Foam Rolling Guide for Muscle Recovery

Foam Rolling Guide for Muscle Recovery, December 2021

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Foam rolling, or self-myofascial release for its proper scientific name, is a common method of relieving muscle pain by applying pressure on any tight muscle areas.

No matter what your workout routines look like, how regular your fitness schedule is, how old you, what your diet looks like or even what your family’s medical history predicts, muscle soreness is a common phenomenon that every person experiences. 

For those who are less experienced at working out, muscle soreness or deep tissue pain can come from many things: playing sports for the first time in a long time, improper workout form, forcing your body to lift, run, engage or control itself more than it can handle at that moment, not taking breaks, or even from something as simple as sleeping in an uncomfortable position.

For more experienced fitness participants, even though your body’s tolerance threshold will be much higher, muscle soreness can come from all of these still, as you challenge your body with more intense workouts.

Because of how common and popular muscle soreness is, foam rolling has become not only a useful technique, but a necessary one that successfully relieves muscle pain.

Self-myofascial release used to be a rare practice only used by Eastern cultures, professional athletic treatment, and massage therapy education--it used to be considered a technique of the “high culture” in the fitness world, but as home workouts became popular, more local gyms started to appear, and with its cheap prices, this form of muscle recovery was destined to be an accessible and practical activity.

Explanation of Muscle Soreness

A woman holding her upper back to show that it is hurting

How exactly do muscles become sore?

When you work out, your muscles are exerting a lot more force and energy as they are used to when you are sleeping, sitting on a chair, eating, reading, watching movies, playing video games -- basically, when you are not working out.

During your workout session, your muscles are engaging and are challenging their limits.

However, sometimes the muscles can be worked out too much, and then the result of the workout is more pain than gain.

You may have heard the term of “tight muscles” to explain this feeling, and that is correct.

Your muscles are stuck in a position of engagement, your blood flow is restricted and your movements are less fluid and graceful due to this “knot” of muscles. 

Scientifically speaking, what happens is that the deep tissues of muscles become engaged, or challenged, during a workout, which in turn affects blood flow and a straining sensation across your body.

Depending on how hard you work out, your muscles may be too strained to go back to its pre-workout state of elasticity, relaxation and general ease. Therefore, external pressure is required.

To clear this tightness or concentration of tense muscles and restricted blood flow, pressure applied from the outside is required to help guide blood flow and relax the muscles, and this practice is called self-myofascial release, or foam rolling. 

Explanation of Foam Rolling

A woman in dark gray tank top and black pants, foam rolling

What exactly does foam rolling do, and why is it so helpful?

Think of the practice as a form of self massage, except instead of using your hands, you are using a round, foam object like a roller or even a tennis ball--anything that is completely round and has a surface that is not hard.

Instead of staying still and having the hand massage your area of pain, you would lie on the roller and move back and forth so that your natural body weight is applying pressure along the surface of the roller.

What this accomplishes is that your movements on the foam roller will help to break up the muscle knots and tension, thereby allowing for unblocked bloodflow and muscle relaxation in between the muscle layers.

Because the main goal is to have your muscles functioning the way that they normally do, foam rolling is a great idea to quickly smoothen out the tightness and discomfort of any kind of muscle pain.

Although stretching is a common way to fix this, foam rolling serves a much more effective purpose because you are relying on your own body weight along the pressure area, as opposed to naturally stretching the tense spot.

A few hours after a successful foam roll, you will notice that your soreness has been significantly alleviated, your muscles will feel more relaxed and elastic, your blood flow will have been smoother and better functioning and over time you will notice that your body will have a higher threshold before becoming sore again. 

Obviously, depending on the level of muscle soreness, you might have to foam roll for a few consecutive days. 

Best Foam Rolling Exercises

A man wearing a light blue top and a woman wearing pusha pink tank top both foam rolling

Foam rolling requires movement, and the idea is that the roller will move so as to rub along your body, with your body weight and gravity working together to apply pressure onto it.

