San Francisco has no shortage of places where you can find a butt-kicking boot camp or super-sweaty yoga sesh, but a growing number of studios are offering classes that shift the focus from building strong muscles to supporting them.
Foam rollers—you may have seen a few in the mat area of your gym or at a Pilates class—and massage therapy balls are having a moment, with a growing crop of classes dedicated to myofascial release, or targeting the connective tissue that runs beneath the skin and supports everything from your musculature to your nerves. Touted benefits range from better proprioception (understanding of your body in space) to a reduction in muscle soreness and chronic pain to increased relaxation and better sleep—plus a pretty killer self-massage to boot. And most classes give you the groundwork for bringing your practice home, with a few even selling the equipment on site. Ready to experience the benefits of foam rollers or massage balls?
Get to rolling at one of the following studios or gyms.
The class: Recharge
Time commitment: 1 hour
Best for: Accessing and expanding mobility post-workout.
Alkalign Studios may be best known for its barre classes, but it also offers myofascial release options at both of its South Bay locations, including combination classes that pair a low-impact HIIT with restorative stretching/ball work and an align express option that ends by focusing on releasing specific areas of the body. But if you’re seeking a class dedicated to addressing areas of tightness and imbalance, the 60-minute recharge class allows more time to focus on multiple areas for a holistic approach to full-body mobility—including the low back, glutes, shoulders, chest, and hip flexors, where many of us hold tension. The class uses massage therapy balls (as well as yoga blocks and a larger and softer Alkalign ball, sometimes against the wall or using the barre) to help increase your range of motion, release tension, and offset wear and tear. Socks are required—any will do, although the studio sells the grippy kind—and Alkalign is BYOB (bring your own balls), but you can rent a pair for $2 or purchase your own set from the studio. Spring for your own: This is definitely a practice you’ll want to carry home with you.
Try this at home: Roll out your foot with a tennis ball (although Alkalign suggests a massage therapy ball): With bare feet, place the ball under the ball of your foot (aka transverse arch). Spread your toes wide and roll the ball side to side from your big toe to your pinky toe (30-45 seconds), then roll the length of the bottom of the foot from your transverse arch to the heel (another 30-45 seconds). Finally, place the ball under your heel, stand on it, and gently scrub side to side like you’re juicing an orange for 30 seconds). Walk around on bare feet and compare the side you rolled to the one you didn’t, and be sure to switch sides.
// 3528 Alameda de las Pulgas (Menlo Park), 249 First St. (Los Altos), alkalignstudios.com
The class: The Release with Liz Letchford
Time commitment: 90 minutes
Best for: Complete toe-to-head release grounded in science.
Offered every other Sunday at the Assembly, The Release with Liz Letchford draws on its namesake instructor’s extensive anatomical knowledge and injury prevention background to target areas of deep-seated tension or muscles we tend to ignore during daily activities. In addition to helping you tap into and connect with your body, The Release addresses specific postural concerns, often tied to unexpected areas of tightness. Class begins and ends with a full-body check-in so you can do a survey of how you feel pre- and post-body work, beginning with the feet and working up the body. Expect to play with the mind-body connection (have you ever tried clenching all of your toes around a ball and then just releasing your big toe?), moving from standing to lying while using a foam roller and yoga tune-up balls solo, inside their pouch, or loose but paired together to target everything from your metatarsals to the back of the knees to shoulders to the tensor fasciae latae, a small hip abductor muscle that has a tendency to take over for the hip flexors. While the class currently covers the entire body—ending with a juicy self neck massage—Letchford hopes to expand The Release to include targeted hour-long explorations of, say, tight shoulders. You can order the massage therapy balls directly through Letchford, with one caveat—she asks that you share your practice (and its benefits) with someone else.
Try this at home: Roll your shoulders: Place the foam roller vertically between your shoulders and lay face up with your head still on the roller and relaxed. Breath deeply and allow your spine to relax. Then, slowly begin to make snow angels with your arms, massaging and releasing the area between your shoulder blades. You’ll also gain awareness of your shoulder mobility and notice differences in each side of the body.
// 449 14th St. (Mission), theassembly.com
Body Temp Hot Yoga Studio and Renew Movement Studio
The class: Head to Toe Rolling
Time commitment: 1 hour
Best for: Pinpointing new and personalized ways to release tightness and ease pain
No two Head to Toe “Better than Foam” Rolling classes at Body Temp are the same—and that’s a good thing. Frequently led by Chadd Schaefer at the yoga studio’s ground-level Renew Movement space dedicated to more restorative and foundational classes, the myofascial release classes utilize four different sizes of massage and therapy balls to relieve chronic pain and stress, improve performance, and help you discover “blind spots” within your own body. The evening classes are held in candlelight to encourage relaxation and help you unwind, and the sequence evolves organically depending on the requests of the class and how everyone reacts to each roll. Moves vary from wall work with the Yoga Tune Up balls to utilizing a combination of a block and balls for extra leverage on tender areas such as the inner thighs. Schaefer checks in throughout, making sure people find the right spots but more importantly, don’t revert to strained or “straw” breathing. You’ll leave with less stress, whether that means soreness from high-intensity workouts or “from working with some really big jerks at the office,” says Schaefer.
