What is foam rolling?
Foam rolling, also known as self-myofascial release (SMR), is a self-massage technique that uses your own bodyweight and a simple piece of foam to help release muscle restrictions and improve soft tissue pliability. Foam rollers can be purchased for less than $20 and are an effective way to improve your mobility and fitness performance.
What are the benefits of foam rolling?*
- Corrects muscle imbalances
- Improves joint range of motion
- Relieves muscle soreness and joint stress
- Maintains normal functional muscular length
- Improves neuromuscular efficiency
How do you know if you need foam rolling?
First and foremost, it’s important to understand what it is we are massaging with the foam roller. Fascia is connective tissue fibers, composed primarily of collagen, that form a whole body, 3-D matrix (much like a spider web) beneath the skin. It provides structural support to our muscles and internal organs, and gives us the ability to move freely and through the full range of motion of our joints.
When I think about foam rolling, I like to think about it like brushing your hair. Most know what happens to your hair when you don’t brush it. It gets crazy and knotted, and if you have a gnarly knot, it’s not only restricting free movement of the hair that’s entangled, but it’s hard to do anything with the rest of the hair too. The same goes for your fascia. When there’s an adhesion in your fascia restricting full range of motion, this will affect not only the local area but how the whole body works globally.
Dysfunctional areas of fascia are typically referred to as knots, scar tissue, trigger points, adhesions, or by my own description, “gnarly bits.” These are a result of a misalignment of tissue, typically due to trauma or injury, poor movement patterns and posture, and sometimes even emotional distress.
This dysfunction can present in a variety of ways, including making your knees feel achy when you squat, maybe you aren’t able get into pigeon pose in yoga class, or you can’t fully extend your arms overhead without arching your back. Interestingly, many of us are “comfortable being uncomfortable” in positions that are less than optimal, chalking up any pain or lack of range of motion to “I’ll just always be tight, it’s the way my body is…. I just squat through the pain.” This inner dialogue isn’t necessarily true, and foam rolling can help make you feel less uncomfortable in certain positions.
One example I want to highlight is squatting and how ankle mobility can affect this movement. If your legs are habitually tight, this can restrict your ankle mobility. Many things contribute to this from footwear to a sedentary lifestyle. This may seem all fine and well, but poor ankle mobility can lead to a variety of compensations in a squat pattern, like your feet externally rotating, knees caving inward, an excessive forward lean, and/or heels lifting off the ground. I’m sure you can imagine that any of these compensations can lead to pain or injury, especially when squatting heavy weights. Also, not to mention that an inefficient movement pattern will leave all kinds of strength gains on the table.
As you can see, I can’t stress enough how imperative it is to address any imbalances you may have in your body through corrective exercises and foam rolling. If one part of the body isn’t moving optimally, other areas are forced to compensate creating poor movement patterns which can result in fatigue and worst case, injury. The concept of the cumulative injury cycle is best illustrated using the image below.
Also, when there is muscle tightness or adhesions, the range of motion of certain joints can be affected, which in turn changes the normal neural feedback to the central nervous system. As a result, neuromuscular efficiency degrades and so does the quality of the movement pattern, which as mentioned above, can lead to unnecessary fatigue and injury. The goal of foam rolling is to release these tissues to create a physical change that will improve the efficiency of your movement along with decreasing the likelihood of injury.
One great way I help my client’s understand the concept of foam rolling is a simple and elegant test and retest. First, I have them reach down and try to touch their toes, a simple hamstring flexibility assessment. Then, I have them roll the bottom of their feet with a lacrosse ball or a barbell for about a minute per side. Then we retest their hamstrings’ flexibility. This fun little trainer trick is calling into action what Thomas Myers has termed the “superficial back line,” which starts in the plantar fascia and goes all the way up to the scalp. When rolling out the feet, or plantar fascia, we are able to improve the way your body is moving up the posterior kinetic chain.
