I think I’ve used over a dozen different rollers, balls, and sticks with my clients for over the last decade and If you’ve been going to the gym regularly, chances are you’ve seen people using them too.
I want to share with you my experience on how to choose the right foam roller for your back because foam rolling for your upper and lower back is completely different than rolling on your legs.
Choosing the foam roller for your back will depend on the muscle areas you want to work on. Standard rollers are great to work on the large parts of the body; however, double balls or massage balls are more effective to reach those small deep muscles.
Plus, there is a lot to understand about the proper way of doing myofascial release, which I will cover in that article as well.
Foam Roller for Upper Back
For the upper back I don’t typically use a regular foam roller. I like to use a double ball or a single massage ball. On the picture above you can see something that is called double lacrosse ball. You may also know this as:
- Peanut ball
- Double ball
- Back ball
I prefer this ball because rolling your back is not the same as rolling your quads or glutes. There are a lot of curvatures, bonny surfaces like ribs, spine, scapula, and pelvis that stand in the way to get that deep access into the actual muscle tissue.
This makes it impossible for a regular foam roller to reach. The double ball targets perfectly those parallel lines of muscles in the thoracic spine area.
What size foam roller is best for back? In general, the best foam roller for the back is with a small 2-2.5 inch diameter because it offers better access to the muscles that live between the bonny surface of the back. Alternatively, you can use a massage stick or a double lacrosse ball.
What is also cool about the double ball is that it allows for the movement of the arms while I’m doing foam rolling.
This is very important if you want to target the belly of the muscle at various lengths.
Let me explain.
Take a look at this picture below.
On the left side, you see the position of the shoulder blade when you move your hands forward. On the right side, you see that scapula moves back as the hands come back down.
Do you see those yellow lines between shoulder blades? They represent the muscle that is holding the shoulder blade. As you can see, when you move your hands around, those muscles change their length.
That is exactly how you want to use foam rolling ball on your upper back.
Your goal is not to lay down and roll up and down. Your goal is to get into those muscles between shoulder blades. The only way to do so is by moving your arms around and getting the scapula out of the way.
The muscle changes its length (stretches out), gently moving your shoulder blade to the side and allows for the ball to attack the muscle fibers at different angles.
You cannot do it with the regular foam roller.
With a regular foam roller, not only you don’t have access to all those deeper layers of the tissue. But you cannot create this complete mobility of your hands because when you lay down on the standard foam roller, it rolls on the shoulder blades, not between them.
Here in the picture you can see I’ve position double ball in between the shoulder blades.
This is how you create a myofascial release.
Fascia is basically a connective tissue that lives in between our skin, muscles, and muscle fibers. It’s this white gluey thingy you see when you skin the chicken breast.
That tissue can get really sticky and with not, enough movement or beings “stuck” in one position for a long time (e.g. sitting) is starting to gummy with muscle fibers and restrict the range of motion (source).
Take a look at the picture below.
I will use the analogy of fascia using two pens and a cotton pad. Those yellow pens are muscle fibers. The cotton pad is fascia.
- In the picture on your left, you see what happens when you do foam rolling. It creates compression of the muscle tissue and the fascia. But it doesn’t clear any restrictions.
- In the picture on your right, you see what happens when you do compression together with changing muscle length. It separates the fascia fibers and releases muscle restriction.
This is called myofascial release.
That’s why I like to add simple movements of my hands in various directions. This changes the length of the muscle, allows you to get to those hidden corners, smoke out trigger points, and leads to significantly better results.
Related article: 6 Principles Of Foam Rolling For Knee Pain
How Do You Use A Foam Roller For Upper Back?
- Start from laying down on the floor facing up towards the ceiling
- Place the massage roller or double ball in between your shoulder blades
- Hug yourself to tract the scapula outside and create more room for the roller
- Stay in one spot
- For best results, add some movements of the arms
How does this looks in the real life?
Take a look at the picture below.
In the picture you see Patrick laying down on the floor face up with his feet on the box. I like to add additional elevation of the feet because it creates more pressure on the double ball, therefore, you can feel the better impact.
