Using a Foam Roller for SMR

Why a Foam Roller?

After reading about foam rollers for Self-Myofascial Release (SRM) and hearing quite a few people recommend them on Facebook, I decided to go out and buy one to try for myself.  The need to find better ways to recover from my weight training workouts is becoming more important as I get older.

My foam roller is two feet long with a diameter of a little less than six inches.  You can get longer ones but I don’t really know why.  I guess you might need something longer if you were to do exercises on top of it where it runs up and down your spine.  I don’t yet know why anyone would want to do that.

The Theory behind Using a Foam Roller

Without getting too technical and because Wikipedia does a much better job of explaining it,foam roller

Foam rolling is a self-myofascial release (SMR) technique that is used by athletes and physical therapists to inhibit overactive muscles. This form of stretching utilizes the concept of autogenic inhibition to improve soft tissue extensibility, thus relaxing the muscle and allowing the activation of the antagonist muscle.[1]

This technique can be effective for many muscles, including: gastrocnemius, latissimus dorsi, piriformis, adductors, quadriceps, hamstrings, hip flexors, thoracic spine (trapezius and rhomboids), and TFL.”

In essence, you are applying exernal tension to the muscle in order to relax it.  This may sound counter-intuitive but the technique has to do with affecting what is called the Golgi Tendon Reflex (GTR).  Ever wonder why under a really heavy weight muscles will simply give in and relax?  It has mostly to do with a mechanoreceptor called the Golgi Tendon Organ (GTO) which is activated by a principle known as autogenic inhibition which immediately relaxes the muscle thus protecting it from catastrophic injury.  The GTO is found in the connective muscle-tendon area.  Fascia is defined as the soft tissue element of connective tissue.  Foam rolling simulates the muscular tension which activates the GTR helping the restricted tissue to, over time, become more toned and pliable.

It must be said that there are quite a few personal trainers and body workers who do not advocate using a foam roller but recommended using joint mobility exercises instead.  I have two responses to that:  One, are they selling a different solution?  And two, why not do both foam rolling and joint mobility exercises?

Problem areas for a Foam Roller

I don’t recommend using the roller on stomach, lower back and groin areas because of possible injury and because it plain just doesn’t feel good.  The trapezius muscles are a bit hard to “roll” but not impossible.  I found the best way to massage the traps is to place the foam roller against the wall then bend over it and lean my upper back into it.  You’ll have to experiment to find the right position.  Using your imagination, you can massage almost every muscle by placing your body around the roller.  I found out working the arms and shoulders are best done with the roller on a table top.  You can also place the roller horizontally against a wall at the level of your lower back so you can roll up and down doing squats to work your quads but then that turns this thing into an isotonic piece of equipment rather than a massager.

Effects of a Foam Roller and Stretching

After using a foam roller I feel a bit more relaxed and tingly all over.  If you do stretching and/ or mobility exercises, I recommend doing these after using the foam roller; the reason being, the roller will first help to work out the knots in your muscles.  In the case of stretching, if you stretch first before rolling, you’re just stretching with knots in your muscles so roll first and then stretch.

Here is a brief video on how to use a foam roller:


 Video is not Altogether Accurate

The video here is only meant to show several of the basic massage placements of a foam roller.  It is not altogether accurate in the sense that it assumes the practitioner has no knots in the muscles.  The real way it’s supposed to be done is to roll on the thing until you come to a tender area.  Then you’re supposed to stop there and take a deep breath.  Then you roll it out like you’re ironing the muscle bellies.  Working on a tender area is by no means a pleasant sensation and furthermore, you won’t get rid of your knots with only one session.

You have to “Work It”

You can’t just go through the motions with these movements any more than a masseuse can work on your body and daydream while just going through the motions.  You have to feel into the muscle and apply gentle pressure as you roll.  When you feel a tender spot, stop and take a deep breath, hold it, let it out slowly then continuing rolling as if you’re ironing out the muscle belly and then repeat.  Deep tissue massage by a trained masseuse may look relaxing to an observer but it feels anything but tranquil to the client.

 No Substitute for a Real Massage

Foam rollers are often called the poor man’s massage and are great for self massage but are not a perfectly equitable substitute for the real thing.  Once in a great while get yourself a real massage with a trained and experienced body worker.  While experiencing the real thing, remember how it feels so you can later replicate a similar sensation when using a foam roller and one last thing–have fun.


There are many excellent foam rollers on the market but I have found the Altus 24″ by 6″ to be the best. Click below.

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