Without trying, we put our body to the test every day. We lift heavy things, sometimes with incredibly poor posture. We hunch over computers at work, sit in the car for hours during our commutes, and spend plenty of time hover over our smartphones. After a while, the body starts adapting to these new “normal” conditions, even if they’re not the greatest. According to CNN, the negative effects of sitting are slowly killing you, even if you're a person who exercises regularly!
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Basically, our bodies take a pretty intense beating.
You may have heard of “foam rolling” or even “self-myofascial release” before, and that they’re great ways to help repair your body. It may sound complicated, but foam rolling and self-myofascial release don’t have to be such a mystery. This guide will take you through everything you need (and didn’t know you want) to know.
Who Is Foam Rolling For?
As an athlete you might be thinking to yourself, “I’ve been pushing my body hard. I’m sore. I feel good. I want to workout more frequently and push harder during my workouts. But there is this voice in the back of my mind that places doubt or uncertainty – questioning if my body can handle more. Am I recovering fully, am I flexible enough, mobile enough? I don’t want to get injured. Can my body handle the workload safely and am I recovering? Am I doing enough to prevent injuries and simultaneously allowing for my athletic potential to be met?”
Perhaps you wouldn’t call yourself an athlete, maybe the gym is not for you, but you are physically active for work; construction, law enforcement, military, US Post Office etc. Or on the other end of the spectrum, your work requires to be sedentary, at a desk 9:00am-5:00pm, 5 days a week, not including the work you take home, travel time, etc. Or maybe you are post surgery or have sustained injuries over your life. Whatever the case may be, there is a remedy to help alleviate pain, stiffness, tightness, and get you feeling like YOU again.
In my experience, the best way to avoid injury and continue to stay on top of the game is to ensure a proper warm up and a long, relaxed cool down. But what does that mean? What kind of warm up? Is there a one size fits all? And what kind of cool down? The best answer; it depends on the individual and life demands of you.
Stretching is a great tool to help keep the body, flexible, limber, and resilient but the questions may arise – is there more to recovery than just stretching? Should I stretch before I am active? What about after?” “What about the knots in my muscles that seem to remain even after a good stretch?” It always struck me as such a surprise, the more I wanted to take care of my body, the more I would find out there are so many ways to do it. This become sort of a sick joke, the more answers I received the more questions I had have. So much so that I kept falling into the rabbit hole, “Which recovery tool was best? What stretch works the best? How long, how much, who should I listen to, what about my body type, my sport, work, on and on and on.”
I had to find a way to simplify things.
This lead me to discover the difference between flexibility and mobility. Flexibility, simply stated, is the ability of a muscle to contract, relax, and lengthen. Mobility, on the other hand, is the ability of a joint to pass through a range of motion uninhibited.
Is it possible to be flexible but immobile? Absolutely.
And the reverse? Mobile but not flexible? Certainly.
However when a person takes time to challenge and train both domains, we start to develop a very healthy, well-oiled human being.
“How does a person create flexibility and mobility? How do I get more stretch/allow my joints to move more freely?”
The answer: Foam Rolling
What is foam rolling?
Foam rolling is a fairly common practice. When done correctly, it allows the body to recover more efficiently. Foam rolling helps the body relax, rebalance, and reprogram to a healthy, calm, and balanced state. Foam rolling consists of three principles: Compression, motion and activation.
- Compression comes from your body weight on the apparatus – aka the foam roller.
- Motion is created by the user by either traveling up and down or side to side on the roller.
- Activation occurs when the user decides to articulate a joint or flexes a muscle that is currently being targeted with the foam roller.
When a foam roller is used on the body, following these three principles, we start to see the body change and respond positively. The targeted area will start to relax after ample time, and soon after, the person starts to move around more fluidly, efficiently, and easily. This works especially well for joints.
