Roller exercises are great stretches for healthy muscle function

13 Foam Roller Exercises to Support Muscle Recovery

By: Liz Lotts, RDN; NASM-CPT

Scientifically Reviewed By: Michael A. Smith, MD

Question: Why do you roll out pizza dough or pie crust before baking? Answer: To stretch the dough into one big, even layer that cooks consistently.

Now, imagine that pizza dough is your muscle tissue. And instead of a rolling pin, you have a foam roller. Just like that pizza dough, you want your muscles and surrounding tissue to be elastic and smooth in order to get optimal results.

For someone who leads an active lifestyle, that may mean running a faster 5K, back-squatting more weight, taking the right supplements—including amino acids like L-glutamine—to help maintain your muscle strength and health, or simply keeping up with young, energetic kids. Results matter and you don't want to be hindered by occasional soreness or less flexibility.

The good news is you don't have to be. We'll tell you everything you need to know about foam rolling, including how to use a roller to "cook" up an effective workout and support overall muscle health.

What are foam roller exercises?

Foam rolling is a type of stretching known as self-myofascial release, or SMR. Let's break down that term, so you understand exactly what you're doing with a foam roller:

"Self" obviously means, well, you! "Myo" is another word for muscle, and "fascial" refers to fascia, the multilayered connective tissue that keeps bones, blood vessels, nerves and muscles in place.

According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), poor posture, repetitive motions, and dysfunctional movement patterns can impact soft tissue within the fascia. This can alter neuromuscular control and impact muscle balance. The best way to smooth out these "knots" and support muscle function is with SMR.

The foam roller exercises work by applying pressure to the affected area, also known as the "trigger point," which signals neural receptors in the skeletal muscles to relax. In a calm state, the fascia will unknot, allowing the muscles to lengthen and move about their full range of motion. You can perform foam roller exercises on all major muscle groups.

Ready to get started? Find some empty space on the ground, grab your roller and let's get to it!

13 foam roller exercises for muscle health

Below is a step-by-step guide to 13 different foam roller exercises that will help you maintain muscle health.

1. Half-kneeling sole roll

Grab a mat or go to a carpeted area, so you can comfortably rest your right knee on the ground. Your right glute should be sitting back on your right heel. Bring your left leg in front of you, resting it on top of the foam roller. Roll your left foot back and forth until you feel the trigger point. Switch sides.

2. Shin massage

Start in a plank position with hands stacked directly under your shoulders. Bring the right leg forward and place the right shin on top of a foam roller. Be careful not to roll directly over your shin bone. Instead, angle the foam roller to the outside of your shin bone. Repeat on the left shin.

3. Traditional calf massage

Sit on the ground with your hands by your side. Cross the left ankle over the right and position a roller under the middle of your bottom (right) calf. Using your hands for support, roll your calf back and forth. Switch sides. If this is too much pressure, place your top foot on the floor.

4. Kneeling calf release

Kneel on the ground with a foam roller between your hamstrings and lower calves. Your glutes should be resting on top of the foam roller to provide pressure on the calves. Rock hips side-to-side to hit different parts of the calves.

5. Hamstring rollout

Sit on the ground with your hands by your sides. Kick your right leg straight out, while the left knee is bent and the left foot rests on the floor for support. With the foam roller under your right hamstring, roll back and forth until you find the trigger point. Switch sides.

6. Quad release

Start in a forearm plank position. Place foam roller under the top of your thighs and roll. You can also do this one leg at a time by placing one foot on the ground for support.

7. TFL massage

Lie on your right side with your right forearm on the ground and a foam roller perpendicular to your right hip. Cross your left leg over right and place left foot on the floor in front of you for support. Slowly roll from hip to knee, feeling the pressure in your outer thigh, or tensor fasciae latae (TFL). Switch sides.

8. Piriformis release

Sit on top of the foam roller, lengthwise, with hands behind you for support and legs straight in front of you. Cross left foot over right knee. Roll back and forth so the roller moves just from the top of your glutes to the top of your hamstrings.

Like the name suggests, this movement supports the piriformis muscle, which runs on both sides of the body from your lower spine through your glutes down to the top of your thighs.

9. Adductor massage

Start in a forearm plank, and then lower your legs to the ground. Place the foam roller under the top of your right thigh. The roller should be vertically aligned with your body. Gently shift hips side-to-side to roll your inner thigh and hip flexors.

10. Chest opener

Lie face up on top of a vertically positioned foam roller, so one end is supporting your head and the other end rests under your hips or glutes. Bring arms in front of your chest and bend elbows 90 degrees. Open arms to the side, reaching for the floor. If you can't tap your forearms on the floor, stop at your range of motion. Keeping elbows bent, bring arms back together.

11. Upper back rollout

Lie face up on top of a horizontally positioned foam roller. Keeping feet flat and knees bent, lift your hips off the floor. Maintain the bridge position as you roll up and down your upper back.

12. Lat release

Lie on your right side with right arm stretched overhead and a foam roller positioned perpendicular under your right armpit. Foam roll your upper body up and down until you feel the trigger point. Switch sides.

