How To Foam Roll Your Upper Back and Shoulders

Do you have tight knots in your upper back or shoulders? Blast them out with this easy-to-do foam rolling regimen.

how to foam roll upper back and shoulders

Millions of Americans suffer from tightness in their upper back and shoulders.  Sometimes it feels like knots between your shoulder blades that you can never seem to work out, while other times the pain might feel like it’s spreading from your upper back into your neck.  Whether you’re a weight lifter or a desk jockey, we’ll show you how to blast out the tightness and knots, so that you can get back to living your life.

What Causes a Tight Upper Back?

This might come as a surprise, but the culprit of upper back pain is something that you’re probably doing right now.

The scary truth is that the main cause of upper back and neck pain for millions of Americans is a sedentary lifestyle, and extended use of computers, phones, and tablets.  A 2008 study conducted by Vanderbilt University showed that we sit for an average of 7.7 hours each day, with some people sitting for up to 15 hours daily!

Sitting so much, in addition to causing upper and lower back pain (see: how to foam roll your lower back), will actually make you more likely to die, according to a study by the American Cancer Society!  Upper back pain also easily leads to neck pain.  First we’ll talk about how to foam roll your neck, then move down to foam rolling the shoulders and finally how to foam roll the upper back.

How To Foam Roll Your Neck

First, lay down on your back, with your knees bent at a 90 degree angle and feet flat on the ground.  Lifting your head off the ground, place your foam roller under your neck – it should be perpendicular to your body, so it forms a cross.  Then gently lie your head down, so that the foam roller is under your neck.

Now slowly pivot your head from side to side, stopping on the tender areas for 10-15 seconds.  If you need to move the roller higher or lower, lift you head to re-position it.

how to foam roll neck

Important notes when foam rolling the neck:

When you do this foam rolling exercise, the weight of your head should be all that’s needed to apply pressure to the fascia.  You don’t need to lift your buttocks off the ground, and in fact that could result in too much pressure on your spine and possibly cause injury.

If you’ve never used a foam roller before, you might want to use a softer foam roller initially.  For less than $20, the Black Mountain Products 24-inch foam roller is a good buy.

Foam Rolling Your Shoulders

Next we’ll discuss how to foam roll the shoulders; it’s simple and quick, and we’re going to start by first foam rolling the traps.  To begin, lay on your back, with knees bent at 90 degrees, and feet flat on the ground.  The foam roller should be perpendicular and underneath your trapezius muscles (aka traps).  (It should be about where you would hold the barbell when doing squats.)

Next, tighten your core and push with your feet, lifting your buttocks off the ground.  This should increase the pressure of the foam roller on your traps.

Now slowly roll back and forth, while also oscillating side to side.  This will allow you to put pressure on your traps from different angles, and eventually find some trigger points.  Once you find them, stay on them for 10-15 seconds.

Remember: you should be breathing deeply while foam rolling, and the muscles in the area that you’re rolling should be relaxed.  Foam rollers aren’t effective if you’re tensed up.

how to foam roll shoulders

 

Getting Super Deep Into Your Shoulders


If foam rolling your traps isn’t enough, and you want an even deeper penetration into the shoulder muscles, it’s time to get out the big gun: the Rumble Roller Beastie.  Simply put, this miniature foam rolling ball is the most aggressive, most effective foam rolling product on the market.

I’m pretty sure the Rumble Roller Beastie was inspired by some sort of medieval weapon, and it can hurt like one, but afterwards you’ll feel tons of relief.  My wife and I purchased one of these shortly after they were released, and we swear by it now.  It’s great.

Anyway, fanboying aside, let’s get down to it.

Using the Rumble Roller Beastie On Your Shoulders

There’s not a ton of technique for this guy, and it’s much the same as using a tennis ball or lacrosse ball.  I like to start on the ground, lying on my back.  Arch up one of your shoulders, and roll the Beastie underneath, so that it’s under the tight area of your shoulders.  (Aim for a fleshly, muscular area; don’t place it underneath your shoulderblades.)  Now slowly, slowly ease your weight onto the Beastie.  Now roll.

This will probably be pretty intense.  The Beastie is orders of magnitude firmer than a standard high density foam roller, and the little spikes concentrate your body weight onto it.  Start slowly, using your arms and legs to support your weight, and only use the Beastie for a minute or two at first.  But I guarantee you that this will get deep into your shoulders.

Foam Rolling Your Upper Back

Finally we’ll discuss how to foam roll your upper back, which will include the rhomboids and trapezius.

To start, lie on the ground, knees bent at 90 degrees with feet flat on the ground.  Your foam roller should be located underneath your shoulders, perpendicular to your body.  Next, give yourself a hug, so that your arms are wrapped tight to your chest.  Now slowly press down with your feet to lift your buttocks off the ground.

For this exercise, you want to slowly push with your feet, so that you’re rolling up and down.  At the same time, you want to rock your torso side to side.  This will help you get deep activation of your rhomboids.

foam roll upper back and rhomboid

What Else You Can Do For Upper Back and Shoulder Pain

After you’ve creating a foam rolling routine, there are a couple more recommended lifestyle changes that can help decrease your pain.

