Muscle Rollers Really Are Effective—Here's How Roll Properly to Relieve Soreness and Avoid Injury

Here's how foam rollers and other rollers work to help you recover.

As with any healthy habit, you're probably aware that muscle rolling can have major benefits, but when life gets busy it's one of the first things to fall by the wayside. It doesn't help muscle rollers' case that using them can sometimes hurt! We have some news for you, however, that may change muscle rolling's position on your priority list.

"Muscle rollers are tools that contribute to myofascial release, and they come in the form of foam rollers, vibrating foam rollers, trigger point balls, vibrating trigger point balls, lacrosse balls, and percussion massage guns," says Keith Hodges, founder of Mind In Muscle Coaching in Los Angeles. "Myofascial release has been proven to increase blood circulation, reduce trigger point sensitivity, combat DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), and improve muscular function/joint range when combined with active mobility exercises. These are key to improving and sustaining optimal performance when exercising because this improves recovery."

It may seem counterintuitive, but recovery is imperative for avoiding plateaus and ultimately for achieving your goals. In fact, Hodges notes that a lot of the population fails to hit their targets because they overtrain and/or underrecover.

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How do muscle rollers work?

Muscle rollers work by applying pressure, which helps the muscle unwind adhesions in and around the muscle fibers and recruit blood to the area. "When a muscle becomes extremely fatigued, overworked, or injured, it will become tense, and the blood flow can be compromised," says Jeff Brannigan, co-founder and program director of stretching and recovery studio Stretch*d in New York and Westchester. "Getting blood into the area will help reduce the inflammation and allow it to function more properly. If a muscle is too tight, it won't be able to contract and produce movement in the way that it's meant to. Using a muscle roller (consistently) will allow you to stay active and pain free."

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If it hurts, go easy and start with lighter pressure.

This all sounds well and good, but the pain point for many is that they associate muscle rolling with, well, pain—or at best, discomfort. To that Brannigan is quick to underline that many people tend to push too hard and too fast in an attempt to release their muscle tension.

"Not only will this be less effective, but it will hurt if you apply too much pressure. It's always best to start light with a manageable amount of pressure and then slowly increase it as your body relaxes."

Hodges adds that, while muscle rolling can be uncomfortable, "pain should never reach the point where it's unbearable."

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Muscle Rolling Dos and Don'ts

A general rule of thumb is to roll 1 inch per second to help you identify your trigger points. "Your trigger point will be a tender spot and discomfort should increase while rolling over this area," says Hodges. "Once you have identified your trigger point, try to maintain constant pressure over the area for at least 30 seconds while slowly breathing. Breathing slowly promotes tissue relaxation by incorporating your parasympathetic nervous system."

It's important not to roll over an area for too long or you might experience bruising. "Rolling out can do more harm than good when rolling over the wrong areas such as your IT bands, low back, and rolling directly over a joint or bone," says Hodges.

"Another common mistake when rolling is not rolling from the origin of the muscle and progressing to its insertion," he adds. "A simpler way is to start by rolling a muscle in the area closest to your core, and roll away from the area."

No matter what muscle rolling tool or technique you opt for, the single biggest factor to determine efficacy will be how consistent you are with the practice. Foam rolling isn't something you can do once and expect to see results. It needs to be done, ideally, every day. "It doesn't have to be long," says Brannigan. "It can be five minutes. It's best to do a little every day rather than an hour of rolling once per week."

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  1. Laffaye G, Da Silva DT, Delafontaine A. Self-myofascial release effect with foam rolling on recovery after high-intensity interval training. Front Physiol. 2019;10:1287. doi:10.3389/fphys.2019.01287

  2. Ożóg P, Weber-Rajek M, Radzimińska A, et al. Analysis of muscle activity following the application of myofascial release techniques for low-back pain-A randomized-controlled trial. J Clin Med. 2021;10(18):4039. doi:10.3390/jcm10184039

  3. Wan JJ, Qin Z, Wang PY, et al. Muscle fatigue: general understanding and treatment. Exp Mol Med. 2017;49(10):e384. doi:10.1038/emm.2017.194

  4. Russo MA, Santarelli DM, O'Rourke D. The physiological effects of slow breathing in the healthy human. Breathe (Sheff). 2017;13(4):298-309. doi:10.1183/20734735.009817

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