When we foam roll an area of tight, bound up muscle, we see the tissue surrounding the joint relax. This will then allow the joint to demonstrate a smoother and fuller range of motion. It may also lead to less pain, less tension, and less stress on the body. By targeting the surrounding areas of muscle tissue, the joint can find itself back in “normal” position, denying dysfunctions and poor compensational mechanics.
I’ll be the first to say that foam rolling is simple, but it isn’t easy. Much like a massage, you are going to be feeling a lot of sensations. Your body is going to be talking to you… LOUDLY, but you are able to regulate, listen, and adapt as you see fit. A good rule of thumb when foam rolling is this: if it feels bad or wrong, it is bad or wrong.
Why Foam Roll?
We ask a lot of our bodies, inside the gym, out on the track, work, play, and so much more. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that our bodies will start to get a little tight. Our bodies will also start developing patterns to help us accomplish and overcome these activities and goals.
However, for every action, there is a reaction and it is up to us (the user of our bodies) to do our best to perform maintenance, check-ups, and care for our physical selves. Whether we workout or just live, life demands a great deal from us physically. Believe it or not we are in a constant relationship with gravity and because of this “forced relationship” (get it?), our bodies will start to combat certain activities by developing certain muscle groups to better aid in our success.
For example, looking at a computer screen 8 hours a day may not be very healthy, our body will compensate to allow us to hold that position more easily. (Not to mention looking at a smart phone screen the remaining 4-6 hours of the day.) Although we may not necessarily want to display poor posture, our body will find a way to make it work for us. Even if the cost and expense comes from our overall health.
One easy, simple, and extremely effective way to combat poor posture, muscle imbalances, tightness, certain injuries, and stiffness is to foam roll on a daily basis. Once you purchase a roller (or borrow one from a friend) it’s free! All that remains is putting that wonderful piece of machinery to work.
5 Major Benefits of Foam Rolling
Every body is different, every body experiences life and all of its demands in different and unique ways. One thing is for certain, if the body is called upon to move, flex, extend, pull, push, sit, run or squat, it is reacting. And when the body reacts enough times, it will start to develop a bias, a rhythm, and pattern to combat and ease any of these actions placed on the body. Do this enough times without relaxing, stretching, or recovering and we start to see issues. One easy way to combat these issues is through the use of a foam roller. Foam rolling is one very easy, simple and cost effective way to help keep the body loose, malleable, and functioning properly.
Cost-Effective Recovery & Rehab
If money, finding the right body worker, or schedule conflicts are major issues in your daily routine, fear not; foam rolling can offer a very similar treatment to hands-on work. The foam roller can be your personal massage therapist that is on call 24/7 and only requires a one-time down payment. With a small investment of time, and researching protocols, methods or routines for the foam roller, you, the user, can become your body’s best body worker!
Better Understand Your Body (Weaknesses and Strengths)
Sometimes, despite how skilled a professional massage therapist, chiropractor or body worker can be, the only person who knows your body better than anyone else in the world is YOU. The simplistic beauty of the foam roller is having the ability to control how much work needs to be done on the body. This includes both the time, from minutes to hours, as well as the intensity. Sometimes less is more and giving your body just a little bit of love and care can go a very long way. Also, you may start to discover there are other spots previously unaware to you that needed attention.
Investing In Yourself
Investing in your personal health needs can potentially create a faster and more long-term healing response. For both acute and chronic injuries, my body would recover much quicker and maintain its healthful state if I participated both physically and mentally in my recovery. This means doing the homework/putting in the time. When I hurt my back due to a lifting accident, I continued to see bodyworkers; physical therapists, chiropractors, massage therapists etc. multiple times a week, I would always feel better afterwards but within the next couple of days I would start to feel my painful symptoms return. Why? Because I was not doing my part. It is my firm belief that if you want to truly recover, you have to put in the time. Sure enough, when I started to foam roll on a regular basis, along with stretching and moving my body, my injuries stayed at bay.
