Foam Rolling: Why it hurts & How to make it less painful


If you’ve been in the gym, or any strength and conditioning studio, chances are you’ve seen or even rolled on one of those foam rollers. If so, in this article I will be addressing the most common concern about why does foam rolling hurts?

Generally, foam rolling can hurt when you apply too much pressure and overtreat yourself, or when you position the roller on the trigger point. A trigger point is a localized sensitive area in the muscle tissue that’s being tight, sore, overused, and painful to compress.

In other words, once you find the restricted and painful spot, your job is to work on this spot until you make a change or until you stop seeing a change anymore.

picture of the foam roller

Foam Rolling: Is it supposed to be painful?

In general, foam rolling is a mobility technique to restore complete range of motion and it can hurt when the muscle tissue is stiff, tight, or restricted. Stiffness and tension can manifest in a muscle by creating a sensitive spot that is painful to compress.

In the normal tissue that has no stiffness, no limitations with the range of motion, and no biomechanical tension, you should feel no pain during the foam rolling. In fact, it should almost be like a pleasurable moment. Just like when you are having a massage.

If you’ve taken massage once or twice with an experienced massage therapist, you know that she can easily localize areas of the body that feels stiff.

You know because it hurts. She knows because its stiff.

And once she works on that spot, she immediately adjusts the tension and performs a specific modality of work to first desensitize the area and then to treat the problem.

On the other hand, in those easy-to-handle areas where you have no discomfort, no stiffness, and no biomechanical restriction, she can put a lot of pressure and you don’t feel pain. In fact, some massage techniques like Thai massage or Shiatsu massage involve the therapist walking on your back, legs, shoulders, and arms.

So when you feel pain during foam rolling, it can mean couple of things:

1. You’ve Just Found a Spot with a Trigger Point

Trigger points are the little spots in the muscle fibers that get sensitive. Too much tension, stiffness, injury, or some inefficient biomechanical positions. That leads to restriction in the range of motion and localized stiffness of the muscle tissue.

What are the reasons for the muscle to be stiff? There are several multi-factors that lead to restrictions in the range of motion. And it’s rarely one single thing that will contribute to the problem.

It’s more of an integrated system. For example, sitting all day at work, exercise with insufficient form, not enough recovery time, lack of sleep, poor nutrition choices, lack of warm-up or cool down, and so on.

2. You’ve Overtreated Yourself

Doing too much foam rolling in one day can easily lead to overtraining and pain sensation. Muscles tissue can get sensitive if you spend too much time in one spot. It’s not about doing everything in one day and expect to be fixed tomorrow.

This can cause bruising and unnecessary discomfort.

A much better approach is in a short, intermittent, and more consistent way. Dose and response. You want to mobilize as you train, even between the sets whenever you feel you could make things better. After that, you use a training platform as your evaluation.

That’s when you know something is working or not. You know if you’re making progress or not. When you spend time with any physical therapist, the most important questions they ask are:

How is that working for you?
How does it feel? Same, worse, or better?

Start to applying those type of questions to self-evaluate your mobility.

Related article: How Often Should You Foam Roll?

Why Some Muscles Hurt More Than Others?

In general, a painful spot during foam rolling will depend on your lifestyle and the position you spend the most time in. It will also depend on things like training regime, type of work you do, physical activity, nutrition, sleep, stress, and recovery time.

However, some muscles are more likely to get tight simply because they get in the first line of defense as our body starts to compensate for the inefficient daily positions. And because our body works in the kinetic chain, restriction in one area will likely lead to tension somewhere else.

To make the point, I will start from the example that we all are familiar with – sitting.

1. Sitting all day

When you’re sitting, a lot of musculature and fascia get tight and adaptive to the position that you spend the most time in.

When we spend a lot of time behind the desk or behind the steering wheel in the car, our body compromises the stability and we end up in some weird positions with a rounded back, tilted head, and hinged hips.

If you sit for 10-14 hours a day, over time our body will start to make biomechanical adaptations and re-shape into that position. It becomes a pattern.

So, imagine what happens when you stand up? Every tissue in the primary engines of the hips and shoulders gets stiff and they pull the joints that are attached to the areas (knees, elbows, neck).

This exposure to the repetitive patterns (sitting all day) is enforced and after a while, it becomes a habit. So you see people walking around with rounded backs, short hip flexors, and valgus knees. We also see that if someone is walking with rounded shoulders, it probably means he will run in the same position.

