10 Ways to Get Jacked With Just a Foam Roller
by Gareth Sapstead T-Nation
No matter how advanced you are, your ability to handle your own bodyweight will always serve as a foundation for strength and conditioning. It’s from this foundation that you’ll be able to build other skills.
Now’s the time to sharpen your skills and upgrade your bodyweight exercises. Try these foam roller moves.
1 – Triceps Death, Roller-Style
The “triceps death” exercise was popularized by Westside Barbell. That version combines a close-grip bench press with an escalating thickness of wooden boards on your chest. As your triceps give out, a thicker board is then added on your chest to reduce range of motion and extend the set even further.
The same can be done with push-ups (or loaded push-ups if you have a weighted vest or band available). To make them more triceps-dominant, keep your elbows tucked.
Do full range of motion reps first, then grab a roller and place it under your chest. Squeeze out some extra partial-range reps, touching the roller each time to really finish off your triceps.
2 – Roller W-Y
If you don’t have a pull-up bar or suspension trainer, working your back with just your own bodyweight can be difficult. You can try “Y”, “W”, “T” and “I” arm positions laying prone on the floor, but using a foam roller will elevate you and help prevent your low back from kicking in.
A roller W-Y is a lift of your arms off the floor in a “W” position — activating your rotator cuff, traps, and rear delts — followed by a reach forward in to a “Y”.
Sixty-second timed sets work well here. You won’t build massive back thickness with these, but you’ll hit some neglected areas and improve your posture and overall shoulder performance.
3 – Roller RFESS
Rear-foot elevated split squats (RFESS) are a staple for building single-leg strength. Working on one leg at a time improves lower-body functional strength, with a considerable transfer to athletic performance. They’ll also help even out any asymmetries you might have.
Elevating your rear foot will take your back foot out of the equation. This in turn forces your front leg to work harder. It’s particularly useful when trying to load your lower body with little weight.
Split squat stands are starting to become an essential accessory in many strength and conditioning facilities. They allow you to hook your foot over the top, which is a better position than just placing your foot on top of a high bench. With your foot hooked over the top (as opposed to toes down on a bench) it’s more comfortable for most, and it limits rear foot involvement even further.
If you don’t have a split squat stand, all you need to do is place a foam roller on top of a bench or step. It’s also a little less stable than a stand, which makes it even tougher to use your back leg.
4 – Roller Hamstring Walk
These look a little weird, but there’s definitely a method in the madness. They’re a great bodyweight substitution for machine hamstring curls, and really challenge your hamstrings more than you’d expect.
By plantar-flexing your ankles (toes down) you’ll create an active insufficiency of your gastrocnemius, increasing the activation of your hamstrings.
Walk the foam roller up to the point just before you lose hamstring tension. Walk it back down as far as you can, getting as far out as you can with your toes pointed.
For a more advanced version you can even loop a band around your ankles to increase in tension as you walk the roller inward.
5 – Roller Hamstring Bridge
Your hamstrings and glutes are big powerful muscles – or at least they should be – so finding bodyweight exercises that challenge them is a hard task. Hamstring-dominant bridge variations are an obvious choice to work both muscles simultaneously. To make them even harder with your bodyweight you’ll also want to go single-leg.
Why not just do them on the floor? Well, first off, the small amount of elevation changes the angle which creates more hamstring activation. Second, the slight instability from the foam roller challenges your already challenged single-leg stability. Not to the point where you’ll look like a circus clown riding a unicycle, but just enough to increase the challenge to your hip and knee stabilizers.
6 – Roller Ab Walkout
There’s no denying the effectiveness of ab wheel rollouts. If you don’t have an ab wheel, or you just want a novel variation to mix it up, then try using a foam roller.
As you walk your hands out with the roller, the lower your torso goes the more your core will have to resist spinal extension and anterior pelvic tilt. As you walk back you can go into spinal flexion, while also fully exhaling and contracting your abs hard. Your upper body will get a good workout here, too. These also work with a medicine ball.
7 – Roller Abdominal Hold
One of the reasons a foam roller is so useful is that it can act as a pivot point for many exercises and drills. For example, laying on your back with it resting on your thoracic spine can act as a pivot point from which to get some spinal extension.