More Rest = More Gains
Recovery is a form of exercise. Although the main theme of “rest/recovery” days are sort of laughed about, they are absolutely necessary and key in maintaining optimal health as well as combating potential issues/injuries. We all understand that working out is exercise but the majority of athletes, gym goers and activists would not call “recovery” a form of exercise. However, even on “recovery” days, your metabolism is expending a significant amount of energy just to complete daily activities. So when deciding to go to the gym, it does not have to be a brutal, all-out war with your body. Instead, grab the foam roller, take a seat and start giving your body the best chance to recover. As the smokejumpers say, “Do today what others won’t. Do tomorrow what others can’t.”
Building Routine and Structure
Perhaps the gym didn’t make your schedule today. Perhaps motivation is lacking or just an overall lack of energy. All is well and there is no need to get down on yourself. We can still be extremely successful if we can adapt and roll with life and all of its unknowns. The secret is routine and structure. These two items, when put into motion, lead to creating a well-balanced body that can enable optimal results. Treat foam rolling like brushing your teeth, showering, or even eating. Set a time, a regiment, and choose a body part (or parts) that are in need of some TLC. After following these new routines and structures, your body will start to crave and want more. New issues will arise, not because they are suddenly being created, but rather because your body is ready to share them with you. Some may say that ignorance is a beautiful thing; however it can lead to severe and massive issues if untouched for too long. When the body is allowed to recover, given the proper tools, your body will start being very honest with you.
How Do I Foam Roll?
Our bodies are the most complex pieces of machinery to ever walk this earth. They do whatever we teach them to do; constantly learning, adapting, modulating for our success in survival everyday. But sometimes they get confused, and it is our jobs as humans, athletes, soldiers, parents etc. to address and fix those confusions. (Preferably sooner than later.)
In the words of DPT Kelly Starrett, “The machine is created perfectly, it is the software that becomes the issue.” We learn compensation to avoid pain, we learn poor motor patterns from poor posture, poor technique, workplace positions, etc. Proper posture will lead to success.
“Practice does not make perfect. Practice makes Permanent.” – DPT Kelly S.
Let’s keep it simple. What foam roller are you going to buy? Assuming you have not purchased one just yet! I love simple, so I buy simple. My favorite foam roller is the bright orange Triggerpoint therapy roller, but if you don’t want to cough up the cash, any smooth, cylinder foam roller will do the trick! (I’m really not a fan of the rollers with tons of pointy knobs, but if you are a sadist, have fun with that!)
3 Easy Rules To Follow
- While foam rolling, if there is any sensation that feels sharp or stabby, STOP.
- If it feels like burning or searing, STOP.
- If it feels like electricity or similar to being shocked, STOP.
Otherwise, in my opinion it’s discomfort and your body is fighting to keep what it thinks is “normal.”
Foam Rolling 101
When performing these roll outs, travel at a slow, smooth pace. Breathe with your movement and take time to feel your body’s natural responses. Does it tighten up? Do you shy away or fly though the harder portions? At any point in time, you can take a break to recollect yourself and then continue.
Lastly, NEVER ROLL OUT OR OVER YOUR JOINT (KNEE, ELBOW, ANKLE, hinge joints). For example, if I start on my thigh, directly under my hip, I WILL NOT, roll over my knee joint. ALWAYS STOP JUST BEFORE THE NEXT JOINT and continue back the way you came.
Now that we have that settled, let’s begin!
- Lying on the ground, face up/face down depending on what you are about to work on, the foam roller will be perpendicular your body.
- Start at the one end of a body part. For example, if you are rolling your quads/thighs, start as proximal or close to your hip and slowly roll it down towards your knee, then back up and repeat.
- You do not have to put your full body weight onto the roller. Feel free to keep weight on the ground or position yourself in a way that you can easily add or take away weight from the roller.
