When you hop on the foam roller your goal is to release the muscle tension that is restricting your range of motion or to enhance the muscle circulation to help you recover faster for your next session. But how long should you foam roll for?
In general, you should foam roll around 10-20 minutes per session. Your goal is to stay on the foam roller until you make a change or until you stop making a change. The time will strictly depend on the current quality of your muscle tissues and the density of the fascia.
In this article, I will give you the step-by-step model on how to know when you should foam roll, and how much time you need.
How Long Should I Foam Roll Each Muscle?
Unfortunately, there are no universal guidelines on the exact time you should be spending on the foam roller. Some studies suggest you should foam roll for up to 2 minutes on each muscle for myofascial release to occur.
The time will vary and there are several factors that will play a role in how long you need to foam roll:
- How much muscle restriction you have
- What techniques you’re using
- How often you foam roll
- What roller you’re using
I will explain each of those factors so you will get a better understanding of how this foam rolling thingy works.
Muscle restriction is typically created by the density of fascia between muscle fibers. Fascia is just a fancy name for a connecting tissue that lives between your skin, muscle, and individual muscle fibers.
It’s this white slidey stuff that you see when you skin the chicken breast.
Take a look at the picture below.
Everyone has some amount of fascia.
This fascia connects multiple fibers and tissues. But the problem is it can get very gummy. And with gummy fascia, all the tissues get less range of motion.
It’s kind of like running in the super-tight, non-stretchy jeans versus walking in the shorts or yoga pants. The more gluey our fascia is, the more restriction we feel.
Once the fascia becomes really dense it starts to create scar tissue (source).
Scar tissue is just a fancy name for highly dense and sticky fascia that is limiting the sliding ability between the tissues.
What is cool about foam rolling is that it can help you to improve movement restriction by addressing that scar tissue. That’s what is referred to as breaking up the scar.
So by using a foam roller you can squeaky clean all those tissue restrictions and improve your muscle flexibility.
How long should you foam roll for will depend on the overall muscle restriction you have.
If you’re physically active, you’re flexible and stretchy like a ballerina, you’re getting regular massages, and you constantly moving your joints around, your fascia is probably in tip-top shape.
Bending, twisting, stretching, pushing, pulling, lifting, carrying, and grabbing all makes our muscle fibers slide on top of each other. This prevents from formation of scar tissue.
But if you’re not so active, you spend most of your days sitting, driving the car, eating poorly, and seeing the massage therapist once every blue moon then your tissues can get sticky.
If you don’t use it, you lose it.
Which means you will probably need to spend more time on the foam roller.
Related article: Why Does Foam Rolling Feels So Good
Foam Rolling Techniques
Another big factor that will dictate your time on the foam roller is what you actually doing while you’re there.
The foam roller is a handy instrument for myofascial release. However, not many people use it to its fullest potential.
The majority of people just roll back and forth on their muscles because they’ve seen other people doing the same thing in their gym.
They haven’t received any formal training on myofascial release. So they don’t know any better.
Foam rolling is popularized as the “myofascial release” method. A myofascial release simply means releasing the restriction from the sticky fascia (source).
But to actually “release” the tissue, you need much more than just compression of the foam roller.
The term myofascial release means
Breaking down scar tissue between the muscle fibers or between the layers of the skin and the muscle tissue by changing the length of the fibers and creating tension in the muscle.
Woah! That’s a mouthful. Let me explain.
It means moving and adding tension to the muscle.
Here’s how it works.
Analogy that I’m gonna use I’ve borrowed from Dr.Spina. You can watch the full YouTube video here..
Take a look at the picture below.
What you can see here is two yellow pens and the fur of my dog (Rollo) in between.
Those pens represent muscle, skin, or muscle fibers. The fur is simply the fascia that is connecting all those tissues together.
There is always some fascia present in between the fibers. However, when that fascia becomes dense and stodgy, it is building up in between the fibers and forms scar tissue.
With more scar tissue we starts to develop:
- movement restriction (muscle and joint)
- muscle tension
- muscle spasm (trigger points, knots)
- poor muscle perfusion
It’s not fun.
So how does the foam roller helps? Foam rolling can help by breaking up those scar tissues and remove all movement restrictions.
Or it can be a waste of time.
When you use a foam roller and apply the pressure on the surface of the muscle, you physically compress those tissues.
Here’s how it looks like.
This is what happens when you use a foam roller to simply roll on the muscles. As you can see on the picture, foam rolling creates compression in the area.
Which is great because even small mechanical pressure can give some temporary benefits.
But it doesn’t break up the scar tissue. It just bundles two layers together. This means that compression from foam roller alone doesn’t create a myofascial release.
It doesn’t mean rolling back and forth doesn’t work. You may feel some temporary range of motion benefits from mechanical compression, but it doesn’t move the needle long term as you think.
To create a myofascial release and restore the optimal length-tension relationship in the fascia, you need:
- change the position between the fibers
- create tension in the muscle.
Take a look at the next picture.
You need to move those fibers apart to separate the fascia.
This is how you create a myofascial release, break up the scar tissue, and remove tissue restriction.
In the real world, you simply need to add some flexion and extension of the muscle fibers as you compress them with a foam roller (more on that next).
