Massaging sore muscles has been a thing forever, then came myofascial release. Foam rollers have become an essential tool in fascia release, aiding in recovery and blood circulation. Foam rolling may also relieve your back pain if you do it right.
Does Foam Rolling Work In The First Place?
To give you the non-bullshit answers before we get into things, you might have doubts about foam rolling itself. There is much debate about whether foam rolling even helps or is necessary for recovery. Since it’s essentially just a “massage”, what’s the difference? Foam rollers aim to help blood circulate due to the pressure applied, and your body’s response to that pressure. Foam rollers also help move lactic acid out of the muscle, aiding in recovery.
There are numerous studies (see the bottom of this article) going back and forth about the general outcome of foam rolling. Some show positive performance with foam rolling during and after exercise, while some show no or minimal benefit (considering alternatives such as massage, acupuncture, etc).
Take it at face value, there are minimal downsides to foam rolling. If it doesn’t work, then oh well.
Which Foam Roller Is The Best For Your Back?
The hardest thing you’re going to find with foam rolling your back is finding the right position to roll with. What can help is finding a foam roller that has a higher ridge depth.
Some foam rollers are too big, so you will want one that is small and versatile. Since you only want to roll your back and not other muscles, you’ll also need a roller with ridges (versus flat).
Foam rollers that don’t have as deep ridges won’t “dig” into the muscle as much compared to one with higher depth ridges, and may not be as effective. Having said that, these ones do hurt more compared to softer ones I will admit. After a while, you do get used to it and it becomes a “good pain“.
Where To Foam Roll For Lower Back Pain
Here’s the secret: you don’t foam roll your lower back.
Your lower back doesn’t have the support like your upper back does, making it risky to put a large amount of weight on. Your lower back isn’t as strong as your upper back so you must approach it with caution.
“Okay so if I don’t roll my lower back, what do I do?”
You foam roll your piriformis and glutes (that’s your butt).
Muscles are a lot more connected to each other than you think. Pain in your knee doesn’t necessarily mean it started there, it could be coming from your quadriceps muscles. A tight and unrelaxed muscle can “pull” on another, resulting in muscle tightness and eventually pain.
How To Foam Roll Your Glutes
Doing it: With one foot flat on the floor, cross your other leg so it is on top of your knee. Leaning your body weight onto the foam roller, make sure to have direct contact with your glutes with the foam roller (not bones).
Your lower back pain might actually be pain originating in your glutes instead. For that, you’re best to foam roll your piriformis muscle. The piriformis muscle helps in the lateral motion of your thigh from the hip.
A piriformis muscle spasm can put pressure on the sciatic nerve and cause similar symptoms and pain as sciatica.
There are no bones or solid structures to protect your spine when you rolling you are foam rolling your lower back, potentially increasing your risk of injury. As well as over rolling one muscle over another. Remember how I said how everything is connected?
Foam Roller or Massage Ball?
For at home work, the foam roller is the best recovery equipment you can buy for a low cost. It’s a versatile piece of equipment that you can even use during exercises.
For rolling smaller muscles and getting deeper into tissues, I’d recommend a massage ball. For example, it’s very difficult to roll your lateral deltoid (side shoulder muscle) with a foam roller but much easier with a massage ball.
I launched the Myo Ball earlier this year with great success. The Myo Ball is a versatile massage ball at an even more affordable price. I wanted to give the gift of recovery to every one, since it doesn’t need to be expensive.
The best thing about massage balls is that you can hit places a normal foam roller can’t reach. Muscles like your shoulders, chest and glutes are much easier to target using a massage ball. I even created a guide on how best to use it:
If you have access to foam rollers at your gym, a massage ball might be a better purchase for you. They take up less space in your house, plus you can bounce them on the floor (also fun).
If a massage ball is the best for you, here’s the one I recommend found on Amazon:
Best Foam Rollers For Under $20
Okay so you’re on a budget but you want the best possible recovery from the gym. Foam rollers and massage guns can really run up there, ranging all the way up to hundreds of dollars.
Here are the best foam rollers for under $20, that way you don’t break the bank and can spend more money on protein powder.
Help! My Foam Roller Hurts Like Hell!
Okay so your foam roller hurts like hell and now you don’t want to use it? Well, that’s the name of the game, to be honest (haha). A foam roller will apply direct pressure to muscles, if they’re sore then you’re essentially compressing a sore muscle so it will hurt.
If it still isn’t working for you, a foam roller without ridges is the answer.
Here are the ones on Amazon I recommend:
A Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Foam Rolling on Performance and Recovery https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6465761/
An Evidence-Based Approach for Choosing Post-exercise Recovery Techniques to Reduce Markers of Muscle Damage, Soreness, Fatigue, and Inflammation: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29755363
Foam Rolling for Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness and Recovery of Dynamic Performance Measures https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4299735/
EFFECT OF DIFFERENT FOAM ROLLING VOLUMES ON KNEE EXTENSION FATIGUE https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5159632/