Stacy Barrows: Foam Roller History and Practical Use
So where did the foam roller come from? What can they be used for?
Foam rollers can now be found in almost every gym and physical therapy center, with many swearing by their effectiveness, but their history matters when considering how they are best used. In the following article, you’ll learn:
- How the foam roller entered the worlds of fitness and therapy,
- Safety considerations to take into account when using foam rollers with either yourself or with your clients,
- Using foam rollers as evaluation tools,
- Training balance with foam rollers,
- Using foam rollers for sensory motor learning, including examples of exercises and movements.
The rise of the foam roller and the Feldenkrais Method
The first recorded history of foam roller use was through Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais.
Dr. Feldenkrais in action (via feldenkrais-method.org)
Feldenkrais was an Israeli scientist who was born in 1904. He worked in Paris as a nuclear physicist with Nobel Laureate Joliot-Curie and developed an electronic anti-submarine detection system. He was also the first European to earn a black belt in judo.
His background, as both a scientist and a martial artist, influenced how he saw and integrated movement with thinking, sensing and feeling. His ideas continued to evolve after he suffered a knee injury. At the time, the surgery and its outcomes were so bleak he decided to find an alternative on his own. He looked at anatomy, kinesiology and physiology, and combined them with his own knowledge of mechanics, physics, electrical engineering and martial arts. He was able to recover from his knee injury with restored function and movement. This process initiated the development of the Feldenkrais® Method.
The Feldenkrais® Method synthesizes physics and neurophysiology. The method especially looks at fostering conditions in which the nervous system learns at its best, and is now a program taught over a four-year span.
When Feldenkrais came to the United States in the mid 1970s, he was introduced to packing rollers—cylindrical rollers made out of foam. He quickly began to use those foam rollers in his system.
It wasn’t until the early 1990s that foam rollers started to become more popular. Today, four decades after Feldenkrais first started using them in his method, they’re a mainstay in the worlds of fitness and physical therapy.
Foam Roller Safety
When foam rolling, it’s important to keep safety in mind. If somebody is contraindicated to exercise or movement, foam rollers may not be safe. Adhere to weight restrictions when using foam rollers.
Foam rollers are valuable for conducting progressive weight-bearing experiences, especially in regards to improving balance, coordination and refined motor control, but it’s your job to make sure your clients are safe. This seems rather obvious, but it’s worth pointing out just in case.
Use caution when working with people with fibromyalgia—or any complex regional pain syndrome or myofascial pain syndrome. Clients with fibromyalgia sometimes have a delayed response, so be cautious and work slowly. You may want to begin with a half-roller, a Smartroller® or a rolled blanket.
Be aware that dizziness and movement sickness can be a precursor to some autonomic difficulties, though not always. You may come across people who start to look like they’re uncomfortable. They may start to get clammy. Their pupils may change. This mostly happens in a supine position. They will complain of palpitations or tachycardia and their breathing may be labored. These signs look almost like anxiety.
If you start to see this, the first thing you want to do is support them and calm them down. Let them know this is a symptom of something you’re aware of. Let them know it’s happening because they’re moving in a new way for the first time and it’s setting off these autonomic reactions.
Stay with them, guide them to the floor and just help them recognize a way to reduce tension. Try having them bend their knees, feel their feet and get them to be as grounded as possible.
Over-fatigue is a very important issue, especially if you’re challenging people with balance. Keep safety in mind, as clients will often want you to progress them faster than where they really should be.
Err on the side of caution and make sure you always provide appropriate supervision with your beginning clients.
If using foam rollers for balance in a class situation, you should screen people in advance to determine if it’s safe for them to stand on a roller. When they begin, they should be close to a wall for support.
Foam rollers for evaluation
Foam rollers can also be used as evaluation tools: use foam rollers to check the balance between tension and integrity. For example, have your patient lie on a foam roller. You’ll be able to observe if breathing is compromised or if the person is dramatically shortening the breath cycle. This could indicate there’s too much tension in the ribcage when they’re in that position.
Here’s another evaluation to try: Observe somebody standing on a roller. Is there a bias to stand on one side? Does the head seem to support the standing leg more in standing balance? Do you see a shift in the dynamics when leaning forward or backward? Does the client have the knees together and the feet apart as if snow plowing? Watch to see if people dominate their balance strategies in the ankles. Do they hold their knees in extension so they’re really strategizing in different body parts and not using the whole body?
Look at how jerky or smooth the movements are. What do they do with their eyes? Do they fix their eyes off to the corner of the room or do they scan the room? Do they look like they’re straining their eyes?
Demonstrate how to get on and off the roller. Get people to become conscious of the transitional positions. And also observe how they get on and off the roller. Maybe they’re more secure getting on from one side of the body. These observations will give you a rich amount of information about your clients.
