Why Foam Rolling Is Crucial For Building Muscle

Celebrity trainer Ashley Borden is a major proponent of foam rolling—for her clients, it’s a non-negotiable element of their fitness routine. That’s because spending a little one-on-one time with a foam roller can help improve your mobility so every exercise is more efficient and effective, putting you closer to your goals, whether you’re looking to build lean muscle or burn fat.

But knowing how to use that cylindrical tool you see stacked up by the mats at the gym can be a little confusing. The name implies a rolling motion, but there’s more to it than that. Here we have Borden share what you need to know about foam rolling, and how it can help you crush it at the gym.

Foam rolling means rolling out your muscles with a piece of hard foam, and it might feel a little painful.

Foam rolling is a way to help smooth out your fascia, the connective tissue that stretches over and through your muscles. “Inactivity, repetitive motion, and injuries can cause the fascia and the underlying muscle tissue to bind together. This causes ‘knots’ or ‘trigger points,’ that lead to tightness,” explains Borden. When you roll out, you release these knots, and this helps reduce muscle tightness and improve joint mobility.

This process is typically accomplished with a foam roller (aptly named, huh?), which is a cylindrical tool typically made of dense foam plastic. (There are other tools like massage sticks and therapy balls that are designed to help work out the knots, too.) “When you foam roll it’s like getting a mini massage before you train,” explains Borden. And while that sounds deliciously wonderful, foam rolling can actually feel a little painful, especially if your muscles are extra tight and sore, she adds. (If you feel sharp pains always stop and check in with your doctor.)

Relieving muscle tightness can directly improve the quality of your workouts.

Foam roll then work out. “When muscles are not restricted by tightness, the body has more range of motion and muscles can fire at peak efficiency during exercise,” explains Borden. Range of motion refers to how much you can move around a joint. For example, with better range of motion in your hips and knees, you’ll be able to get deeper into a squat.

By doing exercises correctly, and through your full range of motion (which, by the way, will improve as you get better), the moves become more effective which helps build lean muscle mass. Not only does this help with general strength goals, but also fat loss—having more muscle mass takes more energy for your body to maintain, which increases your basal metabolic rate (or BMR), or how many calories your body burns at rest.

Reducing tightness can also help minimize muscular imbalances in opposing muscle groups (the ones that work together to help you move in everyday life and in the gym, like your chest and back and biceps and triceps). Tightness in one of these muscle groups can interfere with your ability to engage the other—for example, if your quads are super tight, you’ll have a tough time engaging your glutes during a squat, which can lead to overdeveloped quads and underdeveloped glutes, Borden explains. Less tightness also cuts down on your risk for muscle and ligament strains, as well as general discomfort, she adds.

Think of foam rolling as an essential building block to your regular workout.

In the short term, foam rolling can provide immediate relief from body pain due to tightness. You may notice that your legs start to feel light and tingly because foam rolling also increases circulation, says Borden. It will also help you feel more connected to your body, she adds—and when your body and mind are in sync, your workout tends to be on point.

And there’s an obvious long-term payoff, too. Strength training is an essential part of a balanced workout program—and foam rolling plays a major part in making sure that tightness and knots don’t get in your way and kill your workout vibe. Reducing tightness can also help you perform your best during non-strength workouts, too, as mobility is essential for runners, bikers, dancers, and swimmers, too.

Ultimately, foam rolling can help make the time you spend training more efficient and effective. Here’s how to do it the right way.

First, locate the foam rollers at your gym or buy one for yourself—for something that delivers big results, it’s relatively inexpensive and worth the investment. Most are under $ 25. Borden likes simple EVA high-density foam rollers, which is a basic type of foam roller made of dense EVA plastic. “They’re light, mobile, and sturdy,” she says.

Get in the habit of rolling out before every workout, explains Borden. “Give yourself five to 10 minutes and focus on the muscles you are using in that particular workout.” For example, spend extra time on your quads and calves before indoor cycling. For a full-body workout, she recommends focusing on muscles like your upper back and quads as these muscles are used in many compound exercises. Check in with your body and think about what needs attention—if you’re feeling a little sore or tight that’s a sign you might want to spend time foam rolling that muscle area. (Note, if you’re experience sharp pains or recovering from an injury or surgery, consult a doctor, not a foam roller.)

Here are a few moves to get you started:

Foam rolling helps even if you’re not about to work out, says Borden. “Wind down after your day by spending more time on areas of your body that feel tighter. I like to catch up on my mindless reality TV while I roll out,” says Borden.

Next time you’re at the gym, get your workout rolling with a foam roller. (I’m not even the least bit sorry about that joke.) Once you see how amazing you feel during your workout, you’ll be hooked.

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