This also demonstrates that there is no such thing as working in isolation. Like I mentioned before, tightness and adhesions in one local area like the right hip can cause issues throughout the entire body. We may learn anatomy, and specifically muscles in this way; however, recent research has proved the perspective that muscles work in isolation may be inaccurate. More recent studies state that our body is a set of complex systems that are all interconnected, and should be treated as such.
What should I foam roll?
Without seeing you and assessing you, the answer is I don’t know! I don’t believe in stretching areas that don’t need it. I will say that the two areas I program for foam rolling the most frequently in my client’s programs are the latissimus dorsi and the glute medius and minimus.
The latissimus dorsi are strong muscles that are involved in or responsible for multiple movements of the body including extension, adduction, and internal rotation of the humerus. The lats also assist in extension and lateral flexion of the lumbar spine as well as provide dynamic stabilization through the hips and shoulder blades. It’s incredibly common for people with poor posture to round their shoulders forward and internally rotate their hands. This causes the lats to become overactive and short, which in turn limits the ability to achieve proper range of motion overhead, thus increasing the chances of a shoulder impingement.
Let’s do a quick shoulder mobility assessment on Jenni. I had her come to the floor on her back with her feet flat on the floor. Performing this assessment on the floor minimizes her ability to compensate with her pelvis by putting it in a neutral position. From here, I asked her to extend her arms overhead because I wanted to see how close her hands could get to the ground while keeping her lumbar spine neutral. The optimal range of motion is to be able to achieve between 160-180 degrees of shoulder flexion.
Looking at the below picture, Jenni has tight shoulders and is more limited on her right side than her left side. Jenni can benefit from spending some time rolling her lats, posterior deltoid, and pec muscles. For most with tight shoulders, these areas are usually a few good places to start with to help improve the range of motion in the shoulder.
To help “unstick” the lats, we’ll start out by foam rolling for 1-2 minutes at the beginning of a workout. To setup, start by sitting on the ground with feet flat on the floor and place the foam roller at the mid back. Put your hands to the crown of your head and rotate to one side. Next, roll slowly up and down your lat. Take your time here and maintain deep, belly breathing. Once you’ve spent about 30 seconds here, find a tender spot (you’ll know it when you find it), maintain compression on the spot, and with your palm facing up, perform slow arm sweeps, reaching your arm completely overhead. The trick here it to maintain your breathing here. It’s important to note that there is a “hurts so good” sensation you will probably experience. Some sensation is good, but if foam rolling is taking your breath away due to it being painful, decrease the amount of pressure by applying less bodyweight and/or by switching to a less dense foam roller.
To foam roll the glues, you should start by sitting on the foam roller with your feet flat on the floor, knees bent, and hands on floor behind you. Now, cross your left ankle over your right knee and rotate your bodyweight onto your left glute. Then, roll forward and backward on the roller spanning different angles while focusing on any trigger points you may find. When you find a trigger point, make sure to perform 5 deep breaths on that spot before moving on. You should spend about a minute on the left side and then do the same thing on your right.
When should I foam roll?
Pick 1-3 areas that are tight and spend a few minutes rolling before you warm up for a workout. Like anything else worthwhile, foam rolling is most effective when done consistently. Restrictions and adhesions can take a long time to be unraveled, so be diligent and patient with the process. The best way to know whether or not your self-treatment program is working is with a simple test and re-test. Before foam rolling, perform a movement and take note of how it feels. Then perform the same movement after foam rolling and make a comparison to see if there is any change. Ask yourself is there a reduction in pain? Increased range of motion? Does it feel easier or smoother in motion?
If you want to learn more about foam rolling techniques and how to integrate it into your own fitness program, contact Jo at firstname.lastname@example.org. Jo is a certified personal trainer with over 7 years of personal training experience and she can go through several movement assessments to create a program that is geared specifically to your needs and goals.
*Please note that there are certain conditions that should be done under the supervision of a medical professional:
- Anticoagulant therapy
- High blood pressure
- Varicose veins
By Jo Irland-Cormier, CPT, CF-L1