The 5 Best Foam Roller Back Exercises

When you're dealing with low back pain, these mobility exercises and stretches with a foam roller can make a serious difference.

Experiencing back discomfort is a familiar event with 80 percent of individuals undergoing it at some point, as reported by the Medical Clinics of North America. This pain can be triggered by an exhausting tennis session or simply sitting at your workspace for extended periods. A frequent solution for dealing with such irritation is resorting to a hidden heating pad or hastily booking a massage therapy session. However, there's a simple and adaptable solution available - a foam roller. Foam rollers are fantastic tools to speed up recovery and alleviate stiffness, whether due to exercising or leading a sedentary lifestyle. Regarded as a form of self-massage, using a foam roller on your back could allow for relaxation and necessary self-care time. As Bethany Cook, P.T., D.P.T., S.C.S., C.S.C.S., physical therapist and founder/owner of Be Free MIAMI, puts it, "Your back deserves the same attention as your legs after a strenuous leg day." She further elaborates that for those working desk jobs, "foam rolling your back can effectively counter poor posture and enhance mobility otherwise compromised by remaining hunched-over for lengthy periods every day." This article discusses the benefits of foam rolling for back pain, its potential causes, and recommends the top five foam roller back exercises.

Benefits of Using a Foam Roller for Back Pain

Despite the mixed scientific findings on foam rolling's impact on performance, flexibility, mobility, and recovery, its usage does offer potential benefits with minimal drawbacks. Back muscle care is crucial, as emphasized by Cook. "As a physical therapist, I witness many injuries exacerbated by poor posture, weak back muscles, and limited thoracic (referring to the upper-middle part of your spine) mobility," she says. Cook further suggests integrating pulling strength activities and spinal mobility into one's routine can significantly improve life quality, especially with aging and gravity's toll on our bodies. A mere five-minute chest opener stretch on a foam roller can counteract the effects of prolonged desk sitting - rounded shoulders, tight chest muscles, and neck soreness.
Cook explains that foam rolling mainly operates through interacting with the nervous system. Essentially, it's about communicating to the brain to ease muscles in the targeted area, which consequently can alleviate tension, enhance mobility, lessen pain and discomfort, and shorten workout recovery time. Given that nearly everyone experiences stiffness, stress, and tension, anyone can reap benefits from back foam rolling.
Foam rolling also aids in proprioception, or enhancing your body spatial awareness, asserts Maggie Umberger, a certified personal trainer and mobility specialist. "I typically utilize foam rolling to heighten my body's consciousness regarding my overall feeling," she says. After foam rolling, Umberger prefers to perform breathing exercises and some sort of muscle activation activity to exploit the temporarily available space and heightened awareness.
Using a foam roller before workouts in this manner can prime you for a more effective workout by fostering a stronger mind-muscle connection.

What Causes Sore Back Muscles?

Prolonged periods of sitting, especially in office jobs or when working from home, often lead to complaints about sore back muscles. Other common causes include inappropriate workout routines, standing or sitting in the same position for long durations, improper posture, and sleeping positions. Inadequate support from mattresses can also contribute to this discomfort, as per Cook's insights. Ensuring your back muscles are strong is an effective way to reduce the likelihood of experiencing pain. It's worth noting that workouts could result in delayed-onset-muscle soreness (DOMS) – a condition potentially eased through the use of foam rolling.

The Best Foam Rolling Exercises for the Back

While performing these foam roller exercises for your back (as shown by Umberger), ensure to use your breath as a guide. "If you stumble upon an area that feels extremely intense, thereby inhibiting natural, deep nasal breathing, it's probably too sensitive to work on," Umberger explains. You can slightly adjust the roller to find a spot that offers some sensation but is still manageable and allows you to breathe into it. Umberger emphasizes that the purpose isn't about covering a large surface area, but instead about discovering those minor adjustments or micro-movements with the roller that allow you to apply pressure in a personalized way that is most beneficial for you. She says, "Take note that foam 'rolling' could mean positioning a tool on a fixed point, then remaining there, holding it, and taking deep breaths." In every exercise listed below, try some larger movements with the roller that help you identify where you wish to target, then find a still position and take slow, steady, deep breaths into the spot where you feel the sensation on the roller, and let your body relax more over the roller as you exhale. In terms of incorporating these best foam roller exercises for your back into your workout routine, Cook suggests that foam rolling is an excellent way to warm up and prepare soft tissue. She adds, "It's also a great way to cool down post workouts, reduce DOMS, and improve recovery time". Allocating 30 to 90 seconds to an area should suffice to enjoy the benefits.