And once we adopt those positions and movement patterns, they becomes a normal way how we exercise.

MuscleReason for problem
GlutesExcessive sitting shuts down glute activation, inhibits the external rotation of the hip, and creates a loss of stability in the trunk and lumbar spine
NeckLack of stability in the trunk and pelvis leads to slouching positions by rounded upper back and forcing the neck to hang on the end range
Low backLack of stability in the lumbar spine creates flexion and leads to posterior pelvic tilt
Hip FlexorWeak glute activation together with prolonged sitting shortens the hip flexor muscle and pulls the trunk towards the ground
QuadricepsProlonged sitting shortens the quadriceps
HamstringsWith shortening quadriceps, hamstrings get stiff, and during the exercise, they limit the range of motion

TIP: If possible, reminding yourself and standing up every 30 minutes to restore range of motion and a quick 3 min stretch can help to reduce stiffness.

2. Training Without Proper Form

Remember in the school on the PA classes when the coach always pushed us to spend the majority of the time doing the skill work and drills and practice? And if we were lucky, in the end, we could get some playtime on the field?

What the coach was really doing over there was reinforcing a new skill that we practiced over and over again. Now once you finished school, the drill sergeant is gone, and we can do what we want.

So we spend all the time in the gym on the fun stuff. We want to burn calories, do squats, jumps, deadlifts, etc. But not many people use the time to work on skills, on movement, on rehab, on looking at the ways to make better choices and use the gym as a lab to be a better human being.

MuscleReason for problem
NeckDoing exercises without keeping your head in the neutral spine position
Low backHinging at the hip, lack of warm-up, or doing exercises without neutral spine position
Hip FlexorExcessive jumping, squatting, running, or high-intensity interval training
QuadricepsExercise after prolonged sitting, weakness in glutes
HamstringsExercise after prolonged sitting, weakness in glutes, and excessive running

Also remember that as much as physical activity, physical inactivity will also dictate how much tension we have during the foam rolling.

TIP: Designate 5-10 minutes of the workout to work on a range of motion and improving mobility. That includes dynamic stretching, working on form, or foam rolling.

3. Not Enough Recovery Time

Muscle tissue needs time to recover. We cannot do hardcore workouts every day and expect to be 100% sufficient the next day. The recent guidelines for resistance training from ACSM say that we should be spending 3-4 days in the weight room (source).

This doesn’t mean we cannot be active. For the rest of the days, we should be doing more of active recovery and look for ways to relax.

What is active recovery? Active recovery is a movement that involves a low-grade low-level exercise that you do outside of the track or gym floor. Think of walking, hiking, cycling outdoors, playing with kids, playing the ball, or stretching.

What’s the point of active recovery? The point of active recovery is to keep moving at a minimum intensity to increase the perfusion of the body without straining on the muscles and joints and allows the muscles to restore their length-tension relationship.

When you hit the gym hard for 7 days you give no room for the muscle to adapt and recover. Skeletal muscle adaptations after a gym session takes several hours, even days. And to fully reap the rewards from the hard workout you need a rest.

TIP: Simple walking of 20-30 minutes is been proven to be low grade but has a robust effect on the recovery and lymphatic system (source).

4. Lack of Sleep

Sleep restriction comes with several changes. One study was done by Dr.Séverine Lamon from Deakin University in Australia, documented that a single night of restless sleep was enough to:

  • decrease testosterone by 24%
  • decrease muscle protein synthesis by 18%
  • increase stress hormone cortisol by 21%

Now imagine what happens if your week is dominated by restless nights of sleep. Your tissues cannot recover, your hormonal level shift, and your energy drop.

Also, I know that when I train after a long night I struggle to recognize what day of the week we are in, much less be conscious of what is happening with my knees or feet.

TIP: Eating a large meal at night can significantly decrease the quality of our sleep. When choosing your meals, try to consume most of the calories during the day.

5. Occupation

Workplace-related muscle stiffness is a big factor that will dictate how much pain you have, what you feel, and where during the foam rolling. The repetitiveness of the position fatigue and tightens the muscles.

Here are some of the examples.

