Foam Rolling and Self-Soft Tissue Release: The What, the Why, and the How
In the height of a boom in the fitness industry I am seeing more and more people picking up a foam roller and putting themselves through some pain. I often wonder if these individuals would see better results if they knew exactly what it is they were actually doing, why it may work, and how it works.
So What Does It Actually Do?
The use of foam rollers or other soft tissue release techniques are methods to help provide relief of tight, sore, and stiff tissues. They break down restrictions and barriers in the soft tissues with the aim to achieve this relief (Barnes, 1991).
The way we can apply these methods varies, we can be creative with what tools we use but as long as you understand the principles of how it may work and what you are trying to do there are a whole range of tools you can use.
Own Hands – you can use your own hands to rub, push, and pull yourself around much like a therapist would use their hands when treating you.
Foam Roller – you can utilise the very popular foam roller to lie on, roll on, sit on etc.
Cricket/Hockey/Lacrosse Ball – a simple hard ball can be used for a more direct pressure to roll on and press yourself on.
Barbell – a gym barbell can be used as an “extreme” foam roller for added pressure.
As we become more active, experience injury, and adopt bad posture our tissues start to form bonds and adhesions between each other. This then stops the tissues gliding freely past each other allowing normal function. Tissues can also become dehydrated, and lose its elasticity which causes them to stick to any injured or damaged part of the tissues. As these adhesions are the reason we feel stiff, sore, and our movement is restricted. Other symptoms are an altered alignment of our joints and bones, which then alters the angle and function of our muscles and joints (Boehme, & Boehme, 1991; Barnes, 1997; Curran et al., 2008; Swann & Graner, 2002).
No matter what tool you use the principle is the same for trying to breakdown the above bonds and restrictions. By applying both static pressure and a rolling, sweeping pressure friction is created between the soft tissues and your roller etc. which may aid the stretching and loosening of the soft tissues such as muscle, tendon, and fascia. This helps in the breaking down of the bonds formed between tissues. Any sustained or sweeping pressure can also increase blood flow through the expansion of the blood vessels to the restricted site which may aid healing and also help flush the restricted area. The physical stretching of the tissues helps with the restoration of soft tissue back to its normal state (Okamoto et al., 2013).
Some of the reasons self-soft tissue release benefits us, other than it feels good, are as follows…
(Shah & Bhalara, 2012)
1. It can aid correction of muscle imbalances
2. Increase our range of movement
3. Decrease the soreness in our muscles
4. Decrease increased muscle tone/spasm
5. Increase flexibility of bodily tissues
6. Maintain normal muscle length
So Why Do We Do It…
…To Warm Up…
We are always told to warm up before activity, and of late I have seen many people rolling around before they start their big weights session. The aim of this is to enhance their performance, if their muscles are “rolled” and released ready to work then their performance will be optimised. It may be something as simple as being less sore, having more range of movement, or because of changes in muscular function. Researchers have found some evidence that foam rolling may improve the body’s ability to recruit muscle fibres, and voluntarily activate muscles via improved communication between the central nervous system and the muscular system (MacDonald et al., 2013; Peacock et al., 2014). This communication appears to be improved by stimulating the connective tissue using our rollers or other tools which increases the feedback to the CNS and thus improving muscle function (MacDonald et al., 2013).
Foam rolling has also shown to improve the range of motion (ROM) without affecting the reducing force out or performance (MacDonald et al., 2013; Sullivan et al., 2013). As a result of the improvements in muscle activation, recruitment and range of motion the research has shown that foam rolling can actually help improve performance. Recent studies have shown foam rolling improves strength, power, speed, agility, and low-level exercise (Peacock et al., 2014). So if we can spend a few minutes rolling before working out or performing we may be less sore, have more movement, and our muscle may be able to function more effectively.
