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A 360 Guide to Foam Rolling

March 22, 2021

According to the American Council on Exercise, foam rolling is a self-myofascial release technique (SMR), which is a type of therapy used to eliminate general fascia restrictions. It is commonly used as a warm-up for mobility and/or a cool-down for recovery, although it should not fully replace stretching. Research studies indicate that, when foam rolling precedes static stretching, individuals can achieve a deeper stretch because the muscles are warm and more pliable. This technique focuses on reducing pain or the discomfort that comes from the myofascial tissue—the tough, but thin membranes that cover and surround your muscles. This type of pain specifically comes from “trigger points” in deep areas within the tissue. Foam rollers come in many shapes, sizes, and firmness, so be sure you are using one that fits your needs.

The Duke Lifestyle & Weight Management Center has put together a helpful guide to work every major muscle group in your body with a foam roller.

Using the ROLLER VERTICALLY along your spine

Spine, Chest, Core, Shoulders

SPINE and CHEST STRETCH. Lay with the foam roller along the spine. Allow arms to stretch laterally, opening up the chest and relaxing the back. Keep abdominals engaged, keeping the spine on the roller.



SPINE and SHOULDERS. Snow Angel. The spine remains pressed to the foam roller. Shoulders and fingers relaxed. Starting with arms at sides by the hips, raise the arms over the head, like making a snow angel.



SPINE and SHOULDERS. Scissor arms. Keep the abdominals engaged so that the spine stays on the roller. Reach towards the heels with one arm, and behind the head, and towards the ground with the other. Try to keep the arm close to the body (i.e. ear and hips). Keep the back of the ribcage attached to the roller throughout.



SHOULDERS and CORE. Shoulder protraction/retraction. Arms extended above the head towards the ceiling. Reach arms up to the ceiling, and relax, squeezing foam roller with the shoulder blades

Using the ROLLER HORIZONTALLY across Lower Back

Hamstrings, Lower Back, Hips

HAMSTRING – Single Leg. The foam roller is under the sacrum, one foot flat on the ground. Opposite leg extended, knee straight, and reaching the toes towards the ground. Hold the foam roller on the ends to prevent slipping.



HAMSTRING and LOW BACK – Double Leg. The foam roller is under the sacrum, holding the roller with both hands. Raise straight legs to the ceiling. Reach heels towards the ceiling.



HIP FLEXOR. The foam roller is on the upper sacrum. Grab leg on the hamstrings and pull towards the stomach, allowing your hips to tilt so that your hip bones move closer to your ribs. The opposite leg should remain relaxed and reaching for the ground.



HIPS. The foam roller is under the sacrum, holding the roller on the ends to prevent slipping. Bent knees start at the center and drop to one side, keeping the shoulder blades on the ground. Return to center, and switch to the opposite side.



Legs & Glutes

QUADRICEPS. The upper part of the leg is on the foam roller, balancing on the elbows. Move slowly, back and forth along the upper leg. When you feel discomfort, hold for 10 seconds, and roll down the muscle again. Make sure the muscles are relaxed for deepest stretching.



IT BAND. On the side, balancing on the elbow, keep hips stacks with one leg crossing in front of the bottom leg. Move slowly, back and forth along the outside of the upper leg. When you feel discomfort, hold for 10 seconds, and roll down the muscle again.



PIRIFORMIS (1). The foam roller is on the upper sacrum. One leg crossed over the other, making a “figure 4”. Allow the straight leg to use gravity to apply pressure to the bent leg.




PIRIFORMIS and GLUTES. Sitting on the foam roller, make the “figure 4”. Lean to the side with the bent knee, and roll (slowly) back and forth along the outer hip. When you feel discomfort, hold for 10 seconds, and roll down the muscle again.



HAMSTRING. Sitting on the foam roller, slowly roll up and down, from the back of knees to lower gluteus. When you feel discomfort, hold for 10 seconds, and roll down the muscle again.




ADDUCTORS. Legs straight to the ceiling. Open the legs and feel the stretch between the legs.




ADDUCTORS (Frog). Foam roller under sacrum; hold roller at the ends to prevent slipping (Picture 1). Put bottoms of feet together. Picture 2 shows grabbing onto the ankles and pressing down with the elbows for a deeper stretch

Work on your LOWER LEGS by rolling on the ROLLER horizontally

Calves & Shins

CALF(1). Lower part of legs on the foam roller. Lifting body with the arms, roll (slowly) back and forth. When you feel discomfort, hold for 10 seconds, and roll down the muscle again.




CALF (2). Bottom part of the legs on the foam roller. Place one foot on top of the other. With top heel pulling forward bottom toes, feel stretch. You may also choose to roll (slowly) back and forth.




SHINS. Balancing on the hands, the foam roller moves slowly, back and forth along the shins. When you feel discomfort, hold for 10 seconds, and roll down the muscle again. Don’t forget to roll along the inside and outside of the shins.

Loosen your SPINE by working horizontally on the ROLLER

Spine & Neck

UPPER TRAPEZIUS. Lay on stomach, foam roller resting under forearms. With forearms, roll the foam roller towards the body, lifting the chest. Shoulder blades should move down the back, shoulders are down. Hold for 2 seconds, and return to starting position.



BACK MASSAGE. Support the neck. If necessary, 2 foam rollers can be used. Slowly roll top to bottom on the back. Keep abdominals engaged so that the back does not arch.




NECK or UPPER TRAPEZIUS. Lay on the back, the foam roller is placed under the head, at the base of the skull. Slowly, rotate the neck from side-to-side.




About Duke Health & Well-Being Physical Activity & Fitness

Physical activity and fitness are integral to mind and body well-being.  Physical activity supports your health in maintaining weight, blood pressure, reducing lipids, releasing stress, and improving mood and focus. Developing a sustainable, appealing plan that meets your needs and keeps you strong, flexible, balanced, and happy is ideal. There are many ways to enjoy physical activity and fitness such as: participate in group exercise classes, use the fitness center, swim in the pool, walk on the outdoor track, or work one-on-one with an exercise physiologist to help optimize your health and well-being.

Exercise and Fitness at the Health and Fitness Center →
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