Foam rolling is a popular myofascial release method among strength athletes and the general population to help reduce post-exercise muscle soreness and improve mobility. But if you’re only using this tool for self-massage, you’re selling the foam roller short.
How the foam roller is used has grown thanks to the minds of creative coaches. Sure, you can massage your muscles with it, but you can also use it to improve lifting technique and movement patterns. Below are seven of the best foam roller exercises to promote mobility, decrease post-training soreness, and improve lifting technique. In addition to outlining these basic tried-and-true movements, like foam rolling of the hip flexor, we also provide more advanced variations, benefits, and guidelines for how to use these moves.
Best Foam Roller Exercises
- Long Head Calf Release
- Foam Rolling the Upper Back
- Foam Rolling the Hip Flexors
- Pullover on Foam Roller
- Foam Roller Hip Hinge
- Foam Roller Side Plank
- Foam Roller Single-Leg Deadlift
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Foam rolling the calf muscles is often neglected because it’s painful. This area often gets tight, sore, and overworked, and excessive soreness and tightness can affect ankle mobility. If your ankles are impaired, then you’re susceptible to calf strains, and your form during squats may be less than ideal. Because the calf muscle flexes the ankle, loosening that area up can lead to improved ankle movement, and few exercises do a better job of calf release than, well, the long head calf release.
Benefits of the Long Calf Massage
- It releases tension in the calf muscles, improving flexibility and range of motion in the ankles.
- It Brings healing blood flow to a much-needed area to help reduce post-training soreness.
How to Do the Long Calf Massage
Turn the roller horizontally, rolling back and forth over the gastrocnemius (large calf muscle) and keeping the toe pointed toward the sky. Push with your hands behind you and keep your glutes slightly off the ground while rolling back and forth. Apply light to moderate pressure, roll 30 seconds to a minute on each side.
Before your workout, do 15 rolls on each calf muscle.
Your back is made up of many muscles that all play a role in pulling movements and maintaining a healthier, upright posture. This particular area tolerates foam rolling well because the ribs and shoulder blades protect your internal organs from being squished. When you’re going straight from the desk to the gym, it pays to spend some time promoting blood flow to this area after a period of immobility to improve posture and promote scapular movement (which will allow for more optimal shoulder movement).
Benefits of Foam Rolling the Upper Back
- Helps improve shoulder mobility before training and muscle recovery after training.
- It brings blood flow to loosen tight areas of the upper back to reduce tissue stiffness and soreness.
How to Foam Roll the Upper Back
Lay on a foam roller sitting horizontally and ensure that it’s placed under your upper back. Place each hand on the opposite shoulder (like you’re hugging yourself) to open your shoulder blades. Prop your hips slightly off the floor and push with your feet to move the foam roller over your upper back. Then put each arm overhead in a V shape and prop your hips slightly off the floor and push with your feet to move the foam roller over your upper back.
Do 15 to 20 slow rolls before your workout. You can also perform sets of five to 10 rolls between sets of overhead movements, like shoulder presses.
The mobility of your hip flexors plays a key role in allowing you to squat and deadlift because they’re needed to achieve full hip extension. Mobile hip flexors allow you to run, jump, squat deep and help strengthen your legs through a longer range of motion. And there is no better way to prepare and improve the mobility of the hip flexors for training than by foaming rolling them. Spending a minute or two in this area will improve your lower body training.
Benefits of Foaming Rolling the Hip Flexors
- By bringing blood flow to the hip flexors, you’ll improve hip mobility and the ability of the glutes to extend fully.
- Foaming rolling the hip flexors will help promote better movement of the hips, legs, knees, and ankles, reducing your chances of injury.
How to Foam Roll the Hip Flexors
Put the end of the roller underneath one hip with your other leg on the ground with the knee bent and elbows on the ground. Roll back and forth over the top of your hip, pushing with your elbows, being careful not to roll over your pelvis. Pause on any tender spots and take a few deep breaths to help release muscular tension.
Perform 15 rolls as part of your lower body warm-up.
This dumbbell pullover variation is performed on a foam roller, which forces you to maintain strict form and tension, so you don’t roll off. Also, this is a great variation to perform in your home gym if you don’t own a bench, as the foam roller creates a similar increase in your range of motion. You can use kettlebells, dumbbells, or a weight plate.
Benefits of the Pullover on Foam Roller
- Performing this exercise will less stability, helps increase core strength, and improve lifting technique.
- Builds chest, back, and serratus size and strength.
How to Do the Pullover on Foam Roller
Lie down on a foam roller longways, with your feet firmly planted on the floor and your head hanging off the end (though, keep your head neutral). Have a partner hand you either one or two kettlebells (or dumbbells) and extend the weights over your chest. Slightly bend your elbows and lower your arms until you feel a stretch in your lats. Then, drive the weight back up to the starting position.
Do three sets of eight to 12 reps during your actual chest workout.
There are not many deadlift warm-up exercises that don’t involve a loaded barbell, except for this one. Not only are you grooving the hip hinge, but you’re engaging your lats and upper back during the movement, which is essential for maintaining a neutral spine while deadlifting. It’s also more back-friendly in general since the move is entirely unloaded.
Benefits of the Foam Roller Hip Hinge
- Grooves hip hinge mechanics and engage the upper back and lats.
