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Functional Training with Foam Rollers

Movements and positions that address balance and stability in clients have been widely incorporated into personal training programs. Whether your goal is simply to challenge balance or stability, or to perhaps increase the motor unit recruitment to ultimately increase strength (1), styrofoam rollers are a good tool with which to work. It is my intention with this article to offer suggestions in using rollers, and not to debate the rationale or neuromuscular patterning which occurs. The rollers come as complete, or half circles, and lengths such 1.5, or 3 feet.

Flat side on the bottom: easiest Round side on the bottom: harder Full cylinder: hardest

Some basic thoughts and guidelines when using styrofoam rollers with a client:

Foam Roller Exercises

All of the following progressions are described with the client standing on the roller which is cut in half, and the flat side facing the floor. You can increase the difficulty by doing the same exercises with the round side on the floor, and then with the rollers that are full circles

You can start out by simply asking your client to stand on the roller. I suggest minimal cueing, as the body will “react” to the unstable surface and adjust accordingly. If you want to cue the client, you may want to address engaging the core, and “feeling” how their feet are on the roller and how everything has to work to maintain balance and stability. Once they are able to maintain balance, you can cue them to attempt a squat.

You can ask your client to attempt the same progression while standing on one leg. Once they have done this, have them try to do a mini squat unilaterally!

Asking your client to stand on the long side of the roller will challenge more of the lateral stability of the ankles, as opposed to the anterior/posterior stability when standing in the previously described squat position. Start with the front foot on the roller, and then both feet on the roller.

From either the squat or lunge position, you can do many full body movements in various planes. Starting with the basic squat, your client can then move into an overhead press as they stand up from the squat.

You can work into more diagonal patterns, cueing your client to do a squat, bringing the ball to the outside of one leg, then standing up, bringing the ball in a diagonal angle towards the opposite shoulder.

Start by having your client look straight ahead when first attempting this movement. As your client progresses with this movement pattern, you can cue them to have their eyes follow their movements, increasing the difficulty.

You can do the same progressions in a lunge position, with the front foot on the roller. This can be made more difficult by having both legs on the roller. Again, you can start by having your client look straight ahead, or by having them rotate more with the movement, allowing the eyes follow the pattern.

The styrofoam rollers can be used with any upper body exercise. You can have your client stand on the roller and perform straight arm pulldown with cables for example. Literally any exercise can be done while simply standing on the roller. Your client may find it actually easier to stabilize while doing this particular exercise, since the act of pulling on the cable aids in stabilization.

Core stability progressions with the rollers: quadruped arm/leg extensions

Put one of the half-cylinder rollers underneath the client’s hands, and one under the knees. Be certain that the client’s wrists can handle this stress. Besides core, the stability of the client’s shoulder joint, shoulder girdle, and hip joints are challenged. Cue the client to extend one arm. Observe the ability of your client to keep everything else still.

Then ask the client to extend one leg, keeping everything else still. You could cue the client to hold for a few seconds, or do a set of repetitions.

A more difficult movement is to extend one arm and the opposite leg at the same time.

Core stability: supine/dead bug position

Have the client lie supine with both knees bent and feet on the floor. Put one roller across the client’s low back/sacrum, and the other roller across the client’s

shoulder girdle/thoracic area. Having your client hold up their head is great exercise for the flexors, although you can have them rest their head on one of the short rollers or towels.

You can cue the client to extend one arm. Cue the client to attempt to maintain core stability and shoulder girdle stability. Limit the range of movement to the degree the client can maintain stability and not compromise the natural curve of the low back.

You can cue your client to extend one leg; attempting to maintain balance and a stable core. Keep the range of motion limited to the degree they can maintain core stability.

You can end your training session with a nice “opening up” stretch for your client. Have your client lie along the roller so it is parallel to the spine. They can add to the stretch by placing the arms out to the side, or overhead, externally rotated. This is a great stretch for the anterior muscles, including the pec major and minor, anterior deltoids, and subscapularis.

There are endless ways to set up training sessions using styrofoam rollers. Some examples are:

Sample Foam Roller Exercise Progression

  1. one set of squats
  2. one set of squats with a medicine ball in various directions
  3. one set of single leg stance and mini squats on one leg
  4. one set of lunges with front leg on roller
  5. one set of lunges with both legs on roller
  6. one set of lunges with diagonal patterns at the same time

The above sequence could be done after a traditional strength training sequence where you work with relatively heavy weights; then add no extra resistance (besides the light medicine ball) when challenging the stability and balance aspects. You could also do this sequence at the beginning of a session where you are not using the most challenging weights the rest of the session.

You could use one or two sets of these exercises in between other sets during your training session, e.g.

  1. one set of traditional squats with appropriate resistance
  2. one set of squats on the rollers
  3. one set of traditional abdominal exercises
  4. one set of quadruped arm/leg extensions on the rollers

The progressions and options are endless; they are determined by the client’s goals and abilities, your periodization plans in your program, and your own creativity! For more progressions or information, email Annette Lang


  1. Bloomer, Richard J.; Ives, Jeffrey, C. Varying Neural and Hypertrophic Influences in a Strength Program; Strength and Conditioning Journal; April, 2000.
  2. Brotzman, S. Brent. Handbook of Orthopaedic Rehabilitation: Mosby. 1996.
  3. Brownstein, Bruce; Bronner, Shaw. Functional Movement in Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy, Churchill Livingstone, 1997
  4. Hall, Carrie M., Brody, Lori Thein. Therapeutic Exercise; Moving Toward Function; Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 1999.
  5. Montgomery, Patricia C., Connolly, Barbara H. Motor Control and Physical Therapy; Chattanooga Group, Inc., 1991
  6. Rehabilitation with Proprioceptive Training The Physician and Sportsmedicine; Oct. 10, 1997