Foam Rolling Can Ease Muscle Soreness — Unless You're Making These 6 Mistakes

Watching an online tutorial can help you make sure you're foam rolling correctly.
Image Credit: Kilito Chan/Moment/GettyImages

When done correctly, foam rolling can provide some much-needed relief to tight, sore muscles.

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"It will reduce the inflammation caused by exercise trauma as your muscles heal and, by improving blood flow, will aid in muscle repair and elasticity," Michael Julom, ACE-certified personal trainer and founder of ThisIsWhyImFit.com, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "It will also aid in preventing injuries by maintaining muscle length and relieving tension."

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And many people are surprised to learn that — despite some discomfort from rolling over muscle knots or tight spots — foam rolling can actually help you relax. "It is a massage, after all," Julom says.

The process sounds easy enough: You simply roll an area of your body over the padded cylinder. But like other parts of your workout, when it's done incorrectly, it loses its effectiveness and can even result in injury. Avoid these common mistakes to get the best results from your foam rolling treatment.

Warning

Not everyone is a candidate for foam rolling, says Harvard Health Publishing. If you have rheumatoid arthritis, advanced osteoporosis, deep-vein thrombosis, open wounds, fractures or neuropathy that causes pain, then you should avoid foam rolling and talk with your doctor.

The 6 Worst Foam Rolling Mistakes and How to Fix Them

If you don't have any of the contraindications listed above, it's time to start rolling! Here are the top six foam rolling mistakes and how to correct them.

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1. Your Foam Roller Is Too Hard or Too Soft

Don't just grab any old foam roller off the clearance rack. It's important to use the right type of foam roller, especially when you're first starting out.

If your foam roller is too hard, it can be painful or cause bruising and irritation. If it's too soft, it won't provide enough pressure and you won't get the best results.

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“Foam rollers come in every shape and size, and some of them can look like medieval torture devices,” Jonathan Jordan, certified massage therapist and certified personal trainer for Bay Club in San Francisco, tells LIVESTRONG.com. He recommends trying out different rollers until you find one that's the right level of firmness for you.

Start with a softer foam roller, then progress to a harder one (or even those with added texture). “I usually start people with a basic full-length, moderate-density roller,” Jordan says.

You may even find that certain body parts, like your hamstrings, can tolerate a harder foam roller, whereas other areas, like your IT Band, may do better with a softer one.

2. You're Rolling Too Fast

To get the maximum benefits from foam rolling, it's important to make sure you're rolling at a relatively slow and rhythmic pace. Some people roll way too fast, which doesn't allow your muscles to fully relax into the roller.

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If you're doing a full-body foam rolling routine, expect to spend a good amount of dedicated time. "I tell clients to try to work on their mobility for 10 minutes a day to be realistic," says Jordan.

"Hone in on the spots that will have the biggest impact on your body. You should see improvement in how you feel within the first week or so and then improvement in how you perform within a few weeks."

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What's the ideal speed for foam rolling? “Go slow, covering at most an inch of muscle per second,” Julom says.

And once you find a sore spot or trigger point, spend some time going over that area before rolling to another trigger point. In addition, give your muscles time to recover and avoid rolling the same spots every day.

3. You Rush Over Trigger Points

In addition to using the correct foam roll and rolling at the right speed, it's also important you're spending enough time on those trigger points for maximum benefit.

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Focus on rolling smaller areas with trigger points, then move to a new area, versus rolling a large area all at once. It may be tempting to avoid those trigger points, but spending more time on those spots will help relieve the pain and tension.

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“When you find a trigger point, which is an area of tenderness or tightness, take your time over it,” Julom says.

If you can tolerate it, try to spend 90 seconds on that one spot. A December 2019 study in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy found that was the ideal amount of time to spend to reduce muscle soreness. After spending 90 seconds there, roll until you feel another trigger spot and repeat.

4. You're Foam Rolling Over Joints

Rolling over joints or bony prominences, such as your elbows and knees, can cause joint inflammation, pain and even injury. Besides, foam rolling is meant for your muscles and connective tissue, so it isn't beneficial to your joints and isn't recommended.

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Steer clear of your joints, where two or more bones meet, and bony areas and make sure you're foam rolling on soft tissue, according to the American Council on Exercise.

If you're rolling over a joint or bony area, you may mistake pain for a trigger point when you could actually be irritating the joint. Stick to areas with soft tissue and muscle, such as your quads, calves, hamstrings, glutes and lats.

5. You Foam Roll Your Lower Back

Just as foam rolling over joints should be avoided, foam rolling over your lower back also isn't recommended. You can foam roll your upper thoracic spine, but don't roll further down than the middle of your back.

Why is the lower back off limits to foam rolling? The diameter of the roller is too small to provide enough support to your back. If you attempt to roll over it, it places your back in hyperextension and may cause lower back pain, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine.

In addition, pressure of the foam roll against the spine and internal organs — particularly the kidneys and liver — can be harmful and cause injury.

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Avoid foam rolling your lower back and focus on your thoracic area and shoulders. To relieve lower back discomfort and tightness, focus on active lower back stretches to improve mobility and decrease pain versus this type of self-myofascial release.

“Foam rolling for your back should start in your lower lats and work upwards,” Julom says. “Many people hold tension through the upper back and shoulders. Foam rolling will help to negate this. Work around the backs of your shoulder blades to really help loosen up the whole shoulder girdle.”

6. You Ignore Your Pain Signals

Foam rolling isn't exactly comfortable while you're doing it (especially when you find that trigger point!) but it also shouldn't be painful. It's important to be able to distinguish between feeling uncomfortable and feeling pain, which can lead to injury.

"When you inflict 'pain' you generally will have the opposite impact you want," Jordan says. "Pain releases stress hormones and often causes tight muscles and areas of tension to worsen. And you can overdo it and hurt yourself."

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“Foam rolling will always hurt slightly, however it should always be bearable and slow to build,” Julom says. “You should always be able to breathe slowly and fully, and you should always end up more relaxed than when you started.”

“As a good rule of thumb, ‘good’ pain is generally deep and slow, while ‘bad’ pain is sharp and comes on quickly,” he says.

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