Rocking back and forth on top of white foam cylinders in a hall in the back corner of South Hill’s Mel Korum YMCA, there’s little doubt Bill Jenks and I were a curious sight.
As we sat, lay and rolled across these dense cylinders, a young boy stopped, looked then turned to ask his mom what we were doing. The mom grabbed his hand, whispered something and kept walking.
Jenks is used to raised eyebrows when he uses his foam roller, but he doesn’t mind because he finds the device offers his muscles immense relief following his shift as a volunteer indoor cycling instructor.
“You can use the foam rollers on your legs, your backs, any major muscle group,” Jenks said.
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Foam rollers are a staple in many physical therapy offices, because they allow users to essentially give themselves a full-body, deep-tissue massage.
Many gyms have these rollers available and they can be purchased for $20-$40 at most sporting goods stores. Some come with instruction manuals and how-to DVDs.
The rollers are intended to release pain and stiffness in the muscle fascia, a membrane that envelopes muscles.
“Tightness or adhesions or a tender spot in part of that fascia can actually cause pain someplace else,” Jenks said. “So if you have a tight fascia in your thigh, it can actually cause knee pain.
“The point of the rolling is to release trigger points to relieve pain or discomfort.”
There are several different kinds of foam rollers. Some are hard, closed-cell foam and others are softer, open-cell foam. Some are short and others are long. Some have a diameter of six inches for rolling big muscles and others have a diameter of only a couple of inches to make it easier to reach smaller muscles in your shoulders and neck. Some have textured ridges on them to penetrate even deeper.
Jenks first learned about foam rolling while attending a convention for indoor cycling instructors last year in Boston.
He went to a one-hour class at the end of the seminar and was instantly hooked.
“After three days of indoor cycling, my legs were trashed and I was tired,” Jenks said. “I spent an hour on the foam roller at the end of the third day and I couldn’t believe the difference, the amount of fatigue that went away.”
When Jenks, a 52-year-old property manager from Eatonville, returned from the convention he started using the foam roller regularly.
It didn’t take long before he realized that people were looking at him trying to figure out what he was doing. Soon he started offering twice-weekly foam rolling classes, but most people only attended once or twice.
“That’s the great thing about it,” Jenks said. “Once you learn how to do it, you can do it on your own whenever you like.”
Work demands forced Jenks to cancel the classes but he hopes to offer quarterly instruction beginning in the fall.
In any case, he points out that this technique can be learned on your own. Personal trainers also can offer instruction. Some trainers even assist in rolling out their clients to help massage deeper than they’d be able to do on their own.
Jenks recommends a book called “Foam Roller Techniques” by Michael Fredericson, Terri Lyn S. Yamamoto and Mark Fadil. The spiral instruction book published by Orthopedic Physical Therapy Products sells for $24 on Amazon.com.
The roller is used by positioning yourself so that you can roll across the foam cylinder and apply different degrees of pressure. This can be done with the foam roller on the ground or up against a wall.
It’s important to avoid rolling over joints and bony areas such as your shins and the tips of your shoulders so you don’t cause pain.
“If you find a spot that feels a little tender or a little bit bruised, you want to work that area (with the roller) until the tenderness starts to dissolve,” Jenks said. “It might not go completely away, but you don’t want to irritate the area either.
“Imagine you are getting a massage and the therapist is using their elbow to get deep down. You know how sometimes you wish they’d move on to another area. Well, when you start feeling that way, it’s time to move on.”
And that’s another great benefit to foam rolling, Jenks said, “You are in control.”
Craig Hill’s fitness column runs Sundays in The News Tribune and The Olympian. Please submit questions and comments via firstname.lastname@example.org, facebook.com/adventureguys or twitter.com/adventureguys.