Personal trainers and group fitness instructors can utilize foam rollers with clients of all ages and fitness levels due to their ease of use and versatility. Foam rollers are a safe option that can accommodate a wide range of fitness levels and body types in both one on one and small group personal training settings. Rollers offer a terrific “sweatless” workout, which is ideal for worksite settings, and a few minutes on the roller each day can help alleviate stress. The scope of this article is to provide useful techniques for using foam rollers to create total relaxation and stress reduction.
Stress and Your Health
Chronic stress can take a toll on your body, career and quality of life. Stress weakens the immune system and creates higher risks for developing serious illnesses such as diabetes and cancer. With increasing time spent in the workplace, job stress is also becoming a painful reality. Many of our clients have grown to accept high levels of stress and anxiety as a normal part of their everyday lives. Sometimes the pressures and demands that may cause stress can be positive in their effect. Certain amounts of stress must be present for a person to function, but each person has his own normal level of arousal at which he/she functions best. Uncontrolled stress is what causes problems; however, life doesn’t have to be filled with uncontrolled stress. Just as having a high level of stress leads to negative health consequences, managing and reducing stress brings important health benefits. By developing the ability to identify and reduce stress, the process of relaxation may be initiated using specific, easy to perform techniques in conjunction with deep breathing and foam rollers.
Stress is defined as the inability to cope with a threat (real or imagined) to your well being, which results in a series of responses and adaptations by the body. Stress can lead to poor health and even injury. Stress is measured scientifically using the terms arousal or stimulation. If something unusual in the environment occurs, the level of arousal is affected. Arousal can be broken down into three phases:
- Alarm Phase - When a stressful event occurs, the output of energy drops for a short period as the event is registered in the person's mind.
- Adaptation Phase - As the energy output increases above a normal level, arousal is heightened as the individual seeks to respond to the new situation. Adaptation responses include physically running away (flight), fighting, freezing (self immobilization), suppression of emotion or learning.
- Exhaustion Phase - Finally the person's available energy is expended, and his capacity to function is effectively reduced.
Deep Breathing and Quiet Moments
Deep breathing is a simple but effective method of relaxation. It is an excellent technique to use for managing feelings of stress and anxiety. It is a core component of the "take deep breaths" approach to calming down. Deep breathing and foam rollers work well both one on one and in small group training sessions to reduce stress. Deep breathing for relaxation is something you can help facilitate with your clients and small groups by following these simple steps:
- Sit quietly and comfortably.
- Softly close your eyes.
- Focus your attention on your breathing.
- Quiet the body, tensing and relaxing your muscles starting with your feet and moving up to your head.
- Take several deep breaths, calming your body further with each breath.
- Breathe in deeply and then let your breath out fully, exhaling until you cannot exhale any more.
- Count your breaths and say the number of the breath as you let it out (this gives you something to do with your mind, helping to avoid outside distractions).
- Perform this breathing technique for several minutes until you feel calm, peaceful and relaxed.
Foam rollers can provide excellent cues for mindfulness in facilitating the relaxation process. The roller with its cylindrical shape is inherently unstable and therefore acts to stimulate the senses, promote motor skills and raise body awareness. The roller then creates a fulcrum, supporting the spine and offering a place from which to move the limbs. Not only do these roller exercises open up the chest, provide spinal extension and body awareness, they feel great!
Using Foam Rollers Safely and Effectively
The following may assist you with techniques for instruction and awareness of core stabilization and balance in relation to spinal alignment using foam rollers. The exercises are safe for most populations and include a variety of movements. Make modifications to range of motion and foot placement as you feel necessary for client safety and comfort. The precautions to these foam roller exercises include the following:
- Ask clients to move their arms and legs through full ranges of motion possible, without experiencing pain or shifting the body side to side.
- Give clients permission to let go of personal expectations and competitiveness among others present.
- Encourage clients to experience the range of motion of their own body in the present moment. Ask clients to become aware of how their body is moving and to be patient with their movement patterns.
- Encourage participants to move with each breath, inhaling for the first part and exhaling for the second or final movement sequence.