Without changing the length of the muscle fibers you can spend even 30 minutes on the foam roller but you won’t get the actual myofascial release benefits.
Related article: Foam Rolling Every Day (Why you need it)
How To Use Foam Roller Properly
To change the position of the fibers you basically need to add flexion and extension of the muscle.
- bending and straightening your leg while rolling on your quads
- pressing the foot down (plantarflexion) and bringing it back up (dorsiflexion) while rolling on your calves
- rocking your hips side to side while having a foam roller (or peanut ball) under your lower back
- bending and straightening your leg while having a foam roller under your hamstrings
- flexing and extending your hand while compressing on your forearm
- laterally moving your neck while having a ball on your upper back
As you can see, all those moves are mimicking the actual moves of the muscles. To show you what I mean, try to do this experiment.
This will allow you to define how long exactly should you spend on the roller.
Lay down on your foam roller (or massage ball) in the way you can see in the picture below.
In the picture on the left side, you can see Chris on the foam roller. His left hip is flexed and externally rotated which allows him to shift most of his weight on the foam roller that he has under his right thigh.
I want you to copy exactly what Chris is doing.
- Position the roller under your right leg
- Bring your left knee up and rotate it outside
- Start rolling up and down to find a trigger point (a sensitive spot)
- Once you find the spot, stay there and add simple flexion and extension of your right knee (see right picture)
- Keep doing those cycles of flexion and extension for 1-2 minutes
- Don’t rush and keep breathing
Spend around 2 minutes on this area. During this time you should notice some of the changes like:
- Initial contact feels stiff and tense, but as you continue it gets easier
- Your leg is getting lighter and it actually gets smoother to flex and extend
- Your muscles are getting less tense (much faster comparing to regular rolling)
- Some people describe it as a foam roller is melting into the muscles
- The pain or discomfort is going away and it actually feels more relaxing than painful
- You can breathe more freely
All those elements are the cues of change. Thats how you know you’re making the progress.
Your goal is to stay there until you feel the change, or until you stop seeing change any more.
From my personal experience, and from what I’ve seen working with my clients, it takes up to 2-3 minutes of staying on one spot to really notice the significant difference.
After 2 minutes stand up and walk around.
How do you feel?
I can bet my arm and leg that you will feel better.
This repeated cycle of adding flexion and extension while your on the foam roller is what really creates the myofascial release effect.
And simply by listening to your own body and sensing the tension you will know how long you need to stay there.
And if you can spend just 2 minutes on each muscle adding this technique, you will notice that you don’t need any extra time on the roller.
Related article: How Often Should You Foam Roll?
Create Tension In The Muscle
Second important technique that will give you better and faster results is adding some PNF component into the foam rolling.
PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) is basically the connection between your muscles and the brain (source).
I won’t be boring you about the mechanisms of PNF in this article. In short, it’s simply contracting your muscles as you foam roll.
If you’re not sure how long to foam roll for, this will make it more clear for you.
To show you what I means I want you to do this experiment with me. Find a spot where you can lay down comfortably.
- Lay down on the ground facing upwards.
- Completely relax your body with your arms and legs straight
- Close your eyes
- For the next 5 seconds, I want you to create peak tension in the muscles. This means squeeze your butt, tighten up your hands, make fists, tighten up your chest, clench your toes, and squeeze all your muscles altogether.
- Hold peak squeeze for 5 seconds while holding your breathe
- Immediately after you release, notice how does your body feels
If you’ve followed this correctly, I’m sure you’ll agree that your whole body immediatly felt less tense, right?
This tight-and-relax thingy is borrowed from yoga and meditation. And is usually used at the end of the class.
In Sanskrit, they call it savasana. But in the western world, we know this as PNF contract-relax technique. This method helps to desensitize any tissue tension. Which brings us back to our foam rolling method.
You can use that same contract-relax technique while you’re using a foam roller. It will allow you to spend less time on the roller and create better results.
Let’s use quads again as an example. In the picture you can see this time we are working on the left side.
- Start by laying down on the foam roller under your left leg
- Bring your right knee up close to the chest, externally rotate your hip
- Find the spot that feels stiff
- Using your left leg, point your toes, lock your knee and squeeze your thigh as much as you can for 5 seconds holding your breath
- Completely relax for 10-12 seconds and breathe normally
- Repeat the same process 5-7 times
- Change leg and do the whole cycle on your right leg
If you’ve followed the steps correctly, you should feel:
- less and less tension with each cycle
- more tenderness in the muscles
- the whole body is getting more relaxed and calmer
Related article: Foam Rolling: Why it hurts & How to make it less painful
Putting It All Together
To know exactly how long you should roll use your senses as your compass. In general, I recommend 2 minutes per spot. But if you’re just getting started and you are brutally tight, you may need even more than that.
Here are the key takeaways:
- Find the spot that feels sketchy
- Stay on the spot
- Add flexion and extension
- Add contract-relax
- Continue until you make a change or until you stop seeing the change
Once you become more comfortable you will need less and less time to spend on the roller.
So as you can see, the duration of how long you need to foam roll for will only depend on your current length-tension relationship of the fascia. And with some simple ninja techniques that you now have, you will make far better results than with just plain foam rolling.