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Foam Rollers: When Should You Use Them?

On this page we examine the actual purpose of the foam roller so you can determine how its use (or non-use) will best fit your personal training clients

personal%20training%20foam%20rollersFoam rollers are some of the latest training tools to be added to many personal trainers toolkits.  Foam rollers are simply foam cylinders of different lengths and different densities or ‘hardness’. 

Where Swiss and Bosu balls have their origins in physical therapy to aid the rehabilitation of injured patients, the origin of the foam roller is linked more to massage therapy, where the aim is to help relax tight muscles and eliminate muscle ‘trigger’ points.

Softer rollers are good for using with clients that are new to foam rolling or have particularly tight muscles and sensitive trigger points, while harder, more dense foam rollers are more suitable to clients that; are experienced with foam rollers, have deeper trigger points that are harder to ‘access’, and/or clients that have a high tolerance to ‘discomfort’ – because quite simply using foam rollers to eliminate sensitive trigger points involves a fairly significant degree of discomfort! 

Just listen to your male personal training clients squeal when they roll over a sensitive trigger point (males tend to have lower pain thresholds than females – just ask any woman who has experienced childbirth…not that we'd ever really want to ‘hurt’ our clients of course!)


What are trigger points and what do they do?


Trigger points (also known as muscle knots) are very sensitive spots in muscles that are typically the result of injuries (especially in physically active people) and overactive muscles that are never allowed to fully relax – such as the neck, back and shoulder muscles in office workers who find themselves stuck at a desk all day staring into a computer. 

Trigger points (also known as muscle knots) are very sensitive spots in muscles that are typically the result of injuries (especially in physically active people) and overactive muscles that are never allowed to fully relax – such as the neck, back and shoulder muscles in office workers who find themselves stuck at a desk all day staring into a computer. 

Trigger points are known to cause headaches, muscle pain, joint pain and can be linked to a myriad of problems including; dizziness, nausea, earache, chronic fatigue and scoliosis to name but a few. 

Trigger points often start as microscopic tears in the muscle.  As the muscle goes through its normal repetitive tear and repair cycle, trigger points develop where a tiny part of the muscle fibre effectively becomes locked in a contracted state and cannot relax and return to its normal resting length. 

personal%20training%20trigger%20pointsWe see this in the adjacent diagram – trigger points (labeled ‘B’) are simply individual sarcomeres or groups of sarcomeres within muscle fibres that remain locked in contraction.

Not only does this result in a sensitive trigger point that can be felt as a knot or slight bulge in a muscle, it also pulls on and stretches the other sarcomeres within that muscle fibre – making these more vulnerable to tearing and developing further trigger points over time.  The stretched sarcomeres are shown on the diagram as ‘C’, in comparison to the normal length sarcomeres that make up a muscle fibre as shown as ‘A’ in the diagram.

As the sarcomeres of the trigger point are locked in constant contraction normal circulation in those sarcomeres is impeded, and the cells become deprived of the oxygen and nutrients they need for normal cell metabolism.  Hence trigger points tend to remain a problem until a suitable intervention helps to release them.

Now if all this talk of sarcomeres and muscle fibres has you a little lost then please refresh your knowledge of the musculoskeletal system by visiting these highlighted pages at  


How do you release trigger points?


Well you certainly don’t release trigger points by taking pain relieving drugs and hoping that they’ll magically disappear on their own accord!  As soon as the pain relieving medication wears off – the active and pain inducing trigger points will still be there!

personal%20trainer%20deep%20tissue%20massageTraditionally, and arguably still the most effective method of releasing active trigger points is through deep tissue massage.

Deep tissue massage is most effective because the masseuse is able to locate the trigger points through feel and then apply direct, stroking or ‘kneading’ pressure onto the trigger points and keep that pressure applied for an ideal period of time (typically 30-60 seconds or untill the client can't handle the 'sensation' any longer!)

The pressure that is applied often has to be significant in order to effectively reach and release trigger, especially if those trigger points are located deep in large muscles such as the gluteal muscles of the backside. This is why ‘deep’ tissue massage is effective, whereas gentle skin rubbing (while it may feel nice) is completely ineffective for trigger point release.

When applied, direct pressure encourages the trigger point to relax and release, and through stroking or kneading (like you’d do to bread if you ever baked…) the accumulated waste products of cell metabolism that are stuck within the trigger point are dispersed, and the contracted sarcomeres are stretched back to normal length.

