The Science-Backed Way to Loosen up your Tight Lower Back or Hammies
All you need is three minutes, a foam roller and this advice.
A quick primer on why foam rolling feels so good: "The pressure of your body weight on the dense cylinder helps loosen and release tension in tight, restricted areas of fascia—the web of connective tissue throughout your body—to improve your flexibility and mobility in the underlying muscle", says John Porcari, PhD, the Programme Director of Clinical Exercise Physiology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
The recovery tool's effectiveness, though, has been hard to measure. There isn't much scientific evidence pointing to exactly how to use a foam roller to get the biggest benefits (the variety of sizes and densities is one thing that makes gathering that evidence challenging). But a recent study Porcari led found there definitely is some benefit. This is especially true if you're suffering from lower-back tension or tight hamstrings, the muscles that run down the back of your thighs from your hips to your knees. Both can be triggered by sitting a lot or overdoing it at the gym. (Guessing you fall into at least one of those categories?)
During the six-week study, 20 male and female volunteers used a ridged 14-by-33-centimetre foam roller for 15 minutes three times a week. They rolled their lower back, bum, quads, IT bands, hamstrings and calves for 20 seconds each, then repeated that sequence three times for a total of 60 seconds of rolling on each body part.
At the end of the six weeks, the subjects could stretch 5cm farther in a sit-and-reach test (yup, just like the one you did in PE class) than they could before they started foam rolling. "We found a significant improvement in lower-back and hamstring flexibility", says Porcari.
Your hamstrings work to extend your hips and flex your knees while helping to stabilise your core and pelvis. When your hamstrings are tight, they contract and shorten, causing a chain reaction of discomfort or pain. "Tight hamstrings pull your pelvis down at the back, which puts extra strain on your lower-back muscles, which leads to low-back pain", explains Porcari. Would you want to run, do squats or even pick up a shopping bag with that kind of tension back there? Didn't think so.
"We found a significant improvement in lower-back and hamstring flexibility".
John Porcari, PhD, Programme Director of Clinical Exercise Physiology at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse
The researchers also looked at whether foam rolling could have a negative impact on athletic performance, measured by a vertical jump test—and found that it didn't.
More importantly, they discovered that the foam-rolling volunteers felt more flexible and like they could jump higher at the end of the study. "The biggest takeaway is that people liked and enjoyed foam rolling", says Porcari. "Whether it was measurably beneficial or not, people thought it was beneficial".
That means when it comes to foam rolling, the placebo effect is real. And considering no science points to foam rolling having a negative impact on your workouts and recovery, "the more you do it, the better", Porcari says.
Loosen Up in Just 3 Minutes
You'll need a large foam roller. One with ridges is ideal, but a smooth one will do if that's all you have.
Sit on the floor with your legs bent and the foam roller behind you and perpendicular to your body. Lift your left hip to place the right side of your mid-back onto the roller, slightly rotating your torso towards the right, keeping your right forearm on the floor. Extend your legs to roll from your mid-back down to your bum, then bend your knees to roll back up. Continue slowly for 20 seconds. Repeat on the opposite side.
Sit on the floor with your legs extended and the foam roller under your left hamstring. Place your hands flat on the floor behind you, then push into your palms to support your weight as you roll up and down between the top of the back of your knees and the bottom of your glutes for 20 seconds. Repeat on the opposite side.
Do each of these exercises 3 times for a total of 3 minutes. Aim to do this three or more days a week before you train.