  • Work standing up.  Like we said above, if you work at a desk most of the day, chances are that’s what causing your back and neck pain.  In addition to foam rolling, you could also try to work standing up.  There are a number of desks available nowadays that can switch easily from a sitting configuration to a standing one.  It might look weird at first, but there’s no reason to be self conscious: sitting too much decreases life expectancy, so by standing up to work you might be saving your life.
  • Adjust your computer monitor and/or TV position.  Another big culprit, especially for neck pain, is when your computer monitor isn’t at eye-level, and isn’t directly in front of you.  Even when it’s just a few degrees to the side, your neck will be strained all day to maintain that angle.  Putting it directly in front of you will reduce the strain.  The same goes for TVs: putting your TV above your fireplace might look nice, but it forces you to crane your neck to watch TV.

Supplementing with Resistance Bands

As noted before, one of the most common causes of upper back, neck, and shoulder pain is the fact that roughly 86% of Americans work at a desk job where they are sitting for 8 or more hours every single day.  This seated, hunched over position, creates a lot of strain in your shoulders and neck.  Enter the resistance band.

Elastic resistance bands are a great supplement to foam rolling your upper back and shoulders.  I personally use the AmazonBasics 4-Piece Exercise and Resistance Loop Bands with Bag, which are a great value at only $13.99.

According to a Danish study, doing lateral arm raises with a resistance band for as little as two minutes per day significantly eased neck and shoulder pain over a 10-week period.  Only two minutes, that’s barely one commercial break…what’s to lose?

How to do Lateral Arm Raises with Resistance Bands

To start, hold your resistance band kind of like a jump rope, and stand on the center part.  Your feet should be roughly shoulder width apart.  Hold the resistance band to the side, and slightly in front of you, with elbows flexed rather than locked out.  Now slowly raise your arms to shoulder height, keeping your elbows flexed.  Rather than straight to the sides, your arms should be about 25 degrees in front of you.

lateral arm raises with resistance band

References

Beazell, J. R., & Magrum, E. M. (2003). Rehabilitation of head and neck injuries in the athlete. Clinics in Sports Medicine, 22(3), 523-557. http://www.sportsmed.theclinics.com/article/S0278-5919(03)00002-4/fulltext

Janyacharoen, T. (2016, January 30). Effects of resistance exercise on cardiopulmonary factors in sedentary individuals. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26957760

Ruivo R.M. (2016). Effects of a Resistance and Stretching Training Program on Forward Head and Protracted Shoulder Posture in Adolescents. Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics, 40(1), 1-10.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27842938

Foam Rolling Your Quads For Decreased Tightness And Increased Performance

Foam Roller Exercises for Your Quadriceps

Tight quads got you down?  Don’t despair: foam rolling your quads is quick, it’s easy, and it is truly effective.  We’ll show you how to decrease tightness while increasing flexibility and athletic performance; all you need is a foam roller and a few minutes each day.  Sound good?  Let’s get to it then.



Getting To Know Your Quadriceps

diagram of the quads needed when foam rolling your quads
A diagram of the thigh muscles, includes those of the quadriceps

The quads, or quadriceps, are a group of four muscles: the rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis and the vastus intermedius.  (What a mouthful!)  These muscles are located at the front of your thigh and control movement of the knee.  They play a crucial role in walking, running, jumping, and squatting.  One of the quad muscles, the rectus femoris, also plays a role in hip flexion.  This helps swing your leg forward while walking and running.  Finally, the vastus medialis also plays a role in stabilizing the patella and knee joint.

Strong quads, like the epic specimens pictured below, are highly desired by athletes and bodybuilders alike.  For athletes, a strong quad will give the explosive acceleration needed for sports like track, soccer, football, etc.  However, the training required to build these quads can often lead to strains, over fatigue, and other injuries.

well defined quads
Maybe your quads aren’t quite this big, that’s ok.

How Quads Become Tight

Now that you know what they do, it’s important to know how we get tight, strained quads, so that you know how to properly address the problem.

Weight training is one of the most common causes of tight quads.  Bodybuilders, both traditional and crossfit style, all want super defined quads.  This means a lot of squats.  After a particularly intense leg day, your quads can often feel very tight and inflexible.  Foam rolling your quads is actually a perfect compliment to weight lifting, and squats in particular.  I always recommend two foam rolling sessions each day: one either in the morning or evening, and one right before your exercise.

Over training is another culprit.  Given that the quads are responsible for explosive acceleration, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that often times when accelerating explosively, one might hurt their quad.  This happens a lot when athletes aren’t properly warmed up.  The recommendation here is to do dynamic stretching, not static stretching, before beginning your running.  Then, start with slower pace runs before your sprints.  Finally, if possible, do uphill sprints before starting flat sprints.  Now you can go all out and be less likely to suffer from tight quads afterwards.

Muscle imbalance is a common cause of tight quads in runners.  This condition is caused when the hamstrings are much stronger than the quadriceps.  Along with foam rolling, the recommendation is to add more quad-specific strength conditioning.

Strained quadriceps is an actual injury, a tearing away of the quadriceps muscle fiber from the bone.  This is most common in martial artists, but still appears in other athletes.

How To Foam Roll Your Quads

There are two main variations on foam rolling your quads: rolling both legs at the same time (the two leg variation) and rolling each leg individually (the single leg variation).  Neither is better, per se, it’s really a matter of personal preference and what works best to release your fascia.  If you’ve never used a foam roller before, or never foam rolled your quads, you might want to start with the two leg variation.  It maintains an even pressure on both quads at the same time, distributing your weight onto to legs, and so it’s a little lighter.  The single leg variation thereby exerts more pressure onto the fascia, so it’s better for those that have rolled their quads before, and know that their quads require harder pressure.

