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A foam roller can work magic on your muscles if you're using it correctly. Exercise specialist Ben Kuharik has the tips you need to get the most out of the self-massage tool.

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Foam Rolling 101

Podcast Transcript

John Horton: Welcome and thanks for joining us for another episode of the Health Essentials Podcast. I'm John Horton, your host.

Now let's get rolling. And by that I mean foam rolling. Maybe you've heard of this form of self-massage, which seems to be growing in popularity. You might even own one of the lightweight, cylindrical tubes that's supposed to work magic on your muscles. I'm a runner and I have a foam roller in my house for those days when my legs just feel a little knotted up. Got it right here, stays right by my desk. But here's a confession. I'm not sure I'm using this tool for the maximum benefit and you might feel the same way. Luckily, we've got a roster of Cleveland Clinic experts who drop by the podcast to help with things just like this. Today, that means getting foam rolling tips from exercise specialist, Ben Kuhar.

Ben, man, so great to have you here today. Thanks for joining us.

Ben Kuhar: Oh, I'm happy to be on. I'm honored that you brought me in to talk about this subject.

John Horton: Yeah. I think let's get right into why you would use these things. What are the benefits that you're getting out of it?

Ben Kuhar: So there's two major benefits that have been proven and then there's a lot of speculation. Firstly, the biggest use of it is for warming up. So when you focus on one muscle and you get that cue of something touching the muscle that you're trying to focus on, your brain will be able to send signals to that muscle a little bit easier because you can kind of understand and think about what that muscle does when something externally is touching it. So when you use it as a warmup like that, it helps lengthen the muscle and so you want as much length as you can when you're exercising. And it helps give that mind-muscle connection so you don't compensate and use other muscle groups in place of what you're trying to target.

John Horton: I got to say, I've never used it to warm up. I use it more afterwards, which I'm guessing is the second thing that you're going to talk about as far as the benefits of it.

Ben Kuhar: Exactly. So with afterwards, what it does is it gives you acute pain relief just like any massage. When you get a massage, you usually feel better. If you're really sore for 30 minutes, maybe an hour afterwards, you feel really great. So if you can get that immediate pain relief just for a few minutes, like to start your day, if you're sore the next day or even a couple hours after your workout, that'll allow you to move around a little bit more. So you're less likely to just lay on the couch or lay in bed all day. And then the more you move around, the blood starts flowing through the muscles and you get all the nutrients and then it in turn improves delayed onset muscle soreness.

John Horton: Yeah. Does it do anything, like I've seen where people say it helps with muscle repair. Does it help with that, just helping the muscles bounce back and come back a little stronger?

Ben Kuhar: So that is one of the things that's in speculation. It causes a little bit of inflammation, which if muscle if trying to repair, then more blood is flowing to it, which that is exactly what inflammation is. So if you can push to get a little bit more blood flow in the area, ideally it would repair a little bit quicker. Now studies kind of go back and forth with that. Nothing is totally certain, but the concept holds true that it does cause inflammation and inflammation does help with the healing process.

John Horton: I think it would also go hand in hand where I've seen it's been tied to increasing flexibility or injury prevention. I take it's in that same realm?

Ben Kuhar: Yeah, pretty much. Just getting the blood flowing to that targeted muscle group. Because when the blood goes there, the muscle heats up because blood is warm and then the more your muscle's heated up, the more elastic it gets. So it gives it the ability to stretch and come back versus when your muscles are cold, it wants to stay in a position. Just like most anything. So if you stretch out a cold muscle, you're more likely to injure it. So if you want to use a foam roller whenever you're warming up and get more blood flow to the area, you're less likely for injury.

John Horton: All right, all right. One of the favorite things, and I've seen a bunch of different sites that'll come up where they say it's also used by some people, the idea that it can target cellulite, the bane of everybody's existence, you want to get rid of those little dimples. Any proof on that or just wishful thinking?

Ben Kuhar: In all respects, a load of malarkey. No, it doesn't have any major effect like that. The two main ones are just help elongating the muscle and help acute soreness relief or acute pain relief.