Lay on your back with the foam roller approximately under your sacrum. As long as it’s not directly in your lumbar curve, it’s fine. Now, reach your arms overhead to create a longer lever arm.
If this isometric hold is too hard, just keep your arms by your sides. Engage your entire mid-section to remain just off and parallel with the floor. If your whole body isn’t trembling by this point then you’re probably not doing it right.
8 – Roller Dead Bug
While rollouts and abdominal holds primarily work your core through anti-extension, dead bugs have more of an anti-rotational component to them. Some would consider these exercises a little more transferable to activities such as running and sprinting, or any athletic activity involving contralateral arm and leg movement.
There are heaps of dead bug variations, but one way you could progress them is to crush something between your opposing elbow and knee. A foam roller works great here, as would a light medicine ball or even a soccer ball.
This forces you to control your core and pelvis while creating a ton of tension in your abs. It also engages your lats further as you drive your elbow down, which makes it a more “complete” core exercise.
9 – Roller Mountain Climbers
Mountain climbers come in all shapes and sizes. You can hop and switch sides, you can march, you can use a suspension trainer and even some core sliders. But one thing you might not have thought of is what your arms are doing.
For some, elevating their arms just a little off the floor can be the difference between a great conditioning exercise and having to stop too soon because their shoulders gave out first.
A foam roller gives just enough elevation and it adds an element of instability and progression from the basic bodyweight versions. Some also find these more comfortable than the floor.
10 – Roller “Better” Burpee
No respected strength coach has ever programmed a burpee. They’re notoriously used by instructors as a filler exercise for when they’ve run out of ideas. Or they just hate you. Either way, the common burpee has many flaws.
Burpees are most commonly done by bending over from your lower back and creating a hinge from your lumbar region. It’s a good example of how to incorrectly pick up something from the floor, so doing endless jerky reps of it probably isn’t a good idea.
One simple change you could make is to jump forward into a wide squat. Your hands could be on the floor here if you don’t want them elevated with a roller. From here, you could either jump up, stand up, and squat down again, or stay in the squat and just reach over head.
Depending on how you program them, these’ll make you vomit too, if that’s your goal.
Seven Ways to Make These Even Harder
1 – Slow your tempo.
Instead of your standard one-second up, two-seconds down tempo, try slowing down both your lifting and lowering speed. For example, three up and three down, or one up and four down, and so on. This’ll create far more metabolic stress, especially when slowing down the concentric.
2 – Try descending ladders.
Do a superset of two exercises back to back, or pick an exercise that works one limb at a time and switch. Take push-ups and burpees for example: Do 10 reps of push-ups then 10 of burpees, then 9 and 9, then 8 and 8, and so on… without any rest. When you reach the last reps, you’ll feel sorry you ever started. Just one set will suffice.
3 – Throw in iso holds.
Add in a static hold either on each rep or at the end of each set. They’ll increase time under tension. And since you’re stronger in an isometric position, they’ll help tap into some extra capacity.
4 – Shorten your rest periods.
If you’re used to taking 60-120 second rest periods, try cutting that in half. Incomplete rest periods are a simple way to make your bodyweight exercises so much harder, regardless of how many reps you’re doing.
5 – Get smart with mechanical drop-sets (MDS).
It’s a form of drop-set where instead of dropping the resistance, you manipulate the exercise and leverage factors to extend the set. Do the hardest variation first, then an easier one, and then the easiest. For instance, try doing rear-foot elevated split squats, then dropping to split squats, followed by standard squats. You won’t be forgetting that set anytime soon!
6 – Increase range of motion.
It’s always important to stay within your active range of motion. But sometimes when you’re lifting heavier weights you forget how much more range of motion you actually have available. Consider that bodyweight exercises might afford you some extra range of motion, and maybe integrate a deficit with a box or two if it helps. For example, deficit split squats or ab walkouts off a step.
7 – Reverse your exercise order.
This is a simple but effective idea. You might typically start with your compound moves first then finish with some isolation exercises. Switch around your order to start with your isolation exercises. They’ll require less weight and they’ll pre-fatigue your compound exercises. For example, do some banded tricep pushdowns first, then finish with roller “triceps death” afterwards.
Bodyweight training can keep you healthy and your body fat in check. By employing slightly more intelligent strategies they can get you bigger, stronger, and leaner, too.