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A Do-It-Yourself Massage Plan for Head-to-Toe Tension Relief

An expert trainer gives you 6 ways to 'roll away pain'

Man using a foam roller to massage his back and spine on a gym mat on the floor

stockfour/getty images

En español | When you think massage, you may think of a pampering trip to a spa: luxurious, indulgent, expensive. But massage can also be an effective way to alleviate everyday aches and pains, and you can enjoy one for free if you know how to do it yourself at home.

Tips for making the most of each move:

  • Roll back and forth as described for at least 30 seconds before continuing on to the next movement.
  • Breathe deeply to help your muscles relax.
  • Don't roll directly over joints or bones—the ball or foam roller should touch only your muscles.

"Whenever you press and roll tight muscles and tissues over an object, such as a ball or cylindrical foam roller, it activates nerve receptors that tell your brain it's OK for that muscle or tissue to relax,” says massage therapist Joe Yoon, author of Better Stretching. “In less than a minute, you can increase your range of motion, providing temporary relief from common persistent pains anytime you need it. Rolling can even lower your risk of many types of other aches and pains if done regularly."

Stress, overuse or imbalance can cause muscles to tighten up, causing pain not just in the area where the muscles are tight but throughout the body. For example, tight hamstrings from constant sitting may cause your lower back to hurt, while irritation in the supportive tissue along the outside of your thighs can trigger knee pain. But by targeting a handful of places with a couple of simple self-massage moves, you can begin relieving pain right now. Here's a six-point plan, designed by Yoon, that can reduce discomfort. Talk with your doctor if you experience chronic pain or before starting any new exercise program.

Knee pain

diagram showing how to use foam roller for knee pain

Kyle Hilton

Target: iliotibial (IT) band, a stabilizing strip of tissue along the outside of your thigh

Tool needed: foam roller

Lie on your left side with the roller tucked under your left hip. Bend your left arm so that you're resting your weight on your left elbow and forearm for support. Finally, cross your right leg over your left so that your right foot touches the floor in front of you. Now, slowly roll back and forth so that the roller moves up and down, from just below your hip to just above your knee (so it massages the entire length of your outer thigh). Continue for 30 seconds, then switch to your right leg.

Tip: If you find a sore spot, stop and concentrate on it for a few seconds. This can help release any extra tension you may be holding in that area.

Lower-back pain

diagram showing how to use foam roller for lower back pain

Kyle Hilton

Target: hamstrings (the muscles that make up the back of your thighs)

Tool needed: foam roller

Sit on the floor with your legs extended in front of you and the roller directly underneath your thighs. With your hands flat on the floor behind you for support, slowly roll back and forth so that the roller glides up and down between the bottom of your posterior to just behind your knees.

Tip: As you perform the move try angling your legs inward and outward. This will help you to massage your hamstrings more thoroughly.

Foot pain

diagram showing how to use tennis ball for foot pain

Kyle Hilton

Targets: intrinsic muscles that work collectively within the feet

Tool needed: tennis ball

Sit in a chair with a straight back, put the ball on the floor in front of you, then place the arch of one foot on top of the ball. Slowly push down to apply pressure, then slowly roll the ball back and forth from the base of your toes to your heel. Repeat with the other foot.

Tip: Try pushing down at different angles for a more thorough massage. Other objects, like a soup can or golf ball, can deepen the effect.

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Upper-back pain

diagram showing how to use a foam roller to help upper back pain

Kyle Hilton

Targets: upper back and thoracic spine

Tool needed: foam roller

Sit on the floor with your knees slightly bent with a foam roller on the floor behind you, positioned perpendicular to your spine. Lie back onto the roller so it rests on your mid-back (just beneath your shoulder blades). Cross your arms over your chest. Keeping your feet flat on the floor, use your legs to slowly roll up and down so that the roller moves between your shoulder blades and the middle of your back. (If you have long hair, consider tying it up beforehand.)

Tip: Try pausing when the foam roller is directly on your mid-back, then slightly arch over the roller to help further extend your thoracic spine.

Hip pain

diagram showing how to use tennis ball for hip pain

Kyle Hilton

Targets: glutes (butt muscles)

Tool needed: tennis ball

Stand with your back to a wall and place the ball between the wall and one of your buttocks. Lean against it to apply pressure, then slowly begin to move up, down and side to side by bending at the knees and shifting left and right. Try to roll the ball in a circular motion for a more thorough massage. Continue for 30 seconds, then repeat with the other buttock.

Tip: If it's more comfortable, you can also sit on the floor with the ball underneath your buttocks.

Neck pain

diagram showing use of two tennis balls in a sock to help neck pain

Kyle Hilton

Targets: muscles along the neck

Tools needed: two tennis balls and a sock

Place the balls inside the sock and tie the end. Sit on the floor with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Place the tennis balls perpendicular to your spine at the base of your skull and lie back onto the balls. Pushing with your feet, gently shift your body up and down, keeping light, constant pressure as you go.

Accessories to consider

Foam rollers
One of the cheapest and most versatile ways to target problem areas from head to toe
Fun factor: low
Cost: $ to $$$ (for vibrating versions)

Massage balls
These come in different sizes and rigidity, helpful for pinpointing problem areas.
Fun factor: low
Cost: $

Massage sticks
These let you press into your muscles by using arm power, so you control how much pressure your muscles receive. But they take two hands to use and can't always reach every problem area.
Fun factor: low
Cost: $ to $$

Massage guns
Efficient at hitting nearly every muscle group, using vibration therapy to help relax muscles and reduce soreness.
Fun factor: medium
Cost: $$ to $$$

Foot massagers
Although limited to one body part, most are effective at rubbing away foot aches and pains.
Fun factor: high
Cost: $ to $$$

Massage chairs
Most massage chairs knead only posterior muscles (the ones behind you) in a repetitive way.
Fun factor: high
Cost: $$$$

Myatt Murphy is the former fitness editor of Men's Health and the author of numerous books on wellness.

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