MASSAGE & STRETCHING

  • Photo for Roll It Out: Untangle Your Knots With Foam Rollers
    Photo Credit: Courtesy of Diakadi Body

Roll It Out: Untangle Your Knots With Foam Rollers

By Billy Polson

Are you currently suffering from knee pain? Do you feel tension in your knees or hips when you walk up or down stairs? Does your lower back feel tight, or even hurt, when you have done a lot of cardio or leg-work? When you get a massage, does it feel incredibly tight when the therapist digs into your outer thighs (your iliotibial or IT bands), calves, or quads? Do you have joint pain when squatting down to pick up objects on the ground?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, or even if you didn't, you should think about lengthening your leg muscles and their fibers using a foam roller. Most of us have seen these soft logs lying around the gym, often wondering what the heck guys were doing lying on top of them. It's worth taking the time to learn to use one, because the foam roller can do a lot to improve your performance and lessen your tightness and joint discomfort. Much like a deep tissue massage, a foam roller helps you lengthen tight muscles, allowing your body to restore the ideal length-to-tension relationships to your muscles and helping your joints to work more easily and pain-free.

Foam Roller Benefits
The foam roller is particularly helpful with one of the most common sources of pain in people who exercise: tight IT bands. The IT bands are ribbons of fascia, or connective tissue, running down the sides of your quadriceps, right where the outer pants seam runs. The IT band often becomes very tight during running, biking, or weightlifting (especially squats). If you want to know what happens to your IT band during repetitive exercise, try this experiment: Stand up and grab the top portion of the side seam of your pants leg, gathering the material and pulling it up an inch. See what this does to your pants right above and in front of your knee? The material pulls to the side and up your leg, throwing the pants off to the outside. Well, when the IT band becomes tight, it does the same thing to your knee joint. It tugs the knee joint to the side, forcing the joint to grind against itself and pull out of its normal alignment, and making it painful to use. Other than a deep tissue massage, the best way to lengthen out this IT Band again is to use a foam roller daily. You essentially use the roller to iron out your IT band. People with tight legs who begin using a foam roller are often shocked how quickly their legs feel better and move more smoothly.

A warning: If you have never used a foam roller, your first time may feel like the most painful deep tissue massage you have ever experienced. But remember, the more painful it is, the more you know you need it!

Pick the Right Roller
Foam rollers come in varying degrees of density. The dingy white ones you often see lying in the corner at the gym are the least dense and therefore get worn out very quickly. If your gym has black or blue ones, use these instead—they tend to be much better quality. It might be worth speaking to the manager at your gym facility about purchasing these higher quality rollers. In the end, they will actually last much longer and be a better purchase. If your gym doesn't have foam rollers and won't buy them, you can buy them at most local sporting good stores, or, of course, online.

Timing Your Rolling
Foam rolling makes for a great warm up, since it will help you restore your body's alignment and length-to-tension relationships before you workout, so that all joints will move correctly and pain-free. Use your foam roller post-workout as well to correct any tight areas that were created during the workout.

Why not just use static stretches (such as touching the toes for hamstrings or pulling the heel back to the butt for quads) to lengthen tight muscles? Pre-workout, foam rolling is much better than static stretching because it brings blood to the muscles as it massages them. Static stretching on cold muscles has poor results and can often lead to irritation. Also, knots in muscles will develop places where the fibers have started to adhere to one another. Static stretching will not be able to break apart these adhesions, meaning you won't be able to stretch the areas most in need of it. The foam roller will allow you to separate these fibers and target the areas with the most tension. You can still do your static stretches—but save them for after rolling or after your workout, and use them to target areas that are extremely tight or that are causing postural deviations.

Below I have listed the most useful stretches for your leg muscles using a foam roller. Because hamstrings are so dense, I will explain how you can use a baseball or lacrosse ball instead of a roller to massage them open. I recommend going through all of these movements as a test to find out what areas of your legs are tight and which are not. Then you'll know where to focus your energies, and how much rolling you should plan to do going forward.

General Instructions
As you foam roll along muscles and tissue, you will run into knots or areas where the muscle fibers have tightened up and actually started to bond together. You will know when you find them because each one will feel like a painful speed bump as you roll over it. At these points, try to sit directly on top of the tight area (still on the foam roller) and count to 20 slowly. Often, you will actually be able to feel the fibers gradually release and spread open. While on the foam roller, try your best to maintain deep, relaxing breaths while keeping the area/muscle being rolled completely relaxed (don't flex it!).

