10 Self-Massage Moves to Ease Aches and Pains

By Laura Newcomer |

Relieve sore muscles and stiff joints with these simple techniques you can do at home.


Anyone who’s ever had a professional massage can attest to how great you feel afterward. You emerge from the room like you’re walking on air. Stress has melted away, and muscle pains are a distant memory. With benefits like that, we all should be getting weekly massages.

Too bad we’re all busy—and not made of money.

Enter self-myofascial release (SMR). Also known as self-massage, this popular physical therapy technique can offer many of the same benefits as a professional session in mere minutes. Plus, you can do it in the comfort of your own home, on your own schedule, and with no fees attached. All you need is a tennis ball, rolling pin, or foam roller.

How Self-Myofascial Release Works

“Self-myofascial release is the practice of using massage, foam rollers, or tennis balls to improve muscle mobility,” says Lisa Woods, a personal trainer and yoga teacher in Eagle, Colorado. The goal is to relax the fascia (pronounced FAH-shuh), which is a fancy term for the thin connective tissue that wraps and bundles muscles together. Fascia can develop knots, or trigger points.

When performed properly, SMR techniques can break down these trigger points and offer benefits, including reduced tension in the muscles, enhanced range of motion, improved circulation, and fewer aches and pains, says Chris Kolba, P.T., a physical therapist at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

If you’re new to self-massage or have difficulty getting on the floor, try seated exercises with a tennis ball or rolling pin first. They’ll give you a gentler massage than a foam roller.

Got the basics down and want a deeper massage? If you can get down easily on the floor and have good balance, give the foam roller a try. You can buy one at most big-box retailers, sporting goods stores, or discount chains. Look for one that is solid foam, which will provide more support than a hollow roller but has more give than a plastic roller covered with foam.

Ready to start? Here’s how to give your hands, feet, glutes, thighs, and calves the attention they need. As always, safety is key. The exercises here may be different or more advanced than those you’ll experience in a SilverSneakers class. If you have a chronic condition, an injury, or balance issues, talk to your doctor about how you can exercise safely.

1. Hand Massage with Tennis Ball

Getting older often means spending more time sitting, Woods says. This can reduce circulation to our extremities, namely the hands and feet. Luckily, all you need to increase circulation to these areas is a tennis ball.

Try it: Cover a table with a towel, and place a tennis ball on top of it. Sit at the table with your back straight, and take a slow, deep breath in and out.

Next, place the palm of one hand on the tennis ball, and move it in a circular motion, gently pressing your palm into the ball the whole time. Stretch your fingers over the ball, and roll it back and forth across your whole hand. Repeat this process for at least two to three minutes per hand.

2. Foot Massage with Tennis Ball

You can target your feet from the same seated position, Woods says. This will improve blood flow and help stiff, painful arches feel better.

Try it: Sit in a chair with a tennis ball in front of you, and place one foot on top of the ball. Gently move your foot forward and backward several times, making sure to press into the ball, arch, and heel of your foot. Finally, stretch your toes by spreading them as far apart as possible. Spend two to three minutes on each foot.

Want more ways to relieve foot pain? Check out these exercises for your feet.

3. Glute Massage with Tennis Ball

Regular self-massage is a great way to prevent or relieve hip pain, Kolba says, adding that it may also relieve tension in your lower back. Here’s the connection: Weak, tight glutes can’t do their job properly, which puts more strain on the lower back.

Try it: Sit on the floor with your right knee bent and left leg extended. Place a tennis ball under the fleshiest part of your left glute. Gently roll back, forth, and around over the ball for one minute. Switch legs and repeat.

Make it easier: If you have a hard time getting down on the floor or want a gentler massage, try it lying on a bed. The softer surface of the bed will reduce some of the pressure.

4. Glute Massage with Foam Roller

For the average person, a self-massage with a tennis ball is likely sufficient. But if your workouts tend to be more intense and you have good balance, you may like foam rolling.

Try it: Sit on a foam roller with knees bent and feet flat. Support yourself by placing your hands slightly behind you on the floor. Cross your left ankle over your right leg, just above the knee. The roller should be at the top of your glute muscle but below your lower back.

From here, lean slightly into the leg you’re massaging, and slowly roll back and forth several times. Experiment with targeting different areas of the glutes by shifting your weight from side to side. Continue for one minute, and repeat on the other side.

5. Thigh Massage with Rolling Pin

Got knee pain? Tight thighs (a.k.a. quadriceps) could be to blame. That’s because your thighs have the important job of helping support your knees.

Luckily, you can relieve tight quads with an ordinary rolling pin, Kolba says. If you’re using your usual rolling pin, clean it well before and after use. Or buy one to use only for self-massage.

Try it: Sit in a chair, and gently move the rolling pin back and forth several times across the top of each thigh. Continue for one minute on each leg.

6. Thigh Massage with Tennis Ball

You can also use a tennis ball for a seated thigh massage. Got two tennis balls? You can use them at the same time.

Try it: Sit in a chair, and gently roll the tennis ball up and down your thigh while applying light pressure. Continue for one minute on each leg.

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7. Thigh Massage with Foam Roller

You can always stick to a thigh massage with a rolling pin or tennis ball. Want to use a foam roller? You’ll need a little more strength and coordination. Keep this in mind: You want to roll over the meaty part of a muscle, and never over a bone or joint.

Try it: Lie facedown with forearms on the floor and the foam roller near your hips. Rest your left leg on the foam roller, and use your right leg to support you on the floor. Engage your core to protect your back.

From here, slowly roll yourself forward, pausing every few inches until the roller is about one inch above your knee, and reverse the movement to return to the starting position. You may want to turn your feet in and out as you roll to hit different angles. Continue for one minute, and repeat on the other side.

8. Calf Massage with Rolling Pin

You may be giving your hips and knees the care they deserve, but your calves—the muscles above your heels—need love too. It’s a smaller area than your glutes and thighs, so move gently. Be sure not to roll directly over a bone.

Try it: Sit in a chair with your feet on the floor in front of you, and gently move the rolling pin up and down along your calf. Continue for one minute on each leg.

9. Calf Massage with Tennis Ball

If you’re comfortable getting down on the floor, you can also use a tennis ball to work out the kinks in your calves.

Try it: Sit on the floor with your legs extended. Place a tennis ball under your left calf, and use your hands to support yourself. Gently roll your calf muscle around the ball, starting in the middle and working around to the outer edges. Continue for one minute on each leg.

10. Calf Massage with Foam Roller

Foam rolling can help break up any knots in your calf and reduce pain in your legs, Kolba says. The catch: Like other foam roller moves, it’s more advanced than using a tennis ball or rolling pin.

Try it: Sit on the floor with your legs extended. Place the foam roller underneath your left calf. Cross your right ankle over your left, and use your hands to support yourself.

From here, roll up and down gently along your left calf. Turn your foot to the inside and outside to hit different angles. Continue for one minute on each leg.

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