Feel Better for 10 Bucks
Self-myofascial release: no doctor required!
by Eric Cressey and Mike Robertson
Ten bucks doesn't buy much nowadays. You could pick up a day pass at some commercial gym, or pull off the co-pay on a visit to the chiropractor. If you're lucky, you might even be able to swing a mediocre Russian mail order bride.
Or, you could just go the safe route with your $10, take our advice, and receive a lifetime of relief from the annoying tightness so many athletes and weekend warriors feel from incessantly beating on their bodies. Don't worry, this isn't an infomercial. We just want you to pick up a foam roller for self-myofascial release and deep tissue massage.
How does it work?
Self-myofascial release (SMR) on a foam roller is possible thanks to the principle known as autogenic inhibition. You've likely heard of the Golgi Tendon Organ (GTO) at some point in your training career. The GTO is a mechanoreceptor found at the muscle-tendon junction; it's highly sensitive to changes in tension in the muscle.
When tension increases to the point of high risk of injury (i.e. tendon rupture), the GTO stimulates muscle spindles to relax the muscle in question. This reflex relaxation is autogenic inhibition. The GTO isn't only useful in protecting us from injuries, but it also plays a role in making proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretching techniques highly effective.
The muscle contraction that precedes the passive stretch stimulates the GTO, which in turn causes relaxation that facilitates this passive stretch and allows for greater range of motion. With foam rolling, you can simulate this muscle tension, thus causing the GTO to relax the muscle. Essentially, you get many of the benefits of stretching and then some.
It's also fairly well accepted that muscles need to not only be strong, but pliable as well. Regardless of whether you're a bodybuilder, strength athlete, or ordinary weekend warrior, it's important to have strength and optimal function through a full range of motion. While stretching will improve the length of the muscle, SMR and massage work to adjust the tone of the muscle. Performing one while ignoring the other is like reading T-Nation but never actually lifting weights to put the info to good use.
What's SMR good for?
Traditional stretching techniques simply cause transient increases in muscle length (assuming that we don't exceed the "point of no return" on the stress-strain curve, which will lead to unwanted deformities). SMR on the foam roller, on the other hand, offers these benefits and breakdown of soft tissue adhesions and scar tissue.
One mustn't look any further than the overwhelmingly positive results numerous individuals have had with Active Release Techniques (ART) to recognize the value of eliminating adhesions and scar tissue. Unfortunately, from both a financial and convenience standpoint, we can't all expect to get ART done on a frequent basis.
SMR on the foam roller offers an effective, inexpensive, and convenient way to both reduce adhesion and scar tissue accumulation and eliminate what's already present on a daily basis. Just note that like stretching, foam rolling doesn't yield marked improvements overnight; you'll need to be diligent and stick with it (although you'll definitely notice acute benefits).
Those of you who have been following our Neanderthal No More series will definitely be interested in the valuable role foam rollers can play in correcting postural afflictions. Get to work on those tight muscles and you'll definitely see appreciable returns on your efforts!
So let's get started!
What you need to get:
1) 6" foam roller (either the 1' long or 3' long version)
2) Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" CD
3) A leopard-skin thong
4) Two quarts of baby oil to lube yourself up
Note: If you thought we were really serious on numbers two through four, you need to get your mind out of the gutter and find a new favorite website!
These techniques are actually very simple to learn. Basically, you just use your body weight to sandwich the roller between the soft tissue to be released and the floor. Roll at a slow pace and actually stop and bear down on the most tender spots ("hot spots"). Once the pain in these spots diminishes, roll the other areas.
In order to increase the pressure on the soft tissue, simply apply more of your body weight to the roller. The simplest way to do this is by either moving from working both legs at once to one leg, or by "stacking" one of your legs on top of the other to increase the tension.
As you get more comfortable with SMR, you'll really want to be bearing down on the roller with most (if not all) of your body weight. As with almost anything in the training world, there's considerable room for experimentation, so you'll definitely want to play around with the roller to see what works best for you. Be careful to avoid bony prominences, though. (Insert your own joke here.)
One other technique weve found to be beneficial is to work from the proximal (nearest the center of the body) to the distal (away from the center of the body) attachment of the muscle. For instance, instead of working your quadriceps from top to bottom all in one shot, shorten your stroke a little bit. Work the top half first, and after it has loosened up, move on to the bottom half.