Its kind of like a deep tissue massage when you ask therapist to add more pressure.
As Patrick lay down, he has his double ball in between his shoulder blades. To facilitate myofascial release, all he needs to do is to add simple movement of the arms. Up and down.
This allows him to really explore all the corners and find those trigger points. With the regular “resting” on the ball, he wouldn’t be able to find them.
Also, you can add all bunch of arms moves to make it even better. You can:
- hug yourself (this forces the scapula to widen and opens up more space for the double ball)
- roll side to side (this helps to reach those lateral parts of the muscle)
- hold an extra weight on your chest (this will add pressure)
- use PNF contract-relax technique (tightening your upper body and holding your breath for 5 seconds followed by complete relaxation. This will facilitate myofascial release even better [source])
- ask a friend to gently press o your chest (this will create more pressure)
How long should I foam roll my back? On average, you should spend around 10 minutes foam roll your back. Your goal is to mobilize your back until you make a change, or until you stop making the change so anything less than 10 minutes may be insufficient.
I’ve noticed is that when I combine all those movements, I can get a lot of work done and I feel my results last for multiple days.
I also find that when I really focus my time and attention on the upper back alone, all of a sudden my shoulders gets more range of motion, my hips loosen up, my lower back feels more mobile and my neck tension is gone.
All the tension starts from the spine.
And the truth is that you can spend a lot of time mobilizing your neck and shoulders, but if your t-spine is brutally stiff, you’re not treating the cause, you’re treating the symptom.
Tips For Rolling Your Upper Back
There are some general guidelines that I always give to my clients when they choose to foam roll upper back at home. I think the most important takeaway is that people will feel uncomfortable when they do it for the first time.
The reason why mobilizing your upper back is painful is because there is a lot of tension in the muscles. And if you’re not getting regular massages, if you don’t stretch enough, if you sit several hours per day, your upper back won’t just miraculously reclaim its regular length-tension relationship.
Sitting all day creates pattern adaptation. Our body uses an extraordinary ability to adapt to shapes that we spend the most time in. So if you spend all day behind the desk you may notice that you rounding your back and create a kink in your neck when you typing.
Take a look at the picture below.
Sitting turns off your glutes that gives you the stability in the spine. With weak and compromised position, the body simply fatigues trying to hunt for a stability, so we default to the most stable position available (slouching).
Those upper back muscles are becoming brutally tight because they act as the stabilizers for your neck and shoulders.
Plus, over time instability from sitting creates our body to adapt to the slouching position. The more we stay in that compromised position, our body will figure out as this is our regular posture.
So as you can imagine, all those upper back muscles gets inflamed, tense and oversensitive.
Unless you don’t do anything about it, it will remain stiff. More stiffness creates more trigger points that feel sensitive to compression. So if you feel pain, you know that this is the area that needs to be work on.
Is foam roller good for posture? The foam roller is good for posture because it releases tension from the muscles that are oversensitive and stiff. The excessive sitting position creates disorganization around the spine and limits our range of motion in the hips, shoulders, and neck.
- Spend some time doing a warm-up before you mobilize the upper back (I like to do some 20-30 minute yoga session to get my muscles supple and kick start the parasympathetic response. This way I can feel more relaxed)
- Do it after your workout or in the evening (I find it better to do my upper back in the evening because it doesn’t feels relaxing and it helps me with sleep)
- The first time is always uncomfortable (it almost feels like someone is stabbing your back)
- Focus on one area at a time (I like to spend at least 10 minutes on my t-spine. Anything less than that I don’t find beneficial)
- For lower pressure, use a yoga block or a towel and place it under your hips (this will elevate your lumbar spine and reduce pressure on the double ball)
- For more pressure, elevate your legs (just like in the picture above)
- Stay in one spot for 1-2 minutes (it is much better to combine side to side motion together with moving your hands instead of rolling up and down)
- Move one inch at the time (after you feel like you’ve already made a change, move on one inch further up or down)
- Start from the bottom and move towards the neck (the double ball fits perfectly for every segment of your spine. So you can start mobilizing your lower back, staying 1-2 minutes on each spot, and slowly move up inch by inch)
- Spend 10-15 minutes (don’t take shortcuts. It takes time but the more time you spend there, the better you will feel)
I always find that the first couple of days feels stiff, but the more time I spend talking to my t-spine, not only I feel looser, but also the next foam rolling session is much more pleasurable.
