Tennis Identity

5 tips to getting the benefits of foam rolling

Foam rolling works if you do it right. It’s no wonder tennis teams travel with rollers. Far from home, athletes can loosen up, relax and nurse their bodies back after tough match ups. We recently chatted with Steve Barrett, author of total Foam Rolling Tips, about foam rolling and he offered up these 5 basics:

1. The best roller is one that you will use often so unless you really enjoy pain choose one that feels soft rather than one with spikes/points on it as the softer the roller the lighter the pressure will be on your sore muscle tissue.

2. Roll as often as you can (every day is fine), the benefits are accumulative so you’ll benefit more from doing it often than you will by doing one big infrequent session.

3. “It hurts should I stop”?  If you remind yourself that this is doing you good the  you can most likely convince yourself it’s a nice pain – it’s not pleasant when you begin however the more you do it the less sensitive everything feels.  Use your common sense, if it’s really painful then definitely stop as it could be a sign of an undiagnosed issue.

4. When you roll try to visualize the direction on the muscle you are working on, roll in the direction of the muscle fibres and remember areas such as you thighs are made up of multiple muscles so shift your bodyweight and position to work on all the fibres.

5. Go slow! You need to let the foam roller work it’s magic, to do this you need to move your weight over the roller slowly – for example when rolling your quads it should take 3-4 seconds to get from top to bottom of the muscle.

And, here’s a quick Q & A with Steve:

What are the most common uses for foam rollers—i.e., which part of body? Thighs? IT band?

Calfs, Thighs, Hamstrings, Glute max, Hip flexors and Upper back plus the outside of the thigh (IT band) and the areas that usually need and receive the most attention.

Do you call these hot spots?

Yes, hot spots refers to areas that appear to have the most congestion or feel as if the ease of movement is inhibited – these can differ from person to person depending upon their activity levels and lifestyle

What are common hot spots?

The hot spot areas of the body that should receive attention before progressing to ‘total body’ rolling are; Calf, IT band, Piriformis (found in the lower buttock), Quadriceps and Hip flexors, Erector spinae, Pectorals (chest)

Rollers should only be used on muscle, right, not bone or joints?

Yes you should only apply pressure on the muscles (and fascia) rather than bone.  Some boney areas of the body such as shins can be rolled but you need to position yourself so that the pressure is on the flesh rather than the tibia (shin bone).  Never apply pressure to the neck and don’t go ‘over’ joints.

Briefly describe what fascia is and why it matters if it gets tight.

Fascia is predominantly water and collagen and is classified as a structural protein.  The old fashioned view of it’s purpose was that it acted like a sheaf to hold/wrap muscle fibre together however we now recognize that it exists in a variety of formats; sheaf, band and sheet… this means that it’s mobility or elasticity influences almost every technical moment that humans perform.

Do you see a use for rollers beyond the gym. I.e., can non-athletes benefit?  Someone who sits at desk all day, for instance?

For sure, it’s not only athletes who can benefit from using a roller, I believe that in only a few years time foam rolling will be as common as taking vitamins.

Do different types of rollers have different uses? The ones with knobs, for instance, when use those?

The two main versions are those made only of foam and the more expensive versions that are a solid pipe wrapped in a layer of foam (which is my preferred version).  There are ‘extreme’ rollers available which have what can only be described as spikes on them… I’m not a fan of these as they invariable seem to create too much force on a single spot for most people to use them for long and slowly enough to be beneficial.

What are the mistakes people make with rollers, using them on their own?

They don’t spend enough time on each area and they move too quickly.  Also, muscles don’t all go vertically and horizontally so aim to follow the natural line of each muscle.


Are there times one shouldn’t roll over a tight muscle?

If you know there is a tear in any muscle tissue or if you have visible bruising then don’t roll, plus it’s essential to be well hydrated before rolling and as with all types of exercise check with a Dr before you begin if you are pregnant or suffering from any medical conditions (especially arthritis and diabetes )

“Which muscles are best to ‘roll’ with my foam roller?”

Only rolling muscles associated with a specific sport will have proportional benefits, it’s like painting a garden fence but only doing the parts you can see from your house – it looks good from your side but only half of the structure has benefited from the maintenance, so in an ideal world you would aim to roll your entire body – however, if you are time poor foam rolling the following four areas can be like waving a magic wand over stressed muscles.

First understand why we roll, it’s not to ‘stretch’ muscles in the traditional sense, the result of foam rolling is conditioning of soft tissue which then functions better when it’s asked to perform athletic activity.

The ‘hot’ spots most athletes should focus on are prioritized from the ground up.

Calf muscle – this has two heads so when rolling alternate between having the foot turned inwards and out.

Quads –  four muscles working as team so roll them as one.

IT band – this runs straight up/down from the knee to hip however you can enhance the benefits by repeatedly shifting your weight to make contact with the expanse of muscle both sides of this strip of connective tissue.

Glute max – roll this muscle in multiple directions. By rolling up down, side to side and on the bias you will benefit not just Glute max but also Medius, Minimus and the underlying Piriformis muscles.

The physiological process of how Foam rolling works continues to be researched and debated however those who embrace it as part of their training schedule list a wide range of benefits including; improved posture, quicker recovery, reduced muscle soreness, improved range of motion and even greater endurance.   To optimize the effects ensure you are well hydrated, roll slowly and follow the contours of the body rather than always rolling in straight lines.


Steve Barrett is a fitness industry expert, personal trainer, presenter and leading fitness brand consultant. He has written for numerous publications including Men’s Fitness, Men’s Health UK and Runner’s World and has authored fitness books including: total Foam Rolling Techniques, The Total Gym Ball, Kettlebell and Suspended Bodyweight Training Workout.

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