Try this at home: Roll your butt, which is often overused from too many high intensity workouts or underused from too much sitting. Simply take a ball and place it on a butt cheek, then lean against the wall so the ball is pressing its way into your glute max. Slowly roll the glute over the ball without rushing—or causing strained breathing—for at least 75 seconds. After, you can turn into the wall and roll out the side of your butt cheek (where the glute max wraps around and attaches into the side of the hip). Make sure to switch!
// 2425 and 2416 Chestnut St. (Marina), bodytempyoga.com
Maiden Lane Studios
The class: LifeStretch
Time commitment: 45 minutes
Best for: Enhanced fascial stretching for flexibility
Done without any specialized equipment or props, LifeStretch is a mobility-stretch class “designed to help you become more flexible in body, mind, and spirit.” Classes don’t rely on props, but instead utilize a movement concept called the “stretch wave” to move the body in an undulating, oscillating fashion with synchronized breathing. You’ll start in standing position, then head to the mat to transform the body through neuro-myofascia, or helping the brain learn movement patterns in multiple planes to improve posture and daily functioning. You’ll be rewarded with not only feeling and seeing a progressive increase in movement with ease, but you’ll also experience a sense of physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
// 80 Maiden Ln. (Union Square), maidenlanestudios.com
Remedy Barre + Foam Rolling
The class: Roll
Time commitment: 1 hr
Best for: Choose-your-own-adventure rolling in an environment that allows for deep relaxation.
Remedy not only puts foam rolling front and center in its name, but also in its class lineup, with multiple one-hour roll-only classes throughout the week, combination barre classes that spend half or a third of the class on rolling, and even a 10-minute foam-focused cool down during the traditional barre classes. There’s an abundance of foam rollers with varying levels of firmness, and even the studio’s flooring feels ultra-cushy and supportive while you’re moving your body through each release and roll. The Roll classes focus on full-body rolling, with cues to consider switching rollers when you get to particularly tender or tight spots such as the IT band,, whereas the combo classes tend to focus on one specific area of the body.
Try this at home: Roll out your forearms: Starting from tabletop position on your hands and knees with the roller in front of you, move the weight to one hand and place the forearm of the other arm, palm side up, on the roller. Roll up and down the forearm. To intensify the stretch, move the weight into your heels and cross the opposite arm perpendicularly over the one you’re rolling to put more pressure on the muscle and fascia. Switch arms.
// 4810 Telegraph Ave. (Oakland), remedybarre.com
The class: Remedy Roll
Time commitment: 1 hour
Best for: Hurts so good roll-outs in a super-quick session.
The foam rolling classes at this San Francisco super gym are a full-body experience, but their subtle activations and yoga vibes make for a relaxing, yet restoring stretch. What remains consistent is instruction, well-versed in anatomy and deep penetration of the muscle, courtesy of spiky rollers designed for seriously attacking any adhesions or knots. (Don’t worry: You can swap back to the more forgiving standard roller if things are feeling too tender.) You’ll loosen things up while treating day-to-day stiffness, plus increase circulation, heighten neurological function, and enhance performance both in and out of the gym. Use a foam roller to seek and destroy tender areas or trigger points during this self paced roll-out, which will leave you with the skills and personal variations you need to continue your rolling practice at home or before and after workouts.
Try this at home: Wake up you feet: No ball? No problem. A simple way to bring some life to your tootsies is gently “hammering” and rolling your feet with a hand weight. Choose a 2- or 3-pound dumbbbell, and use one end to tap the soles of our feet and wake up the nerves. Then, use the end of the dumbbell roll the tops of your feet to fire up your receptors.
// 1000 Van Ness Ave. (Tenderloin), studiomix.com
The class: Yustretch
Time commitment: 50 minutes
Best for: Personalizing your rolling to hit the spots that need the most love.
This Mission gym—which designs its classes with the busy professional in mind—throws a once-a-week foam-rolling class into its fitness lineup (a weekend class is in the works), with moves specifically designed for people working at computers or in an office environment. Using a foam roller, lacrosse ball, and mat, YuStretch relieves back, neck, shoulder, hip, and wrist pain with dynamic stretching, foam rolling, and trigger point therapy techniques. Classes may start with some simple wrist stretches and heart-opening yoga poses, then spend significant time rolling out forearms, delts, and the chest to improve posture and mobility, especially for desk warriors. The class structure allows for plenty of personalization, with the freedom to tweak the position of the roller for the best pressure or spend a little extra time on sensitive areas.
Try this at home: Stretch out your medial nerve: A must for anyone on their phone or computer a ton (sound familiar?), access the nerve that runs from behind the ear down the arm to the fingertips by extending your arm out directly to side, perpendicular to the body, with fingers pointing up and palms facing outward. Turn your head to look at the middle finger of the hand, and while keeping the gaze, move your head in the opposite direction of the hand, concentrating on keeping the fingers pointing up. You should feel the nerves firing up. Repeat on the other arm.
// 3026 24th St. (Mission), yubalance.com