First off, if you don’t have a foam roller, go buy one. If you have one but don’t use it, start today. I believe everyone can benefit from self myofascial release (SMR), and foam rolling is the easiest and cheapest way of getting it done. The benefits are remarkable and can be noticed in a relatively short time (just about a week or two of daily use):
1. Decreased pain
2. Increased joint mobility
3. Increased flexibility
4. Improved circulatory functioning
SMR achieves this by doing two things – relaxing overactive muscles and breaking up muscle adhesions. When a muscle is under constant stress, trigger points typically develop, hot spots of a muscle with increased pain, discomfort, and sensitivity to pressure. There are a lot of ideas as to why these happen (instead of the entire muscle being in a compromised state), but what’s more important is how to fix them. SMR helps the body recognize this tension, relax the muscle, and release the trigger point, helping the muscle return to its natural state. A foam roller works well for this, but I prefer to use something with a smaller contact area, such as (in ascending order of intensity) a medicine ball, tennis ball, soft core baseball, or lacrosse ball. After relaxing the trigger point, stretches or exercises should be done to restore balance in the muscle to prevent the trigger point from coming back.
The second way SMR helps the body is by breaking up adhesions and scar tissue that develop within the muscles. Adhesions can increase intramuscular friction, decrease flexibility, and limit the range of motion through a joint. This is where the foam roller is king. Foam rolling along a tight muscle, covering as much of the muscle belly as you can without directly rolling on top of bone, can help break up these adhesions and allow the muscle to function more efficiently. There are different densities of foam rollers available, starting soft for beginners and increasing with experience. In order, these are white foam, EVA foam, black high density foam, and, for the brave, a 4” PVC pipe. My personal preference is the high density rollers, you can find one here from Perform Better, but they can be found almost anywhere. 3’ is most common and easiest to manage when you constantly change positions.
I recommend going through a full body SMR session, giving more attention to sensitive areas. I typically roll out my rhomboids, lats, and pecs for the upper body, then move on to the glutes, TFL, hamstrings, quads, and IT band in the thighs, as well as calves and tibialis anterior. The IT band is most likely going to be the most painful, especially when first starting out. Start small, short rolls starting at the hip and working your way towards the knee until you’ve covered the whole tissue. After rolling everything out, I go back with a tennis ball and work out any trigger points I found during rolling, usually in my rhomboids, external rotators of the hips – gluteus minimus, medius, and piriformis – and the TFL (less of a trigger point, but rather a deeper stretch). Again, this doesn’t require a big time commitment – a few rolls on each muscle group, spending extra time on noticeably tight areas and trigger points.
If you have fifteen minutes to spare, then use it on some SMR and you’ll notice remarkable improvements in comfort and performance. Anterior shoulder pain? Roll out the lats/rhomboids/pecs and follow it up with some scapular retraction exercises to regain stability in the glenohumeral joint. Lower back pain? Roll out the hamstrings and IT band, then attack any trigger points found in the glutes, followed by stretching the hamstrings and hips to maintain the flexibility gains, taking stress off the lower back. This can go on and on with nearly any form of mild muscle imbalance and nagging pain. It’s a small commitment that should be made by athletes, coaches, and anyone else looking to improve their workouts and decrease nagging pain.
If you have any questions or would like additional information regarding self myofascial release, feel free to email me at DrewBHenley@gmail.com. If I can ever be of assistance, please don’t hesitate to contact me.
All the best,
Drew Henley, CSCS, USAW