By now, you’ve probably seen those styrofoam cylinder contraptions around the stretching area of your local gym. Sometimes they are short. Some of them are long. They come in a variety of colors, densities, textures and temperatures. Some of them even vibrate.
Every once in a while, you may even see someone lying on one of them and rolling around with a look of both agony and relief. You’re probably thinking: Why would someone put themselves through that pain? What are they doing? What’s the benefit of it? Will it get rid of cellulite?
What they are doing is technically called self-myofascial release. It’s also known as foam rolling. And it’s a great way to loosen up your muscles (and fascia), increase blood flow in your muscles (and fascia) and restore muscles (and fascia) to optimal length. Fascia is the tissue that binds our muscles together and helps those muscles transmit force.
If this sounds similar to the benefits of a massage, that’s because foam-rolling and massage are very similar.
While nothing beats the hands (and elbows, feet and knees) of a well-trained, knowledgeable massage therapist, most of us can’t afford to have one work on us every day. Yet we walk around with our muscles in a constantly tense and shortened state.
Tense, short muscles can be the result of a lot of different things. It can be from poor posture that forces the muscles in your upper back to work harder to hold your shoulders up. It can be from joining that running club after not having run in years and overworking muscles that weren’t ready. Or it can be from pushing it a little more than usual in the weight room.
Muscular stress can lead to micro-trauma within your muscles. Normally, within reasonable ranges, this is a good thing. Stress leads to adaptation, what most call getting stronger. But if that stress is repetitive, and we do not do the right things to allow the body to heal and recover adequately, then micro-trauma can turn into “adhesions” within the muscles and fascia.
The best way to think of adhesions is like scars that you might have on your skin from surgery or a really bad cut. The tissue of the skin in and around a scar is different than the rest of your skin. It’s usually a little harder and does not stretch as well.
While this just looks gnarly when it’s on your skin, it can be a major problem when it exists in a part of your body that needs to stretch in order to function well.
When muscles can’t stretch well, they don’t produce as much force. Also, healthy, pliable muscles act as shock absorbers for our joints. But stiff, short muscles are like bad shocks on your car. Your joints or tendons will start to feel the stress of even everyday movements.
How to Roll
– Try to put as much of your body weight on the roller as you can tolerate.
– Relax. Resist the urge of your muscles to tighten up against the pressure of the roller. If you cannot relax, then you should be using a softer roller.
– Roll along the entire length of the muscle, but DO NOT roll over your joints.
– Spend a little more time rolling the areas that are particularly sore or tight.
The easiest (and probably the most beneficial) muscle groups to start foam rolling are your glutes, quadriceps, and upper back.
Lean back and place your right hand on the ground behind you. Now, starting with the roller where the back of your thigh and your butt meet, roll forward and lean back slightly at the same time. The roller should roll up toward your lower back. Stop just before you get to your lower back, then reverse directions. Your glutes are a dense, large muscle group, so you may need to roll more to the inside or outside of the muscle to find where you have the most tightness.