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Rub One Out: Foam Roller Massage for the Upper Back

The foam roller is an excellent tool for your recovery arsenal. You can pick one up for about twenty bucks, and it offers many of the same benefits as sports massage —performed right in the comfort of your own home. You don’t even have to nag your significant other to do it. You can get a great massage all by yourself.

This is a great tool for stretching out muscles and tendons, and it’s especially useful for breaking down soft tissue adhesions.

What the heck is a soft tissue adhesion? And should you be worried?

I wouldn’t sweat it just yet. But don’t ignore those aches and pains or they can lead to longer term discomfort, or even chronic overcompensation injuries.

Soft tissue adhesions happen when the superficial fascia — the soft connective tissue that wraps and connects the muscles, bones, blood vessels and nerves — becomes stuck to the underlying muscle tissue.

Several things can cause soft tissue adhesions, including disuse, injury, insufficient stretching after a workout. The result is soreness, reduced flexibility, diminished range of motion, and trigger point pain.

In the short term, we’re talking local inflammation and irritation. If left untreated, or if caused by a repetitive behaviour that isn’t addressed, chronic inflammation can lead to a thickening of the connective tissue called fibrosis. And that leads to more pain, reflexive muscle tension that leads to more inflammation, and so on down the spiral.

That’s where a good foam roller comes in handy. A simple foam roller routine can provide the sort of soft tissue massage and mobilization that’s perfect for releasing adhesions before they become an issue. And on top of all that, it just plain feels good.

So yeah… Are you ready to roll?

We’ve filmed a simple foam roller movement for the upper back that’ll rub those wracked up rhomboids the right way.

Remember to tighten that core and clench those glutes to protect your lower back. Exhale, roll and enjoy!

And be sure to let us know what you think in the comment section below. We get lonely when we don’t hear from ya!

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About the author

Ryan Murdock

35 Comments

  • When I watched the video I could feel the relaxation ;-). I know the foam roller and it really works. It is great for the whole body, especially for the legs. I will do some exercises later in the gym. Thank you, Adam!

  • I tried the foam roller massage for my lower back and I think that I curved my back in a little too much. My lower back (closer to the glutes) hurts a lot now. It’s a sharp pain which comes and go. Any advice on this mate?

    • Hi Bryan,
      I generally don’t work my low back much with the roll. If I do, I take it quite easy and usually support much of my weight on my hands planted behind me or by placing the back of my arms on the roll to take up some of my body weight.

  • I have been told to use the foam roller for my hip. Every time that I do it is uncomfortable, to say the least. Any way to use the fowm roller so it will not cause pain???

    • You have to use the foam roller correctly for each bodypart. If you do, and assuming you don’t have some sort of precondition that would be irritated by it, you should not feel pain. However, it may feel quite uncomfortable depending on the tissue quality of the area you are working. We’ll try to post some more foam roll samples in the future.
      Also, the hip is a HUGE chunk of real estate. What specific part or aspect of the hip have you been told to work on?

      • Adam – thanks for the rapid response. I would really like to see how you would work this area. The part of the hip – the therapist has me laying on my side, bottom leg straight, other leg at a 45 degree angle over the bottom leg. By straightening the top leg I rub the bottom leg on the roller (I know – this is a clear as mud, but the best I can do).

        • The TFL (muscle and tendon that runs down the side of your leg from your hip to your knee) is very tight and tender on a large portion of the population. It can be extremely tender and even painful when first starting to roll out that area on a foam roller. The best thing to do is position yourself to take a little of the weight off as you roll. As you ease into the motion and become faithful with using it, the adhesions in the tissue will resolve and the tenderness will diminish as well.

          • thanks – will give this a try. I was putting all my weight on the hip, will use the upper leg to take someof the weight off and see what happens. Once again – thanks

  • One clip I would like to see is for the IT (Ileotibial (spelling?)) band. If the angle is correct it can cause some discomfort.

    And thanks for the hand and elbow placement. Most instructions I see is where the arms are out parallel to the roller which doesn’t open the upper back.

    Thanks again. you can do a whole series on the foam roller as pictures and descriptions on paper just don’t work well.

    • I mean “One clip I would like to see is for the IT (Ileotibial (spelling?)) band. If the angle is NOT correct it can cause some discomfort.”

      Forgot to put in the NOT.

  • Sweet, Now something for the lower back? We’ve seen a lot of snow here out west & for the first time ever tweaked my back shoveling 🙁

    Awesome vid as always!

    Thanks,

  • great video. I would appreciate more vid on foam roller techniques. Would you recommend a special book how to use a foam roller ?
    I love your videos!

    • Never really found one I like Claudia. I just learn techniques whenever I meet up with a good PT or exercise therapy specialist. We’ll release more videos in the coming weeks.

  • Wow, I could have used that earlier in the week. I upped the weight on a Shoulders and Arms routine. Since I didn’t have any “in-between” weights, I was really sore the next day. (Don’t worry, I’m doing body weight routines, too!) Anyway, spent the next day taking a bath in Tiger Balm and assorted sports creams!

  • This could be very helpful to me. I am currently getting deep tissue massage and multiple therapies for scar tissue and nerve issues in my mid and upper back. Il try a roller. Thanks guys for the tip!

  • What a fantastic aid for soft tissue massage! Being able to look after areas yourself is fantastic as it can be very expensive visiting a therapist a few times a week. The video was fantastic in that it showed exactly how it is used. Great for the glutes and core as well!

  • Hi! I have been using the foam roller for a while now. But I am still unsure on when use it during a session. When would be more useful? at the beginning as a warm up? during the session? or maybe at the end as a cool down?

    Any suggestions?
    Thanks a lot
    Sattar

    • Hi Sattar,
      There are many schools of thought. Some prominent S&C coaches like Mike Boyle use the foam roll as part of the warm up. Others use it during cool down. Still others use it as part of dedicated recovery sessions. I tend to do the latter of the three.
      Cheers,
      Adam

    • Hi Ted,
      Any fitness supplies store will have one. We even picked one up at K-Mart this week ’cause we wanted one on the road with us. Mine, the one in the video, is from Fitter First.
      Cheers,
      Adam

  • I picked up a foam roller a few months back to use on my lower back and found it to be very uncomfortable. It didn’t come with any instructions so I found your demonstration very informative. I would like to know how long should you use it for and how often? Also, does the size of the roller matter? Mine is a bit thicker and shorter than the one your using in the video.

  • Adam, I’ve been using my foam roller for a couple years now and I love it but I do have one concern. I was in a car accident 10 years ago and did some muscle damage to my back. The middle part of the left side of my back is still numb and my back is pretty much always tight. I am very active (golf, basketball, softball, exercise, etc.) so I do foam roll a lot and stretch a lot. But when I foam roll my back with my arms behind my head, I get an unbearably sharp pain in my back where the numb spot is. It only happens when my arms are extended back behind my head. It’s a shooting pain but it feels like if I could bear the pain by rolling very slowly into the numb spot, it would release all the tightness. Does that make sense? It feels like if I could just get through it, it would be beneficial, but I’m also nervous about doing any damage because the shooting pain is completely unbearable unless I move very very slowly into it. Any advice?

  • Hi, How do we pick the thickness i..e, diameter of the foam roller? I am trying to purchase online so can’t go by the look and feel of the item.

  • This was great. I have a foam roller, which I’d gotten for knee surgery PT (to use on IT band), and had been winging it in trying to give myself a back massage. But the steps here (specifically pulling the elbows together) actually made it work finally! Thank you!

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