1. Thoracic Spine Roll and Extension

Umberger suggests that the thoracic spine roll and extension through a foam roller can assist in developing a consciousness of your back area and facilitate improved breathing during workouts. This method allows you to maintain efficient and safe movement.

Firstly, position the foam roller at a right angle to your spine, just below the shoulder blades. Keep your hips and glutes rested on the floor with your knees bent and feet flat. Lightly support your head by holding the back of it with your elbows spread wide. Engage your abs by tilting your pelvis up towards the ceiling and slowly move your spine along the roller, focusing on your breath.

When you encounter an area on your back that provides heightened sensation, pause and take a long inhale through your nose followed by a slow exhale through either your nose or mouth. The movement back and forth will indicate where you should pause longer. In case of a particularly tense spot, remain there and flex and extend your spine over the roller (as depicted below) by lifting and lowering your chest whilst keeping your abs engaged to avoid excessive arching of the lumbar spine(lower back).

2. Lats and Posterior Rotator Cuff Roll

Umberger explains that although the flexibility benefits of foam rolling are temporary, active individuals may find it relaxes their tight muscles. Rolling your lats, posterior rotator cuff (the back and shoulder muscles responsible for shoulder stability), and thoracic spine can momentarily increase your overhead mobility. Combine this with light activation exercises, such as banded lat pull-downs, to utilize this range before engaging in overhead press activities such as shoulder presses.

Firstly, position the foam roller across the spine at the base of your shoulder blades. Rotate your body so your right side is resting on the foam roller, using your right elbow and left hand on the foam roller for balance. Your right leg should be extended with your left leg bent and foot flat on the ground.

Then, gently rock from left to right over the top of the roller, slightly leaning backwards and forwards to locate tense muscles. Start under your right armpit and slowly progress to roll behind the armpit and back of the rotator cuff.

3. Quadratus Lumborum (QL) Roll

Umberger emphasizes the significance of not just breathing into your upper back along your thoracic spine, but also into your lower back and side body. Engage in foam rolling exercises around your quadratus lumborum, the muscle situated on your lower back and side. Anytime you combine these exercises with proper breathing techniques, it fosters an understanding of what it feels like to breathe into this space, thus enhancing your workout routine.

  1. Position the foam roller crosswise to your spine along the lower back. Slightly tilt so that your right torso is resting on the foam roller; place your right elbow on the ground and left hand on the foam roller for extra support. Extend your right leg while bending the left leg with your foot planted firmly on the floor.
  2. Rock gently from right to left atop the roller, leaning backward and forward slightly to target tense muscles. As your weight rests on the roller, pause to inhale and exhale, striving to relax your body.
  3. To increase intensity, situate your left leg in front to apply more downward pressure or gently press your left foot into the ground to move your body gently up and down.

4. Glute Roll

Umberger explains the benefits of foam rolling your glutes, which include not only an immediate increase in range of motion but also the potential for a more prolonged effect through light activation and stretching. Breathing during the process can accentuate the relaxation effect it has. An area often associated with tension is the hips, leading to unintentional clenching of the glutes. The use of a foam roller can heighten your awareness of this habit, prompting you to release any unnecessary clenching.

To perform this exercise, position the foam roller across your hips and glutes, perpendicular to your spine. Turn so that your right glute is on the foam roller and place your right hand on the ground for support. Both knees should be bent with your feet flat on the floor. You can roll gently up and down or side to side at the top of your glutes and just over the top of the back of your pelvis. Be sure to pause wherever you feel sensation for a long, slow, deep breath.

5. Chest Expansion

When you're spending a significant portion of your day on your smartphone or computer, you're likely to develop a slouched or forward-leaning posture. According to Umberger, this can result in the tissues at the front of your chest becoming dramatically shortened. "Aligning your spine on the roller improves your perception of filling your back with air, as previously mentioned (this is incredibly important!). In addition, this specific position allows you to inhale into both your back and chest simultaneously," Umberger explains. He also points out that performing chest expansion exercises can help you identify any compensatory back arching that might occur when you breathe. "If deep breathing is challenging for you, you should consider practicing this position daily to help open up your chest and enhance your overall posture using your breath," suggests Umberger.

A. Position the roller so it aligns with your spine and lay down on it ensuring your head and hips are supported.

B. Keep your ribs anchored firmly on the roller while extending your arms in a goal post formation, with elbows bent at a 90-degree angle. Hold this position and perform five breaths.

C. While maintaining your arms in the goal post formation, slide your arms up and down as much as you can, taking care to keep your hands and forearms touching the ground. Pay attention to breathing into your back and initiating movement from the base of your shoulder blades.

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