Foam rolling

A woman at the Oxford YMCA uses a foam roller during a workout.

A foam roller is a must-have for people who work out on a regular basis.

These handy little tools are seen everywhere nowadays. Physical therapists have them, gyms have them, many runners have them, massage therapists have them. I have been to several classes dedicated to just foam rolling.

These little massage tools come in all different lengths, diameters and surfaces. The original ones that came out years ago were smooth. But now they make them super-knobby, high-density, low-density or with grids. They can be 12 inches long (easy to carry in a suitcase) and 6 inches in diameter, all the way to 36 inches long.

Prices vary from around $15 to $75, depending on length and surface area. Common rollers are Rumble Roller, Trigger Point Core Roller, and The Grid.

    You may be asking, “What the heck do I do with a roller?” Foam rollers give an athlete a deep muscle massage. This is also referred to as “myofascial release.” The fascia is connective tissue — like a superhighway of fibrous tissue running through the body. This provides a frame of support to each muscle group.

The fascia can get adhesions that can keep the blood from flowing properly. This is where that foam roller can help, by applying the right amount of pressure to certain parts of the body. This pressure needs to be slow and methodical.

The most popular areas for the foam roller are quadriceps, thoracic spine (shoulder blade area), hamstrings, adductors (inner thigh), calves, IT band (attaches to the knee and runs up side of thigh), piriformis (meaty part of glutes) and latissimus dorsi (wing-shaped muscles on sides of back).

    The main thing to remember is not to roll directly on a joint such as knee cap, cervical spine or other bony areas. Never, ever roll on your neck.

And be prepared, because the feeling from foam rolling can be intense. It’s a “hurts so good” kind of feeling. As with any type of exercise or stretch that you do, you should never feel pain. “Hurts so good,” yes. Pain, no.

Each area you work on can be rolled for up to a minute, super slow. Rolling on a regular basis can help prevent injury, improve circulation and prevent soreness. Plus it just feels good.

But wait … there’s more. As with many fitness tools, the foam roller has found other uses in the fitness classroom. We use them for pushups, planks, bridges, etc. Anything round is a great tool for typical strength exercises, because it creates a dynamic surface that will not stay still.

Imagine you are doing a push-up with your hands on the roller, with the roller directly under shoulders. Ouch! This is super-challenging because the roller is moving the whole time. Even an ever-so-slight movement makes any exercise more challenging.

Or try doing a plank with hands or elbows on a roller. That same ever-so-slight movement puts an extra challenge into the plank.

A roller is a very useful, affordable and handy tool to add to your workout regimen or your home gym. Like all the other stuff that comes on the market, I always say, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Ann Angell is a certified instructor and personal trainer and manager of the Oxford YMCA. Her fitness column appears the third Sunday of each month.