- As you travel up and down a targeted area, remember to breathe; I cannot stress this enough. The body will naturally want to resist and tighten. To combat this, take full, deep breaths and be patient
- During the first couple of rollouts, I would suggest traveling halfway down the area you are focusing on and then returning back to the start position. As you feel out your body, you can start playing with traveling farther and farther until you reach just prior to the next joint.
- More than likely, there are going to be several hot spots on your body where knots have formed causing for significant discomfort. The remedy is to stay on those points, to breathe through them (5-10 deep breaths). While having compression on your body, your two best friends will be time and awareness of breath. Despite your best efforts mentally, physically, and verbally to will the body to relax, its natural reaction is to keep these muscles firing or active. Only with compression and time will it start to relax and recalibrate which aids in the recovery of those muscle tissues.
- After spending time (roughly 2-4 minutes) on a specific area and performing multiple rolls, up and down, you will start to notice where stress is being held the most. You can start pinpointing, taking mental notes about these hot spots and continue working on these spots or come back to them next time you foam roll. Eventually, and before too long, these hot spots will start to dissipate and your body will feel much better!
- Remember, you are your best judge for how much or little your body needs. Do your best to listen to your body’s response, and work smarter not harder. We are rarely awarded a time to get in touch with our body on such a deep level, so enjoy the process and keep healing.
What is Fascia?
I know, it’s a weird sounding word that doesn’t really make sense, right?
According to the dictionary, fascia is “a thin sheath of fibrous tissue enclosing a muscle.” Basically, it’s a spiderweb of fibers that are woven through every part of the body that “glues” everything together. Fascia helps keep your muscles, tendons, organs, and veins in just the right place, so your body can function properly. If you were able to see it, you’d see that “Each muscle would be surrounded and invested with a looser (but still structurally strong) network. Every bone would have a tough plastic wrap layer around the outside. Every organ would be invested and then bagged in a fascial sac. Only the open tubes of the digestive, respiratory, and lymphatic system would be utterly free of the fascial net.” (AnatomyTrains.net)
Myofascial image here
Still not sure what to compare it to?
Think of a section of an orange or a grapefruit.
Grapefruit image here
When you look at the individual section, you can see different layers that contain tiny packets of juice and pulp. The layers of the fruit that “hold everything together” is like the fascia in the body.
In a healthy body, the fascia allows the muscles to move freely. However, when there’s any sort of trauma or damage, the fascia becomes tight and inflamed to the point that there’s tension in the body and muscle movement is restricted. According to the Myofascial Release Treatment Center, “Fascial restrictions can exert excessive pressure causing all kinds of symptoms producing pain, headaches, or restriction of motion. Fascial restrictions affect our flexibility and stability and are a determining factor in our ability to withstand stress and perform daily activities.”
For most people, injury to the body musculature can happen without even knowing it. Something as simple as sitting hunched over for too long can force the body to adapt to positions that it wasn’t designed to support, which puts stress on the muscular system.
With enough trauma, the fascia begins to build up more tension and pressure to the point that there is restricted movement and tension on the body. Evidence of the damaged fascia varies based on the location of the injury and extent of the damage. However, the damage can have wide ranging effects if not treated.
One of the most common areas of “trauma” is in the hip, due to the regular use of the hip flexor and extensor muscles.
Every time you take a step, the hip flexor and extensor muscles are in use. Because of their regular use, the muscles can become extremely tight over time. With the increased tension, the flexor actually begins to pull the hips forward, putting unnatural pressure on the lower back.
So if you suffer from lower back pain, notice how you normally stand when at rest. If you notice your hips are dropped, there’s a possibility that tight hips are pulling on and creating the lower back pain you experience.
In order to repair the musculature and help it restore itself to it’s natural state, foam rolling and other forms of self-myofascial release have been shown to be incredibly helpful.
What is Self-Myofascial Release?
Massage techniques are known as a resource for soft muscle tissue therapy to promoting muscle repair and to help release tension. Even though it’s beneficial (and feels great,) it’s not really convenient or financially feasible to go to the spa for an hour long massage every day.
