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Older adult using foam roller with help from a physical therapist

5 Things You Need to Know About Foam Rolling

Plus, learn how to foam roll your IT band

The cylindrical tool covered in — you guessed it — foam, can help ease pains caused by injury or general workouts. Though it may be the must-have gym tool of the season, keep some things in mind before you try it. Sarah Silk, a clinical exercise physiologist at the McConnell Heart Health Center, gives us the lowdown on foam rolling.

A few warnings: You never want to foam roll over a joint, you never want to foam roll your neck, and you never want to foam roll to the point of pain.

The Foam-Rolling Basics

1. It’s a form of self-myofascial release.

It’s what? According to Silk, your body is made up of a lot of fascia: connective tissue around the muscles, organs, joints, etc. “When we exercise there’s the tendency to sometimes overdo, and by doing that we get these things called trigger points. Trigger points are areas of the muscle where, when you push down, it’s very painful and radiates to other areas,” she says. “You may have a trigger point in your shoulder, and when you push that point in your shoulder it actually radiates pain up into your neck and can cause it to go back down into your back.”

Silk says the point of self-myofascial release is to target the trigger points, those knots in the muscle, and actually let them relax. “With foam rolling, you’re rolling over that knot, pushing on that knot and helping it to release the tension in the area,” she says. The result? You increase blood flow to help remove toxins out of the area and help healthy blood heal the area or issue that’s causing pain.

2. Not all foam rollers are created equal.

Foam rolling has become increasingly popular recently, and with that came more foam options. Silk explains, “The foam roller is nice because there are different densities to the foam you can use.”

She advises beginners: “You want to start off with a lighter, softer foam and gradually build up to the harder foams or even a heavy thick plastic to roll over that area.”

3. Foam rolling isn’t going to feel great.

“It is going to be painful,” Silk says. But it shouldn’t take your breath away.

“If you ever get any residual bruising or if you are in pain later that day or even the next day, you did way too much,” she says. “It was probably either the wrong foam roller or you may have something more intense going on than just a muscle knot.”

The bottom line: You don’t want any bruising, and you don’t want the pain to last longer than the duration of the foam rolling. “It should feel better after you get off the foam roller.”

4. You can control the intensity of the activity with your weight.

“With foam rolling you can also vary the intensity by how much weight you actually put on the foam roller. It’s all dependent on how much body weight you can hold, basically; you’re doing the rolling. If it’s too intense, you can push up your hands and take some of that body weight off that area,” Silk explains.

5. Foam rolling isn’t a cure-all or risk-free.

“The biggest [warning] I have for people doing the foam rolling is to go slow. It’s a very popular thing right now, but many people do it incorrectly,” she says. Unsure how to do it? Either ask a personal trainer or find an exercise physiologist.

“I think it’s a great tool to use, but it’s not always the end-all-be-all to your tight tissues. If you foam rolled correctly, you stretch daily, and you’re still having issues, make sure that you go and get it checked out because there’s probably something else going on.”

How to Use a Foam Roller for Your IT Band

A how-to guide for foam rolling will depend on which muscle area you’re trying to stretch. For this example, Silk describes how to foam roll your IT band. The IT band is the band that connects up on your hip on the outside of your leg all the way to the outside of your knee. For the IT band foam roll, and other foam rolls, you’ll want to roll the belly of the muscle. Silk advises people to do each muscle belly twice and to roll 30 seconds to one minute.

For the IT band foam roll:

1. Lie on your side.

2. Put foam roller underneath the top part of your hip, almost in the middle of your glute, while you’re on your side.

3. Position your forearm on the ground to support your body.

4. Take the leg that you’re not rolling and cross it over top, and push up to support that body weight and take pressure off the IT band.

5. Have the leg that you’re rolling straight, while you’re on your side, and hold yourself up by propping up on your forearm.

6. Pull yourself/push yourself, allowing the foam roller to roll down to the very top of your knee (on the outside of your leg).

7. Once you reach the top part of the outside of the knee, you would push and go the opposite way, in the rolling/rocking position, all the way up, all the way down the side of your leg.

8. Never roll over the hip joint, never roll over the knee joint.

9. You can take pressure off by propping yourself up more with that forearm or by pushing up with your opposite leg.

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