If you haven't used a foam roller before, you might not recognize it as a piece of exercise equipment – or have any idea what to do with it. Using a foam roller, also known as self-myofascial release, can help relieve sore and tight muscles as well as improve flexibility and range of motion. 

Using a foam roller applies pressure to your muscles and myofascial tissues, the tough membranes that wrap, connect, and support your muscles. This applied pressure loosens muscle tissue and breaks up knots – similar to how a massage provides relief for sore and tight muscles.

It doesn't matter if you're a star athlete or stiff from sitting too long, almost everyone can benefit from foam rolling.

Benefits of Foam Rolling

Although using a foam roller can be uncomfortable, especially in the beginning, sticking with it will reduce discomfort as your muscles adapt and your technique improves.

Reduce Exercise-related Soreness

Foam rolling can ease sore muscles, especially the soreness that comes from exercising. In one study, researchers found that post-exercise foam rolling reduced delayed-onset muscle soreness. In the study, people foam rolled for 20 minutes immediately after exercising, and then again 24 and 48 hours later. Participants reported less muscle soreness compared to exercising without foam rolling.1

Break Up Knots and Release Trigger Points

You don't need to be an athlete to benefit from foam rolling. If you spend extended periods of time sitting – at a desk, in a car, or binge watching your favorite programs – then you’re familiar with the stiffness and aches that accompany such sedentary behavior. Foam rolling for just a few minutes can loosen stiff muscles and release the tense trigger points that build up in myofascial tissue.

Increase Flexibility and Range of Motion

Foam rolling also helps increase range of motion in your joints. Having optimal range of motion is important for flexibility, sports performance, and healthy aging. One study found that a combination of foam rolling and static stretching was the most effective activity for increasing range of motion in young athletes when compared to static stretching or foam rolling alone.2

Prevent Injury

A recent review of studies that tracked the pre-exercise effects of using foam rollers concluded that foam rolling use in combination with dynamic stretching is beneficial as a warm-up routine. The combination prepares the body for movement and reduces the risk of muscle tears and strains.3

How to Choose a Foam Roller

Foam rollers come in a range of sizes, textures, and densities – the most common ones are smooth cylinders made of compressed foam. If you’re new to foam rolling, then you may want to choose one on the softer side and eventually progress to using a denser (harder) roller. 

  1. Long rollers (about 36 inches) are a good choice for beginners – they are versatile and offer more stability than shorter rollers.
  2. Short rollers (4-24 inches) can target smaller areas of the body and are more portable.  
  3. Smooth rollers are best for individuals new to foam rolling – they have a uniform texture and come in a variety of densities that provide even pressure across the length of the roller.
  4. Textured rollers have ridges and knobs – they press deeper into muscles and can precisely target knots and tension.
  5. Massage rollers or sticks are handheld devices with handles that operate like a rolling pin. The stick is usually covered in foam, rubber, or plastic. Some versions are smooth, while others have knobs or ridges. Massage sticks can target specific muscles when rolled over a part of the body, like the inside of the thigh. They are also a good choice if you're injured or have trouble holding your body weight on a cylinder roller.
  6. Half-round rollers are flat on the bottom and look like a foam roller that has been cut in half lengthwise. They are easier to balance on and often used for leg and foot stretches or to massage the arches of your feet.
  7. Foam balls allow precise targeting of muscles and knots. They work well in curved areas of the body, like the low back.

Foam Rolling Do's and Don'ts

Although foam rolling is generally safe, there are several things to keep in mind to get the most out of your rolling routine.4

  • DON'T roll over joints like your knees, elbows, and ankles – this can be painful and cause injury.
  • DO roll the muscle that connects to the joint. For example, when rolling your legs, roll out your calves first and then your thighs separately, avoiding the knee area.
  • DON'T speed through the moves. By rolling too fast, you don't get the benefit of releasing tight muscles and working out knots. Although foam rolling can be painful at times, rolling too quickly to avoid discomfort is a common mistake.
  • DO take your time. When you find a sore spot, slow down and spend time in that area. Start with 10 seconds and increase to 30-60 seconds, or until you feel the muscle relax.
  • DON'T just move up and down on the roller. Muscles and fascia run in many different directions, including front-to-back and side-to-side, not just straight up-and-down.
  • DO move in multiple directions. In addition to slowing down and focusing on a tight spot, the key is to vary your movements on the roller. Try moving side-to-side, rubbing the tight spot in small circles on the roller, or flexing and extending the joint to move the muscles over the foam roller.
  • DON'T use a foam roller if you have a torn muscle or a fractured bone.
  • DO get clearance from your health-care professional or physical therapist before you foam roll to prevent aggravating an injury. If you have rheumatoid arthritis, deep-vein thrombosis, advanced osteoporosis, or neuropathy that causes pain, then consult with your health-care professional to determine if foam rolling is safe for you.

Foam Rolling Examples

Many people will benefit from foam rolling as part of a pre- or post-workout routine. Plus, rolling for just a few minutes helps release tight muscles from prolonged sitting. Here are several videos that show different ways to use a foam roller. 


  1. Pearcey G, Bradbury-Squires D, Kawamoto J, et al. Foam rolling for delayed-onset muscle soreness and recovery of dynamic performance measures. J Athl Train 2015;50(1):5-13. 
  2. Škarabot J, Beardsley C, Štirn I. Comparing the effects of self-myofascial release with static stretching on ankle range-of-motion in adolescent athletes. Int J Sports Phys Ther 2015;10(2):203-212. 
  3. Hendricks S, Hill H, Hollander S, et al. Effects of foam rolling on performance and recovery: A systematic review of the literature to guide practitioners on the use of foam rolling. J Bodyw Mov Ther 2020;24(2):151-174. 
  4. Laskowski E. (expert opinion) Mayo Clinic. Sept. 11, 2020.