Best Foam Roller Exercises for Legs

The fascia that encloses the leg muscles is one of the more troublesome and tight areas on athletes, especially those who work sedentary jobs and sit all day. Tight quads, hamstrings, and calves can lead to imbalances/weaknesses in the legs and how we move.

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We wanted a leg sequence that hit the leg evenly, and provided a natural pre and post-workout flow. To help us effectively roll out the legs, we reached out to Matt Moskowitz, Head of Training at Hell’s Kitchen Wellness, to learn about his go-to movements for these purposes. Check out the video below, along with more detailed movement descriptions below in the article.

Note: All motions shown are for informational purposes only. The information in this article and video is not meant to prevent or cure any disease or injury. It’s always a good idea to consult with a medical professional or trainer before attempting any new training methodology. If you experience any sharp pain while foam rolling or exercising, discontinue movements immediately.

[There are multiple ways a foam roller can help your progress. Check out our ultimate guide to foam rolling to learn all the ways it may help.]

Understanding the Lower Leg (Anterior Side)

The front of the leg is made up of multiple smaller muscles that run along the tibia/fibula. Along with tight calves, these muscles can limit ankle flexion and extension, which will also impact how the upper leg muscles move. Below are a few of the anterior (plus posterior) leg muscles we’ll be focusing on in some of the movements.

  • Tibialis Anterior 
  • Fibularis Longus 
  • Extensor Digitorum Longus 
  • Fibularis Brevis 
  • Gastrocnemius 
  • Soleus

[Need additional calve work? Here’s a quick foam rolling sequence to loosen and mobilize tight calves.]

Understanding the Upper Leg (Quadriceps Side)

Spending all day seated can leave the quadriceps feeling tight and over extended. In a lot of cases, rolling the legs and hips together will benefit an athlete most. Tight leg muscles will impact how the hip hinges and allows the legs to flow through lower body exercises. Below are a few of the legs muscles hit in this rolling sequence.

  • Vastus Medialis 
  • Rectus Femoris
  • Intermedius 
  • Vastus Lateralis
  • Tensor Fascia Latae 
  • Sartorius 

Understanding the Lower Leg (Hamstring Side)

In addition to tight quads, it’s not uncommon to have shortened hamstrings. When we sit in a flexed seated position, these muscles become inactive, which can cause them to shorten and tighten. Below are the hamstring muscles we’ll be hitting in the sequence’s post-workout final stretches.

  • Biceps Femoris 
  • semitendinosus
  • Semimembranosus

[Don’t forget to roll out the hips with the legs. Check out this guide for effectively mobilizing your hips.]

Pre Workout Mobility

1. Kneeling Calve Stretch

Kneeling Calve Stretch

The athlete will begin by kneeling on the foam roller just below the patella. From this kneeling position, flex the toes inward to create tension of the calve musculature. Upon doing so, begin to lean back and sit onto the heels, while maintaining an upright tall posture. Athletes will hold this position for 30-seconds where they feel an active stretch without pain.

2. Mobile Shin Roll

Mobile Shin Roll

From the kneeling position with the calves still engaged, the athlete will begin to bring the hands to the floor in front of them creating a table top position. Similar to a mountain climber movement, the athlete will maintain the table top position and begin to roll the foam roller up and down the lower leg. Do this for 30-seconds, or 30 repetitions (rolls).

3. Lateral Mobile Shin Roll

Lateral Shin Roll
Lateral Shin Roll

Maintaining the previous table top position, the athlete will now begin to roll with a slight hip shift to the right and left side. The goal is to hit each side equally, so it’s recommended to keep a flow or pattern to this rolling method. For example, shifting the hips at the top of each roll, instead of mid-way through. Repeat this rolling technique for 30-seconds, or 30 repetitions.

4. Lying Hip Sweep

Lying Hip Sweep

For the next movement, the athlete will twist to their side and roll down the foam roller until the pelvis is supported just above the greater trochanter (hip bone). This movement is similar to hip sweeps you’d do standing, but your goal is to maintain a light pressure on the roller while swinging the leg back and forth. Repeat this movement for 30-seconds, or 30 repetitions.

*The goal is to target the hamstrings as you swing the leg forward, and the psoas as your leg comes back. 

5. Hip Flexor Swing

Hip Flexor Swing

Once the athlete’s done with 30 leg sweeps, they’ll move down the roller to a point where the rib cage is supports and the hips are on the floor. The athlete will extend both legs, then bring one to a 90-degree position. With the bent leg, and knee leading the movement, the athlete will bring the leg across their body trying to maintain contact with the roller. Bring that leg back to center, and reverse sides. Repeat this movement for 30-seconds, or 30 repetitions.

*It’s important to always lead with the knee in this exercise, as the goal is to target the hip flexors, so ease into each swing. 

Post Workout Stretching

1. Assisted Butterfly

Assisted Butterfly

The athlete will take a seat on the foam roller with the edge of the tailbone just off the roller. Legs will assume the normal butterfly position, and the athlete will create a tall posture, keeping the chest tall. The arms will work to pull the legs out, opening the groin. Hold this stretch for 30-second to a minute, while breathing deeply.

*It’s important to pull the legs out, and avoid pushing them down, as this could irritate the hips and negate the stretch. 

2. Extended/Assisted Hamstring Stretch

Hamstring Stretch

From the seated position, the athlete will roll the foam roller down their leg under their calves. They’ll extend the legs and flex their toes toward their body. This will stretch and lengthen the hamstring. The amount of ankle flexion will help influence the amount of stretch an athlete feels. For a heightened stretch, the athlete can work to bring the foam roller towards the knee. Aim to maintain an open chest during this stretch.

Assisted Hamstring Stretch

Similar to the extended stretch above, the assisted towel exercise will utilize a towel to provide an athlete with additional hamstring stretch. Once the athlete is in the seated position, have them wrap a towel around their feet and work to flex the toes toward their body and lengthen the hamstring.

Hold each stretch (whichever you choose) for 30-seconds to a minute.