- If the task of balancing one’s body on top of the roller is too challenging for a client, offer modifications such as using half foam rollers in place of the full foam roller. Another option would be to open up the arm or foot placement on the ground to further stabilize the body.
- If clients complain of dizziness or inner ear disturbances when lying supine on the foam roller, try using a half foam roller or don’t lie supine on the roller.
- When providing hands on assistance, don’t force a range of motion.
As with Pilates exercises, participants tend to want to “muscle through” many of these controlled, subtle moves, relying too much on the large muscles of the body. It is particularly important to encourage slow movements, incorporating the breath and full ranges of motion that are mindful and controlled.
Proper alignment of the knees and feet is very important. Encourage participants to keep their feet and hips about the same distance apart while not allowing the knees to come together and the feet to be apart. Use the anterior superior iliac spine (ASIS) joint as a reference point for ideal positioning of the knees relative to knee/heel alignment and foot placement. Due to lack of core strength or other issues, some clients may not be able to maintain this positioning. Placing a small soft ball in between the knees may assist with this heel/knee/hip alignment.
Foam Roller Class Preparation and Format Options
Small group training sessions that range from 30 to 60 minutes work best. When working one on one with a client, 15 minutes may be all that is required to benefit from this relaxation sequence. Full foam rollers are typically used, but half rollers should also be available. Comfortable clothing is best for this format. Bare feet are recommended, and yoga mats should be used.
Pre and Post Roller Body Comparison
This pre and post roller self test should help clients realize the imbalances and misalignments they are experiencing daily. By comparing the body “pre roller” to “post roller,” the areas in which clients are carrying stress and tension should become clear to them. To complete this test, perform all of the exercises that follow.
Pre Foam Roller Test
Take participants through this relaxation process. Ask them to let go of tension and stress beginning at the feet and then moving up the body to the head. Encourage relaxation and body awareness. Ask clients to “scan” their bodies for any tension, pain or other constraints that may inhibit them from total relaxation. Give them permission to “let go” of those cares and worries. Use soothing vocal tones and encourage deep, full breaths. Dim the lighting if possible and play soothing music to create a calm and serene environment where the participants can focus, breathe deeply and lie still.
Try the following practical relaxation techniques for the class format: (add “supine relaxation” picture here)
- Lie supine on a yoga mat on the floor.
- Ask clients to loosen any restrictive clothing and take shoes off.
- Allow the feet and ankles to relax, falling slightly away from the midline with palms supine on the floor to the sides of the body.
- Ask clients to tuck the chin slightly, elongating the neck and imprinting the shoulder blades into the mat underneath them.
- Encourage complete breathing by inhaling then exhaling as completely as possible.
- Begin to inhale slowly, making the belly rise. Move the rib cage and then the chest. Hold it for a second then exhale all the air out of the lungs completely. Try it again. This is complete breathing.
- Ask clients to breathe normally for a moment and within the next minute take at least one more complete breath.
- Ask clients to become aware of any tension they are feeling in their body and to become aware of the contact between their body and the floor.
- Is one hip or side of the body/low back in greater or lesser contact with the floor than the other?
- Notice the way the shoulders and arms are resting on the floor.
- Do the palms of the hands face up or down? Are the backs of the arms in contact with the floor?
- Bring your arms above your head and stretch them away from you fully. Now extend your legs and feet downward and away from you.
- Imagine someone is pulling gently on your feet, while another is pulling gently on your wrists, lengthening your entire body.
- Take a deep breath, let go and relax. Pause 10 seconds.
- Feel the effects of the stretch on your body and on your breathing. Pause 15 seconds.
- Turn slowly over onto your side and press your body up with your arms to a seated position.
The pre foam roller test should take approximately three to five minutes, depending on the number of participants and how comfortable the instructor is with the relaxation process.
Foam Roller Exercises
Once participants are aware of their bodies through this technique, ask them to sit on the edge of the roller, which is placed longitudinally behind each person (see above). Instruct the client to use the ASIS joint as a guide for width of foot placement. Place feet and hips the same distance apart using the ASIS joint for foot and knee placement guidelines or encourage participants to place their feet wider than hip distance apart in order to provide more stability on the roller. Encourage foot, heel and knee placement that is aligned with the hips. Try the foam roller exercises described below.
