How To Use Foam Roller For Tight Hamstrings (with Pictures)


I’ve tried dozen of different self-myofascial instruments to work on myself and my clients over the last decade and the most common question I get is how do you roll your hamstrings with a foam roller?

In general, using a foam roller for hamstrings doesn’t give favorable effects because the surface of the roller is too wide to create localized pressure. Instead, using tools like foam roller sticks or massage balls allows for deeper access to the muscle fibers to facilitate myofascial release.

In this article, I will explain how to use a foam roller to facilitate myofascial release for hamstrings and what are the best tools you can use.

Foam Rolling For Hamstrings

Is foam rolling hamstring the same as foam rolling your quads? Foam rolling your hamstring is not the same as foam rolling your quads or calves. I don’t use a regular foam roller for my hamstring because the center of gravity isn’t in my favor and I cannot change the length-tension relationship in the muscle.

When I’m rolling on my quads, most of the weight is on the foam roller. This creates nice compression on the muscle tissue.

However, when I’m rolling my hamstrings, I either lean back where I use my hands to support myself.

Or I try to stay in this uncomfortable position where I lean forward and try to apply as much pressure on the roller as possible.

None of those positions gives me the effects that I’m looking for.

That’s why for my hamstrings I like to use a massage ball or a double ball because it gets much more work done.

What is the best foam roller for hamstrings? The best foam roller for hamstrings is a massage stick, rolling ball, or double lacrosse ball. These myofascial devices allow for more precise and local access to the muscle tissue fibers, creates better pressure, and can reach the trigger points that the standard foam roller cannot.

What size foam roller for hamstrings? In general, the best foam roller for hamstrings will have a 2.2 to 2.5-inch diameter, similar to the lacrosse ball. Small surface allows for deeper access to the soft tissue, where the regular 6-inch foam roller can only be applied to the superficial surface of the muscle.

How Do you Loosen Tight Hamstrings With A Foam Roller?

There are ten steps to loosen up the tight hamstrings with a foam roller:

  • Start by sitting down on the chair, bench, or a box
  • Place the small foam roller or a massage ball under your hamstring
  • Lean forward and apply pressure on the leg that you want to work on
  • Find a spot with a trigger point
  • Add flexion and extension of the leg to fully facilitate myofascial release
  • Stay there until you feel you have made the change or until you stop making the change.
  • After you release the tension from a trigger point, reposition the ball to find another spot
  • Place the ball in a variety of angles and corners of the leg
  • Once you fully scanned one leg, move on to the second and repeat the process
  • Spend 5-10 minutes in total on both legs

How does this looks in the real life?

Take a look at the picture below.

In this picture, you can see that my client Jeff using a massage ball for hamstrings. Under his right leg, you can spot a small violet ball. Jeff is literally leaning forward. His left leg is externally rotated to the side.

Why do you need to sit while foam rolling your hamstrings? Sitting while rolling your hamstrings allows for better access to the muscle fibers. It allows you to position the center of gravity and shift the weight towards the side that you currently work on. I also allow adding movement of the leg to fully facilitate myofascial release.

You can also see he is keeping both hands on the right thigh. That adds extra pressure, creates more compression, and gives faster results.

Here is the most important part. See that Jeff moves his right leg up and down. This movement creates a change in the length-tension relationship on the hamstring.

This flexion and extension of his right leg allow him to attack the muscle fibers in all various lengths.

This is what you need to do to create a myofascial release.

Why is better to move the leg while foam rolling? Moving the leg while foam rolling allows for a change in the length-tension relationship of the muscle. Compression of the foam roller combined with movement of the muscle fibers helps to separate the fascia sheath that restricts the range of motion.

Take a look at the picture below.

In the picture you can see sketch of the muscle.

On the top, you see how muscle looks when it’s contracted. The bottom is stretched and relaxed.

When I place the ball and apply the pressure on the muscle that stays in one static position, it will only reach a limited number of trigger points.

But once I start to move my leg up and down, I change the length of the muscle which opens up all different angles, corners and smokes out the trigger points that I may miss if I just keep my leg in one position.

So by changing the length of the muscle (flexion and extension) while you compress the foam roller, you actually squeaky clean all the hidden corners.

That change of muscle length allows to separate the fascia tissue that is stuck to the muscle fibers.

This is how you create a myofascial release.

You don’t create myofascial release by compression. You create it by doing compression while changing the length of the muscle (source).

To illustrate how does it work take a look the the picture below.

In the picture, you can see an analogy of a myofascial release using a pen and cotton pad. The yellow pens are muscle fibers and the cotton pad is the fascia.

On the left side, you can see that simple compression doesn’t separate the fascia fibers.

On the right side, you see that changes in the length of the muscle separates the fascia collagen fibers and removes the tissue restriction.

And that’s exactly what I’m doing while foam rolling my hamstrings. I don’t just passively roll back and forth on the muscle.

I pin the ball into the belly of the muscle and by adding flexion and extension I create the myofascial release that restores full range of motion.