Related article: Why Does Foam Rolling Feel So Good?
Foam Roller for Lower Back
For the lower back, I don’t typically use a standard foam roller. I know people like to roll back and forth. But I find that this doesn’t fit into the muscle surface that I really want to focus on.
Why you shouldn’t foam roll your lower back? You shouldn’t use regular 6-inch diameter foam rollers for the lower back because thick rollers can only target the superficial layers of the lumbar spine muscles and cannot reach the parallel lines of muscles in the back area.
What foam roller is best for lower back? The best rollers for the lower back are double lacrosse balls, massage sticks, and double lacrosse balls. Those massage instruments have a small 2 – 2.5-inch diameter that can target the deeper, parallel lines of muscles in the lumbar spine area, without rolling on the bonny surface.
How do massage balls help back pain? Massage balls can help with back pain because they allow for easier access to the deeper layers of the parallel lines of muscles in the lumbar spine area. They also allow for a complete range of motion that is essential to facilitate the myofascial release.
Here I also like to use those double balls because they allow me for a free rotation in my hips. As you remember from before, to really create a myofascial release, you cannot just roll back and forth. You need to create movement between the muscle fibers. That’s how you “break up” the scar tissue.
How do I break up the fascia in my back? To break up the fascia in the back you need to create a myofascial release. This means you need compression from the foam roller, muscle tension by facilitating the PNF contract-relax techniques and add muscle movement to change the length of muscle fibers.
One of the ways to add some degree of movement and more pressure directly to those muscles in the lower end of the lumbar spine is to slightly rotate your hips or extend your leg.
How Do You Use A Foam Roller On Your Back?
- Lay down on the floor face up
- Position a massage ball or double ball under your lower back
- To reduce the pressure you can place the yoga block under your hips
- To add more pressure, you can elevate your legs on the box or bench
- For better access to the parallel lines of muscles in the lumbar spine area, rotate your hips or extend your leg
How is this looks in the real life?
Take a look at the picture.
Here you can see Mike laying down on the floor with a peanut ball under his lower back. Initially, he had both legs bent but because he is a big guy, this wasn’t enough to dig deep into his lower back muscles.
One easy trick to actually get to those parallel lines of muscles in the lumbar spine area, all he needed to do is to straighten up his right leg. By lifting his right foot off the floor and straightening his leg, he immediately “lost” symmetric stability in his pelvis and shift his weight more towards the right side.
This put extra pressure on the muscle, exactly where he has his double lacrosse ball. That’s why I like to use a double ball for lower back because with a large foam roller, I cannot create that same rotation at my hips.
With a regular foam roller, the pelvis remains stable as the foam roller carries the weight. The double ball is only tiny so the pelvis has no “external” space to relax and has to shift.
Tips For Foam Rolling Back
Just like with the upper back, I don’t like to roll up and down. I find that it’s much better to use my time when I focus on one spot, move side to side, rotate my hips and move on one inch up.
For larger people, the small double ball may be not enough. In that case I can recommend you to get a typical massage ball that is slighly bigger and can get more access.
How often should I foam roll my back? Generally, you should foam roll your back 3-4 times per week. For people who have more muscle tension or lower back pain, foam rolling 3-4 times per week is enough to create a change without adding more pressure on the back.
Does a foam roller help with lower back pain? In general, foam rollers do help with lower back pain because they compress the muscle tissue and desensitize the painful area. Muscle tension can limit the range of motion, therefore, regular foam rolling can help to reduce and prevent back pain.
Related article: Foam Rolling: Why it hurts & How to make it less painful
Foam rolling your back is the best way to start any mobility program because all of the tension starts from the spine. Disorganization around the spine will always reflect poor mobility, impaired breathing efficiency, the relationship between the pelvis and lumbar, and so on.
Also I see that 10 minutes on the back is often enough to increase shoulder or even hip range of motion.