Using a foam roller correctly...
Foam Rolling, also known as self-myofascial release, is apparently designed to release muscle
tightness or ‘trigger points’ and is the go-to thing to do when you’re feeling a bit tight or restricted. You see people in Gyms grimacing like they just snorted a line of wasabi whilst rolling the hell out of their ITB’s or quads. No pain no gain right?
Myofascial release (or self-myofascial release, as it’s referred to when you’re going at it solo), aims to relax contracted muscles, improve blood and lymphatic circulation and stimulate the stretch reflex in muscles.
Bear that definition in mind as I nerd out for a minute and go into a bit of detail about muscles and reflexes from a Neural Perspective to demonstrate why bashing away at your muscles with a foam roller might not be the best idea if relaxing contracted muscles and stimulating the stretch reflex are what you have in mind….
If you could take the fascia out, roll it, then put it back in without affecting the underlying muscle tissue, it would be awesome. But you can’t so it’s pointless talking about one and not the other.
Muscle Spindles and Golgi Tendon Organs
Two primary sensory receptors that live in our muscles are neuromuscular spindles and Golgi tendon organs.
In basic terms muscle spindles monitor the length, and the rate of change in length of our muscles constantly. They are under reflexive control and will fire to varying degrees whenever a muscle lengthens to control the motion. They live in the belly of the muscle tissue and can be manipulated in many ways through sensory stimulus, brain based drills and manual manipulation.
Simply put: Spindles when excited facilitate a contraction reflexively within the muscle. This means that if you use a foam roller on the belly of the muscle as the vast majority of people do you are exciting the spindle, causing a reflexive contraction. Remember the goals in the definition above? Well this is about as counter to those goals as you can possibly get.
Muscles are either over facilitated or inhibited.
The reasons why muscles become over facilitated or inhibited are many but often times the brain is modulating muscle lengths and tensions in response to faulty information from the receptors within the muscles, joints and connective tissue. Essentially the brain is making decisions and generating responses based on bad information. Injury and poor movement/lifestyle choices are often to blame. Emotions, our organs, eyes and vestibular system (inner ear balance system) can also drive faulty muscle recruitment patterns.
Manual muscle testing is an essential tool in accurate assessment of the nervous system with regards to movement. It provides information as to which muscles are inhibited or ‘weak’. If you do not know how to manual muscle test you can look at the body via observation and pick up clues from posture and alignment as well as comparing basic ranges of motion. Range of motion tests show which muscles are over facilitated or ‘tight’.
Foam rolling to strengthen a muscle.
To facilitate a ‘weak’ muscle we can use the roller to apply pressure through the belly of the muscle while shortening or contracting the same muscle.
The muscle spindles lie in the belly of the muscle and when pressured will have a reflexive response to increase facilitation to the same muscle. This can be further enhanced by actively shortening the muscle at the same time.
To strengthen a muscle I recommend rolling for a maximum of 6-8 seconds followed by a short rest 1-3 times. Rolling for longer periods of time will most likely result in inhibition.
Foam rolling to lengthen a muscle
To inhibit a ‘tight’ muscle we can use the roller to apply pressure towards the origin while lengthening the muscle or contracting its antagonist (reciprocal inhibition).
The GTO’s live in and near the musculocutaneous junction where the muscle becomes tendon. Follow the same protocol as above and retest range of motion after a few applications of the technique.
Re-assessment is key to applying any manual therapy technique. Did you provide enough or too much stimulus? It’s always necessary to check.
You may have to get a little inventive with body position and which torture tool to utilise but once you understand the concept your corrective exercise and rehabilitation approaches will be improved.
ONE LAST TIP > Please STOP rolling your IT Band. It’s absolutely pointless and just causes unnecessary pain. Endlessly foam rolling the ITB can not only irritate the fat pad but compresses Vastus lateralis. Focussed soft tissue release should be directed at TFL and Gluteus Medius which act as a direct tensioning to the fascia but no role in the ‘release’ of the fascial band itself, which is adherent via a fascial investment to the femur along its length.