You need to create that micro-movement while you compress the tissue.

Does foam rolling help hamstrings? Foam rolling does help with hamstrings because it can break up the scar tissue that is causing muscle restriction. The best way to roll your hamstrings is with a massage ball or massage stick. Those instruments can penetrate deeper to the trigger points where the regular roller cannot reach.

Does it hurt when I foam roll my hamstrings? Foam rolling your hamstrings doesn’t hurt but it can feel sensitive when you find the trigger point. Your goal is to identify the most sensitive area and stay there until you make a change, or until you stop seeing any more progress.

Foam Rolling Hamstrings With Dumbbell

When you scroll up and take a closer look at that picture of Jeff sitting on the box and mobilizing his hamstrings, he isn’t actually having a ball under his hamstring.

He has a small 2 lbs weight dumbbell.

Can I use a dumbbell to foam roll my hamstrings? You can use a small 1-2 lbs dumbbell as a foam roller for hamstrings. Place the dumbbell under your thigh, lean forward, and find the spot that feels the most sensitive. Then apply gentle pressure while moving your leg up and down. Hold the position for 30-40 seconds and move on.

Which works exactly the same as a double lacrosse ball.

In the picture below I did a small comparison where you can see how does a small dumbbell relates to the double lacrosse ball.

I’ve come up with this idea when I had several clients come at once and I run out of double balls. It works like a charm.

As you can see, there are some similarities:

  • They both have similar length
  • They both have flat middle and bulky ends
  • The both have similar diameter at the end

Double lacrosse ball, also called “peanut ball”, is originally designed to mobilize the spine. I do not recommend using a dumbbell on the spine by any means.

I won’t cover the technique of how to mobilize your spine with a double ball. I’ve already covered this in detail in “Foam Roller For Upper And Lower Back“, which I recommend you read.

But it is a perfect alternative to use for foam rolling the hamstrings if you don’t have access to a double ball. I’ve used it hundreds of times and in some cases, it creates even better results compared to a massage ball or double lacrosse ball.

Foam Rolling Hamstrings With Massage Ball

I like to use a massage ball that has a similar diameter to the regular double lacrosse ball. On the days when I’m stuck in one position (sitting, traveling, driving) I noticed that my hamstrings are brutally stiff.

And if I work out after without releasing some of that tension, my body compensates and defaults into this mechanically inefficient position.

Can you use a massage ball for hamstrings? You can use a massage ball to release the tension from your hamstrings. Sit on the chair or the bench, place the ball under your leg, and apply gentle pressure. Slowly move to extend your leg up and down to find those hidden trigger points.

There are variety of ball you can use to mobilize your hamstrings. They all differ in density, diameter and material. Some people use tennis ball but I find that tennis ball isn’t large enough to really get full access to the muscle tissue.

The best types of balls to use for hamstrings are:

  • Baseball ball
  • Lacrosse ball
  • Double lacrosse ball
  • Massage ball
  • Massage stick

Benefits Of Foam Rolling Hamstrings

There are several benefits of foam rolling your hamstrings:

  • It releases the tension from the muscles
  • It improves flexibility and restores full range of motion
  • It gets rid of trigger points
  • It removes the tissue restriction
  • It speeds post-exercise recovery
  • It reduces the DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness)

Why are my hamstrings so tight? The tension in the hamstring is caused by the compensation of the body. Spending too much time in one position creates tension in the muscles. That tension leads to pattern adaptation (habit) where our body adapts this dominant position as a regular posture.

Fascia is the connective collagen fiber tissue that lives between our skin, muscles, and soft tissues. It’s like this white gummy stuff you see when you skin your chicken for dinner.

The best way to describe fascia and its effect on our range of motion is by looking at it as the spider web. Spiders net their web in the corners that haven’t been “occupated” for a while. And if you don’t clean up those corners, those webs get bigger, thicker, and continue to spread.

If we are not stretching, not moving our muscles, if we spend most of the day in one position (e.g. sitting), have poor nutrition, don’t hydrate enough, etc. those fascia layers can get gluey and restrict our range of motion.

How often should I foam roll my hamstrings? You should foam roll your hamstrings 3-4 days per week. However, people who have more hamstring tension and limited range of motion should mix foam rolling with stretching because studies show that foam rolling combined with stretching can facilitate better results.

Conclusion

The main goal of a foam roller is to release the tension from the muscle fibers and reclaim the optimal range of motion. However, simply rolling back and forth on your hamstrings is not gonna cut it.

Using the regular foam roller doesn’t allow for a full muscle excursion and therefore doesn’t lead to myofascial release. To fully facilitate muscle change you need to combine compression while having a muscle at a variety of lengths.

Michal Sieroslawski

Michal is an exercise physiologist (MSc), nutrition coach, Ashtanga teacher, and fitness blogger. He shares his successes and failures to help busy men and women squash down 20, 50, or even 100 pounds of fat without leaving their home.

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