13. Triceps release

Kneel on the ground with your roller positioned horizontally in front of you. Lean forward and rest your right triceps on top of the foam roller, so your elbow is slightly in front of the roller. Let your chest fall forward to add pressure to your right arm. Bend and extend right arm until you feel the muscle relax. Switch sides.

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How to Foam Roll

While these exercises are easy to do, before you actually start foam rolling, it's important you know how to do it. Ironically, the key to foam rolling is not actually the rolling. Yes, rolling feels good and can serve as a soothing massage when you need one. But its main purpose is to find the tender spot (aka the knot), so you can apply pressure to it.

Your muscles benefit most from working the pressure point. No matter which exercise you do, follow these basic steps:

  • Slowly roll over the area of focus, taking long, deep inhales and exhales as you roll.
  • Once you find the specific area that is experiencing muscle tightness, stop rolling.
  • Hold the foam roller on the spot for several seconds, or until you feel some relief. Research has shown the "optimal dosage" of foam rolling is 90-120 seconds if you want to relieve muscle stiffness and increase your range of motion.
  • While holding this position, keep breathing deeply and let yourself relax more and more with each breath. As you start to feel the tension release, your body weight can sink further into the spot, thereby applying more pressure.
  • If you're having trouble finding the right spot, foam roll in smaller sections and reposition your body to hit different angles.

Pro tip: At no point should rolling exercises cause more occasional pain than it's intended to relieve. Foam rolling should be comfortably uncomfortable. If you at any point feel anything beyond the norm, consult a physician to address your needs.

What are the benefits of foam roller exercises?

By now you've realized foam rolling is pretty simple to do. All you need is a comfortable floor space and a lightweight, portable foam roller. You can do this type of SMR anytime, anywhere, which is a major benefit in and of itself. Not to mention, foam rolling just feels good. That being said, there are also real physical advantages.

Because foam rolling is a type of prep work for your muscles, the benefits of foam rolling are similar to the benefits of stretching. These benefits include:

  • Increased range of motion in muscle tissue and joints
  • Muscle balance support
  • Enhanced fitness performance
  • Improved blood flow
  • Relief of occasional muscle soreness
  • Calm and relaxation

Even though the benefits are similar to stretching, combining stretching with foam rolling may give you a leg up! Foam rolling combined with dynamic stretching as part of an active warm-up may further help inhibit occasional stiffness and increase your range of motion.

A systematic review and meta-analysis of 13 studies showed that foam rolling even has the potential to increase strength performance in certain muscles. The results showed a small increase in strength performance of the quads and triceps muscles when foam rolling for more than 60 seconds or using a vibrating foam roller, as compared to static stretching (which is best done post-workout).

Think of it this way: Foam rolling these muscles for a minute or two may be the perfect warmup for a heavy squat day or for performing triceps exercises. And the addition of vibration may even enhance these performance benefits. Talk about a win-win!

When should you do foam roller exercises?

Many avid exercisers use a foam roller before their workouts—and for good reason! The research supports the use of foam rolling to improve athletic performance. However, that doesn't mean you can't use the roller during a cooldown or flexibility routine, as well.

In fact, exercise science experts say SMR (like foam rolling) triggers the process of vasodilation, which increases blood flow to the targeted tissue, which is an essential part of muscle recovery. Just remember: foam rolling helps prepare the fascia for lengthening, which means you should do foam rolling exercises before any dynamic or static stretches.

Pro tip: Once you've finished a tough workout and you're ready to cool down, it's important that you reach a lower heart rate zone before starting any type of self-myofascial release or stretching.

Of course, you don't have to be an athlete to think about muscle recovery. Activities of daily living—like grocery shopping, cleaning the house, running errands or simply sitting at a desk all day—can be culprits of occasional soreness and muscle tension.

If you're feeling tight (or think you might feel tight later), grab a foam roller and knead out those knots. Foam rolling doesn't have to be a scheduled event. You can easily fit it in at lunchtime or during commercial breaks.

How often should you do foam roller exercises?

Like most things in life, foam rolling should be done consistently in order to see the best results. That being said, "consistently" may look different for everybody. Your workout buddy may be able to keep up with foam rolling five days a week, while you can only manage five minutes once a month.

Don't let infrequency hold you back from doing what's good for those well-deserving muscles. Focus on your personal health goals, and continue to support your daily routine with muscle recovery supplements, including healthy amino acids like L-glutamine.

This free amino acid found in high concentrations in the body helps enhance your active lifestyle by supporting healthy muscle mass and protein synthesis and maintaining healthy energy levels under stress—important for any active individual—no matter if you are doing heavy lifting or simply rolling out your muscles.

Focusing on the why when it comes to practicing these foam roller exercises can help you find the motivation to do them more and keep a routine that works for you. Ultimately, if you roll your body more than you roll pizza dough, you'll be in great shape!

About the Author: Liz Lotts is a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified personal trainer. She has a passion for helping people achieve their health goals through personalized nutrition and effective fitness programs. In her free time, Liz enjoys running, lifting weights, watching live sports with her husband and traveling to new places.

Credentials/Degrees: RDN; NASM-CPT; Certified Orangetheory Fitness Coach; TRX Qualified Coach; Bachelor’s in Advertising, Marketing & Communications; Master of Science in Dietetics.