John Horton: Yeah. All right. So let's talk about if you can give us some tips as to how we can use a roller and kind of get the most out of it? And let's start with our legs, because I know that's a spot where people, your legs get tight, you get cramps, you can get things like that. So walk us through a few ways that we can use the rollers on our legs.

Ben Kuhar: Yeah. So whatever muscle group you're trying to target, usually your hamstrings, that's just the back of your leg. Like I said, you want to do it in a lengthened position. So you want to try to straighten your leg as much as possible and then go from joint to joint essentially. You don't want to go directly on the joint, you want to go over the muscle belly because there's just no beneficial thing that goes on specifically rolling over a joint. But you'd want to start right at the end of your hips or the beginning of your hips, down your leg to the back of your knee. So you just always want to go the full length and just focus on the muscle belly itself, not so much the joint.

John Horton: Yeah. So I take it with that, you would be almost sitting on it and kind of start with it kind of near your butt and then just kind of use your body weight and kind of roll over it until it gets to just about your knee?

Ben Kuhar: Yeah, essentially that is it. Now I will say, you want to be careful. You don't want to start out just using your whole body weight because you can make you sore. It's a lot of pressure, especially if you have a hard one. Some people even use like the PVC pipes and that can be pretty intense. Usually whatever area you're feeling sore, it's not just that muscle, it's going to be surrounding muscles as well. So if just the back of your legs is really hurting, which is pretty common, you want to go from your hips to the back of the knee, fully lengthened across. But then you want to maybe rotate in and do a little bit of the inside your leg, rotate out, do a little bit of the outside of your leg. So whatever area you're looking for, you want to hit all the surrounding muscle groups, but it doesn't take more than a few minutes that each muscle group to get the benefit.

John Horton: It sounds like you're saying as far as time, you could spend maybe even like 10, 20 seconds doing it, or you can spend longer, depending on upon your pain tolerance and how you're feeling while you're doing it?

Ben Kuhar: Yeah. Really, if you're just hitting one muscle area, you won't have to spend more than three minutes doing it at a time. Just kind of going back and forth.

John Horton: Oh that, okay.

Ben Kuhar: It's a quick way to just get warmed up and get the blood flowing and get those pain relief effects. Now if your whole back is feeling sore, you might spend a little bit of time on your legs, a little bit on your glutes, a little bit on your back, but that might accumulate to 10 minutes max. Doesn't take a lot of time and it does provide a lot of benefit.

John Horton: Well, Ben, you've already told me that I am not spending nearly enough time on my foam roller. Well, for such a simple tool, it seems like it does an immense amount of good.

Ben Kuhar: Yeah, everybody usually finds a benefit in it some way. Some people like it for certain things over the other. It's not a necessary tool, but it's something that provides very particular benefit that you can't find elsewhere.

John Horton: All right. So if somebody wants to start foam rolling, you go, you pick one up at the store. You can get a lot of them for maybe $20, $30, maybe a little bit more, but they're not that expensive. What advice would you give if you get one and you want to start using it?

Ben Kuhar: Get a cheap one because there's nothing particularly better about any of the really expensive fancy ones and then you can find out if you like it, then you can get a little bit crazier after that. They all do basically the same thing though, and then start out light. So don't put your whole body into it right away. Find your tolerance, see if you're sore from it the next day. Make sure you're not, hopefully. And then you can kind of put a little bit more pressure, see if you like that as well. But yeah, I think everyone should at least give it a try and see if they can find somewhere to utilize it.

John Horton: Ben, man, thank you so much for being here today. Just great tips, man. We really appreciate it.

Ben Kuhar: Absolutely. Thanks for having me on.

John Horton: Ben definitely gave us some great tips to start or maximize your foam rolling routine. So here's hoping it gets you, well, I guess, rolling towards a healthier you. Until next time, be well.

Speaker 3: Thank you for listening to Health Essentials, brought to you by Cleveland Clinic and Cleveland Clinic Children's. To make sure you never miss an episode, subscribe wherever you get your podcasts or visit clevelandclinic.org/hepodcast. This podcast is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician.

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