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Why you should never use a foam roller for your lower back

A foam roller is a great way to release tight muscles after a workout. However, you should never foam roll your lower back. This is the reason why

Foam rolling is good for you, but only if you do it correctly.
Foam rolling is good for you, but only if you do it correctly. (Istockphoto)

Science has proven that foam rolling is an important aspect of training to maintain muscle health and mobility. It is an integral part of professional sport as well and there are only advantages of foam rolling, even if it’s done for 10 minutes a day. But it can very quickly become just a relaxation routine, especially when one realises how nice a foam roller feels on the back. While there is no issue with using a foam roller as a gentle post workout cooldown, the danger starts when you start hitting your lower back with it as a way of removing soreness in that area.

Given that the lower back takes a lot of stress through the day, even the slightest massage feels good. However, it is the one part of the body that fitness experts suggest should not be  worked on with a foam roller.

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“The greatest risk of injury to the back with foam rolling is using it directly on the vertebrae of the neck or on the mid-to-lower vertebrae of the back. Doing so requires using intense muscle control to keep the proper form and hold the roller in place at a trigger point. Using the lower back muscles in this way may cause excess muscle tension, which can do more harm than good,” states a article titled How to Foam Roll for Back Pain.

It adds that the kidneys and liver don’t have enough protection and inexperienced foam rolling could hurt those organs when rolling the lower back. The feel-good factor of using a foam roller to alleviate lower back pain can quickly turn into an injury if you don’t correctly identify what is causing the pain. Find out whether it’s a nerve impingement or another muscle group (like the glutes) being too tight, that is causing the lower back pain.

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A Strength Squad podcast episode on YouTube featuring powerlifter Brian Carroll and Dr. Stuart McGill, who has more than 30 years of experience in the sports science field, touches upon this topic as well. McGill says that the bodyweight pressure on the vertebra in the lower back area can cause “painful micromovements”. In a video on the same topic titled Never Foam Roll Your Lower Back!popular fitness expert Jeff Caveliere says something important. “When your lower back is tight, look somewhere else first.”

He explains the anatomical effect of rolling the lower back: “Forcing your lower back into more extension is going to aggravate many conditions that are devastating if the extension gets worse. Even if neither of these conditions exist, you are never really able to effectively roll this area because the muscles surrounding the lower back spasm to try and protect the delicate unprotected area.”

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A Masterclass article titled How to Foam Roll Your Lower Back Safely suggests three alternative ways to foam roll so that it also alleviates any back issues. The first one is using it on the glutes like in the video below.

Tight IT bands can also cause issues. “At the top of the IT band, there's a muscle known as the TFL muscle. When it gets tight, it can cause strain on the lower back,” the article states. This 80-second video shows a brilliant way to hit both the gluteus maximus and the TFL at the same time in one graceful foam-rolling exercise.

The sacrum foam roll exercise will also help your myofascial release. This is the small triangular bone that connects the lumbar spine to the tailbone and it is lower than the lower back. This is the most advanced foam-rolling exercise in this list, but it won’t affect the lower back adversely, while still making sure you get what you want from your foam rolling practice.

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And the bonus is rolling the hamstrings. Mostly tight, especially when you pick up a sport or fitness practice, and almost always sore, rolling the hamstrings can increase your mobility.

Like any other exercise or skill or equipment-based recovery, foam rolling should not be overdone, especially on the back. It is an excellent practice to use it for the lower body and to even release the sides, but knowing the alternative routes to your back pain will give you that extra edge in your fitness routine.

Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.

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