Rollers: A Balancing Act for Clients

Use foam rollers to help clients with balance, spinal alignment and flexibility.

Foam rollers offer simple, yet ambitious, exercise for fitness enthusiasts and athletes alike. Rollers can assist participants in making core strength gains associated with balance, as well as improve posture and spinal awareness. Many can benefit with regular use of the foam roller to effectively facilitate relaxation and improve flexibility.

Rollers in their fitness infancy

Traditionally used in physical therapy and rehabilitation for years, rollers have recently been adapted for use in the fitness arena. They are showing up in fitness settings such as personal training and group fitness. Personal trainers and group fitness instructors are attracted to foam rollers because of their ease of use and versatility. Foam rollers will accommodate a wide range of fitness levels and body types. "Just three to five minutes on the roller per day can allow for a big return on the time invested," says Sandra Swami, fitness director at Room and Board, a corporate fitness site in Minneapolis, Minn.

Improving core stability

The intrinsic muscles, also known as the core stabilizing muscles, are responsible for stability, mobility and posture. These spinal extensor muscles (for example, the multifidus and transverses abdominis) are controlled by the central nervous system. These core muscles react and respond to stimuli first, with superficial movement from the larger, less technical, muscles of the body (for example, the quadriceps and hip flexors) second. Movement for the deep muscles that support the spine require small, slow and precise efforts, as opposed to larger, more forceful ones. Spinal stabilization exercises performed supine on the roller are designed to initiate the deep spinal extensor muscles. Mastering the skill of lying supine on the foam roller will likely provide improvement to core stability.

Rolling for balance

Foam rollers provide excellent prompts for proprioception, or the body's ability to sense where it is in space and time. Sharon Cheng writes in an online article that the dynamic nature of the cylindrical roller allows for balance on an inherently "unstable" surface (, 2000). Due to the sensory challenges and balance reactions experienced on the roller, it can be helpful to provide participants with a conscious awareness of their bodies. This can be an effective stimulus for contracting spinal muscles, leading to the promotion of balance and spinal alignment. The mind is actively engaged by trying to stay on the roller. From this conscious balancing act, improvements in muscle balance and posture can result.

Relaxation techniques

Daily stress can manifest its presence in many ways, including low-back aches, muscle pain and general fatigue. Many people have grown to accept high levels of stress and anxiety as a normal part of their lives. These individuals may desire to reacquaint themselves with what it feels like to be relaxed, calm and unstressed. Foam rollers can be used to perform specific relaxation techniques. Swami says that rollers are placed in the customer service phone center at her corporate site for employees to relax on between calls. "The employees report that just minutes on the roller reduces stress and tension," says Swami. Stress reduction can be accomplished by lying supine on the foam roller and focusing on deep, diaphragmatic breathing. Ask participants to control their tendency to shift side to side while on the foam roller, and to maintain a neutral spine. The foam roller can support the spine and allow the limbs to fall in a free and relaxed manner. This gentle action can facilitate flexibility through the shoulders and back. Here is one way to relax on the foam roller: Have members lie on the foam roller with their hips and knees flexed, and feet flat on the floor. Their knees should be hip-width apart, or wider for more stability. Their hands and arms may fall to the floor, either closer to their body for less stability, or farther away from their body for more stability. Encourage members to keep their back flat. A natural curve will probably be present in their low back (lordosis), but they should attempt to maintain a slightly tilted pelvis. The goal of this exercise is to allow the low back to come into contact with the roller. Instruct members to allow their shoulder blades to drop on each side of the roller. Their head should be supported by the roller, resting comfortably on it in a neutral alignment. Members should then relax and allow their body to sink into the support of the foam roller. They should breath deeply, fully inhaling and exhaling through their nose and mouth. Tell members this is an opportunity to be calm, peaceful and relaxed. They may wish to listen to comforting music to enhance the experience.

Flexibility improvements

Foam rollers offer many practical uses and benefits to promote flexibility through the practice of self massage, also known as self myofacial release. By using their own body weight through contact with the roller, members' muscles may relax and lengthen. This rolling action allows for increased mobility and dynamic range of motion in the tissues, while decreasing the risk of injury due to muscle inflexibility. Anthony Carey, president of Function First Inc., San Diego, Calif., says foam rollers are a great tool for clients to work independently on flexibility issues. "When fascia is bound to muscle tissue, it's difficult to make gains in muscle length and elasticity," he says. "The application for the foam rollers comes from their ability to act on the trigger points (irritable spots in skeletal muscle)." He also points out that rolling too quickly may elicit an opposite response, which could include an increase in muscle tightness or other muscle injury. Do not let members roll like a rolling pin over their muscle tissue, but have them roll slowly in order to increase blood flow and create separation of the fascia from the muscle tissue.

Optimize results

Safety and proper alignment on the roller are the most important considerations for those incorporating foam rollers into fitness programming. There are several ways to position the body on the roller, depending on the training goal. Positions include supine, prone, seated, quadruped and standing. Even placing the roller between an individual's back and a wall can be a safe and effective method for training, depending on the outcome desired. Safe positioning is an important consideration when using foam rollers, so make sure participants understand how to stay within their own abilities and comfort level. For lying on the roller with arm and leg movements, it is essential that members maintain a neutral spine to avoid compensatory recruitment of unintended muscles (i.e., using the large muscles of the body to perform the moves as opposed to the smaller deeper core muscles). Proper positioning may be more challenging than expected, so assist participants by experimenting with different angles, positions or approaches. Cue for proper "draw in" positioning, which includes a strong, drawn in abdominal area and upright posture (scapular depression and retraction) with a neutral, lengthened neck and drawn back chin. Members should avoid rolling directly over a bone or joint, and avoid pushing into tissues too deeply. For self massage, have participants roll onto areas that need attention, such as the lateral quadriceps and deep hip muscles. They should alternate between self massage and stretching. Self massage can be uncomfortable, so help participants understand that the discomfort they feel is due to tension they may have in a particular area. With some patience, practice and improvements in flexibility, a release will gradually occur in their body to make them more relaxed and comfortable.

Choosing the right roller

Full foam rollers are 36 inches long and 6 inches in diameter. Rollers are also available in other sizes, and are simply full foam rollers cut longitudinally. Half foam rollers are used for exercises similar to the full rollers, but also have applications that are better suited for beginner exercises, as well as for balance training. Rollers can run $15 to $35 each, depending on the size, quality and density of the foam.
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