Foam roller basics: Rolling for Rookies

Foam roller basics:

If you are new to using a foam roller then you could be considered a ‘roller rookie’. Here is the basic information you need to know as you begin to exercise with this versatile piece of equipment.

What does the foam roller do?

The roller is essentially an unstable surface. When you lie or stand on the roller, you will be wobbly. Your body will be searching for stability. With the correct instruction, the roller can help you to activate your core muscles and then strengthen these core muscles to stop you falling off the roller. Your balance will be also be challenged by the rollers instability. Generally, the more we challenge our balance then the better chance we have of improving it. The roller helps to enhance your body awareness and proprioception (or your ability to tell where your body, joints and limbs are, in space). The roller also encourages mindful movement as you have to think and focus when performing your exercises. You will also become much more aware of how important your breathing is; in relation to your core and your health in general. See also Why use a foam roller?

What do I need?

Foam rollers come in various sizes and shapes. Short, long, soft, ridged or wavy and hollow. a sample of foam rollers that are availiable My preferred roller size is 90cm long and 15cm in diameter, made from EVA foam with a density rated 35+. It is featured throughout this site and is generally the most useful size for exercising. See Hydrangea or Meadow roller. If you find this roller too firm, start with a less dense option. If you are unsure about the instability you can use a half roller initially. These rollers are semicircular and have a flat side. You would use it flat side down on the floor to give you greater stability. Use your foam roller on a hard, flat surface. Ideally the floor. Wear comfortable, form fitting clothes so that you don’t get tangled in fabric whilst you are exercising. You need to feel your body on the roller and allow your body to move freely. You may wear shoes or exercise with bare-feet. See Equipment:What you need to begin for more details.


As with any new exercise regime, if you are a roller rookie you should check with your GP before using a roller if you have any concerns. You may also want to follow this link for a list of contra-indications or reasons why you may not want to use a foam roller. What about back and neck pain? Roller exercises will help to encourage you to use the deep core muscles that support your spine. By activating these deep muscles we can then strengthen the lower back and neck and perhaps ease pain. As a physiotherapist I have worked with many clients who have found great relief with roller exercises. It is important, however, to start with the basic exercises and master these before progressing. All the exercises have detailed instructions and tips. If you do have pain during any particular exercise, stop, and then check your technique. Modify if necessary. Often, the beginner exercises can also be performed without a roller initially and then a roller reintroduced when you have mastered the technique. Alternatively if you are still experiencing pain, omit the exercise from your routine.

Where do I start?

The exercises on the Physio on a Roll site are a mix of strengthening and stretching exercises. There are fitness and pilates type exercises. Many are functional and backed up by evidence based research. Almost every exercise will target your abdominals or core. You will also move all areas of your body as you progress through the exercises.

Foam roller basics: Set Up

  • Begin by laying lengthwise on your foam roller on a flat surface.
  • Your head should be at one end of your roller and your bottom at the other. Please watch the video below if you are unsure how to get onto the roller.
  • your feet and knees should be hip width apart, with your ankles aligned under your knees,
  • then gently explore your lumbar spine range of motion by tilting your pelvis, ie gently squash your lower back into the roller and then gently arch away without lifting your coccyx from the roller. You are feeling for the position mid way between this spinal range; this is your neutral back position. Everyone has their own neutral back position and each neutral back position will be different for each person.
Importantly, this position should be pain-free. It is where you return to for each exercise in supine lying on the roller or floor.

Foam roller basics: Beginning to Move

  • now, maintaining your neutral back position, gently contract your deep tummy muscles ie draw your belly button into towards your spine. You should be contracting at about a quarter of a contraction or less. Try to keep breathing in and out (normal sized breaths), down into your diaphragm. (see also correct core activation),
  • your ribs should be relaxed and not “popping” or poking out,
  • place both of your hands in the air above your shoulders, palms facing each other. Then gently reach with your shoulder blades (which you should be able to feel either side of the roller) towards the ceiling and then gently squeeze your shoulder blades around the roller. Try not to overuse your big neck muscles to do this. Repeat x 3-5. You are trying to relax the big neck muscles and become aware of your shoulder blade position.
  • place the hands on the floor beside the body, palms facing down.
  • lengthen the neck from the back of your head, slightly tucking your chin. Don’t jam the chin towards the chest.
  • slightly contract the shoulders blades around the roller. This will help to keep your neck and the front of your shoulders relaxed, chest ‘wide’ and help to prevent your shoulders creeping up towards your ears.
  • you are now ready to begin exercising.

Foam roller basics: Beginner exercises

The following exercises are a good starting point for a roller rookie. Each exercise can be performed without a roller if you are unsure or find them difficult. The full instructions for each exercise can be accessed by clicking on the exercise heading. Progress from these 5 exercises to the other basic exercises, try the basic routine or just try the “make it harder suggestions” that follow the tips in each exercise.

Share this:

Share on facebook
Share on email
Share on linkedin