As you can imagine, foam rolling is most effective when used on longer parts of your body, as opposed to smaller and more intricate areas of your body--although they can be used there too.

I will provide six of the best foam rolling exercises that I felt helped me the most for common areas of muscle soreness, starting from the upper body and then going down to the lower body.

It should be mentioned that these foam roller exercises should be done on a flat surface, away from any stairs or potential obstacles or impediments.

Neck Stretch

This is especially common during any normal day or after a workout.

Whether you work at an office or engage in an intense upper body workout, we are all prone to neck soreness.

  1. 1
    Lying down, rest your neck on the foam roller above your shoulders, similar to a pillow
  2. 2
    Slowly turn your head right and left. If you feel a tightness anywhere, hold that position
  3. 3
    Repeat as necessary

Shoulder Stretch

Muscle soreness here is common after any kind of arm workout. For this, I recommend doing the same exercise for both sides, even if only one side is sore.

  1. 1
    Lie on your side with the foam roller underneath your shoulder (your lower body can relax on the floor. If needed, your other arm can be on the floor too to guide movement)
  2. 2
    Slowly move up and down between your shoulder and just above the elbow
  3. 3
    Repeat as necessary, then switch sides

Upper Back Stretch

Most common among those with bad posture, this exercise is ideal for office job workers or anyone who generally holds tension in the upper back. 

  1. 1
    Lie on your back with the foam roller underneath your upper back. Bend your knees with your feet planted flat on the floor (your arms can be on your chest or at your sides, anywhere except on the floor)
  2. 2
    Slowly roll back and forth until the roller goes as low as your mid back
  3. 3
    Repeat as necessary, stopping at any tight area

Lats Stretch

Similar to the shoulders, this stretch is ideal after heavy arm and shoulder workouts. Probably the most common source of muscle pain, this exercise should be done on both sides even if only one side is experiencing discomfort.

  1. 1
    Lie on your side with your arm extended in front of you. Place the foam roller under your armpit area (your legs can be bent about 45 degrees for grip and comfort)
  2. 2
    Slowly roll back and forth, stopping at any tight areas
  3. 3
    Repeat as necessary

Quads Stretch

More so for blood flow than for muscle soreness, this exercise is ideal for those who are sitting for long periods of the day. For those who play sports, this is a common area for soreness.

  1. 1
    Lie on your stomach and place the foam roller under your quads (think of it like a plank position while resting your quads on the roller)
  2. 2
    Slowly roll back and forth with the roller going as low as right above your knees, and as high as just below your hips
  3. 3
    Repeat as necessary, stopping at any spots that have tension or significant pain and discomfort

Hamstrings & Calves Stretch

A man wearing shorts, foam rolling

This is another common area of muscle tension and soreness due to regular activities in the day, such as walking, running, standing still in an improper position or lack of stretching. It can also occur from simply wearing improper shoes.

Similar to the shoulder and lat stretches, it is best to do this exercise on both legs even if only one is bringing discomfort.

  1. 1
    Sit on the floor with your legs extended, placing the foam roller underneath your hamstrings (your arms should be stretched out straight behind you so that you can comfortably lean on your hands)
  2. 2
    With your weight applied to the foam roller, slowly roll back and forth until the roller goes as low as your calves and as high as your hamstrings
  3. 3
    Repeat as necessary, stopping at any spots that have tension or significant pain an discomfort


Foam rolling is a common and practical way to relieve any person from muscle soreness or deep tissue discomfort.

As an added effect of helping to guide blood flow, this popular method of self massaging will have a proven effect on your muscle recovery. 

Denver Matheson

I spend a lot of time at the gym and even more time in the kitchen giving my body what it needs to repair itself and grow stronger. The third most important place for any athlete is their research zone. That's exactly why this site exists, to help me share all of the information I've learned throughout the years just like people did for me in the first place!

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