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a woman uses a foam roller while performing dead bug

Explore the moves:

Overhead Squat Hamstring Curls Dead Bug Wall Squat Chest Press

Foam rollers are powerful recovery tools, touted for benefits including myofascial release, boosted circulation, and lymphatic drainage. But have you ever considered using this lightweight tool as part of your strength-training routine? This unlikely adaptation, which is gaining traction among trainers, makes the foam roller a great addition for any small-space workout.

“The round design of a foam roller makes it a useful tool to challenge your balance and strength,” explains Minnesota-based strength coach Jennifer Blake, RKC-II. “Placing your hands on a roller during a plank or balancing it on your palm during a Turkish get-up means you have to work harder to stabilize your body during the exercise. It also requires laser-force concentration on the muscles you need to engage to do the movement well.”

Foam rollers are most easily incorporated into core exercises; they increase instability and, therefore, the overall challenge, says Blake. “But they can also be used in place of PVC pipe when you perform overhead squats, and you can help stimulate more engagement in the inner thighs during a glute bridge by squeezing one between your legs.”

Rollers can also add a challenge to hamstring curls, pushups, squats, chest presses, and other traditional strength moves.

The following workout combines resistance-loaded and body-weight moves that you can supplement with a foam roller. The routine is intended to be performed with a smooth, ­medium-density foam roller of standard length (about 36 inches) and diameter (5 to 6 inches).

That said, feel free to use what you have on hand. The density won’t make a big difference for these exercises, and the moves can be done with a shorter (24-inch) roller, which might even be more comfortable for petite exercisers. Play around with size if you have options available.

You can perform these exercises all together for a full-body workout, or incorporate them as swaps within your existing routine.

Overhead Squat

  • Stand with feet at shoulder width, toes pointed slightly out, and hold a foam roller in both hands.
  • Place your palms on the flat ends of the roller and raise it overhead with chest proud, arms locked out, and shoulders engaged. Brace your core; don’t arch your back.
  • Actively press your palms against the ends of the foam roller and squat down as far as you can.
  • Continue to engage your core, glutes, and shoulders as you return to standing.
  • Perform two sets of eight to 12 repetitions.

Hamstring Curls

  • Lie on your back with knees bent and feet planted firmly on a foam roller on the floor; you can move your feet to find a comfortable position. From this position, engage your core, press your back into the floor, and begin squeezing your glutes.
  • Keep the glutes engaged and weight even across both feet as you press your hips up. Extend your hips fully so your body forms a straight line from your knees to your shoulders. Pause here and hold the position for a breath before completing the roll out.
  • From here, extend your legs to roll the foam roller away from your hips. Extend your legs only as far as you can without arching your back. Make sure your shoulder blades stay in contact with the floor to keep weight off your neck.
  • Maintaining control, bend your knees to reverse the motion and draw the roller back in.
  • Repeat for three sets of 10 to 15 reps. Rest as needed between sets, slowly lowering your hips without letting them collapse to the floor.

Dead Bug

  • Lie on your back and lift your arms and legs into the air. Your arms will be straight over your chest, knees bent at about 90 degrees. Position a foam roller between one forearm and the thigh of the opposite leg.
  • Keep your head on the floor, your neck in a neutral position and engage your core by actively pressing your forearm and thigh into the ends of the foam roller.
  • Maintaining this engagement, extend your free leg to straighten it while dropping your free, opposite-side arm overhead. Do not lower your heels all the way to the floor. Extend and lower your legs only as far as possible without arching your lower back.
  • Reverse the motion to return to the starting position.
  • Repeat for three sets of 10 per side.

To learn the classic dead bug, visit “BREAK IT DOWN: The Dead Bug“.

Wall Squat

  • Stand with your back near a wall and position a foam roller horizontally between your lower back and the wall.
  • Maintaining contact with the foam roller, bend your knees and hips to squat down until the foam roller reaches your shoulders.
  • Reverse the motion, pressing down through your feet to stand back up. Keep your torso locked in an upright position to “ride” the foam roller down and up.
  • Repeat for three sets of 10 to 15 reps. Add weight by holding dumbbells or kettlebells at your sides, in a front-racked position, or goblet-style in front of your chest.
  • You can also modify this move by lifting one leg to perform supported single-leg squats.

To learn the classic body-weight squat, visit “BREAK IT DOWN: The Squat“.

Chest Press

  • Place the foam roller lengthwise on the floor and, while grasping two dumbbells, lie back so your head and lower back are both on the roller. Keeping your feet flat on the floor, position the dumbbells near your chest. Aim elbows out about 45 degrees from your body.
  • Squeeze your glutes and push your feet into the floor, then press the weights straight toward the ceiling. Pause at the top, arms fully extended, then lower the weights with control.
  • Repeat for three sets of 10 to 15 reps.

To learn the classic bench press, visit “BREAK IT DOWN: The Bench Press“.

This article originally appeared as “Reimagine Your Foam Roller” in the December 2022 issue of Experience Life.

Maggie Fazeli Fard

Maggie Fazeli Fard, RKC, is an Experience Life senior editor.

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