Using the foam roller
When using a foam roller, go slowly, be gentle and move systemically. People tend to rush through it and often put too much pressure in places because they don’t know exactly what they’re doing in terms of working through their tissues.
Start from the glutes
If you’re working with a systemic approach starting from the gluteals, have your clients sit on a roller. Position their feet on the floor and get them to gently massage the pelvis and the buttocks using the roller.
Putting one foot over the other will allow them to add a tiny bit more pressure. Move down to the calves, and then move over onto the front side and have them prop themselves on their elbows. The roller should be above the knees, allowing them to massage the quads.
For the abductors, and to release the right side, they’ll lie on the floor on the (same) right side, resting the head on the extended right arm. The left leg will go on top of the roller.
They’ll use the left hand in a push-up position, to help rock the body side-to-side using a variety of movements. If moving from the pelvis, it’ll be one movement. If moving from the pressure of the left hand, it’ll be different. This application works by using the friction of the floor vs. directly lying on the roller and will help mobilize the soft tissue with less trauma.
Finish with the thoracic area. Try to support the head and neck to try lower the tone of the paracervicals—the throat muscles, TMJ and masseter muscles—when massaging the thoracic area.
Balance and core training
Foam rollers can also be used to improve balance and train the core: consider a bridge or a spinal chain. Place your client with the feet up on the roller, barefoot. If unable to do this without sliding the roller away, move it up against a wall. The person will then have to work to stabilize the roller. You can also train single-leg stability in that position.
You can also integrate Pilates moves with foam roller exercises. The swan is one example. The person is positioned on the front side with the roller on the floor above the head. Let the arms be elongated out in front. The arms are extended out, resting on the roller. The thumbs should be directed upward.
Have the person start to arc while keeping the torso lengthened and without hinging in one segment of the back. Cue to lift from the sternum and let that extend out, so the whole body is arcing; the roller will start to move away. Then the person rolls back down, back to the starting position.
Sensory motor learning
Rollers are excellent tools to enhance sensory motor learning. The rest of the article will focus on concepts and techniques to improve sensory motor learning.
When using the rollers with the Feldenkrais Method®, practitioners try to create a dynamic posture. Remember, Feldenkrais was a martial artist who liked the idea of relaxed readiness and being able to reverse movements at any time.
With posture, the word itself denotes that we’re stable and fixed. Most postures are taught as if we have a plumb line as our point of reference. That really is an over-simplistic model because we move constantly. So we need to look at dynamic posture.
Here are a few basic ideas from the book Smartroller Guide to Optimal Movement. You can try these with either a regular foam roller, a SmartRoller® or a rolled blanket
There are a variety of scanning techniques, but you can do this in its most simple form by lying on your back. Just feel the contact with the floor. Spend some time on this—a minute or two at least—to get a blueprint of what it feels like before you get on the roller, and then return to re-scan later.
Our brains really light up when they have to actively differentiate experiences. Scanning gives us an opportunity to do that.
The Feldenkrais Method® will teach you how to scan in movement, scan in action and not in a way where you’re driven to “do something right.” That’s very important to think about. You’re scanning so you can sense what you’re doing moment by moment. If you wanted to change directions or do something differently, you always have that option.
Start off reclining, then move to a standing position to scan. You can even scan while walking.
Next, move onto small movements. But don’t just go to smaller movements, slow down your movements too. You’re learning to re-calibrate and can look for things you don’t normally notice when you’re moving in a habitual way.
Lying on the ground makes it easy to observe breathing (via Mark Cheng’s Prehab-Rehab 101)
If you don’t know what your breathing is like when at rest as opposed to doing something new, you’ll never be able to realize the impact of any changes. Try to identify what breath mechanics you have in a restful state. Then look to see what happens as you start to be mindful, concentrate or learn something new. Play around with variation versus repetition.
Remember, this isn’t an exercise to work a muscle group. It’s an exercise to work on attention.
It seems contrary to reduce effort when talking about an athletic context. But as we look at expert athletes, they often look like they’re effortlessness in what they do. Their movements are streamlined, without glitches.
The Weber-Fechner Law is the mathematical correlation that states “the less the stimulus, the higher the sensitivity.” So if you want a person to notice what’s happening, reduce the effort in order for them to discriminate better.
In this particular strategy, you should also avoid stretching for maximal learning benefits. If we hit the end range where the stretch reflex triggers, we’ll often encounter habitual ways we do things.
Reduce the range so you’re not hitting end range and not moving into complex patterns that may be antagonistic.
Our brains are wired to recognize patterns. If you’re so clear in your execution of a movement that you can reverse and go right back the way you came, you have a very clear sense of the way you’re moving.
Mindfulness is not the same as concentration. Being mindful is a way to attend. Beginners are mindful because they don’t anticipate the results since they’ve never encountered the action.