FOAM ROLLER LEG STRETCHES
Iliotibial Band (IT Band)
Lie on your side on the floor and place the foam roller perpendicular to your body under your lower hip. Let your upper leg either lie in front of your lower leg with your upper foot on the floor, or, to really put some weight on the lower leg and dig deep, stack your upper leg directly on top of your lower leg. Propped up and walking on your elbows, slowly start to roll the foam roller down your IT band towards your knee, remember to stop and hold for a 20 count on each knot. Roll all the way until you reach the side of your knee. Repeat on opposite leg.
Hip Flexors (Iliopsoas)
Lie face down, again with the foam roller perpendicular to your body, but with just the very end portion of the foam roller under your right hip flexors (where your right pants pocket is). Propped up on elbows and toes, you want your left leg to be hanging free off the end of the foam roller. Now, slowly roll across your right pocket-area from your belt line down to the bottom of the pocket. Do one side, then switch to your left hip flexor and repeat.
Quadriceps (Center, Outer/Lateral, Inner/Medial)
Treat this the same as your hip flexors and only do one leg at a time while the other leg hangs free off the end of the foam roller. As with the hip flexors, start face down on the roller, with one leg on the roller at the hip and the other leg free. Since your quads are such a large area of muscle, roll straight down the center of your leg. Next, roll down both the outside and inside 45-degree angle of the quad for both legs. Start at the hip and slowly roll towards the knee with each leg and angle, stopping for 20 counts on all adhesions/knots.
Shins (Anterior Tibialis)
This one is great for runners and people who experience shin splints. Place the foam roller perpendicular to your body and kneel over the roller so that both shins are on top of the roller. Sit your butt to your heels, with your knees off the floor and your hands in front of the foam roller on the floor for balance. The muscle you are trying to roll is found directly to the outside of your shin bone (tibia) on each leg. Shift your weight to the outside of your right leg and roll that muscle from knee to ankle, then shift weight to the left leg and repeat.
Inner Thigh (Adductors)
This one can be a tough area to hit, but if your adductors (inner thighs) are tight, you will definitely be able to help them open up. Propped up in a plank position on your elbows and toes, lay the foam roller at a 45-degree angle to your body. Open your right knee out (externally rotating your leg at your hip), and lay your right inner thigh on the foam roller just above the knee. Then slowly roll the foam roller from your knee up your inner thigh, as high as you can comfortably go, keeping as much weight on the roller as possible. Swap and repeat on opposite leg.
Calves (Center, Outer/Lateral, Inner/Medial)
Sit tall on the floor with the foam roller perpendicular to your legs and lying underneath the top portion of your calves. Start with the left leg by crossing the right leg across the left, resting the right leg directly on top of the left leg's shin in order to put more weight on the leg being rolled. Slowly roll down towards your ankle. Try to roll the center portion and the inner and outer portion of each calf on each leg (like we did with the quadriceps). If you can also lift your butt off the ground using your hands to put more weight/force on the calves, you will get a better stretch. However, people's arms often get too tired to support their bodies for a long time with this method. You can also try pointing and flexing your ankle when you find tough knots in order to help the fibers open and expand. Repeat this movement on each calf.
Hamstrings
Hamstrings can be extremely dense and tight, and therefore a foam roller usually isn't hard enough to help open these muscles. To solve this problem, you should work with a denser and smaller object, such as a baseball or lacrosse ball. Start in a seated position on the edge of a firm surface (this must be a solid surface like a wooden bench instead of a padded workout bench) so that your legs can hang freely off the edge without touching the ground. Then lift one thigh and place the hard ball directly under the tightest section of your hamstring. (If you are unsure which area of your hamstring is the tightest, stand up and with straight legs bend over and touch your toes. You should be able to feel which area of the hamstring tightens up the quickest and limits your ability to touch the ground. Place your fingers on this area and then place the ball directly underneath that area once you return to your seat.) Once you have the ball under the tight area, lean forward so that you have some pressure on the ball and slowly straighten your knee on the leg being stretched so that the fibers are forced to move and expand around the ball. Then slowly allow your knee to bend back to the rest position. Lengthen your knee for five reps at each of five tight points on the back of each hamstring. You can also use your hand to place additional pressure on the leg being stretched while you bend and straighten your knee. Place as much pressure on it as you can handle. To find additional tight spots, stand up and try to touch your toes again with straight legs, placing your fingers on the limiting area of your hamstrings.
About Billy Polson: Billy Polson is the founder and co-owner of DIAKADI Body, which was voted the best personal training gym in San Francisco by CitySearch in 2006 and 2007. A competitive swimmer and triathlete in his own right, Polson has over 15 years of experience working as a coach and trainer. He was recently named by Men's Journal (December 2005) as one of the Top 100 Trainers in America.