6 Simple Ways to Use a Tennis Ball for Exercise Recovery

January 24, 2019

tennis ball
JayDee Vykoukal, DPT

Think you need fancy equipment or an expensive massage when you're feeling sore from exercise? Although it might sound nice in theory, it's not necessary when budget or time doesn't allow. There are a lot of simple tools that can be found around the house to use for self stretching and massage when you are in recovery mode or just need a rest day. Use of a tool that can provide constant and strong pressure to a sore or tight body part can do wonders for recovery and relaxation.

Use a massage tool you probably already have.

A great tool that most people already have, or can easily get for a couple dollars, is a tennis ball. Here are six simple and relaxing exercises you can complete with a tennis ball. Whether you complete one or all ten at once, you should notice a nice relaxing effect!

First, the basics for using a tennis ball.

With all of these exercises, the key is to find the sore/tender areas and either slowly move the tennis ball back and forth across (if it's a large area) or hold direct constant pressure at the "hot spot." It's important to focus on staying relaxed with deep breathing and choosing the right amount of pressure. If you can't relax, you're probably pushing to hard and should modify the exercise. Amazingly, when you are able to relax and you hit that sweet spot, sometimes you can actually feel the muscle physically relax as you complete the exercise. Typically, it takes 45 to 120 seconds for each spot. Those muscles where you can feel "knots," called trigger points, respond really well to this direct pressure. Avoid digging directly into bone, you'll just be left feeling sore.

1. Glut Pressure Point

Start by sitting on the ball, biased to one side or the other (NOT in the center on the tail bone). Gently roll around until you find the sorest spot (typically somewhere between the tail bone and the hip bone) and hold. This can be great for a sore butt from prolonged sitting, exercise or even mild sciatica symptoms. If needed, you can decrease the amount of pressure with the supporting leg and arms or the amount of cushion in the chair. You can also progress to sitting on the floor or bringing the ankle to the other knee (see pic) to get even deeper into the muscles.

2. Spine Pressure Point

Stand against the wall with the ball slightly to one side of the spine. Keep the feet hip width apart and at least one foot from the wall (more is fine too). Slowly roll up and down, one side at a time. If needed, slow down and hold on any particularly sore areas you find. The further your feet are away from the wall the more pressure you will be able to apply so adjust as needed.

3. Trapezius Pressure Point

With a similar set up to exercise#2, the difference is you freedom to address areas further away from the spine (no sensitive soft tissues like the lower back). While standing against the wall, roll around between the spine and shoulder blades to find all those sore spots. Hold 45-120 seconds and don't forget to relax. This is a common sore area from poor posture, so don't be surprised if you're quite sore. This is a great place to focus on is you have a headache, so see if it helps.

4. Leg Slow Roll Release

Sitting on the floor, adjust your posture to address any sore muscles in the legs. This can include the hamstrings and calf muscles in a more upright position or the iliotibial (IT) band in a sideways position. You can even use your hands and roll out the shins (lying on them tends to be too much pressure). No matter the area, slowly move up and down the length of the muscle. (The IT band is a very sensitive area so be gentle and don't force it). You may find some knotted areas, but since these are large muscle groups they generally respond better to slow rhythmic rolling back and forth.

5. Suboccipital Pressure Points

These muscles are right at the base of the skull and are notorious for causing tension headaches. This exercise can be done against the wall or lying down but typically its easier to relax lying down. Place the tennis ball at the base of the skull. To get deeper, gently tuck the chin toward the chest without tensing up the neck. Not sure where to focus? Gently poke around to find the sore areas first. No rolling, just relax! If you tense up it can actually cause headaches, so start slow!

6. Arch Roll

Help those sore feet! Sitting in a chair gently roll the ball across the bottom of the arch. You can progress to standing (if balance allows). Bonus: a sore foot responds well to cold so try putting your tennis ball in the freezer first.

BONUS: two tennis balls

With any of the exercises above that go along the spine (#2, 3, and 5), try using two tennis balls. This is a good way to increase pressure with exercises 2 and 3 by lying down on the floor without feeling lopsided. You can either tape them together or throw them in a sock.

You should feel nice and relaxed after completing one or all of these. Be careful not to overdo it. Listen to your body. Some discomfort is okay as long as it is not causing your muscle to tense up and guard. A little pain can even release the body's natural endorphins (cheap, free, natural pain medications!). What's great is you need little space for these exercises and you can easily tote around a tennis ball (or two). Repeat as needed and enjoy.

Still sore? Check out other tips and tricks, like yoga, on Flexispot's blog here.

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