The Two Leg Variation

Foam roling your quads is pretty easy.  Lay down on top of your foam roller, with the roller positioned under your quads and just above the knees.  It should be perpendicular to your body, and I find that a full-sized foam roller is better to use with the two leg variation.  Now, with your body weight on your forearms, begin pushing yourself slowly backwards, so that the roller moves upwards towards your hips.  You want to roll slowly, at around one inch per second.  Once you reach about 1-2 inches from your hips, change directions and start rolling back down.  Continue this for 30-45 seconds, making sure to focus on any trigger points that you identify.  If this is your first time foam rolling your quads, it will probably hurt.  That’s OK.  Tomorrow it will feel great!

Here’s a video demonstrating the technique:

The One Leg Variation

To foam roll your quads one leg at a time, first lay atop your roller positioning the roller underneath your right quad, just above the knee.  The left leg should be canted out to the left, bent about 45 degrees.  You might find this easier with a shorter, half length roller, rather than the full length version.  Put your weight onto your forearms rather than your wrists to prevent any wrist injuries.  Now slowly begin to roll, moving the foam roller up towards your hip at a rate of approximately one inch per second.  Rolling too fast is one of the most common foam rolling mistakes; foam rolling should feel sloooow.

Here’s an excellent video demonstration from the Triggerpoint GRID folks:





Additional Stretches For The Quads

The standing quad stretch compliments foam rolling the quads
The standing quad stretch is an excellent compliment to foam rolling you quads

The standing quad stretch is an excellent stretch that will compliment your foam rolling, and is really the quintessential quadriceps stretch.  While standing, raise your right foot behind you, bending the knee, and attempting to get that foot as close to your buttocks as possible.  Using your right hand, grasp your foot to pull the stretch a little deeper.  To deepen the stretch even more, use the opposite hand to hold.  If your balance is anything like mine, feel free to use a chair or something to help yourself balance.  Hold the stretch for 30 seconds, and then repeat on the other side.

supine quad stretchThe supine quad stretch is another great stretch, especially for runners.  Lay on your back, then bring one knee up to your chest.  Your leg should be bent, not straight or locked out.  With both hands, hold the leg just below the knee, then slowly “hug” the leg closer to your torso.  Don’t hold it too tight, just until you can feel the pressure.  Hold for 30-45 seconds and then switch sides.

How To Use a Foam Roller For Sciatica

Sciatica symptoms can range from the mildly annoying to the downright painful. Foam rolling can help decrease and alleviate the symptoms of sciatica, putting you on the fast track to recovery.

cause and treatment of sciaticaAs many as 40% of adults will suffer from sciatica at some point in their lives.  If you fall into this demographic, your doctor might recommend physical therapy (among other treatments) as a way to manage your sciatica.  What he/she likely didn’t mention is that you can use a foam roller as part of your physical therapy regimen for treating your sciatica symptoms.  We’ll first go over the basics of sciatica, and then talk about how to use your foam roller for sciatica symptoms.

 

What Is Sciatica?

Sciatica is an irritation of the sciatic nerve, and can affect as many as 40% of adults at some point in their life.  Sciatica is often described as a painful feeling that “shoots” from the back of the buttocks and thigh, and can extend down to the knee or even the foot.  The actual sensation varies quite a bit- for some it’s a dull ache, others have a sharp burning sensation.  Sciatica is often irritated by prolonged sitting or standing, as well as muscle contractions due to coughing, sneezing, lifting, or twisting.

The important thing to understand is that sciatica is itself a symptom, caused by compression of the sciatic nerve.  This can be due to a herniated disc, an inflamed piriformis muscle, a bone spur, or multiple other causes.  In order to eliminate sciatica, one must find the root cause and work to fix that.  If your sciatica has persisted for more than a week, you should see a doctor.  Your doctor will hopefully be able to identify the root cause, and develop a personalized recovery plan.

Since there’s no uniform cause of sciatica, we can’t recommend a single workout routine to help with it.  Instead, we’ll highlight some different foam rolling exercises that can help with sciatica, and allow you to choose which ones to use based upon your particular circumstances.

How To Use a Foam Roller For Sciatica

The first thing we want to highlight is that if you have a mechanical injury to your back or spine, such as a herniated disc, you should not foam roll your lower back.  This could potentially exacerbate your injury, and we certainly don’t want that to happen.  Please read our article about foam rolling the lower back for more information.

Foam Rolling The Piriformis

piriformis muscle role in using foam roller for sciatica
The sciatic nerve goes under and through the piriformis muscle.

Using your foam roller for sciatica will involve a few different exercises, the first of which is to foam roll the piriformis.  This is a small muscle in the hip, close to the glutes, and lies directly on top of the sciatic nerve, which also extends through the muscle on its way down to leg.  Therefore, an inflammation of the piriformis muscle can cause compression on the sciatic nerve and result in sciatica symptoms, a condition known as Piriformis Syndrome (Knudsen, 2016).  This exercise will not only target the piriformis, but also the gluteus medius, gluteus maximus, and gluteus minimus as well…all of which can help contribute to decreased sciatic pain.

