Using Foam Rollers in the Fitness Setting

Here's a fun way to add a new dimension to your personal training sessions and group fitness classes.

Foam rollers have long been used in rehabilitation clinics as a multipurpose tool to improve core stability, balance, proprioception, soft-tissue mobility and body awareness. Now these versatile devices are being seen in Pilates mat classes, weight rooms, athletic training centers, physical therapy clinics and yoga studios.

Foam rollers can add a new dimension to many types of workouts because they are ideal for training clients of all ages and body types. That’s one reason why so many personal fitness trainers and group fitness instructors are starting to incorporate foam rollers into their training programs.

“Clients are always looking for a new and creative way to challenge their fitness in a group or personal training setting,” says Patti Friedman, fitness manager at the CCBA Recreation and Fitness Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire.

Background

Foam rollers originated as part of the Feldenkrais Method, a mind-body modality that combines theory from motor development, biomechanics, psychology and martial arts (Feldenkrais 1972). Feldenkrais practitioners use foam rollers to restore alignment, instill body awareness, improve posture and flexibility, challenge neuromuscular control and alleviate muscular tension and pain.

Today’s foam rollers are either cylindrical (the full round roller) or half-moon shaped (the half round roller); the latter is simply a round roller cut in half longitudinally. Both types of rollers are lightweight and typically made of white polyethylene foam. Foam rollers vary in size, ranging from 1 to 4 feet in length and 4 to 6 inches in diameter. (For details on where to purchase foam rollers, see “Resources” on page 62.) >>


Both kinds of foam rollers can be used either in a group setting or one-on-one. Generally, the flat side of the half round roller is used when performing more basic exercises or when introducing clients to the foam roller for the first time. Once clients have demonstrated stability on the flat side of the half round roller, they can progress to using the round side. The full round roller is more appropriate for advanced students who have mastered exercises on the half round roller.

The following sections describe how to use foam rollers for specific applications, including

  • basic positioning and alignment

  • core stabilization

  • strength training

  • balance training

  • flexibility

Also included are specific exercises for each type of training, basic safety principles, and helpful hints for using foam rollers with special populations.

Basic Positioning and Alignment

One of the most important considerations for fitness professionals who want to incorporate foam rollers into their training programs is monitoring proper basic body positioning and alignment on the device. To execute movements safely and effectively, clients need to be taught how to use the rollers in different positions—supine, standing, seated and on all fours (quadruped).

Regardless of which position is used, the lumbar spine should remain in the neutral position.

Supine Position. While a client is lying supine on a foam roller, the back should not be arched off the foam surface (in an anterior pelvic tilt) but instead should remain in contact with the foam roller throughout the movement. The client needs to be careful, however, to avoid the other extreme (a posterior pelvic tilt), indicated by a rounding of the lumbar spine and a forceful pressing of the spine into the roller. The roller should remain in line with the midline of the torso in a longitudinal fashion and aligned evenly on both sides of the body. The client’s head should be resting comfortably on the roller in neutral alignment.

Standing Position. When a client is standing on a foam roller, the arches of the feet should be planted on the center of the roller, with the body’s center of gravity aligned over the feet; the spine should be in neutral alignment. To stay balanced, the client should maintain a slight, soft bend in the knees. For safety reasons, it’s best to start clients out in the most stable position, with the flat side of the half round roller face down. For more support, they can hold onto a nearby wall or counter. After a client has demonstrated suitable control, he or she can progress to more unstable positions, working with the round side of the half round roller face down and finally graduating to a round roller. Clients should always be barefoot when standing on the round surface of a foam roller because wearing shoes decreases their proprioceptive feedback, making movements more dangerous.

Seated Position. All seated exercises on the roller should begin with the trunk upright and elongated. In the seated position, the weight should be balanced equally on the “sit bones,” with the spine in neutral; the feet should be planted on the floor in front of the body, hip width apart.

Quadruped Position. When a client is performing exercises on all fours, one knee should be placed on the surface of the foam roller, directly under the hip; the hand on the opposite side of the body is positioned underneath the shoulder. The spine should be in a neutral position, and the torso should remain parallel to the floor during all limb movements.

Core Stabilization

Because foam rollers are inherently unstable, they are great tools for improving core stability. They force the multifidus and transversus abdominis muscles to contract in order to stabilize the spine (King 2004). The instability of foam rollers can teach clients sensory perception and challenge their body awareness through fine-tuned movements. These devices also provide immediate sensory feedback when clients are unable to maintain a stable core when moving their limbs. However, to avoid compensatory recruitment of other muscle groups, it is essential to maintain a neutral spine position when performing any stability exercise on a roller.

The following three exercises can be used safely and effectively in personal training sessions and group fitness classes.