Where a massage therapist uses their hands, fingers, elbows and forearms to apply direct pressure and knead these trigger points until they relax, the foam roller can be used to ‘roll over’ these trigger points to gain a similar effect.  So for your personal training clients that have significant muscle pain and stiffness, using a foam roller to help alleviate trigger points is a valid alternative to, or useful tool to use in conjunction with regular deep tissue massage.


Stretching to release trigger points


personal%2520training%2520assisted%2520stretchingUnfortunately conventional stretching on its own doesn’t release trigger points.  Static stretching (holding stretches for 30 seconds plus) and even partner assisted ('PNF' or 'CRAC') stretching, is only effective on healthy muscle tissue.  So stretching will stretch the healthy muscle tissue around the trigger point but not the trigger point itself – it seems that applying direct pressure on a trigger point is the only effective way to make it release.

Now here is an important point for you personal trainers – static and assisted stretching for most of your personal training clients is not only important and effective for relaxing trained muscles, it is also completely adequate on its own for most clients without using foam rolling.

Why?  Because unless your client has significant muscle tightness and associated muscle pain that is negatively impacting their training and their life, then they simply have no need for foam rolling.  And remember – what is most important to your client should guide the training you provide them, so don’t spend half an hour teaching your clients how to use a foam roller if they simply want to lose a few pounds and they don’t have overly tight, sore muscles, let alone the extra time available for 'additional' training.


Using foam rollers to eliminate trigger points and relax muscles


Foam rollers are really just a tool used as a substitute for the hands, elbows and forearms of the massage therapist.  The roller is used to locate trigger points and then apply direct rolling pressure to those trigger points to help them release. 

Now the reality is that applying direct pressure to trigger points is ‘somewhat painful’.  This is why it is best to start clients with a softer foam roller which minimises the ‘discomfort’ before moving onto the harder, denser rollers.

personal%20training%20client%20using%20foam%20rollerWhen you use the foam roller you, or your clients body weight is used against the foam roller to apply direct pressure on trigger points. So when using the roller it is important to teach your clients positions where they can limit the amount of bodyweight that is applied in order to control the degree of discomfort they feel.

Typically the client will roll back and forth over a particularly stiff or sensitive area for between 30-60 seconds, ideally 2-3 times a day when tight muscles and trigger points are particularly problematic. 


Can the foam roller be used as a functional training tool?


Consider this perspective for a moment – if you were a builder would you use a hammer to saw a piece of wood?  I certainly hope you wouldn’t!  A builder’s tools are designed for specific purposes; their hammers are designed to hammer in nails, and their saws are designed to cut things. 

As a personal trainer it would be worthwhile applying this same, simple philosophy to the tools you use in your trade.  Use only the best tool that you have at your disposal for accomplishing the specific job at hand.  Foam rollers are designed to help relax tight muscles and release trigger points – they are not designed as tools to help people lose weight, burn fat and strengthen muscles. 

This simple fact has unfortunately been missed on a plethora of equipment retailers and self proclaimed exercise specialists who promote the foam roller as a valid ‘functional’ training tool.   But what actually is ‘functional’ training and what is a ‘functional’ exercise…here’s a short breakdown…

'Functional' training has its origins in physical rehabilitation, where physical therapists use exercises with injured patients that simulate the activities they will be required to perform effectively in their daily lives whether that is at home or at work.  The entire purpose of this is to prepare the injured person to return to full, normal function as soon as possible. 

personal%20training%20foam%20roller%20for%20functional%20trainingIn the fitness industry this simple concept has become seriously confused.  Advocates of ‘functional training’ in the fitness industry recommend using all manner of exercise balls, foam rollers and suspension training equipment to create instability in exercises, such as this push up performed while balancing on a foam roller and a stability ball.

Their rationale is that by creating instability the muscles of the body (in particular the core ‘stabilising’ muscles) are activated and have to work harder than they normally would in order to overcome this instability.

Functional training advocates claim that exercising in an unstable environment is the most effective way to improve strength, balance, co-ordination, endurance and agility, all in one full swoop…regardless it seems of what the client’s actual goal is.

