Have you seen foam tubes around your gym? They are usually located by stretch areas, and they come in different colors (blue, black, white) as well as textures (hard, soft, some have spikes). Perhaps you have noticed others use them on their back, legs, or calves but have never given them a shot. They are called foam rollers, and they are a hidden gem in most gyms.
Here is a little secret, if you ever have tightness ANYWHERE, foam rolling may be your key to relief.
Self-Myofascial Release (SMR)/ Trigger Point Therapy
The human body has fascia covering connective tissues – think muscles, bone, cartilage, etc. Fascia helps keep things together as well as provide reinforcement. Sometimes, this fascia can form in unwanted places forming trigger points. These trigger points can be the root cause of a lot of musculoskeletal pain we have; like shoulder, back, or foot issues. Foam rolling helps break up unwanted fascia and can help deal with trigger points.
How SMR Works:
To understand SMR we first need to describe a few terms. A muscle cell has several different parts and we will focus on two – the Golgi Tendon Organ (GTO) and Muscle Spindles. The GTO sense muscle contraction and if too much, will send signals to the nervous system to relax the affected muscle. Muscle Spindles sense changes in muscle length. If a muscle is stretched too much, muscle spindles send signals that that muscle needs to be contracted. These two together help protect the muscle form being over contracted or stretched and damaged.
Next we need to understand Autogenic and Reciprocal Inhibition. Autogenic Inhibition states that if a muscle is tight, the GTO reacts by relaxing it and contracting the opposite muscle. For example, if the bicep is over contracted, the GTO responds by relaxing the bicep and contracting the tricep.
Reciprocal Inhibition states that if a muscle that is over stretched, muscle spindles react by causing the stretched muscle to contract while it’s opposite relaxes. For example, if you overstretch your bicep, muscle spindles react by causing a contraction of your bicep and a relaxing of the tricep.
The reason this is important is because your body wants to keep a basic level of function, called homeostasis. This desire will make any change difficult to occur unless it is constant. The basic level of function can be changed, and it happens due to the human bodies amazing ability to adapt. A new and constant stimulus can cause the body to change its basic level of function. This ability is a double edged sword because it can cause unwanted adaptations to occur.
If you sit for most of the day, certain muscles get used to being shortened (contracted) and will actually try to stay that way. On top of that, your body can form fascia around these shortened muscles to further reinforce that position. The best example of this is an individual, usually in old age that has over rounded shoulders. This does not happen overnight, in fact it takes years of shoulder internal rotation (the position most of us are in when seated), that caused the GTOs of affected muscles to think that it is a normal level of contraction, muscle spindles to start preventing a more upright position, and fascia forming to keep us in that state.
SMR or foam rolling works by increasing pressure on a muscle which will cause the GTO to temporarily turn off the muscle spindle activity and allow the muscle to stretch or unknot. Not only does SMR help improve range of motion (ROM) but it allows for more blood flow to muscles and can help increase recovery. There are many different tools you can use to apply SMR – foam rollers, lacrosse or tennis balls, and handheld rollers such as “the stick.”
SMR techniques help decrease tension in muscles and can help relieve backs, knees, and necks. You can foam roll before, during, or after exercise. If done before or during, foam rolling can help you get a more out of your workout by unlocking your ROM and helping you not feel pain during movements.
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General Foam Rolling Guidelines
Foam rolling is not meant to be comfortable. Usually rollers will come in different firmness levels. When starting off it may be a good idea to use a less firm roller. There are many different areas you can roll but here are the general steps:
- Place the roller around the intended area.
- Do broad strokes and move the roller along the muscle. You can use your hands and feet to roll your body smoothly over the foam roller.
- Pinpoint certain trigger points – they will be the tenderest spots on the muscle.
- Find one you can tolerate and keep pressure on that spot for 30-40 seconds. Remember to breathe!
- You will feel the pain/discomfort dissipate.
- Once gone, mostly gone, or the 30-40 seconds is up, move on to the next trigger point.
- Repeat for allotted time.
It is important to note a few things. Foam rolling for 30-40 seconds is crucial to tell your body to get used to the pain. This will make sure signals get sent from the muscle to the brain to relax the muscle. Second, make sure to breathe from your stomach; this will help ease tension in the body. Keep in mind that if the roller is too firm, you will not be able to breathe properly and will start to create more tension in the body.
Best Areas to Start Working On
Place the roller on the meaty part of your calf. You will be sitting on your butt with the roller in front. Your hands will be behind you and will support you while you lift your butt up so you can roll up and down the calves. You can roll one calf at a time while crossing the free leg on top or keeping the knee bent to the side or you can keep both calves on the roller and do both at the same time. Do the variation that you can tolerate and apply more and more pressure over time.
Sit on top of the roller and keep your hand behind you. Stretch out on leg and cross the other over it. Bend the bottom leg so your foot is flat on the ground. Now lean into that side. Roll up and down the glute and pause on tender spots. One hand will be behind you providing support while the other is on your knee.
Lay on your side with the foam roller in your armpit. The arm of the side on the ground should be stretched overhead with the elbow locked. Your bottom leg will be straight out while the top one is bent and helping you roll up and down the side of your upper body. The top hand can be placed behind your head to support your neck.
This one is easy. Just lay on the roller and give yourself a hug. Then just roll up and down your back.
These exercises are not meant to be comfortable and the positions will be awkward at first. If you stick with it, you will get used to it. It may be boring at first but this is an essential part of your workout. Muscles will get tight and they will need to be treated.