Once we have exercised it often causes us to feel sore, and stiff the next day or two. This is known as delayed-onset of muscle soreness or DOMS. This phenomenon involves muscle soreness, swelling, temporary muscle damage, decrease in muscular strength and range of motion (Cheung, et al., 2003; Torres, et al., 2012). There can also be some effect on neuromuscular performance, which alters muscle firing and recruitment patterns (Cheung et. al, 2003). This would have obviously negative effects on any subsequent exercise bouts. So the people I see after exercise, like myself, who foam roll and stretch after exercise are doing so with the aim of reducing this DOMS and any negative consequences so they can train again in the following days.
Much like the studies mentioned before regarding performance, foam rolling has been shown to help recover performance after intense bouts of exercise. Recovery of sprint times, power, agility, and strength-endurance appears to be increased with foam rolling (Pearcey et al., 2015). Voluntary muscle activation, and range of motion seems to be also be improved, as in pre-performance studies, after intense bout of exercise with foam rolling (MacDonald et al., 2014). This is all great news for us as trainers if we can restore our performance, muscle function, and range of motion so we can train again the next day with just a few minutes of rolling. However, the major restriction is often the soreness of the muscles. Luckily, Pearcey et al. (2015) also found that foam rolling after intense exercise increased the pressure-pain threshold, which basically means that the soreness felt when the muscles are touched was significantly improved when foam rolling was done after intense exercise.
All of the above evidence highlights the potential effectiveness of foam rolling on recovering from heavy exercise. It clearly has some potential to restore performance, muscle function, range of motion, and importantly reduce muscle soreness.
The evidence for all the factors, such as increases in ROM and decreased soreness, discussed above would suggest that foam rolling and soft-tissue release would be very beneficial for those just looking to maintain a mobile and pain free life.
So How Do We Do It?
You have probably seen or tried yourself the standard rolling back and forth on the roller aimlessly. This is all well and good you may get some results from this, but you could gain so much more by understanding what you are doing.
When you are rolling I would use this to find the painful areas, almost like you are scanning the area for sore spots. Once you find a sore spot you can use some of the following techniques to help relieve it.
• Ironing – this is simply isolated deep rolling. So find your sore spot then take a deep breath in and on your out breath let as much weight sink onto the roller as possible. Then roll slowly, and controlled into this sore area. Rolling direction can be varied, so you can roll your body up and down, side to side, rotate your body as you roll. This is much like ironing the area out. I would keep the area very specific keeping your rolls small and deep, and simply just move around the area of the body once you notice improvement.
• Contract-relax – Again find your sore spot and place as much weight on it as you can, again taking your deep breath in and out as you do this. Then contract the muscle, in a static contraction and hold it for 5-10 secs, when you relax try to let more weight sink onto the area via the roller. Do this until you notice an improvement.
• “Lock and Load” – As well as sore sports you may find this area feels restricted during movement. SO with this short or tight tissue you can place a “lock” on the muscle near the tight area. This can be done by placing the roller, barbell, hard ball etc. across the muscle belly near this tight spot. Once “locked” you can then “load” and move the muscle into stretch through full range as far as you can. Keep the pressure on the muscle locking it in as you stretch, then you can release the lock once you get to the end of your range and return to start. You can then repeat on same area until improvement occurs or find another tight area.
I use two tools when targeting my chest. Firstly I will “iron out” the chest using the cuff of a barbell much like a foam roller. This use of a barbell places more focused and direct compression and pressure.
To do this lie on the floor with the barbell at your side, take your arm to be released out to the side and place the cuff of the barbell diagonally across the fibres of the pectoral muscle. Wrap your leg over the barbell to apply pressure and use your other hand to roll gently over the muscle creating a wave of pressure. When you find a particularly tender or sore spot stick with this area until you feel improvement using small but deep waves of pressure.
I will move on to using a kettlebell once I feel an improvement from the rolling. This applies a more specific and direct pressure to the area I sense as being most restricted. This exercise involves more active movement and stretching of the pectoral. You can do this by lying on a bench raising your target arm straight up in front of you. Place the kettlebell on the area of the pectoral that is most restricted. Then apply as much pressure down as you can stand, then slowly take your arm down and diagonally out to the side. Once the end of range is reached release the pressure and bring your arm back up and replace the kettlebell and repeat. The placement of the kettlebell depends where you feel tightness or restriction. You can apply this to you recovery or warm up after/before your chest or upper body training days.
