Why I NEVER Recommend Foam Rolling The Low Back (And What To Do Instead)

If you are currently experiencing low back of ANY kind:


I never ever recommend foam rolling the low back (for any reason), but if you’re experiencing low back pain then this is so important.


Here’s the short version:

Low back muscles (and the thoracolumbar fascia) generally take care of themselves when you take care of whatever it is that is causing them distress. What is causing them distress is typically something in the leg fascia (brought on by sports, lifestyle and habits). Occasionally there is a shoulder dysfunction that can cause low back issues but most of the time it’s in the legs. The point though, is that THE PROBLEM IS NOT THE BACK ITSELF, and going into the low back with a foam roller can make things a lot worse.

In addition, there are a lot of nerves in the low back region and not a lot of “meat” (generally) to absorb your weight (look at the picture over there), so you could cause nerve irritation or damage; and I DO NOT recommend rolling over your lower rib area or spine for ANY reason either.

Basically – there isn’t much reason to foam roll here AT ALL, and if you are in pain there is significant risk of causing more distress or more pain.

The long version:

This is the story of how I came to these conclusions.

When I first started working with people in pain (by “stepping on” them; I am NOT a massage therapist, so if you’re curious about exactly what I do you can click the link) I knew that when it came to back pain the cause was something in the legs. I never touched people’s backs.

One of my favorite things in the whole world is solving puzzles. When I first got started, every client that came to me was like a new puzzle to solve because I hadn’t yet figured out all the various types and causes of low back pain. (These days I’m rarely stumped, but happy when I am because it means I get to learn something new and help even more people!)

Over the course of several years (from 2008-2013) I gathered a lot of data that led me to the pain patterns I’ve discovered (what causes what), and nearly all of my low back pain clients were getting complete relief (often in ONE session!) but a question remained in my mind:

What about the back itself?

I wanted to know what was happening in the low back and glute areas of all these clients with back pain.

The reason I wanted to do this experiment was because nearly every client would ask me “what about my back? You’re not even going to go there? But it feels so TIGHT!”

And my response was always “your back isn’t the problem, it’s the thing trying to get your attention that something is wrong but the problem is elsewhere.” I knew this with my brain, but I didn’t yet know it with my feet, with experience, with data that could back up my words with absolute conviction.

So I started experimenting: by going into these areas with permission from every client and full disclosure that I didn’t know what would happen and maybe their pain would get worse (but if it did I was confident we could get them back to pain-free, and we always did).

I wanted the data – are the low back or glutes actually tight when people feel like they are? Does it help if we go there, or does it make things worse?

I came to the conclusion (based on probably a thousand or more sessions with people who have low back pain) that it’s rarely a good idea to release the low back, and a very good idea to never go into the glutes when someone is in an acute flare-up of low back pain (it’s ok to go to the glutes later, and it’s always good data, but I saw enough clients get worse from going there in a first session while I was in my experimentation phase that I stopped doing that and made it a rule).

In almost all cases where my clients felt relief from going into the low back, there was a subsequent re-tightening and/or more back pain later – within a few days or a week. Whereas consistent work releasing the legs and addressing all of the fascial imbalances left to right nearly always gave the desired result: no back pain AND no feeling of tightness in the low back (proven physically with palpation, compression and movement testing of the low back muscles and fascia).

Meaning: nearly everyone’s low back muscles and fascia chilled out in 1-6 sessions without touching the low back, whether the low back muscles at first tested as actually tight or in a “clamped down” state OR physically did not present as tight but “felt” tight to the client. (FYI: while it is mostly the legs causing low back pain, I have often needed to go into the lattisimus dorsi or address a shoulder imbalance to completely eliminate the pain).

Now I can say unequivocally and with absolute certainty that (almost) no one needs to go into their low back to get relief from low back pain (of all kinds).

I say “almost no one” because there is the rare exception, maybe one person every year, who actually has some major tightness in their low back that could benefit from directly being released, and because I always want to keep an open mind. When the low back DOES need help relaxing I go there absolutely last.

And of course there are the rare exceptions where I tried everything and couldn’t get a client complete relief for low back pain. These cases are extremely rare for me (maybe 10 cases out of hundreds over the last 8 years).

Why would someone’s back FEEL tight, but not actually BE tight?

And why does the pain so often get worse after we release that area?

Please be aware that a lot of this is my own personal and professional opinion based on 8 years of “citizen science”, and I haven’t looked into whether or not my theories are supported by medically funded scientific research.

Here is my theory:

Our body and brain want a neutral, healthy spine and central nervous system. I believe most of our back muscles (and the fascia within them) are programmed to respond to peripheral stimuli much more so than internal (their own). The spine (and back muscles) need to be responsive, because this is the pathway of the central and peripheral nervous system, the communication highway of the body. Absolutely everything that happens in the human body is processed by the central nervous systems. And our pelvis is the center point of all movement.

I don’t think we are meant to build up the muscles around our spine to an extreme – they will respond to our movements (whether lifestyle or workout styles) and begin adapting on their own. They will become stronger, or not, as necessary – UNLESS or until a major imbalance is detected and the central nervous system is in danger of disruption or dysfunction.

