Tom and BJ's guide to foam rollers

Tom and BJ's guide to foam rollers

Our guys BJ Rule and Tom McAdam of CrossFit City Road, Gymbox Old Street, show us that foam rollers can be "brilliant pieces of kit." They explain why.

You've probably seen plenty of those foam, circular things in most of the Gymbox sites. Some of you may have even had a bit of a roll around on them, as you've seen others do it, or because your physio or men's/women's health mag had some pics of it in them.

Foam rollers can be brilliant pieces of kit if used correctly, and a waste of time if not (playing Darth Vader vs Obi Wan isn't a waste of time, but it's hardly what foam rollers are designed for). So we've been asked to put together a piece on how to use foam rollers.

You can get the most out of the rollers in the following three ways:

  1. SMR - Self Myofascial Release
  2. Pre-Workout Passive / Active Shoulder Mobility Drills3
  3. Thoracic Mobilisation Drill

1. SMR - or Self Myofascial Release

This is basically where you roll around on the rollers aiming to get a bit of a massage. Now massage is all well and good, but are you doing it to warm up or cool down? To promote blood flow and stimulate the nervous system or break down scar tissue and/or inhibit neural pathways? Did you answer all the above, or have you not really thought about it, or are you just doing it because it feels good?

Massaging your muscles as restoration on non training days, as a means of recovery, is extremely beneficial. Doing it before you train could be detrimental. Most people will lie across a foam roller, and move the focused muscle group lengthwise along the muscle belly. This can be useful for promoting blood flow, and loosening up the fascia surrounding the muscle. To give you something different to try on recovery/rest days, we're suggesting that you massage across the muscle belly. When you find a tight/lumpy bit, work across it by starting on the inside and rolling to the outside. It's important to go slowly. You should feel the muscle belly being squeezed along like dough under a rolling pin. You may also get a sharp release of tension as the adhesions break down. That's OK, enjoy it! It's also key to make sure the muscle is relaxed. Save the squeezing and contractions for leg day. Contract, and then relax a few times to make sure the muscle really is off tension.

This can be painful so toughen up a bit, grin and bear it! You can also enhance this by flexing/extending joints at the distal ends. Find a sore point on your quad, for example, and flex and extend the knee over it. Again, go slowly, and aim to get your knee all the way to your butt.

2. Passive / active mobility

Unlike the SMR above, using the rollers for increased mobility with this method isn't painful, which is a bonus. You'll need one of the longer rollers for this, unless you're a large footed creature from Middle Earth. The following drills passively increase joint range of movement across the shoulder girdle (you can also apply similar techniques across the hips). These drills can be used pre exercise to assist with correct range of motion in the upper body.

You'll need to lie on your back, lengthways along the roller. You'll basically sit at one end, and lie back with your spine along the roller and your neck – the base of your skull towards the opposite end. Your knees can be bent with your feet flat on the floor, or you can have your legs lying straight with your heels on the floor, and your toes pointing to the sky. However you have your feet the key is to keep your whole spine – or as much of it as possible – on the roller. I.e. don't let your lower back come off the roller or arch (you'll need to use your abs here). This is easier to maintain with your feet flat on the floor. Move your arms out from your body with your knuckles on the floor and your palms facing the ceiling, like you've been nailed to a cross. This in itself is a great passive stretch for 'opening up' the shoulder girdle. Remember to keep your lower back on the roller!

From here you can perform a number of drills:


Scissor Arms



Internal/external rotations

3. Thoracic mobilisation drill

Most of us have pretty crappy thoracic mobility, meaning most of us look a little like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. This is due in part to sitting at desks all day and also to a few too many cable crossovers in front of the mirror cos it makes us look hench. This drill below can be used to help improve thoracic mobility, which can help prevent/alleviate shoulder pain. For this drill you'll also need an ab mat, or something soft for your head, and a barbell.

Lie on top of the foam roller, with the roller somewhere above the bottom of the shoulder blades. The higher up the better. You really need to make sure you aren't too low here as you'll risk mobilising the wrong part of the spine! Place your head on the ab mat and reach up to the barbell overhead. Grab the barbell with as narrow grip as you can while maintaining locked elbows. Your lower body should be in a bridge position, with your legs bent and hips high in the air. Press up actively into the barbell and start to lever your butt down towards the floor. Again, it's super important here to be engaged through the core. Squeeze your butt, and clamp down your abs so that your pelvis stays neutral. We want all the movement coming from the upper back, not the lower back or pelvis. Lever down as far as you can maintaining this position. For the bros (myself included), that may not be very far at all. Sorry about that – it just means you have to work a little harder on this. Equally some of you ladies may not know what all the fuss is about. Keep playing around with this drill for at least 2-3 minutes, and enjoy the feeling when you stand up and realise what it's like to have normal spinal mobility!

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If you have any questions, or you want to come and try one of our classes feel free to get in touch! Email Tom or BJ and they will assist you.