To perform this exercise, sit on top of your foam roller with both legs bent to 90 degrees and both feet flat on the ground.  Bend your left left on top of the right, so that your left ankle is on top of your right knee.  Now lean ever so slightly onto your left hip.  Your right hand should be holding the left ankle in place, while the left hand is on the ground behind you for stabilization.  Now start to slowly roll back and forth.  After doing this side for 30-45 seconds, switch to the other side and repeat.  Here’s an excellent video demonstrating the proper form:

Tip: When you do this exercise for the first time, you might want to use a softer foam roller, like the AmazonBasics 18-inch foam roller, to gauge your tolerance.  I promise, after a few days it won’t hurt as much.  You can then move up to firmer foam rollers, such as the very popular Trigger Point GRID 13-inch roller (which comes with free online instructional videos), if you find the softer ones are losing effectiveness.  Our foam roller comparison page has some great information for purchasing your first foam roller.

Perform this exercise twice daily.  You can do it morning and evening, or (better yet) once in the morning and then once again right before working out.  Make it a routine, every day, so that you’re more likely to continue doing it.  After a week or two your symptoms should be noticeably better.

Foam Rolling The Hamstring

Another exercise to consider when using a foam roller for sciatica treatment is to foam roll the hamstrings.  Tight hamstrings often cause pressure in the lower back, as well as lower back pain.  Additionally, pressure on the sciatic nerve can cause leg tightness.  So overall, it’s a pretty good idea to roll the hamstrings during your exercise routine.  We’ve created an entire page dedicated to foam rolling the hamstrings, but for convenience, here’s a video demonstrating the proper form:

Along with foam rolling the piriformis, we recommend that you foam roll the hamstrings twice daily.  Even after you’ve effectively treated your sciatica, it’s still a good idea to continue your foam rolling regimen: you’ll increase your flexibility, increase bloodflow, decrease the risk of future injury, and even reduce the appearance of cellulite.

Additional Stretches To Treat Sciatica

Using a foam roller for sciatica treatment is a great start, but there are a few additional stretches we recommend adding to your workout.  These stretches work in tandem with foam rolling, greatly increasing your overall flexibility and reducing inflammation and injury.

hamstring stretch with chair

Stretch the Hamstrings.  To do this stretch, you’ll need a chair, box, ottoman, or any other object that’s a foot or so tall.  Place the object about 18 inches in front of you, and stretch one foot forward onto the object, keeping the knee straight.  Then, keeping the back and opposite leg straight, lean gradually forward at the waist towards the outstretched leg.  Lean until you start to feel pressure on the hamstring, but don’t go too far.  Hold for 20 seconds, then switch sides.

Stretch the Lower Back.  For this stretch, lie on your back with both legs forward.  Slowly bend one leg, bringing the knee towards your chest.  Wrap your arms around the leg to pull it tight to the chest, and hold for 5 seconds.  Switch legs, and then perform 10 repetitions each.

lying knee tucks to stretch lower back

Conclusion

Regardless of the root cause of your sciatica, using a foam roller for sciatica can help to drastically reduce your symptoms.  Whether you choose to add one or both of the above exercises into your daily workout, we hope that the information presented was useful and that you find yourself quickly on the road to recovery.

References

Knudsen, J.S., Mei-Dan, O., & Brick, M.J. (2016). Piriformis Syndrome and Endoscopic Sciatic Neurolysis. Sports Medicine and Arthroscopy Review, 24(1), 1-7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26752779

Mayo Clinic: http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/sciatica/basics/definition/con-20026478

How To Use a Foam Roller on your Hamstring for Pain Relief and Flexibility

The definitive and easy-to-use guide that will show you how to use a foam roller on your hamstring, and why you should be doing this exercise every day

foam roll hamstring

Tight hamstrings are the bane of runners, sprinters, soccer players, rugby players, and really every other athlete too.  Moreover, even non-athletes suffer from tight hamstrings, especially working professionals who sit for extended periods of time.  Fortunately, foam rolling the hamstrings is an effective solution for this pesky problem.  Here’s an email we received from Alissa, in Palm Springs.

“I’m a full-time mother of three and an avid runner.  Tight hamstrings used to really be a big problem for me.  For years, my hamstrings had been tight and inflexible, making running much more difficult than it should have been.  That was, anyways, until a few years ago when I discovered foam rolling.  Since then, my hamstrings have improved tremendously.  They’re more flexible now than ever before, and I’m hitting new PRs all the time!”

If you’re like Alissa, suffering from tight hamstrings that are leading to inflexibility and stiffness, then perhaps foam rolling can be your salvation as well.

Table of Contents:

Causes of Tight Hamstrings

The most common cause of hamstring strain, without a doubt, is a previous hamstring injury.  Previous injuries can cause scar tissue, nerve and ligament damage, and a number of other issues that might be causing pain or tightness in your hamstrings.  If this sounds like you, foam rolling your hamstrings at home will definitely give you some relief, and may even get you feeling normal again!  It might not be enough though, and you may wish to visit a physical therapist or occupational therapist for additional recovery solutions.

Something that might be surprising is that often times, people who think they have tight, painful hamstrings actually…don’t.  It’s a funky conditional called adverse neural tension, where restricted bloodflow in one part of the body (like the spine) can lead to pain signals in another part of the body (like the hamstrings).

standing hamstring stretch toe touch
First, look towards your navel until you feel hamstring strain. Then look up, towards the horizon. Does the pain decrease?

Here’s a simple test to see if the hamstring tightness you’re suffering might actually be caused by adverse neural tension: bend forward and [try to] touch your toes, while keeping your head positioned so that your eyes are looking at your bellybutton.  Don’t bend so far that it hurts, just go far enough to feel that familiar hamstring strain.  Now, move your head up so that you’re looking to the horizon.  Did that decrease the pressure on your hamstrings?  If so, you’re one of a number of people suffering from adverse neural tension, rather than an actual hamstring strain.  We recommend still foam rolling your hamstrings, but also focus on foam rolling your hip flexors and glutes, as well.