Self-myofascial release is soft muscle tissue therapy that you are able to do yourself; it’s like having your own personal masseuse (you!) within the comfort of your own home, and usually only takes 10-15 minutes.
Using a foam roller or other mobility tools, you are able to place pressure on “trigger points” or troublesome areas that help break up knots in muscles and over time, helps restore the muscle to its proper function.
Regular active mobility work has been shown to:
- increase blood flow to the muscles
- lengthen and elongate muscles
- increases muscle flexibility and function
- repair tight and fatigued muscles
- re-train and restore the body to it’s natural state
- improves joint range of motion
- relieve joint stress
The actual process of myofascial release occurs through the muscle spindle and golgi tendon organ, two neural receptors found within the muscle tissue: muscle spindles and the Golgi tendon organ.
myofascial - diagram
The primary purpose of the muscle spindle is to detect changes to the length of the muscle. Sensory neurons transmit the muscle length to the brain to help identify (spatially) what position body parts are in. The Golgi tendon organ can be found at the origin and insertion points of each muscle. It’s primary purpose is to identify the level of tension in a muscle.
When the muscle spindles detect a change in muscle length, they transmit the change to the central nervous system, which triggers a stretch reflex (Clark & Russell, 2014). The stretch reflex occurs to counteract the tension created by the stretched muscle. The muscle fibers being stretched contract in opposition to the stretch, while the fibers opposite the stretch relax to help the muscle adapt and remain at a constant length.
When enough pressure is introduced to the muscle, the muscle spindles and Golgi tendon organ receptors become overstimulated to the point where muscle tension begins to decrease (Clark & Russell, 2014). The process of relaxation is called autogenic inhibition, which means the muscle relaxes due to overstimulation, and the reduced tension decreases pain and helps the muscle to restore to it’s natural function.
It’s believed that foam rolling and mobility exercises increase the muscle tension in the golgi tendon organ to the point of overstimulation, where the muscle relaxes, ultimately decreasing pain and restoring the muscle to proper function (Robertson, 2008).
Despite the many benefits, a lot of people avoid foam rolling or mobility work because it can be painful. In some cases, you are literally tearing apart layers of fascia in order to break up scar tissue. However, the long term benefits are definitely worth the short term pain.
How to Foam Roll
The actual process of foam rolling is quite easy. Using a foam roller or other mobility device, you put intense, direct pressure on “trigger points” to help the muscle to release and return to normal. The focused pressure helps target deeper layers of the muscle tissue than would normally be reached during a Swedish-type massage.
Kelly Starrett suggests that it takes at least two minutes in order to make any sort of soft tissue change.
Direct pressure on tender areas will help relieve pain faster than fluid movements over an area will. So if you’re completing an exercise feel pain on a particular part of the muscle, stop and rest on the tender area for 45 seconds. This additional time helps the mobility tool to penetrate deeper layers of the muscle, reducing muscular tension. Repeatedly rolling a painful area of the muscle without stopping to focus on each trigger point can actually make the muscle tighter, so be sure you spend enough time and enough pressure on the trigger points.
There are plenty of online resources and video tutorials that walk you through mobility exercises step-by-step. Choose ones that demonstrate the exercises and clearly show proper form. MoveWell is an app that allows you to pick a mobility routine based on your goals. If you want to help strengthen your muscles and recover from lower back pain or an IT band injury, there are specific workouts tailor-made for your needs. If you want to focus your mobility work to help increase your power for olympic lifting, there are specific routines you can follow.
So what mobility tools do I use?
Realistically, you can use almost anything. Glass bottles, barbells, foam rollers, even bicycle tubes cut in half.
In “Becoming a Supple Leopard”, Kelly Starrett defines three separate categories of mobility tools based on their overall effectiveness, along with the level of pain they inflict.