This mentality is flawed on at least the following three fronts:

personal%20training%20client%20standing%20on%20foam%20roller1. It assumes that functionality with exercise is inextricably linked with instability.  It isn’t!  With the possible exception of tight rope walkers, surfers and those unfortunate to live in earthquake zones we don’t live, work or play on unstable surfaces – so what really is the function of creating instability with exercise?

2. The entire human muscular system (including all its stabilising muscles) have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years – where our ancestors also lived, worked and played on generally stable surfaces.  The primary function of stabilising muscles is to protect and stabilise the joints over which they work (generally the hip, shoulder & spine) to enable the big force producing muscles to generate force from a stable base. 

So adding load to conventional resistance training exercises such as squats not only makes the prime movers work harder – it also makes the stabilising muscles work harder.  To cut a long story short – a well loaded squat is more ‘functional’ for most clients than a gimmicky 'balance - oriented' squat on a foam roller as it stimulates all the muscles to thicken, to strengthen and to burn more calories!

3.Training is only ‘functional’ for a client if it links directly to achieving their specific goals, and the exercises they perform are only ‘functional’ if they are capable of doing them, and willing to do them often enough to achieve their specific goals.

Try to remember – foam rollers are a ‘functional’ tool to help clients release trigger points and relax overly tight muscles.  If your clients have these then using a foam roller with them is valid.  If your clients aren’t suffering from tight muscles and trigger points then you have no need to introduce them to foam roller exercises.


Key considerations when using the foam roller with your personal training clients


IHRSA (The International Health Racquet and Sports club Association) highlight the following three factors that are considered key for retaining gym members and personal training clients:

    1. You must make a good first impression
    2. You must have significant personal involvement with your members / clients
    3. You must create positive results for your members / clients


IHRSA also highlight these common fears that stop people from joining gyms and using personal trainers:

    1. The fear of feeling stupid
    2. The fear of feeling isolated
    3. The fear of looking and feeling like a ‘klutz’
    4. The fear of physique anxiety


personal%252525252520training%252525252520consult%252525252520with%252525252520clientLet’s consider firstly how you make a good first impression without compounding any of the fears that your clients (and the gym members that will be observing you) already have.  Rather than rushing out into the gym and using as many fancy tools as you can because you think that will impress others, you should focus your initial time conducting a great consultation/screening with your client.

You see the point of conducting a consultation is to gather information about your client’s goals and their experiences with exercises so far – what they like, what they don’t like and what their fears are with exercise.  It turns out that very few people want to be put on public display, especially when there is a fair chance that they might look (or think they look) stupid in front of others. 

personal%2520training%2520client%2520lying%2520on%2520foam%2520roller%2520As a personal trainer you are responsible for protecting the dignity of your clients as well as ensuring they achieve the results they desire.  So make sure you consider how your clients are likely to look and feel when performing foam roller exercises.  You may need to take them to a quiet part of the gym to do their foam roller exercises where they are out of the public eye – especially if your client(s) are self conscious.  Your clients will appreciate this and other gym members will see you taking ‘due care’ of your clients and will be impressed by this.  Avoid any exercise that puts your client in a compromising position – especially in front of others (such as the foam roller exercise pictured here). If your client really need foam rolling to release active trigger points in their upper thigh muscles then I suggest you lend your client a foam roller for them to use at home (or encourage your client to purchase their own roller - this won't break their bank account!)

The second major consideration for you as a personal trainer is whether using a foam roller with your clients is fundamental for achieving the positive results they desire.  Clients care very little for the tools you use – as long as the tools you use are effective in achieving their goals, are safe and the training experiences you provide make the client want to repeat them.

personal%2525252525252520training%2525252525252520happy%2525252525252520client%2525252525252520and%2525252525252520trainerYou see delivering great personal training sessions that clients want to repeat time and again has very little to do with the tools you use – its all about understanding your clients likes and dislikes, their personality, their goals, what else is going on in their lives, their current physical abilities, and delivering sessions to suit all these factors

The third consideration for you as a personal trainer is whether you have used foam rollers on yourself – do you know what they feel like and how to increase or decrease the intensity?  If you aren’t well versed with foam roller use, then before using them with your clients you need to practice using them on yourself.  Try the seven best foam roller exercises on this page at and get used to how they feel, and how you can modify them to target different parts of the muscle.  make sure you do this prior to exposing any of your clients to foam rolling. 

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