Tight hamstrings can also be caused by sitting too much.  According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine, when we’re in a seated position, the hip flexor muscles are actually in a shortened position, pulling the front of the pelvis forward.  Since the hamstrings are connected to the rear of the pelvis, this will cause the hamstrings to elongate and feel tightened.  Therefore, one of the best ways to alleviate tight, sore hamstrings is to actually stretch and foam roll your hip flexors.



How To Foam Roll Hamstrings

Foam rolling your hamstrings is a simple exercise, and once you start to do it each day your tightness and pain will disappear within the first week or so.  Be warned, if you’ve never used a foam roller before, you’re going to be sore tomorrow.  These things are pseudo torture devices that we love to hate.  Give it a few days though; you’ll never have felt so good.

Here’s a great video demonstrating the most basic method of foam rolling the hamstrings.  Note that this can be performed either one leg at a time, if you need more pressure on your fascia, or both legs at the same time if you’re a little more sensitive.

To do both legs at the same time:

  1. Sit on the ground with your foam roller under your thighs.
  2. Placing your hands on the ground behind you, push up so that your weight is supported by your hands and the roller that’s under your thighs.  Tip: if you have weak or sensitive wrists, you can make fists rather than putting your hands flat on the ground.  If that’s still too much strain on your wrists, check out the next technique below.
  3. Slowly roll back and forth until you’ve identified a trigger point.  Once you’ve identified a sensitive area, maintain pressure there for about 30 seconds.

For the one leg variation:

  1. Sit on the ground with your foam roller under your thighs, and one leg bent to 90 degrees with that foot on the ground.  The other leg should be extended forward.
  2. Place your hands behind you, and gently push up so that your weight is supported by your hands and the stabilizing foot.
  3. Slowly roll back and forth until you’ve identified a trigger point.  Once you’ve identified a sensitive area, maintain pressure there for about 30 seconds.

For a more advanced version, Trigger Point Therapy – makers of the GRID foam roller – released this video on how to foam roll the hamstrings.  To perform this exercise, you’ll need a bench or seat.  Place your foam roller on top of the bench, then sit down behind the roller, with your leg draped over it so that the roller is underneath your hamstrings.  Put pressure onto the leg, and start to slowly roll.

Using either variation of these exercises will increase your hamstring flexibility greatly over the course of just a few short weeks.  It’s best to actually use these stretches before your exercise, rather than just static stretches which have been shown to reduce performance.

 

Three Best Hamstring Stretches

Below we’ve listed the three best hamstring stretches that we recommend you do every morning, right after foam rolling your hamstring.  Make it a routine.

  1. seated hamstring stretchSeated Hamstring Stretch.  AKA the toe touch.  This is the classic.  Sit on the ground with both legs together and extended straight ahead of you.  Bend at the waist, but maintaining a straight (not arched) back, while you reach towards your toes.  Make sure that you’re breathing, and that you don’t bounce or strain.  If you can’t touch your toes, don’t worry, you’ll get there someday; just reach forward as far as you comfortably can, and hold for 20 seconds.  Repeat 2-3 times.
  2. modified hurdlers stretch for hamstringsModified Hurdler’s Stretch.  Sit on the ground, with both legs forward, toes pointed towards the ceiling.  Now bend one leg about 45 degrees, placing that foot against the inside thigh of the opposite leg.  Now slowly bend forward towards the leg that is still extended, making sure to keep a straight back while you do so.  Only go as far as you comfortably can, and hold the stretch for 20 seconds.
  3. hamstring stretch with chairHamstring Stretch with Chair.  For this stretch you’ll need to use the front of a chair, or a box, or really anything else that’s a couple feet off the ground.  Place one foot on the chair and then keeping your back and knee straight, lean forward at the waist until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings.  Hold for 20 seconds, then do the other side.  Repeat twice.

Other Tips For Avoiding Hamstring Injury

Hopefully after reading this you’ll know the proper technique to foam roll your hamstrings, and you’ll begin a daily foam rolling regime.  Foam rolling every day will absolutely see you on the road to recovery.  However, here are a few other tips for avoiding hamstring injuries that we hope you’ll find useful.

  1. If you’re a weight lifter, try switching to a trap bar for deadlifts, rather than conventional or sumo deadlifts.  This will help reduce the strain on your hamstrings, as explained by Eric Cressey.
  2. Additional, switch to front squats for a while, rather than back or box squats, to take some of the load off your hamstrings.
  3. For the runners and sprinters out there, do your hill sprint repeats before doing regular sprints.  Your stride will be shorter, and the heel strike will put less pressure on the hamstrings (Gottschall, 2004).

 

References

Gottschall, J., & Kram, R. (2004). Ground Reaction Forces During Downhill and Uphill Running. Journal of Biomechanics, 38(3), 445-452.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jbiomech.2004.04.023


How To Use A Foam Roller For Lower Back Pain

Addressing one of the more common mistakes when foam rolling, and explaining how to properly foam roll for lower back pain.

foam rolling can help reduce lower back painLower back pain is one of the most common ailments we’re likely to suffer during our lives, especially as we grow older.  In fact, the National Institute of Health estimates that about 80% of adults will experience lower back pain at some point.  Moreover, the UK’s National Health Service stated that lower back pain was the cause for over 15 million lost work days in the UK during 2013.  Therefore, it’s not only a problem that’s affecting individuals, but lower back pain is also impacting the corporate bottom line.