Supine Spinal Awareness
- Relax the body and allow the roller to support and cradle the spine. Allow the arms to fall out to the sides, relaxing and passively opening the chest. Flex the knees using proper foot placement.
Supine Pelvic Tilts
- Perform anterior and posterior pelvic tilts. Ask the client to press the low back into the roller. This is also called neutral spine. It is desirable for clients to make low back contact with the foam roller during the foam roller exercises. However, this is a difficult position for most clients to maintain, but try to encourage it anyway.
Upper Body/Shoulder Exercises
|Raise the arms over the body and sweep them around behind the head, along the sides of the body and then back up again.
||Move through appropriate, unforced range of motion based on shoulder mobility and chest/anterior shoulder flexibility. Perform forward and then in reverse.
- With the arms extended above the body, move through a range of motion where one arm reaches above the body behind the head and the other reaches towards the floor along the side of the body. The arms should sweep past one another in a quiet and controlled manner several times. Encourage the maintenance of pelvic stability and a slow, rhythmic pattern with the arms.
Reaching Scapular Protraction/Retraction
- This exercise is a difficult concept for clients to grasp because the joint action is so unfamiliar to most. With arms held up, above the body, allow the scapula to brush past the roller as it moves through protraction and retraction.
- This exercise is similar to retraction/protraction but with arms reaching above the body behind the head. Be cautious of shoulder joint issues with this exercise. Only perform the exercise as joint range of motion will allow.
|Encourage clients to maintain pelvic stability while performing this chest press.
||Once they master it with both arms, try one arm at a time.
V Stretch and W Stretch
|The V stretch allows for a passive stretch that opens the chest.
||The W stretch engages the upper, posterior core muscles while moving through a range of motion.
Lower Body/Core Stability Exercises
Table Top Position or 90/90
- In this position, the body is placed into 90 degrees of flexion at both the hips and knees. Use the hands for control on the roller.
Alternating Toe Taps
- From the 90/90 position and using abdominal control, slowly lower the toes/foot towards the floor as if tapping the top of an egg without breaking it. Perform this one foot at a time for eight to 10 repetitions each leg.
- Lower one foot to the ground and with the other, extend the knee and perform ankle plantar and dorsi flexion. Perform on both legs for 8 repetitions.
Gluteus Maximus/Piriformis Stretch
|With one foot firmly placed on the ground, cross the other foot over the opposite thigh.
||To increase the intensity of the stretch, raise the foot off the floor. Perform on both legs.
Bridge with Spinal Articulation
- Raise hips up towards the ceiling. Lower down one vertebra at a time. Perform six to eight repetitions.
Spinal Flexion with Reaches
- Encourage clients to slowly raise first the head, then the upper back off the roller while maintaining pelvic stability. Perform this exercise while reaching the arms to the outside of the knees then lower the arms back down, allowing the arms to return to the floor before initiating the next movement. Perform eight to 10 repetitions.
Post Foam Roller Test
After the foam roller exercises are completed, ask participants to roll onto the floor and lie supine while quiet and still on their mats (see above). Have clients continue the deep breathing techniques. It is during this moment that participants should self reflect and take the opportunity to feel the difference between how they may have held tension in their body prior to performing the exercises on the foam roller compared to after performing the exercises. Participants will likely respond with satisfaction and enthusiasm after using these exercise techniques. They may begin to see how long term relaxation and stress reduction can result from continued practice.
- Cheng, Sharon. Using Foam Rollers to Enhance Your Personal Training Techniques.
- Creager, Caroline. Therapeutic Exercises Using Foam Rollers. 1996.
- Feldenkrais, Moshe. Awareness through Movement. 1977.
- Gerald W. Browning, PhD, PT; Mechanical Low Back Pain; School of Health Professions and School of Medicine, University of Missouri, Columbia, 2005.
- Thibodeau, G. A.; Patton, K. T. The Human Body in Health and Disease. 2nd Edition. 1997.