Everything the legs do is felt in the back. I challenge you to isolate a single lower body movement that isn’t felt in the low back. Even wiggling your toes creates an obvious chain reaction through the spinal chord (isn’t this simple movement used by doctors post surgery to test function?!) It’s definitely possibly to move upper body parts without as much response in the low back (there is still some).

The fascia in your legs needs to stay relatively balanced left to right and front to back, or it will begin tugging at your pelvis and spine in various ways. I’m confident that our brains do an excellent job of regulating all of this before something serious has to get our attention (in the form of pain).

One of the ways it may regulate this is to send a signal to one or more low back muscles, a glute muscle, the TFL or hamstring, telling it/them to clamp down (neurologically) to prevent a teeter-totter type shift, tilt or rotation of the pelvis.

This is the main reason why someone’s back can FEEL tight, but isn’t – it is something that normally has a lot of ‘give’, space and ability to be responsive, but is getting pulled taught OR more commonly it is being forced into a ‘crunched’ position by peripheral forces (the leg fascia and/or lats). Most ‘tightness’ that is there is neurological (I believe), which is very different than tightness caused by overuse. It is NOT the back itself that is the cause of tightness, it is the thing doing the pulling (the legs).

When there is actual tightness in the low back muscles in the presence of low back pain, I believe it is usually because they have been recruited by the brain to counteract what is happening in the leg fascia. And they DO NOT want to relax until all is well with the pelvis. And…

This is why back pain happens:

The muscles that get recruited to fight the pelvic imbalances are pretty small (which is why the brain often recruits more than one). It will be the QL’s (quadtratus lumborum), a glute muscle (usually medius or piriformis), the TFL (tensor fasciae latae) and sometimes a hamstring (when your brain tries to recruit the big guns).

This is an unwinnable battle because they are fighting the muscle memory and fascial tightening of the quads, hip flexors, IT Bands and adductors (some of the biggest muscles in our body).

Eventually the small muscles fighting this unwinnable battle must get our attention that something is really wrong or the next phase could be actual damage to your spine, and THAT is what your brain has been trying so hard to avoid.

The pain signal you get when you experience low back pain is your body’s cry for help.

Any attempts to relax the low back, TFL, or glute muscles without FIRST finding the cause in the legs and releasing those areas will likely only lead to more clamping down, more tight sensation in the low back (because your brain is trying to limit your movements until you fix the problem) or more pain.

If you DO go into the low back without first addressing the legs, the back might relax for a little while but the pain may come back, and may come back with a vengeance.

And this is why I never ever recommend foam rolling the low back!

I had no intention of writing all of this, but it didn’t feel right to simply leave it at “don’t do it” without telling you why, and giving you the scientific thinking behind it.

What to do instead of foam rolling the low back?

Any guesses? Surely you know by now…

Find the cause in your legs and release those areas!

You’ll want to look for an imbalance left to right, and go after whichever leg is tighter. If you release both legs equally, you may be “looser” overall, but you’re still out of balance! And your pelvis needs you to set things right by balancing your leg fascia out.

My TOP PICK is to look at your quads and hip flexors.

Click here for the quad and hip flexor technique.

If you want to keep investigating, I would get into your adductors next. Click here for that.

Then I might try the IT Band. Click here for the IT Band post.

Keep in mind with this IT Band post, it was one of the first on this site so the format is a bit different (I’ll be re-doing it at some point but it’s certainly still relevant). There are two videos. I suggest you watch both so you can find out why I do NOT recommend actually ROLLING on your IT Band, and it’ll show you what to do instead (in the second video).

And finally, you could see if one hamstring is tighter and release that.

If you liked this post please “like” and share it!

  • Kelley ebersole says:

    Hi. I’ve had a lot of left legged low back/hip/knee/foot pain. And two hip labral repairs….I’m struggling to find the right muscle balance. After releasing quads and adductors do you have suggestions as to what strength work to follow up with? Thank you so much.

    • Hi Kelley – unfortunately, there’s no one “formula” I can give you, since your trouble areas will depend on your past injury history, compensation patterns and daily habits. What you ideally want to do is “map” your fascia (comparing tightness/soreness left to right and front to back) in order to identify imbalances and then correct them. Based on what you describe, it sounds a lot to me like you are in some kind of pelvic/hip instability situation. This is true of almost every client I’ve worked with who had hip surgery. The surgery itself can actually traumatize some muscles or cause them to contract to protect you. You can either use my free content to piece this together, or consider joining my private community inside my courses. This isn’t always available, but right now I’m offering a special (through the end of November) for a 4 course bundle. One of those courses is called Solving Pelvic Instability, and helps you solve pain like this at the root level – including identifying if you have muscles not firing, and then I help you activate them and know for sure it’s working for you. But the courses also help you solve pain issues specifically – like plantar fasciitis, knee pain, hip and back pain. In case you’re interested, you can learn more here: https://mobilitymastery.com/all-access-pass/

  • Christine says:

    Finally some one who makes sense. Hopefully I can finally be pain free. I will follow your advice. Thank you

    • Christine – glad you found your way here and that this back pain theory makes sense to you. I have a ton of fascia release techniques on the blog for all the leg areas that cause lower back pain. Good luck and keep me posted!

