4 Basic Foam Roller Stretches to Relieve Your Back Pain

When it comes to foam rolling your back, there is a ton of misinformation out there. Let’s break down best practices for foam rolling with back pain. We’ll also dive into a few stretches with your foam roller that will help relieve both upper and lower back pain.

Myths about Foam Rolling Your Back

First and foremost, it’s actually terrible for you to directly foam roll your spine with a regular foam roller. You’ll want a contoured roller if you plan on rolling your spine. You should only roll your spine if you have explicit instructions from a physical therapist or doctor.

Secondly, rolling directly on joints can actually increase your chances for injury. It puts a stress on tissue that doesn’t flex the same way muscle does, which can cause pain and even injury. Instead, focus on targeting muscle groups that affect your back and posture. These meaty areas respond best to foam rolling. Also, never roll your lumbar spine (that space between your ribs and hip bones) and always keep a neutral spine, never flex over the roller. By relaxing the below key muscle groups, you’ll also relieve your back.

For more foam rolling tips, check out our article on foam rolling basics.

Relieve Chest Muscles with the Pipe Starfish

Sit on one end of the foam roller and lie down along the length of the roller. Make sure your head is supported on the roller as well. Cactus your arms and breath slowly and deeply as you relax your chest and upper back.

The goal is to eventually have your hands and elbows touching the floor on either side of your torso. If you can’t reach, don’t worry, just go as far as your body allows. Make sure to keep your elbows bent to 90 degrees and in line with your shoulders. Remember, don’t roll around with this exercise. Simply lie down and breathe.

Count: 30 to sixty seconds
Sets: 1 usually but can be 1-3

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Relax your Lats

Rolling out your lats helps out everything from your neck to your spine when foam rolling for back pain. As a bonus, this exercise always helps alleviate stress in your shoulders and upper arms. Lie on your side with the foam roller under your ribs somewhere between the lowest part of your armpit to the bottom of your ribs. Start by rolling up and down from your rib to your armpit. Next, roll forward or backward slightly from the spine to the front of your ribs to find the most tender spot in addition to up and down. Once you find the most tender spot, stay there for 30 to 60 seconds before switching sides. You can prop yourself up on your hand, elbow or lie flat - whichever is more comfortable.

Again, this exercise requires you to be still and breathe, allowing your lats to stretch. The result is relief of your entire back and shoulders.

Count: 30 to sixty seconds
Sets: 1 usually but can be 1-3

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The Glute Figure 4 for Lower Back Relief

Sit perpendicular on the foam roller with your legs extended in front of you. With your hands on the floor behind you for support, cross your right ankle over your left knee. Bend your left knee until your left foot is flat on the floor and as close to you as is comfortable. Sit up tall and press your chest towards your shin. You should start to feel a deep stretch in your left hip. To deepen the stretch, lean to the left slightly and wiggle back and forth until you find the most tender spot, then sit on it for 30 to 60 seconds before switching sides.

Reps: five back and forth movements or hold in the one most tender spot
Sets: 1-3

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The Mighty Thoracic Roll

Give your upper back a break with this foam rolling exercise. Lie with your upper back on the foam roller and your knees bent with feet flat on the floor.  Roll slightly to one side of the spine onto the muscle and off the bones, unless you’re using a contoured roller (we are assuming you aren’t).

Place your hands behind your head and point your elbows to the ceiling to expose more surface area along the spine. Roll back and forth between the base of your neck and the bottom of your ribs. If you find any tight spots - stay on them for 30-60 seconds, if not, roll back and forth slowly 5-10 times. Maintain a neutral spine, do not bend back over the roller - that will place too much pressure inside the spinal column. This is bad for everyone, especially if you have osteoporosis - you may even fracture your thoracic bones.

Reps: five back and forth movements
Sets: 1-3

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These basic foam rolling exercises provide complete back pain relief. For those new to foam rolling, do these foam rolling stretching exercises three times a week for best results. If you’ve been foam rolling for two months, feel free to do these exercises once to three times a day for maximum relief.