- Teaches the lifer what upper back tightness feels like during a deadlift.
- A great warm-up and filler exercise when hip hinges are in your training.
How to Do the Foam Roller Hip Hinge
Place the foam roller below your pelvis and press down either side with your wrists and forearms. With an upright stance, slowly roll the foam roller down your thighs while hinging the hips back at the same time. Stop just above your knees and reverse the movement to the starting position. Reset and repeat for reps.
Do these before deadlifts for eight to 10 reps.
Side planks already challenge your core muscles. When you have those down pat and are ready to graduate to a more difficult variation, do side planks on a foam roller. The reason is that you’ll add an element of instability to the mix, and that will recruit the rotator cuffs, which are the shoulders’ dynamic stabilizers. And stronger rotator cuffs will help you lift more weight in the gym. (1)
Benefits of the Foam Roller Side Plank
- Side planks strengthen the quadratus lumborum, a muscle that plays an important role in preventing lower back pain.
- Lower back pain often comes from a lack of endurance from the core muscles. Side and front planks may help solve this problem.
- Improves the strength and stability of the rotator cuff.
How to Do the Foam Roller Side Plank
Lie on your left or right side with your knees straight and your elbow directly underneath your shoulder on top of a horizontal foam roller. Prop your body up on your elbow and forearm, then raise your opposite hand until it’s perpendicular to your torso. Align your feet, knees, and hips together. Brace your core and raise your hips until your body forms a straight line from ankles to shoulders. Hold that for the designated time.
This exercise has a certain amount of risk, so please be careful. Do these at the end of your workout for three sets of 10 to 20 seconds on each side.
The act of pressing the foam roller down into your foot helps groove your single-leg hinge and provides immediate feedback on the proper hinge technique. This exercise acts as a regression to weighted single-leg deadlifts and helps dial in your form to get the best out of this exercise. And if you’re a coach, it’s a great exercise to use with clients who are learning the single-leg deadlift.
Benefits of the Foam Roller Single-Leg Deadlift
- Improves single-leg balance and single-leg deadlift technique.
- This exercise is a good teaching tool for those new to the single-leg deadlift.
How to Do the Foam Roller Single-Leg Deadlift
Place the foam roller on top of your right foot and press down with your right hand. Soften your left knee and push the foam roller back and hinge with the left hip until the torso is slightly above parallel. Return the upright position with your right foot off slightly off the ground. Repeat for reps, and then switch sides.
If you have any single-leg exercises programmed, this acts as a great warm-up. Do six to 10 reps on each side.
When to Use a Foam Roller
During Your Warm-Up
If you are inactive, foam rolling will bring blood flow to inactive muscles, reduce muscle stiffness, and help prepare your body for the training ahead.
Between Sets of Exercises
When you’re performing a strength exercise that requires mobility, rolling the muscles can help the muscles remain limber, and the more active drills above can reinforce proper technique. For example, doing the single-leg deadlift drill between sets of deadlifts.
During Your Cool Down
Foam rolling after training will not STOP you from getting sore. However, bringing healing blood flow to the working muscles will help reduce soreness and bring your heart rate down.
The Benefits of The Foam Roller
Not only do they hurt so good before and after training, but foam also rolling has a few other important benefits.
Reduces Muscle Soreness
In a study published by the Journal of Athletic Training, men who foam rolled their legs after a workout reported a decrease in their post-workout tenderness. They used a roller for 20 minutes after their workout and again 24 and 48 hours later. (2)
Improves Your Joint’s Range of Motion
When reducing muscle adhesions in the fascia, you’ll improve the muscle’s elasticity and help them return to their ideal length. This allows the joint to go through a greater range of motion before you train to help you strengthen all parts of the movement.
Helps With Pain
Foam rolling can help ease muscular pain and tension. However, it’s important to remember to avoid pain by putting your body in uncomfortable positions while rolling. If it is more than muscle pain, then it’s a signal it is too much. (3)
Provides Feedback on Proper Technique
With the hip hinges and pullover exercises above, the foam roller is a good tool to groove good form before hitting the barbell. If you lose your balance, the upper back isn’t engaged, or your lower back arches, the foam roller will tell you so.
More Foam Roller Training Tips
Foam rolling is an important tool in an athlete’s arsenal of recovery and mobility toolbox. Still, it doesn’t always work immediately, and results may take weeks of work to release tight muscles.
Now that you have a handle on the best foam rolling exercise to improve mobility, reduce soreness, and improve lifting technique, you can also check out these other helpful foam rolling articles for strength, power, and fitness athletes.
- Day A1, Taylor NF, Green RA. The stabilizing role of the rotator cuff at the shoulder–responses to external perturbations Clint Biomech (Bristol, Avon). 2012 Jul;27(6):551-6. doi: 10.1016/
- Gregory E P Pearcey et al. Foam rolling for delayed-onset muscle soreness and recovery of dynamic performance measures. J Athl Train. 2015 Jan;50(1):5-13. doi: 10.4085/1062-6050-50.1.01. Epub 2014 Nov 21
- Aynollah Naderi 1, Mohammad Hossein Rezvani 1, Hans Degens 2 Foam Rolling and Muscle and Joint Proprioception After Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage. J Athl Train 2020 Jan;55(1):58-64. doi: 10.4085/1062-6050-459-18. Epub 2019 Dec 19.
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