  • Elisha–why is it that whenever I pull up Mobility Mastery you are addressing an issue I am dealing with and your information makes so much sense–many thanks–I am going to search inwardly about grief and shoulder issues–I believe they are intertwined ..Will get back to Mobility Mastery shortly–I am digesting lots of your information–excellent. Many thanks–Kathnell

  • Bruce says:

    Thanks! Just signed up for your info. So pain is a just a signal, like a simple signal, alert, alerting us to not avoid this, but investigate this and solve this. Like a dumb system calling the smart system. This post made sense, very thoughtful . Do you think we will build a comprehensive troubleshooting, a simplifying troubleshooting system, er, a well I don’t know, but your post makes a lot of sense. Synthesize? Hmm..

    • Hey Bruce – glad you liked the post and signed up, welcome! I teach utilizing fascia release as a system of trouble shooting, because fascia is the only element in your body that touches all the other elements: muscle, blood, bone, organs, nerves etc. By investigating your fascia you can learn if the threat (potential danger) is internal, external or a false alarm. If it’s internal you can determine whether it’s physiological or more subconscious (at the nervous system level), and if external whether the threat is real or imagined (like being super stressed at your job, hating your boss, but your body thinks you’re in danger from being killed by a bear for example, and when you don’t run for your life pings you with a pain signal…but you’re not actually going to die). Hope that makes sense! I teach all of this in on my online courses. But you can find pieces of it all in my blogs and YouTube videos.

  • Jane Reiff says:

    This was very interesting but to assume any pain in the low back comes from the legs may do your clients an injustice. You are forgetting the QL. While an abdominal muscle technically it is in the low back and many issues with performance and potential low back pain might be this. I was actually searching for articles to properly foam roll the QL and found your blog. You are correct that many times back pain can come from the legs but I am not sure it is safe to assume that. Perhaps going up the kinetic chain would help but a foam roller with the spinal groove is highly recommended if you do the back.

  • Good tips! Thanks. Possible to add a video exercise in this post as well? Saw the one with rolling the hip flexors.
    I have lower back pain and it makes sense to stretch the hammies, flexors, and quads.
    Also, I had this amazing RELEASE from my lower back this morning where I was sitting on my chair and propping my feet on the bed. The vertebrae in my lower back popped and it just felt amazing. Ever get that? And if so, I wonder how to replicate. It’s a different feeling from twisting the lower back to crack it.

  • joy says:

    I love your site. I had low back pain and followed what you said.

    My rehab doctor recommended I try an ACUBALL and I think you would just love this thing. I love it.
    What I like is that it heats up (1 min. microwave = 1 hour HEAT).
    It has a groove running around the middle for the spine so I heat it up and lie where ever I hurt for 3 minutes each place and just relax. The first minute is tender then it releases and by the end of 3 minutes it feels so good – I can literally feel my body releasing on a deep level. I use it on my spine and also do my quads and tfl and gluts. I’m seriously addicted to this thing.

    Anyhow please review it if you can – I would love to know your thoughts. here’s the website acuball.com

    • Thanks for your comment Joy, I’m glad you like the site and have found the info here helpful 🙂 I definitely plan on doing some product reviews this year, so I’ll keep the Acuball in mind for one of those!

  • Jason McGlone says:

    Hi Elisha

    I have been following your site for a few months now and find it very helpful and enjoy the explanation and effort you put into finding cause not treating symptoms which is the norm these days. I am 38 years old and am currently recovering from a frozen shoulder after dislocation and also battling with an Achilles’ tendon insertion / Bursa pain on the same side. I have been using your techniques witch have helped a lot but I just can’t get the last 20 to 30 % to get back to the fitness I am looking for. I live an active lifestyle on the Goldcoast Australia I love to surf and do triathlons. Do you know of any practitioner on the Goldcoast that shares the same opinions and treatment as you that I may be able to see for a consult. I have thought about a Skype session with you but am unsure how effective it would be with the finer details.

    • Hey Jason – thanks for hanging with me on the site, I’m super happy to hear you’re making use of my content! As things are currently, I’m the only one in the world doing the work I do the way that I do it. I don’t know of anyone doing anything remotely similar in Australia unfortunately. I’m beginning to teach this year, and currently have 4 apprentices. I’ll be developing an official program to be taught wherever I’m wanted if enough people commit so hopefully within a few years Australia will be on the map! I will say I think doing at least one Skype session would benefit you, because if nothing else I can give my opinion about what’s going on and potentially suggest something like myofascial massage with a focus on x, y and z, or help you get the most out of the self-help techniques. My experience with the Skype sessions so far has been that it’s my 8 years of experience and ability to give you options that is the most valuable. Would love to help if I can!

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