Thoracic Spine Release…
The foam roller can be used for this or you can make shift what’s called a “peanut”. This method is good for use before and after any overhead training days.
Lie horizontally on the foam roller placing it roughly near the rib level of the spine. With your legs straight and flat on the floor arch over the roller taking your arms straight above the head. Aim to get your hands to the floor, but don’t allow your hips to lift off the floor or allow your arms to bend. Some cracking or popping may be felt with this movement, but as long as it is not painful this is normal and may feel relieving. This can be done several times or until you feel an improvement in range of movement or feel looser through your spine.
Your peanut can then be used, which is basically two tennis balls taped together so it looks peanut shaped. Place this in a similar spot to where the foam roller was. The balls of the peanut should be placed either side of the spine and then work your way up toward the neck by slowly rolling over the peanut until you feel the muscle soften and soreness diminishes.
You can then lock into the muscle by lying on the peanut as above, then slowly performing a crunch movement to stretch these muscles for 10 reps, then reposition the peanut and go again. If you feel a particularly tight stretch when crunching hold the end position (top part of the crunch) for 5-10 secs then lower back down and repeat.
Start lying face down on a foam roller so your target quad is on it. Then place as much pressure on it as you can stand. You can then slowly roll up and down the quad creating a wave of pressure, your leg can then also rotate in and out to create a pressure wave across the quad.
Once improvement is noticed in soreness of tightness, stay in the same position, and lock the tissue in by finding a tight spot and put as much weight as you can onto this spot with the roller. Once locked in slowly bend your knee, bringing your heel towards your buttocks. This should be done slowly so your quad stretches from the “locked” point. You can do 2-3 at this point and then reposition the roller to a different spot and repeat. The roller can be substituted for a barbell, or even a cricket/hockey ball for a more direct pressure, if you can’t achieve enough pressure with the roller.
As with most of the above you can start with rolling down and up the hamstring using my foam roller by sitting with the roller under your thigh on the hamstring. Focus on one leg at a time rather than both so you can get more pressure on it.
A barbell can then be used to “lock and load”. This is done by placing a barbell in a rack, and then lift the target leg over it, resting the hamstring on the bar. Stand on the other leg for stability. Then drop your weight down pushing the hamstring into the barbell at a restricted point in the muscle. Once locked in slowly straighten the leg stretching the hamstring from the locked point, do 2-3 then reposition the leg.
Hip Flexor Release…
A kettlebell and a cricket ball can be used for this exercise. Lie on a bench, and bend your hip and knee so your foot is flat on the bench. Here you are targeting the high hip flexor (Psoas). Finding the hip flexor is often hard for some as they assume it stops at the hip. However, this area it is generally approx. an inch up from your “hip bone” and an inch or so in just off the side of your “abs”. Check you are in the right spot by pressing your fingers into the area and straightening and bending your leg and you will feel the muscle working. Once you have found it, bend your hip and knee again to bring your foot flat, and then place the ball in the area. Pressure is applied onto the ball and muscle by using a kettlebell pressing down on top of the ball. Once pressure is placed on the ball and locked in, straighten your leg slowly, and try lower it down off the bench to get a further stretch, release the pressure return and repeat. Do this several times or until you feel looser and improvement in hip flexor movement.
Take home message…
Many tools, and exercises are available to achieve the results of self-tissue release, and the internet is full of people demonstrating them. However, as long as you have a brief understanding of what it is, how it works, and how it may benefit us you can use it to your advantage without having to fork out for a therapist to apply it for you and you can find your own effective way of achieving results.
Be creative with exercises as long as you know where the tissues are that you are targeting, and how they work you will achieve success. The above are only a few examples that I use and work for me, there is no guarantee that they will work for you. The evidence for foam rolling and self-tissue release is in its infancy and is very limited at present so it is not a 100% guaranteed method, but the evidence does look promising.
Should anyone want a personal and specific stretching and mobility program please do not hesitate to contact me. This is something I can offer online with support throughout.
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