Like many people working from home during the pandemic, Veronika Javor, 39, swapped a supportive desk chair in her office for a soft sofa chair in her living room. It was comfortable at first, but the new seat soon took a toll, as Ms. Javor, a Houston-based content creator, developed a sharp, radiating pain in her left buttock. She tried to ignore it, but after a particularly tough glute-focused Pilates workout, the discomfort became unbearable.
“I woke up with pain every single morning, and eventually, it hurt so much I was afraid to work out at all,” Ms. Javor said.
Her physical therapist said the problem was tightness in her glutes and suggested she roll her leg over a foam cylinder three times daily to release the tension. After a month following the rolling plan, she began to hurt less and can exercise more.
Muscle tension, whether the result of sitting all day or a tough workout, can make it hard to move the way you want to. An hour on the massage table might ease pain and improve performance, but some experts say you can get similar benefits from a foam roller at home. Research supporting the practice is still building, and some scientists are skeptical of it, but there are a few things you need to know if you are going to try it.
The case for foam rolling
Each muscle in your body is held in place by layers of connective tissue called fascia. According to Cedric X. Bryant, president and chief science officer at the American Council on Exercise, both exercise and inactivity can cause this tissue to become stiff or dense, generating tension throughout a muscle or tightness in a more localized area — a so-called trigger point or knot — and restricting flexibility and range of motion.
When stiff or misaligned fascia prevent muscles and joints from moving effectively, exercise can be uncomfortable and risky. “If you can’t move your shoulder because your joints or muscles are tight, you’ll usually end up with an injury when you try to strengthen it,” said Theresa Marko, a physical therapist based in New York City and an adjunct professor at Stony Brook University.
In theory, rolling a muscle over a stiff, cylindrical piece of foam does something similar to massage. “Much like massage, foam rolling uses friction to release tension and realign the fascia,” said Dr. Bryant.
One recent systematic review of 49 studies concluded that foam rolling for 90 seconds to two minutes at a time often reduced muscle stiffness and increased range of motion, or the ability of joints to move. Other small studies have found foam rolling can also improve flexibility, or the ability of soft tissues to elongate, at least in the short-term. Longer-term studies have found that rolling the hamstrings three times per week for four weeks also improved flexibility.
Adding a foam roller to your cool-down may also prevent or lessen post-workout soreness by promoting blood flow. A 2014 study suggested foam rolling after strength training attenuated muscle soreness while improving exercise performance, measured through vertical jump height and range of motion.
Maillard Howell, a Brooklyn-based personal trainer and head of fitness at Reebok, said the majority of his clients breathe sighs of relief when they foam roll. “If you feel better lying on a foam roller before or after a workout, I don’t see a reason not to use it, as long as it’s done correctly and not making your issue worse,” Mr. Howell said.
The case against foam rolling
Not everyone is sold on foam rolling, though. Dr. Elizabeth Gardner, an associate professor of orthopedics at Yale School of Medicine, said the people she treats often put too much faith in it.
“Oh foam rollers — how my athletes love thee!” she wrote in an email. “But unfortunately, their obsession with foam rolling is unfounded scientifically.”
She said most studies backing foam rolling are small, and they often use different methods from each other, making it hard to tell why they work.
Dr. Bryant admitted that there aren’t enough large, well-designed studies to confirm the practice’s effectiveness. One 2015 meta-analysis of 14 articles concluded that while foam rolling seems to improve movement and reduce muscle soreness, there’s no agreed-upon way to do it.
Judy Gelber, a physical therapist based in Omaha, said the time people take foam rolling would “be better spent addressing why their body feels like it needs to foam roll.” For instance, she suggested warming up with a full range of motion (meaning up, down, sideways and more) or strengthening muscles at the end of your range (exercising when the muscles are longest or shortest).
Foam rollers can also cause injuries in some people. People with arthritis can damage their joints, for example, and rolling on an injury, whether a broken bone or torn muscle, could exacerbate it. People with mobility issues or anyone who can’t control their body weight on the ground should use caution, too, or ask a physical therapist for a safer alternative.
Getting on a roll
If you do decide to try foam rolling, Dr. Michael Fredericson, professor of sports medicine at the Stanford School of Medicine, suggested a stiff roller. You can also find some with textured ridges and lumps, which Dr. Bryant said may relieve deeper muscle tension.
Jean-Michel Brismée, a physical therapist and a director at the International Academy of Orthopedic Medicine, recommends beginning with lighter pressure, not putting too much of your body weight onto the roller. A minute or two is generally enough time, but you can start with less.
Here are five foam rolling exercises to try at home before or after a workout. If you’re unsure whether foam rolling is safe for you, talk to your physical therapist or primary care provider.
Sitting for long periods can tighten your glutes, as can exercises like dead lifts, squats and lunges. Lay a foam roller on the floor and sit it on it horizontally. With your knees bent or out straight (or one leg bent and one straight), press your feet into the floor and roll back and forth on the buttocks until you find tender spots. Lean to one side as you roll to avoid hitting your tailbone. If that feels too intense, try lying in your bed in the same position and slipping a tennis ball under the trigger point.
Shoulder blade roll
Dumbbell presses, push-ups, and rowing can result in tension around the shoulder blades. To relieve the tension, lie on the floor with the foam roller perpendicular to your spine and roll on the muscles around your shoulder blades. It may feel good to hug yourself or to open up your arms in the process.
Your hamstrings, which start at your hip and connect to the knee, can become tight after a leg workout. Lying on your back, lift one leg at a time as high as you can, using a towel around your foot to create resistance. Pull on the towel to stretch your hamstrings before rolling.
Then, in a sitting position with your legs straight, put the roller beneath the back of your thighs. Roll back and forth all the way up and down your hamstrings. If you notice smaller areas of tightness, linger there. Afterward, you should be able to stretch more deeply.
Mid-back foam roll
Rolling your mid-back may bring relief after working on a computer or doing upper body workouts like push-ups or pull-ups. Place the roller under your back, parallel with your spine, then gently roll side to side on the muscles surrounding your spine. Roll each side of the spine separately and avoid rolling the bones themselves. Bear in mind that rolling could flare up acute injuries or chronic back conditions if you have them.
Neck mobility exercise
Too much time hunched over a desk can strain the muscles that hold up your head, resulting in headaches. Dr. Marko said that using a foam roller as a mobility tool can elongate your cervical spine and promote relaxation and flexibility of the surrounding muscles, and pressing gently on the foam roller can relieve trigger points.
Lie on the floor with the foam roller behind your neck, parallel with the base of your skull. Keep your knees bent with your butt and feet on the floor, and slowly turn your head gently left and right. Alternatively, keep your head still and try gently rocking your knees back and forth, creating traction with your lower body. Avoid this exercise if you have any pre-existing neck pain or nerve problems, because you could press on the nerves and make the problem worse.
Ashley Abramson is a freelance writer based in Milwaukee, Wis.