This is an important strategy because as you get closer to the distal muscle-tendon junction, there's a concomitant increase in tension. By working the top half first, you decrease the ensuing tension at the bottom, essentially taking care of the problem in advance.
Note: Those with circulatory problems and chronic pain diseases (e.g. fibromyalgia) should NOT use foam rollers.
Demonstrations and Descriptions
Hamstrings: You'll want to try these with the feet turned in, out, and pointing straight ahead to completely work the entire hamstring complex. Balance on your hands with your hamstrings resting on the roller, then roll from the base of the glutes to the knee. To increase loading, you can stack one leg on top of the other.
Hip Flexors: Balance on your forearms with the top of one thigh on the roller. Roll from the upper thigh into the hip. Try this with the femur both internally and externally rotated. To do so, just shift the position of the contralateral pelvis. (In the photo, Mike would want to lift his right hip to externally rotate the left femur).
Tensor Fascia Latae and Iliotibial Band: These are a little tricky, so we've included pictures from two different angles. Without a doubt, this one will be the most painful for most of you.
In the starting position, you'll be lying on your side with the roller positioned just below your pelvis. From here, you'll want to roll all the way down the lateral aspect of your thigh until you reach the knee. Stack the opposite leg on top to increase loading.
Adductors: Balance on your forearms with the top of one of your inner thighs resting on the roller. From this position, roll all the way down to the adductor tubercle (just above the medial aspect of the knee) to get the distal attachments. You'll even get a little vastus medialis work in while you're there. Watch out for your twig and berries on this one, though!
Quadriceps: This one is quite similar to the hip flexor version; you're just rolling further down on the thigh. You can perform this roll with either one or two legs on the roller.
Gluteus Medius and Piriformis: Lie on your side with the "meaty" part of your lateral glutes (just posterior to the head of the femur) resting on the roller. Balance on one elbow with the same side leg on the ground and roll that lateral aspect of your glutes from top to bottom.
Gluteus Maximus: Set up like you're going to roll your hamstrings, but sit on the roller instead. Roll your rump. Enough said.
Calves: This, too, is similar in positioning to the hamstrings roll; you're just rolling knee to ankle. Try this with the toes up (dorsiflexion) and down (plantarflexion). Stack one leg on top of the other to increase loading.
Tibialis Anterior: This is just like the quad roll, but you're working on your shins instead.
Peroneals: This one is similar to the TFL/ITB roll; we're just working on the lower leg now. Roll along the lateral aspect of the lower leg from the knee to the ankle.
Thoracolumbar Fascia: With your arms folded across your chest, lie supine with the roller positioned under your midback. Elevate the glutes and roll from the base of the scapulae to the top of the pelvis. You'll want to emphasize one side at a time with a slight lean to one side.
Thoracic Extensors, Middle and Lower Trapezius, Rhomboids: With your arms behind your head (not pulling on the neck), lie supine with roller positioned in the middle of your back; your glutes should be on the ground. Roll upward, reversing direction when you reach the level of the armpits. This is an excellent intervention for correcting kyphosis.
Latissimus Dorsi and Teres Major: Lie on your side with the same side arm overhead. The roller should be positioned at the attachment of the lat on the scapula in the starting position. You'll want to roll toward the attachment on the humerus (roll toward the armpit).
Triceps: Start with your body in the same position as you would for the latissimus dorsi. Now, however, you'll want to place the roller at the top of your triceps (near your armpit) and your noggin on top of your arm to increase the tension (and no, you dont have to be that geeky kid from Jerry Maguire to know the human head weighs 8 pounds!)
Pectoralis Major and Anterior Deltoid: Lie prone with the roller positioned at an angle slightly to one side of the sternum; the arm on this side should be abducted to about 135° (halfway between completely overhead and where it would be at the completion of a lateral raise). Roll toward the humeral head (toward the armpit).
Hopefully, this article has been proof enough that SMR on the foam roller is an excellent adjunct to your training, diet, supplementation, and restoration efforts. And, even if it isn't, we're only talking about ten bucks here, people! For crying out loud, just look under the couch cushions for change and you're halfway there!
Where do you buy one? Try Perform Better:
Pick one up and give it a shot. Your body will thank you for years to come!
About the Authors
Eric Cressey, BS, CSCS is currently pursuing a Master's Degree in Kinesiology with a concentration in Exercise Science at the University of Connecticut. He graduated from the University of New England with a double major in Exercise Science and Sports and Fitness Management. Eric has experience in athletic performance, rehabilitation, and general conditioning settings. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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