Foam rolling, also known as self-myofascial release (SMR), is based on a hands-on technique therapists have been using for years. To achieve this release, a therapist would apply a low load, long duration dragging force across layers of soft tissue. After a period of time (between 90–120 sec. in most cases), through different mechanisms in the body, the body will release the tissue and mobility between those sliding surfaces will be restored. To make these changes on oneself, a foam roller can be used in place of a therapist’s hands. While the foam roller will never completely replace a therapist, it serves as a great daily alternative to help maintain the changes therapy has made.
The key to replicating this is to have a program—more than simply rolling over the top of the skin. When many people roll they lie on the roller and do just that, roll. As the body moves across the roller, blood flow can increase and may have an influence on some microscopic fibers between the muscles, skin and other tissue. This is a great way to either prepare the body for movement or to help the body recover. However, there is a better way to get the body moving the way it was designed to.
Why don’t people move well?
This is an interesting question that’s not easily answered. Different theories include the sedentary culture we’ve created, computers, cell phones, stress, nutrition, dehydration, restrictive clothing, even air pollution—it could be a combination of all of these. The human body has 206 bones, more than 300 joints and approximately 650 muscles. This means the body is made to move. The capacity of human movement can be seen in dancers, gymnasts, and many other athletic feats that appear to defy normal limits. This is not to say that everyone can or should be able to move like a gymnast, but most people can move more than they think.
As stated, the body is made to move. In fact, when we don’t move the body has a very fitting response—it adapts to what we ask it to do the most. This is one of the principles of specificity, known as Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands (SAID). It is true for either a specific movement (i.e., the more one squats the better he gets at squatting), or for a lack of movement (i.e., the more one sits, the better he gets at sitting). In both cases the body is trying to be the best it can be for the dominant task. These small changes can become actual structural alterations over time.
The body’s ability to have a cellular adaptation to mechanical pressure is known as mechanotransduction. This basically means that if someone is sitting all day, every day, week after week, the areas that are compressed will actually grow little fibers around them, similar to scar tissue.
The alarming issue is not from one night, day or week, but from months or years of these patterns. Consider the typical day of the average client:
7:00 a.m.—wake up (was sleeping in the fetal position)
7:02 a.m.—get coffee
7:20 a.m.—sit to eat breakfast
8:00 a.m.—sit to drive to work (average U.S. commute is 60 minutes)
If someone is sitting all day, every day, week after week, the areas that are compressed will actually grow little fibers around them, similar to scar tissue. The areas notorious for this are the hip flexors, hamstrings and glutes. Oftentimes, someone may feel stiff after sitting for several hours or even after a full night’s sleep. This feeling is from the fibers that have been laid down due to inactivity, but just a few minutes of movement helps to “melt” these little fibers away.
9:00 a.m.—sit at work
12:00 p.m.—sit to eat lunch
1:00 p.m.—sit at work
5:00 p.m.—sit to drive home
7:00 p.m.—sit to eat dinner
8:00 p.m.—sit to watch The Bachelor
11:00 p.m.—go to sleep (in fetal position)
See the recurring pattern? We sit more than anything else.
When the person who lives the sedentary life decides he is going to begin moving (i.e., walking, jogging, group exercise, etc.), the years of living in the exact same pattern do not allow movement outside of that pattern. Thus, a workout program that is forcing extra range of motion is likely to result in injury.
How can I tell if someone in my group has these restrictions?
Noticing these less-than-optimal movement patterns is relatively easy. First, understand what normal looks like. The goal is not for everyone to be perfect, but to quickly measure the group against an evidence-based standard that is proven to help reduce the chance of injury—the overhead squat assessment. Optimal movement begins with the feet relatively straight ahead, the knees in line with the second or third toe, hips neutral and arms extended overhead without any other part of the body compensating.
If someone deviates from this ideal normal, it means there is an opportunity to improve her movement. The following are some of the most common examples of how someone with restrictions will move.
Feet should remain straight. If they turn out, there are likely mobility problems in the calves. The knees should stay in line with the second and third toe. If they deviate by caving in, there may be mobility problems in the inner thighs.
The pelvis should stay neutral. If it deviates by dipping forward, then there is a likelihood the hip flexors are restricted. If performing an overhead squat, the arms should be straight above the head. If they are dropping forward then upper back muscles are likely restricted.
Program Foam Rolling Into a Group Session
If and when you notice members moving in one of the ways illustrated above, it is a great opportunity to offer solutions. Foam rolling is a quick, simple and effective mobility work method that can be integrated before and after a session, and typically takes less than five minutes.
Addressing these four commonly restricted areas will make a difference in the group’s ability to move, serving as a great warm-up.
Feet Turn Out
If the feet turn out during the overhead squat, suggest rolling the calves.
Knees Cave In
If the knees cave in, suggest rolling the adductors.
Pelvis dips forward
If the pelvis dips forward, suggest rolling the hip flexors.
If the arms fall forward, suggest rolling the upper back.
Begin by identifying the area to be rolled. Then, apply body weight compression onto the roller. Roll through the muscle slowly, about an inch per second, until a tender spot is found. The spot can be something rated as a 6 to 8 on a pain scale of 1 to 10 (10 being most painful). Once found, hold pressure on the tender spot for 20 to 30 seconds or until the tenderness begins to reduce, then move to the next spot. It is recommended to identify up to two spots in each muscle group. Rolling can be repeated daily and followed with static stretching to help maximize the results. AF
Bio: Kyle Stull is the senior master trainer for TriggerPoint Performance Therapy, a master instructor for NASM and for Equinox Fitness Clubs, and an international presenter. He has taught different aspects of personal training and corrective exercise for more than five years. Kyle has a master’s degree in rehabilitative science, a bachelor’s in sports management, and is a Licensed Massage Therapist.
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