That’s where foam rolling comes in.  Foam rolling can help with lower back pain, but perhaps not in the way that you might expect.  Please read our guide below carefully!  There are too many people out there who are foam rolling their lower back incorrectly, which could potentially aggravate their issues even further.

Table Of Contents:

Understanding The Cause of Lower Back Pain

Before your lower back pain can be treated, it first must be understood.  Unfortunately, there are dozens of causes of lower back pain, each with varying degrees of severity, and understanding what is causing your pain can be complicated!

  • Spondylosis is a general term that refers to spinal degeneration via normal wear and tear as we get older.  It is very often the cause of lower back pain.
  • Traumatic injuries, such as car accidents or sports injuries, can often lead to lower back pain.  Traumatic injuries can injure the tendons, ligaments, or muscles in and around the back, and can also cause herniated or ruptured spinal discs.
  • Sciatica is caused by compressed nerves in your lower back, and can cause pain that radiates from your back all the way down to your toes.  The pain is often described as “burning” and “shooting”, and sciatica can even cause numbness and muscle weakness in the leg.  Sciatica can be a fairly serious issues, so if you think you might have it please see a doctor.

Some of the risk factors involved with lower back pain are:

  • Age.  Generally, lower back pain begins between ages 30 and 50, and is more common among the older population.  This is because our spine is constantly degenerating as we get older and, in fact, pretty much every adult over the age of 50 has Degenerative Disc Disease to some degree.  As we age, we also lose muscle elasticity and joint flexibility.  Luckily, these are two of the problems that foam rolling can really help improve, so if you think your back pain might be age-induced, please read on to see some of our foam rolling exercises for lower back pain.
  • Fitness Level.  Lower back pain is more common in people who are less physically fit, due to weaker leg, back, and abdominal muscles.
  • Weight.  Back pain is also more common in overweight and obese individuals, due to increased stress on the back and spine.

How NOT to Foam Roll Your Lower Back

how not to foam roll lower back pain
A perfect example of how not to use your foam roller if you suffer from lower back pain. This method can seriously aggravate your underlying mechanical issues.

Here comes the “gotcha” that we hinted about up top.  The truth is that it’s actually recommended that you don’t foam roll your lower back.  You’ve probably seen someone at the gym with a foam roller underneath their lower back – I know I have.  There’s an example image on the left – taken from Pinterest – showing someone incorrectly foam rolling their back.  It’s a common misconception that, depending upon the cause of your lower back pain, could actually end up making things worse.  Why is this the case?  As pointed out on a National Academy of Sports Medicine blog post, foam rolling is effective in two scenarios:  by alleviating the side effects of active or latent trigger points, and by influencing the autonomic nervous system.  While these can both be used for great relief in most of the body, the action itself requires that you slowly roll – about one inch per second – across the affected area until you find a trigger point.  This is the crux of the problem.  The National Institute of Health states that most lower back pain is mechanical in nature, meaning there is a disruption in the way the components of the back (the spine, muscle, discs, and nerves) work together.  Putting a foam roller under your lower back forces your spine into an unnatural, arched position, which can aggravate those underlying mechanical issues even more.

The Correct Way To Foam Roll Lower Back Pain

Don’t be scared or put off by the above paragraph.  If you suffer from pain in your lower back, your foam roller can still be useful, just perhaps not in the way that most people would intuitively think.

Hip Flexors

The first exercise that can help with pain in your lower back is actually  foam rolling the hip flexors.  Everything in the body is inter-connected, and a tight muscle in one area of the body can actually cause soreness and aching in another area.  The hip flexors connect to the lumbar spine, so their inflexibility (for example, caused by sitting for extended periods of time) is often the cause of lower back issues.

The excellent video below shows the proper form for this exercise, and also has some tips on avoiding other common foam rolling mistakes.

Tip: When foam rolling the hip flexors, we generally prefer to use a half-sized roller, such as the Rumble Roller Half Size.  It’s a little easier to maneuver under the body than a full-sized roller.

We also highly recommend the GRID foam roller, as well as the inexpensive LuxFit foam roller.

To compare all three, check out our in-depth reviews.

 

Glutes

Next, you need to foam roll the glute muscles.  A December 2015 study published in the Journal of Back and Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation found that core strengthening exercises, and specifically strengthening the gluteus maximus, helped reduce lower back pain (Kumar, 2015).  Futhermore, a study soon to be published in the European Spine Journal found that people with lower back pain tend to have weaker (and more tender) gluteus medius muscles than those without back pain (Cooper, 2015).

So it looks like it’s time to get snapping sonny, and whip those glutes into shape!  We’ve dedicated a whole page to foam rolling gluteus maximus, which also contains some strengthening exercises.  For a quick peek, the videos below shows foam rolling techniques for the gluteus medius and gluteus maximus, respectively.

Calves

The final foam rolling exercise to alleviate lower back pain is the calves.  Vladimir Janda, the “Father of Rehabilitation”, founded a school of muscle rehabilitation based on muscle imbalance.  His research found that

Triceps Surae tightness is often the hidden cause of low back pain.

(The triceps surae, for those of us not hip on Latin, is more commonly known as the calf muscle.)  Therefore, when the calf muscles are tight, the body’s center of mass will shift slightly.  This shift causes overactivation in the spine as it attempts to maintain an erect posture.  Over time, this will put abnormal compression and stress on the lumbar spine area, and thus cause lower back pain.  Restoring normal calf muscle flexibility can therefore eliminate lower back pain caused by triceps surae tightness, which sounds like the perfect job for a foam roller.