Take multiple rests when working on building attention and mindfulness to movement. Rests are really important as they give time for full absorption of new tasks.
Rest also makes training time more effective by providing a contrast in sensory experience and helping us to become more aware in training after the rest period.
When we’re first in our developmental stages as human beings, we’re strong auditory and kinesthetic learners. We actually become more visual learners later on in life.
If your clients are strong visual learners, be aware of this when using foam rollers. As people age, their ability to see will probably degrade. They may need glasses or lenses. This forces them to rely more on the kinesthetic system when balancing or doing other tasks. If you can help people be more kinesthetically aware, this can help them be prepared to move and sense well, even if their visual ability degrades through life. A simple way to do this is to get people to close their eyes when working on movements.
Another important point when it comes to visual learning is the impact of technology. Today, we spend a lot of time in front of computer screens, and small screens on phones and tablets. Because we’re spending more time visually confined to small spaces, this can cause tension on the eyes and body. As a result, many people end up moving with a rigid head and neck.
When it comes to training the visual system, it’s important to work on the peripheral field to help people move their eyes in a much larger field of vision.
Using the form roller to improve movement—practical examples
The following examples will help you break out of familiar patterns to create new movement organization. These examples will first help update your body (cortical) maps (more about Body Maps via Todd Hargrove), and secondly, help you in our internal righting for alignment as well as prepare for training.
The wall will also be used in a way that may provide a perceptual shift to correct upper torso development.
Start by getting in alignment
First, start by getting in alignment. Pick the easiest roller for this practice. A rolled blanket may suffice. The smaller the stimulus, the better.
Start with the scanning introduced above. Have the person lie on his or her back and try to create a grid to sense contact with the floor—maybe a minute or two—and notice how they’re breathing.
What’s the difference between the two sides of the body? Does one leg feel longer? Does one leg feel more rested? If you’re guiding somebody through this, talk through it, but don’t let the person report back to you. There’s no right or wrong; you’re just trying to find a baseline. Then, have the person get supine onto the roller or the roll blanket.
With knees bent and feet on the floor, have the person notice the right foot and feel how the right foot is in contact with the floor. Tip the the right knee to shift weight onto the outer right foot, without picking up the foot up and relocating it. Just tip the right knee out to the right and back in. Do this several times.
As the person repeats the movement, notice if the leg hinges by itself or if the body accommodates that. Does it fall a little toward one side? Is the body accommodating the action? Is there movement traveling up to the shoulders? Whatever it is, just observe it and then see if the person can add to it by allowing the pelvis to turn and let the head be part of the response to the movement.
Let the ribs be part of the movement. Take plenty of time. See what happens with the person’s eyes. Do the eyes follow or track the movement? Do this maybe five or six times just noticing how they are breathing.
Next, bring the left leg into it. Let the left leg go to the left this time, then back to the center. Have the person do this as softly and smoothly as possible. Compare the left side to the right side and note how they differ. Does one side seem to be easier? Does one side seem to be jerkier or is it just right? Do they almost seem just identical to each other?
Then, start to include alternating. Tip the right leg to the right, then bring it back to the center. Then send the left leg off to the left and bring it back to the center. Tag team—going from one side to the other.
When we’re moving in a synchronized way, we can sense the motion in the most distal end of our spine, the tail. When we get up and start walking, if we’ve kept a little bit of the sensitivity, we’ll notice that the spine moves from side to side, unless overly bracing in the pelvic girdle, which can alter the mechanics of the hips.
When finished, stop in the middle and gently slide off of the roller.
Now, have the person compare the floor scan from where it was at first and where it is now. Often, people will feel a space where the blanket or roller was, but they may also notice they’re lower to the ground. It’s a great opportunity to explain what has happened.
When doing movements with a heightened amount of attention and doing it in a slow and smooth way, the self-regulation system is getting rid of excess tonus—body tension—in places that run interference and can create a static and stressful structural posture.
Balance while sitting
The next one is to balance while sitting. First, sit on the floor and recognize what it’s like to sit on the floor.
The knees are bent and the feet are on the floor. Have the person try to feel which sitting bone is carrying more weight and how these compare. Explain how sitting is really an activity. It’s not static, and it doesn’t matter what the chair or desk situation.
Sitting is not a static activity
It’s really important that people start to recognize that they need to have a dynamic sitting posture. The lower body is like a dynamic docking station that supports the spine. When sitting, the pelvis should be free to react, therefore will reduce body tension, with less workload going into the head, neck and arms.
Have the person sit on the roller, straddled with the feet on the floor. The arms come up to the side in order to have a finger touch to the floor.
Have the person slowly shift weight from side to side. When the roller moves side to side, the whole body will lean and curve in the direction it’s tipping toward. We do this slowly and smoothly.