1. Lie supine on half round roller (either side down) or full round roller. Keep roller in line with midline of torso, feet flat on floor and knees bent. Hold arms at side for balance or fold them on torso for greater challenge. Contract abdominal muscles and alternately lift right and left foot 6–12 inches off floor in marching fashion without compromising neutral position of lumbar spine.

2. Repeat 2–3 sets of 10–15 repetitions per side.

Strength Training

Using a foam roller to perform strength training exercises can enhance isokinetic strength and improve a client’s ability to balance and react to small adjustments in any dynamic environment. Athletes in particular will see a boost in core strength when performing any contact, collision or extreme sport that requires a superior level of balance and control. However, clients of all ages and abilities can improve their ability to function and perform the activities of daily living, while also reducing their risk of injuries.

The following three exercises can be used safely and effectively in personal training sessions and group fitness classes.


Balance Training

Because the ability to balance tends to decline as we age, the foam roller is especially useful for working with the senior population and those with injuries.

“I find foam rollers very effective with individuals [who] need lumbar stabilization exercises to improve low-back pain and postural awareness, postoperative ankle or knee clients [who] need to retrain the recruitment of their proprioceptive muscles, and individuals who have suffered ankle sprains [who] need to reeducate muscles to accommodate to uneven surfaces,” says Karen Lynn Gordes, DScPT, a physical therapy clinician and educator at Physiotherapy Associates in Germantown, Maryland.

The walking drills (see below) are a good choice both for seniors and for postrehab clients with a balance dysfunction related to a joint injury, such as an ankle sprain. (Clients should be cleared for exercise by a physician; they should also be able to first demonstrate proper form on a stable surface.)

Athletes are another population that can benefit from foam rollers. For example, the tap-and-reach exercise (see below) is great for golfers, as this drill develops balance when swinging a golf club and the controlled, rotational motion challenges core stability.

Certain balance exercises on the foam roller should be reserved for advanced clients working one-on-one with a personal trainer. For instance, varying the direction or speed when performing a standing ball toss (page 62) will continuously change the visual feedback a client receives and keep the exercise challenging.

The first two balance exercises described below (walking drills and tap and reach) can be used safely and effectively in personal training sessions and group fitness classes. However, the standing ball toss is more appropriate for use in a personal training session. If this exercise is adopted for advanced participants in a group setting, use a half round roller with the flat side down to ensure safety.

Flexibility Training

Foam rollers are a great mechanism for relieving tightness or restriction in the fibrous bands of connective tissue or fascia that encase muscle throughout the body. Applying prolonged or amplified tension to a muscle belly with the foam roller will cause the muscle to relax. This can be done either by the client (see self-guided techniques below) or for the client by a personal trainer (see manual technique below).

Self-Guided Techniques

The following flexibility exercises are appropriate in either the group or personal training setting.

Manual Techniques

Because it can be difficult to perform self-guided flexibility exercises on a foam roller, some personal trainers prefer to apply manual techniques with their clients. Manual techniques enable trainers to apply varying amounts of pressure and speed. A trainer can manually roll the foam roller over the length of the muscle or can pause and apply direct pressure over a specific trigger-point area. The pressure can be held there until the client reports the tension has diminished.

“I prefer working on flexibility manually with the foam roller,” says Judy Coates, MSPT, MEd, a health and fitness instructor at Cioffredi & Associates in Hanover, New Hampshire. “I can control the pressure, especially [on] the iliotibial band, which is hard to stretch independently. If [clients] are too tender to have the roller move down the length of their thigh, I may stop and pause on a tender point until [the tension] releases.”


On a Roll

Foam rollers enable clients to be challenged in multiple fitness dimensions, whether in a group setting or one-on-one. These fun devices offer a cost-effective way to implement new and exciting training techniques in your sessions. Useful for a wide spectrum of clients, foam rollers can improve core stability, strength, balance and flexibility. Roll out some of these exercises in your classes or training sessions tomorrow, and start your own fitness revolution!

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Catherine Logan, MSPT

IDEA Author/Presenter
Catherine Logan, MSPT, is a licensed physical therapist, a personal trainer and a Pilates instruc... more less
References
Bergmark, A. 1989. Stability of the lumbar spine: A study in mechanical engineering. Acta Orthopaedica Scandinavica Supplement, 230, 1–54.

Creager, C. 1996. Therapeutic Exercises Using Foam Rollers. Berthoud, Colorado: Executive Physical Therapy Inc.

Feldenkrais, M. 1972. Awareness Through Movement: Easy-to-Do Health Exercises to Improve Your Posture, Vision, Imagination and Personal Awareness. New York: Harper Collins.

King, M. 2004. Improving core stability with the foam roller. www.bodytrends.com/

articles/equipment_faq/foamroller.htm; retrieved April 22, 2004.
September 2004

© 2004 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

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