Foam rolling calves is a straight-forward exercise; here’s a quick YouTube video that walks through the proper form:

Best Stretches for Lower Back Pain

Now that you know that foam rolling your lower back isn’t actually the best way to alleviate lower back pain (and can actually cause injuries), and you know how to properly foam roll for lower back pain, it’s time to add in some more stretches.  These stretches will increase flexibility, and work in conjunction with foam rolling to eliminate your lower back issues.

Here are the stretches you should be doing, followed by a great video demonstration:

  • Dog/Cat Stretch
  • Child’s Pose
  • Lumbar Stretch
  • Hamstring Stretch
  • Glute Stretch


Other Tips For Reducing Lower Back Pain

Now that you know how to foam roll lower back pain away, as well as some great stretches to keep the pain at bay, let’s examine some other tips for preventing lower back pain.

  • If you work in an office, drive or fly for extended periods of time, or are otherwise sitting most of the day: take breaks often.  For every 30-minutes of sitting that you do, try to take a 5 minute break to get up and walk around.
  • In addition to the breaks, try to sit in various positions throughout the day.  Changing your position even slightly can change which muscles are engaged.
  • Try to work standing up, rather than sitting down.
  • Create a stretching routine, then follow it every day.

 

References:

Kumar, T., Kumar, S., Nezamuddin, M., & Sharma V. (2015). Efficacy of core muscle strengthening exercise in chronic low back pain patients. Journal of Back and Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation, 28(4), 699-707. http://doi.org/10.3233/BMR-140572.

Page, P., Frank, C., & Lardner, R. (2010). Assessment and Treatment of Muscle Imbalance: The Janda Approach. Human Kinetics.

Foam Rolling The Latissimus Dorsi (Lats)

Tight lats can be painful, and can even make breathing difficult. Find out how to foam roll the lats for quick and easy pain relief.

The latissimus dorsi muscle, or more simply just called the lats, is a large triangle shaped muscle located in your back.  It is one of the largest muscles in the back, and, when well defined, is clearly visible.  Like most other muscles, it can become strained…sometimes to the point that it even hurts to breathe.  Foam rolling the lats provides quick and easy pain relief, and we’ll show you how to do it.

How Do We Use Our Lats?

Latissimus dorsi lats muscle descriptionThe lats are responsible for extension, adductions, transverse extension, flexion, and internal rotation of the shoulder joint.  Meaning that quite nearly every movement of the shoulder will involve your lat muscles.  The lats also connect to the lumbar spine, and assist with movements of the lower back.  Finally, and what might be a surprise, is that the lats also play a support role in the breathing process.  They’re referred to as an “accessory breathing muscle”, and enhance trunk movements during both inhalation and exhalation.

The latissimus muscles are often exercised through vertical pulling movements such as pull-ups and chin-ups.  They are also exercised through horizontal pulling movements, such as the bent-over row, and other rowing exercises.

Sore, tight, or injured lats might make it uncomfortable to take deep breaths.  It can also cause pain with shoulder movements, and pain in the lower back.


How To Foam Roll Your Lats

Foam rolling your lats is a simple process that can help alleviate tight, sore muscles.  Here’s a quick step-by-step:

  1. Place your foam roller on the ground, preferably on top of a yoga mat.
  2. Lie down on one side, with your foam roller underneath your armpit, and perpendicular to your body.
  3. Extend the arm that’s now on the bottom side, so that it forms a straight line with the rest of your body.
  4. You can keep both legs extended, or bring one in – bent at about 90 degrees – for additional support if needed.
  5. Tighten your core and lift, so that your weight it supported by your feet and the foam roller.
  6. Now start to roll slowly, down from your armpit, along your lats.  This motion should be fairly small, you don’t need to roll down your entire side.  After you’ve gone a few inches, roll back up towards the armpit.

That’s it!  Here’s a great video showing the proper technique:





An Alternate Foam Roller Lat Exercise

Another great lat exercise involving the foam roller can help you stretch and massage those tight muscles.  Follow the same basic setup described above.  Take the arm that’s extended, and place your hand behind your head.  Now, instead of rolling back and forth, you’re going to rotate your trunk.  Twist back and forth with your trunk, putting the focus on the outside portion of your back.  Watch this video for a quick look at the proper form:

How To Foam Roll Your Hip Flexors

Everyone experiences sore or tight hip flexors at some point; we’ll show you the right way to foam roll the hip flexor muscles to eliminate these problems.

foam roll hip flexorsHip flexors are one of those muscles that athletes love to hate.  When they’re sore or tight, your workout is doomed before it even begins.

The hip flexors are actually a group of muscles, and are involved in lifting your knees and bending your waist.  Therefore, they experience stress when running – especially while sprinting – and also when you kick.  So whether you’re a runner, dancer, soccer player, football player, martial artist, you name it…you’re going to experience sore hip flexors at some point, and foam rolling is an excellent way to alleviate the tightness and pain.  Let’s find out how!

Table of Contents:

Foam Rolling Hip Flexors Can Help With Lower Back Pain

foam roll hip flexor for lower back pain
Foam rolling your hip flexors can help alleviate lower back pain

Did you know that a lot of back pain, especially lower back pain in the lumbar region, is caused by tight hip flexors?

