Foam Rolling for Athletes: Back

An athlete at the top of their game is a different breed of human. They hate losing – and will do anything to perfect their craft. The nature of sports tends to lead to a lot of repetitive movements, a lot of which cause certain muscle groups to become tight.

If these muscles aren’t released, it spells a trip to the injured reserve. The back muscles are an incredibly common area of distress for athletes of all levels. When these get tight, nasty things like shoulder pain can be a common side effect.

Before we go further, please understand that the back is more than just the lats. The lats are indeed part of the back, but only one component. There are also the lower traps, mid traps, upper traps, lower back, and some of the muscles that form the rotator cuff.

Sadly, most strength training programs “back day” involves a few sets of lat pulldowns, pull-ups, and then some variation of shrugs.

But we’re here to improve performance – not make it worse. So without further ado, here’s a quick tissue release routine to keep your back in game-day shape.

1. Foam Roller Back Extensions

It’s easy, quick, and effective. The traps take a lot of abuse not only in sports, but in day-to-day life as well. Releasing them is paramount to shoulder health. If these are all knotted and gunked up, the shoulder blade will not be able to move freely. Which causes an unfortunate case of “Argh, this shoulder hurts like heck.”

  • Be sure to keep your core braced, unless you want some low back pain to go along with your shoulder pain.
  • Place your upper back on the foam roller, with your hands braced behind your head.
  • “Lean” your upper torso back, almost like you’re doing a sit up. Try to extend all the way down, until your head touches the floor. Slowly sit back up.
  • Repeat for at least one minute – and work your way up to around two minutes.

2. Lat Release

Lay on your side and position the foam roller directly under your armpit. Roll vertically all the way down to the end of the ribcage. Go slow. When you find a spot that hurts, stay on it for at least 30 seconds and use slow movements. Beginners should start with one minute per side, progressing up to two minutes.

3. Upper Trap Release

Put the foam roller aside for a second, and pick up a lacrosse or tennis ball. Locate your upper traps – the hunks of meat that connect your shoulder and neck. Lay on your back and place the ball on one side of your upper traps. Raise your arm above your head, and then lower it back down to your side. This movement will “floss” the muscle, causing the tissue to release. 45 seconds per side.

4. Lower Back Release

Keep your ball of choice by your side. We’ll be hitting the quadratus lumborum here – the muscles of the low back. Lay on your back and place the ball on the muscle, being careful to avoid your spinal discs. Make gentle rocking movements – side-to-side – as you search for knots in the muscle. One minute per side.

Obviously, there’s a lot more that goes into a professional athlete’s “maintenance” routine. But these tissue releasing drills will be the foundation for anyone looking to regain tissue quality in their back. The muscles of the back are pivotal to health and performance, and should not be disregarded.