OccupationPosition
DriversExcessive sitting in a compromised position
HousekeepersHousekeeping jobs require a lot of bending, over-reaching, carrying, and kneeling
Office workersSitting all day for multiple hours
Construction workersA lot of climbing, lifting, pushing, pulling, and carrying heavy objects
NursesStanding on the feet, moving patients, carrying equipment
Manual workersA lot of hands-on work requires lifting, twisting, reaching, carrying, and bending
Factory workersBending, moving things around, and twisting

It is very common that office workers and housekeepers will develop lower back problems, where waiters and factory workers may complain about knee issues (source).

TIP: Regular foam rolling and strength training can not only reduce pain but also increase proprioception and self-awareness of the correct position during work.

How Can I Make Foam Rolling Less Painful?

To make foam rolling less painful you can use the proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation technique (PNF) to desensitize painful spots. Find the trigger point, apply the mild pressure, and start to cycle with contraction of the area for 5 seconds, followed by a release for 10 sec.

PNF is a commonly used technique in physiotherapy to release the tension from the muscle and increase the range of motion. This method is typically used in stretching, but it can also be applied to foam rolling (source).

Adding the contract-relax method while being on the foam roller helps to restore the length-tension relationship in the muscle tissue, reduces the pain, and gets us a step closer to reduces the tension in the muscle.

Here’s how it works:

Step 1 Find The Spot

  • Start by laying down on the floor and position the roller in the area which you want to mobilize. If you cannot lay down on the floor, you can use a couch, bench, or a massage table.
  • Adjust your body position, use your arms to support yourself, and manipulate where you shift your weight.
  • Most part of your weight should be tilted toward the roller. This adds extra pressure. Imagine if someone would stand above you snd apply their hands and press.
  • In the picture you can see my client Chris tilted to the right. He also has his left knee flexed and externally rotated. This allows him to shift his weight on the roller.
  • If you cannot handle the discomfort, reduce the pressure by slowly moving your body away from the roller.
  • Start rolling slowly, almost like you would watch the slow-motion video. Rolling fast doesn’t allow the time for the tissue to adapt. The slower you roll, the more benefits you get.
  • Find the trigger point (painful spot). Some places may feel normal. If you find the painful spot, your job is to desensitize this tissue.
  • Make sure you can breathe properly. Don’t hold your breath.

Step 2 Contract-Relax

  • Once you find the spot, contract the muscle that you mobilize for 5 seconds. If that’s your tight, peek squeeze the front of your leg. If that’s your glutes, squeezes your butt. And if you cannot localize or contract muscle, just contract the whole musculature around it.
  • Hold the peak squeeze for 5 seconds. During this time you can hold your breath. This will reinforce the CNS system to create more muscle contraction.
  • Release. Once you release you can relax for 10 seconds. Repeat the whole process 4-5 times.

Adding a contract-relax component helps to fatigue the muscle and makes it easier to restore normal tension in the muscle and muscle elasticity.

If you wanna go one step further you can add movement while being on the foam roller.

Step 3 Add Flexion and Extension

  • After the contract-relax technique, start to slowly flex the leg up and down. This will allow for the muscle fibers to change the length and you should feel are there any more spots that you’ve missed.
  • Take a look at the picture. From the left side, you have starting position with the leg straight. On the right side, you have the finish position with the knee flexed.
  • This helps to miminc the actual movement of the muscle. You can find that you don’t feel any discomfort but as soon as you start to add flexion and extension, all of a sudden you’ve smoked out a hidden problem.
  • Perform 5-10 reps slowly.
  • Make sure you can breathe properly. Don’t hold your breath.
  • Additionally, you can start to roll side to side. Rolling up and down only target muscle at a certain position. Going side to side creates more room and helps to get to all of the corners.
  • You should be able to spend time on the spot until the pain has gone, or it has been reduced. If you cannot handle the discomfort, reduce the pressure by moving away from the roller.
  • You can stop doing this exercise after you see there is no more change.

Is it OK To Foam Roll Sore Muscles?

Rolling sore muscles is fine as long as you don’t apply too much pressure on that sensitive spot. Pain signal coming from the muscle tissue alerts you that this area can be tight, stiff, or inflamed and you should spend some time to reduce that pain.

Conclusion

Foam rolling is a helpful tool and can be used in many settings. You can reduce the tension, increase the range of motion, and also you can think of it as a diagnostic tool. Whenever you hop on the roller and you find something that doesn’t feel right, you know you got some work to do.

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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