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Improve your flexibility and mobility with a foam roller

By: Jordan D. Metzl, MD 

Photo Credit: Thomas McDonald

Foam-Roll Exercises

Foam rolling is in many ways like a deep massage—but you give it to yourself. By rolling the hard foam over your thighs, calves, and back, you’ll loosen tough connective tissue (like the fascia, which stretches over many of your muscles and can tighten up) and decrease the stiffness of your muscles. The result? Better flexibility and mobility, and muscles that can function properly. (How flexible are you? Find out.) I recommend foam rolling before any workout, but in reality, you can do it anytime. The easiest time is to pull out the foam roller while you’re watching TV. 

If you’ve never foam-rolled before, be prepared. It’s uncomfortable and 
can even be painful when you start. Don’t worry—the more painful it is, the more that muscle needs foam rolling. The good news is that the more you do it, the less discomfort you’ll feel. For each muscle that you work, slowly move the roller back and forth over it for 30 seconds.

If you hit a really tender spot, pause on it for 5 to 10 seconds. Definitely focus on the muscles that need rolling the most. You’ll know which ones they are just by trying it. You’ll find 36-inch foam rollers at most sports or fitness shops, but in a pinch you can also use a basketball, tennis ball, or even a length of PVC pipe.


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Photo Credit: Beth Bischoff

Hamstrings Roll

Place a foam roller under your right knee, with your leg straight. Cross your left leg over your right ankle. Put your hands flat on the floor for support. Keep your back naturally arched.

Roll your body forward until the roller reaches your glutes. Then roll back and forth. Repeat with the roller under your left knee. NOTE: If rolling one leg is too difficult, perform the movement with both legs on the roller.


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Photo Credit: Beth Bischoff

Glutes Roll

Sit on a foam roller with it positioned on the back of your right thigh, just below your glutes. Cross your right leg over the front of your left thigh. Put your hands flat on the floor for support.

 Roll your body forward until the roller reaches your lower back. Then roll back and forth. Repeat with the roller under your left glute.


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Photo Credit: Beth Bischoff

Iliotibial-Band Roll

Lie on your right side and place your right hip on a foam roller. Put your hands on the floor for support. Cross your left leg over your right and place your left foot flat on the floor. 

Roll your body forward until the roller reaches your knee. Then roll back and forth. Lie on your left side and repeat with the roller under your left hip. If this becomes too easy over time, place your right leg on top of your left instead of bracing it on the floor).

 Important Note: Your iliotibial band—commonly called the IT band—is a tough strip of connective tissue that runs down the side of your thigh, starting on your hip bone and connecting just below your knee. When you start foam rolling, you’ll probably find that this tissue is one of the most sensitive areas that you can roll over, perhaps due to the high tension of the band. Remember, pain means you need to roll it. Make this a priority, because over time, if your IT band is too tight, it could cause knee pain.


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Photo Credit: Beth Bischoff

Calf Roll

Place a foam roller under your right ankle, with your right leg straight. Cross your left leg over your right ankle. Put your hands flat on the floor for support and keep your back naturally arched.

Roll your body forward until the roller reaches the back of your right knee. Then roll back and forth. Repeat with the roller under your left calf. (If this is too hard, perform the movement with both legs on the roller.)


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Photo Credit: Beth Bischoff

Quadriceps-and-Hip-Flexors Roll

Lie facedown on the floor with a foam roller positioned above your right knee. Cross your left leg over your right ankle and place your elbows on the floor for support.

Roll your body backward until the roller reaches the top of your right thigh. Then roll back and forth. Repeat with the roller under your left thigh. (If that’s too hard, perform the movement with both thighs on the roller, as shown.)


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Photo Credit: Beth Bischoff

Groin Roll

Lie facedown on the floor. Place a foam roller parallel to your body. Put your elbows on the floor for support. Position your right thigh nearly perpendicular to your body, with the inner portion of your thigh, just above the level of your knee, resting on top of the roller.

Roll your body toward the right until the roller reaches your pelvis. Then roll back and forth. Repeat with the roller under your left thigh.


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Photo Credit: Beth Bischoff

Shoulder-Blades Roll

Lie faceup with a foam roller under your upper back, at the tops of your shoulder blades. Cross your arms over your chest. Your knees should be bent with your feet flat on the floor.

Raise your hips so they’re slightly elevated off the floor. Roll back and forth over your shoulder blades and your mid- and upper back.

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