If you’re sitting at a desk, driving, or even sleeping, your hip flexors will be in an unnatural, shortened position.  The hip flexors then become contracted and the psoas muscle, the hip flexor that attaches to the lumbar spine, will become inflexible.  This can eventually lead to disc strain, spinal problems, and back pain.

Foam Rolling the Hip Flexor Can Help With Snapping Hip Syndrome

Snapping hip syndrome, also known as “dancer’s hip”, is a painful condition where any movement of the hip will cause pain along with an audible snapping or popping sound.  The recommended treatment for snapping hip syndrome is often to use the HI-RICE method: hydration, Ibuprofin, rest, ice, compression, and elevation.  The root cause of this issue is generally tight hip flexors.  Therefore, stretching the hip flexors usually helps to treat the problem.  Fitness expert Ben Greenfield suggests foam rolling hip flexors to assist in increasing flexibility, and preventing this issue from recurring in the future.

How to Foam Roll Your Hip Flexors

  1. Lie face down on your foam roller, with the roller located underneath and a little below your right hip.
  2. Cant your left leg to the side, with the knee bent at about a 90 degree angle.
    (This is mainly just to get the left leg out of the way.)
  3. Place your forearms on the ground in front of you, supporting some of your body weight.
  4. Extend your right leg out straight behind you, with your toes pointing backwards, and your foot flat against the ground.
  5. Begin to roll slowly back and forth, with some right-to-left movement as well.
  6. Continue for 20 to 30 seconds, or until you find a trigger point.  Focus on any trigger points for about 10 seconds.
  7. Repeat on the other side.

Tip: When foam rolling the hip flexor, you might find it easier to use a shorter foam roller.  We highly recommend the inexpensive 18-inch AmazonBasics roller, or the more expensive (and more effective) 13-inch GRID foam roller.

As always, foam rolling your hip flexors is one of those things that is easier to do than to actually explain.  To simplify the matter, here’s an excellent instructional video that demonstrates the process and also points out a few common mistakes.

A Few More Hip Flexor Exercises

After you’re done foam rolling your hip flexors, there are a few extra exercises you can do to really help strength and stretch the muscles.reverse lunge after foam rolling hip flexors

  • Reverse Lunges.  Reverse lunges are great for the hip flexors.
    When you do reverse lunges, you’ll actually be working your glutes, too.  The glutes and hip flexors are heavily inter-connected and through the process of reciprocal inhibition, when one is tight, the other can’t function optimally.  Doing a reverse lunge will lengthen out the hip flexor and activate the glutes.
  • Back Bridge.  The back bridge (or just bridge) is another great hip flexor bridge after foam roll hip flexorsexercise that again involves your glutes.  (You’ll notice this trend that everything in the body is so inter-connected.  The glutes connect to the hip flexors, which connect to the spine; if any one of these is tight, you could experience back pain.  To treat that pain, we have to treat not one, but all of the connecting areas.)  Hence we’re again using reciprocal inhibition to treat our hip flexors via the glutes.

Additional Ways To Prevent Hip Flexor Pain

  • Avoid sitting for long periods of time.  If you have a desk job, it’s best to take breaks frequently.  Every hour, you should get up and walk around a bit.  Before you sit back down, stretch out your legs a bit  – a standing hamstring stretch and a nice deep forward lunge can do wonders.
  • Ensure that you warm up adequately before doing rigorous physical activities.  Take some time to stretch out before you start the activity.  Then, progress in intensity gradually – don’t take off at max speed right from the beginning.  Additionally, research has found that some activities might actually benefit from foam rolling before you exercise, instead of just doing static stretching.
 How Often Should You Foam Roll Your Hip Flexors?

Every day!  If you suffer from chronic pain, or have severely sore/tight muscles, you’ll benefit from creating a daily routine.  Make it a habit to foam roll and stretch each morning.  Then before a workout, do some additional foam rolling (maybe 3-5 minutes total) to warm up, as well as some dynamic stretching.  After the workout do static stretching, with another foam rolling session of 10-20 minutes.  It might sound like a lot of time spent with your roller, but trust me, your body will thank you for it.

Foam Rolling The Gluteus Maximus

gluteus maximus and gluteus medius musclesFoam rolling your gluteus maximus will bring terrific relief to tightness and soreness throughout your legs and, especially, your glutes (butt).  This stretch is really terrific for athletes, and runners in particular.  However, really just about anyone will benefit, so we recommend giving it a shot today.  Self myofascial release is really easy, and we’ve broken down how to self-massage your glutes into a really easy guide.  Also be sure to check out some of our other foam roller exercises.

How to Foam Roll Your Gluteus Maximus

  1. Place a yoga mat on the floor first, for some extra cushioning.  Then grab your preferred density of foam roller, putting it on top of the yoga mat, about 3/4 of the way back.
  2. Sit directly on top of the foam roller, so that it’s right underneath both of your buttocks.foam roll gluteus maximus
  3. Place both hands onto the yoga mat behind you for support, and bend both legs to about a 45 degree angle.
  4. Now, use your left hand to gently place your right ankle onto your left knee.
  5. With your hand either on your ankle or thigh, slightly lean to right.  This will isolate the gluteus maximus muscle.
  6. Gently and slowly roll back and forth until your find any trigger points.
  7. Hold for 20-30 seconds, then repeat on the other side.

Too complicated?  Check out the video

The description might sound complicated…foam rolling is one of those things that is easier to do than to describe!  Just take a look at the following video, which displays the steps described above.  Try foam rolling your gluteus maximus today, and see how much better you feel!