Picture the spine from behind. When doing the movements, see if the person can feel if the spine has a smooth curve that goes equally in both directions. Do this a few times and then bring the person back to the middle.
Have the client put the right hand on top of the head. Without putting any strain on the neck, tip the head to the left by using the right hand to lean the head over so the right elbow is pointing toward the sky.
Tipping the head to the left, the ribs will get shorter on the left side. Remind the person to notice that the ribs on the right side get longer. Tell the person to let the roller accommodate the movement. Let it go to the left and repeat that several times.
Make sure the person softens the vision or gaze, and then rolls back to the middle. After lowering the right arm, have the person put the left hand on top of the head and slowly tip the head to the right this time. The left elbow will go toward the sky. The ribs will shorten on the right and will lengthen on the left. Just repeat that a few times, leaning, tipping and arcing over to the right.
At this point, have the client pause in the middle, lower the arms down, slip off of the roller and sit on the floor. Now we look for the difference in the sensation of the floor. The person might notice things like sitting a little more anchored on the sitz bones. Then move to sitting in a chair to help draw attention to pelvic support as opposed to spinal support.
Next, let’s move on to synchronizing the shoulders.
Most people have a strong imbalance between the chest wall and mid-back—the rhomboids, the middle trap muscles. Most of us spend so much time hunched at a desk or in a chair. Even if we exercise every day, we don’t use the same volume of movements leaning backward as we do arcing forward.
If you have a Smartroller®, make the dome more arced, with the flat side down. If you have a half-roller, lay the flat side down with the arc directed upward. Have the client lie supine on the roller with the knees bent and the feet standing on the floor. The arms are up so they’re pointed toward the ceiling.
Bending the elbows, the person will touch both elbows with the hands and make a box with the arms.
There is an inside box that goes between the armpits and elbows. Use that space so it’s perpendicular to the torso. Now without deforming the rectangle, have the person slowly move the box toward the sky and then bring it back down.
Do this several times, but do it slowly enough to calibrate and sense the range of movement between the two shoulder girdles. One side will move differently. The slower the movement, the more the person will allow the two sides to calibrate and get much more coordination. Each time doing the movement, make the movement even softer and softer. After five or six times, lower arms and rest. The person might feel a little more wrapped around the roller.
The client will next slide off slowly, back on the floor. Remind the person to notice the width of the shoulders. Many times, people will feel a much wider wingspan, because in coordinating the muscles of the chest and the muscles of the back and synchronizing those, we reduce the resistance in the two directions of both areas and the arms soften. This is great before doing any kind of upper body work.
Finish with one last exercise: reaching taller. In a standing position, have the person reach one hand up toward the sky. Reaching with the right hand, is there a lean on that side or to the opposite side?
Reaching with the other side, notice which side goes easier. Ask the person, “If you had to really reach to the top shelf for something, which side would be easier?” It may not always be the dominant side.
Next, put the roller about six inches away from the wall. If it’s a Smartroller®, it should be flat side up. The client will lie on the roller, with the head supported. The knees are bent,the elbows are bent and the palms tipped back. The hands go to the wall in a back handstand position.
Have the person put a tiny bit of pressure through both hands, and feel how the spine responds to the movement. If the movement is gentle enough, the person might feel it all the way into the feet. Repeat that a few times just to feel the connection.
Now leave the hands on the wall and bend the right knee. The person should bring the right hip to about 90 degrees and the right knee to about 90 degrees. The ankle is relaxed. Remind the person to notice the shift and feel what has to be done to balance on the roller.
Next, bringing the left leg up to match the right leg, both knees are in the air. The legs and hips are about 90 degrees. Ask the person to feel what it’s like to balance like that, and perhaps even play around with it a little. Comfortably, gently and slowly move one foot a little further away. Feel the accommodation in the hands. This provides an opportunity to practice what would almost be like a handstand or a headstand.
Now the arms come down and the person slides off of the roller and comes up to standing to test the reach again. At this point we can notice and sense the oppositional force going through the foot to elongate and push. We’d like to feel a wonderful systemic relationship through the whole torso.
My hope is that you leave this article with newfound information on what has rightfully become a common tool; used correctly foam rolling can expand your abilities and assist your clients and patients in finding health in improved movement.
This article was adapted from Stacy Barrows’ lecture, Foam Roller Methods for Optimal Posture & Movement Organization.
Dr. Stacy Barrows is the co-owner of Century City Physical Therapy, a registered Physical Therapist, Guild Certified Feldenkrais® Practitioner, Strength and Conditioning Instructor, PMA Certified Pilates Teacher author of SMARTROLLER® GUIDE TO OPTIMAL MOVEMENT and creator of the Smartroller®.
She is one of the first instructors to teach how to use the foam rollers and has lectured extensively to health and fitness professionals on other topics such as the Feldenkrais Method®, treatment of the shoulder and arthritis.
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