If you consider foam-rolling more fad than fitness, we’ve got news: It’s not going away. That’s because science has shown tangible—and sizable—benefits to rolling your achy muscles regularly.
One study from Canada links it to a decreased muscle soreness after exercise, while another suggests it slashes injury risk, improves flexibility, reduces muscle pain, and increases vertical jump.
And it’s not just a go-to technique for recovery. Many athletes and OCR competitors use it in their pre-workout routine as well—for good reason. A study published in the International Journal of Exercise Science found that foam-rolling can boost agility, strength, and speed when done as part of a dynamic warm-up.
“Foam rolling is a form of myofascial release that helps restore movement and treat areas of impingement,” explains Quentin Pullen, a.k.a. Coach Q, a California-based Spartan SGX trainer and Mobility WOD instructor. “Athletes constantly break down their muscle and connective tissue. To continue to train and move well, we can use foam rolling for self-manual therapy.”
Self-manual means you decide which areas of your body to massage and how much pressure to apply. However, while the method is relatively straightforward, you can still screw it up. If you’re slapdash, you won’t see the benefits and could end up injuring yourself.
A common rookie error is massaging a sore spot directly. It’s quite normal for pain in one part of the body to be related to an imbalance in another. Instead of focusing pressure on the pain center, roll along the connecting muscles. “A foam roller gives a broad approach to mobilization instead of the isolated approach used by some equipment,” Coach Q says. “This allows the user to mobilize a larger area and the surrounding tissue.”
Another flub: Moving too fast. Rushing doesn’t allow the tissues to fully relax or you to breathe properly. Go slow instead, Coach Q says, and take deep belly breaths for best results.
Coach Q suggests doing some sort of self-maintenance daily, whether it’s foam rolling or mobility movements. “Even if there’s no trauma,” he says, “treat our whole body throughout the week to maintain ultimate fitness.”
For athletes who want to foam roll like a mofo—and gain kickass fitness results—Coach Q recommends these four exercises.
Exercise 1: Thoracic Spine Mobilization
The thoracic spine is the upper back area, says Coach Q. Our shoulders and scapula are positioned at the top, while the heart and lungs are in front. A fully mobile T-spine allows for better breathing and upper body movement.
How to do it: Lie on your back. Place the foam roller beneath your shoulder blades so that it’s perpendicular to your body. Keep your knees bent and feet flat on the ground. Place your hands behind your head and pull your elbows as close together as they’ll go. Keep your hips off the ground and slowly extend your thoracic spine back and forth over the roller. Do this for approximately 1 to 3 minutes.
Exercise 2: Adductor Mobilization
“The adductors are among the most neglected but beneficial areas of lower body mobilization,” Coach Q says. Rolling this area helps ease knee, back, and hip pain.
How to do it: Lie on your stomach with one leg extended slightly to the side, knee bent. Support yourself on your forearms. Place the roller in the groin area of the extended leg and roll the inner thigh for at least a minute. Engage your core to stabilize your spine. Repeat on the other side.
Exercise 3: Latissimus Mobilization
Our lats control shoulder rotation and stability. “Because OCR athletes are required to use their upper body to maneuver through obstacles,” Coach Q says, “the shoulders are often put in compromised positions.” Lat rolling helps the shoulders move more freely.
How to do it: Lie on your side and position the center of a foam roller directly under your armpit, perpendicular to your body. Reach your arm straight out, thumb up. Bring your other arm in front of you, resting your hand on the roller. Engage your core for stability. Begin rolling from your armpit approximately 4 inches down toward your waist, and back again. Keep this up for at least a minute, then change sides and repeat.
Exercise 4: Heel Cord Mobilization
Maintaining healthy heel cords—your calf and Achilles—is crucial for the OCR athlete. “Whether it be hiking or running,” Coach Q says, “the lower leg tissues should remain pain free and pliable.”
How to do it: Lie on your back, left leg outstretched, and place the roller under your left Achilles tendon. Your right leg can either be crossed over your left or on the floor, supporting some of your weight. Ensure your foot is relaxed, and then—in small increments—slowly roll from the ankle to below the knee for at least a minute. Rotate the leg inward and outward to ensure you’re rolling all sides of each muscle. Repeat on right leg.
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