Here are the categories he recommends:
Yoga Tune Up Balls
Coregeous BallLevel 2
Lacrosse Balls (You can also tape two balls together to help mobilize the thoracic spine)
Barbell and Kettlebell
Rogue Monster Band
Battlestar and little Battlestar
Supernova and Supernovito
Voodoo Floss Band
- battletar image
Mistakes to Avoid
There are a few common mistakes that people often make when they first start foam rolling.
Rolling too fast
Part of what makes foam rolling work, is that the muscle has to adapt - first by contracting and then eventually releasing the tension. If you move too quickly, the muscle doesn’t have time to process the tension.
Rolling directly on an injured area
If you work the trigger points too much, you could actually create more damage to the tissue, which inhibits healing. Focus on the surrounding areas first, and then you can slowly and gently work your way into the injured area.
Spending too much time on the trigger points
Similar to rolling directly on the injured area, if you spend too much time on the trigger points you could actually cause more damage to the tissue. When you find knots, spend between 20-45 seconds and then move on.
If you’re not careful, poor form can make your existing injuries worse. MoveWell and other video tutorials show you proper foam rolling form, so you will know exactly how to position your body in order to complete the movement successfully and safely.
After the fact
Just because your foam rolling workout is finished, the work isn’t done. Here are some essential things you need to fully recover from daily mobility routines.
Sleep, Sleep, Sleep
Your body needs adequate time to recover from what you’ve just put it through! Make sure to give your body adequate time to rest, so the muscles can release tension and fully repair themselves.
Science has shown that the best sleep happens in the hours before midnight, and in rooms without unnatural light sources. So stop your late-night Netflix binge and turn off your smartphone for some really good ZZz. If you’re feeling really ambitious, sleep in a cool room and wake up when the sun rises. Your body will love you even more.
Drink the right stuff
I can’t tell you how important hydrating your body is. Water not only helps improve your body’s digestive and adrenal functions, but also helps to fight fatigue, and helps remove toxins from the body. After any type of workout, the muscles become inflamed and water helps to clear away toxins from the damaged muscles.
And you may not want to hear this...but sports drinks don’t help like you think. Sure, they taste good and it’s nice to have some “flavor,” but unless you spend hours exercising, you probably don’t lose enough electrolytes to justify a sports drink. All you get is a bunch of added sugar that puts an unnecessary strain on your system. Lots of water is the best thing you can give your body to help it repair itself. But if you absolutely need some flavor in your water, squeeze in a little lemon or lime juice.
steak food image here
Eat the right stuff
Eating healthfully is essential for obvious reasons. It doesn’t make sense to spend time trying to help your body repair itself only to turn around and feed it foods that don’t accomplish your goal. Lean meats and LOTS of vegetables work wonders for your muscles. UltimateMealPlans.com and UltimatePaleoGuide.com has amazing recipes that are sure to whet your appetite and more resources that will help your muscles repair themselves.
Perfect that posture
You’ve just spent time trying to help repair your body, and possibly even gone through some pain in order to make it happen! Don’t put your body right back in the situation you were trying to get out of! Focus on building positive posture habits, especially when you’re working at the computer or staring down at your phone. It may feel incredibly unnatural at first, but the more you do it the faster your body will be able to “re-adapt”.
A final note
Remember, helping your body repair itself is a process, and it will take time. If your body has been forced to adapt itself to unnatural circumstances for a long period of time, it may take a while for you to start seeing results. That doesn’t diminish how important mobility exercises and recovery are for your overall health and wellbeing. That's one of the biggest reasons why we created the MoveWell app, because mobility exercises can make a HUGE difference in how you feel. The same exercises we share in MoveWell are what has helped me recover from this bad injury last year. It's taken time, but it's made all the difference.
Other Great Foam Rolling Guides and Resources
- ModeRX - Ultimate Guide to Foam Rolling (videos)
- Run to the Finish - Ultimate Foam Rolling Guide for Runners
- Ashley Borden - "Rolling Out"