolling as the perfect adjunct to all such therapies. And because you can use a foam roller just about anywhere, you can experience terrific health gains in a relatively short period of time.
As I see it, the main benefits of foam rolling are as follows:
Improved blood circulation throughout your skin, fascia, muscles, and even tendons and ligaments where you can access them with a foam roller.
Through improved blood circulation, more efficient exchange of nutrients and waste products at a cellular level, leading to better overall cellular function and inter-cellular communication.
Lengthening of short (tight) muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Some muscles (like hip flexors) and ligaments (iliotibial band) are prone to shortening, and are difficult to effectively stretch and apply therapeutic pressure to using standard massage and trigger point therapy techniques. But with a foam roller, you can apply deep pressure massage to such areas and lengthen shortened tissues, thereby preventing physical imbalances that can predispose you to injury.
Promotion of optimal spinal range of motion. You can accomplish this by slowly rolling your spine against a foam roller and pausing whenever you feel restrictions to allow your joints and surrounding tissues to stretch.
Beyond using a foam roller as a therapeutic tool, you can also use it for a variety of exercises. It's especially useful for a number of core-strengthening and stabilizing postures and movements.
When we experience physical health challenges like pain and stiffness around weight-bearing joints (hips, knees, and spinal joints), for many of us, the instinct is to get some sort of treatment - if not a conventional pain killer or some invasive surgical procedure, then at least some alternative therapy like acupuncture, chiropractic adjustments, ultrasound, laser, or electrical stimulation.
A less obvious and often times more effective approach is to work at improving blood circulation around the problematic area through deep pressure work and dedicating oneself to stretching the muscles and ligaments around the affected joints.
Sometimes, short/tight muscles and ligaments are the root cause of a joint region becoming dysfunctional and producing pain and stiffness.
This is not to say that various therapies can't be helpful; they can usually help in some way, though to what degree, no one can know for sure.
My point is to consider addressing physical injuries and breakdowns with a dedicated program of soft tissue work and stretching - work that you do multiple times daily on your own. I'm finding more and more that actively working to address physical health challenges in this way can be the magic bullet that many often seek when they're physically distressed.
This makes sense, doesn't it? That you'll make more gains working on a problematic area several times a day than you will getting just one, two, or three treatment sessions per week. Of course, it may be ideal to have both going on when you have an injury, with the work you do on your own supporting the work of a skilled and experienced health practitioner.
Bottom line: foam rolling can be an essential part of any effective program of self-applied deep pressure work and stretching.
For comprehensive guidance in the form of still photos and video clips that show how to stretch and foam roll all of your major muscle groups in the ideal order, you might consider our DVD on stretching and foam rolling here: Stretching and Foam Rolling DVD
You can also browse through our archive on this topic here:
Stretching and Foam Rolling Archive