I’m no fortuneteller, but I’m usually pretty good at predicting the first few moves people make when they enter the gym. Somewhere between setting down their bag, consuming a healthy dose of caffeine, and loading up the barbell there’s some vaguely defined—albeit well-intentioned—period of time that involves rolling around on a foam roller or digging a lacrosse ball into various body parts.
These types of soft-tissue mobilization techniques have become a standard part of most people’s warm-up routines. But what do we really know about the science underlying these methods? And more importantly, are they right for everyone?
Wouldn’t it be great if we had a purpose and a plan, and not just a bunch of haphazard “I-think-this-is-supposed-to-be-good-for-me” exercises?
This article will explore some of what we know about the science of muscle and fascia, and how we can connect that information to our workouts for the best possible outcomes.
Let’s get started.
According to the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, fascia is the soft tissue component of the connective tissue system. It penetrates and surrounds our muscles, bones, organs, nerves, blood vessels, and virtually every other structure in our body. It helps transmit force from our head to our toes, from our front to back, and from superficial to deep in an uninterrupted, three-dimensional web.
Thomas Myers, author of Anatomy Trains, has done a lot to popularize the relationship between fascia and the muscular system, as well as the concept of tensegrity—interconnectedness between disparate parts of the anatomy—that serves as the foundation of a movement-based training program.
When quality movement is strongly rooted in treatment and exercise programming it is important to view the body more globally rather than looking at single muscles and jumping to conclusion that the site of your pain is also the source.
So, how does this fit into your fitness routine? The Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies also states the fascia plays an integral part in:
Maintaining structural integrity
Providing support and protection
Acting as a shock absorber
Blood flow and biochemical processes
Defense against disease and infections
Recovery from injury
Being consistent with your foam rolling and self-treatment is an important piece in both prepping you for upcoming training sessions and enhancing recovery. When looking at the tensegrity model it becomes clear that fascia has some importance in transferring tension from one part of the body to anther and shortening in one location may disrupt another area of the body.
Whether you have a postural inefficiency, movement dysfunction, scar tissue and adhered tissue, or are having trouble recovering between training sessions you’ll be able to reap the benefits from foam rolling and other self-myofascial release modalities.
A trigger point is described—rather wordily, I might add—as a hyperirritable spot in skeletal muscle that is associated with a hypersensitive palpable nodule in a taut band. The spot is tender when pressed and can give rise to characteristic referred pain, motor dysfunction, and autonomic phenomena.
In short, it’s the painful spots on the muscles you’ve no-doubt encountered while foam rolling.
Some research states that trigger points may play a role in up to 93% of pain seen in pain clinics and the exclusive cause of pain up to 85% of the time (Gerwin, 1995; Fishbain et al. 1986). As a neuromuscular therapist I can attest to this. I’m always assessing movement patterns and assessment helps to guide my treatments, and with this comes the understanding that soft-tissue limitations and trigger points often play a major role in movement dysfunction.
All of this leads to an inevitable question: why do you get trigger points in the first place?
Trigger points form after unaccustomed eccentric load, overuse, poor posture, stress, direct trauma, or sub-maximal and maximal muscle contractions. They have the effect of shortening a joint’s range of motion, causing pain at end-range, and leading to muscle weakness and lack of coordination. This is backed up by recent research that shows connections between myofascial trigger points and musculoskeletal disorders.
The increased volume of throwing and eccentric stress on the rotator cuff should be enough of a reason for every baseball player to receive soft-tissue work in-season
Roach (2012), found that individuals with patellofemoral pain syndrome had a higher prevalence of trigger points in their glute medius and quadratus lumborum on both sides. In this scenario, doing side-lying clams and other hip strengthening exercises isn’t going to be as effective unless you first de-activate both active and latent trigger points.
These stubborn knots aren’t just an issue for those who have true muscular shortness. Those on the hypermobile end of the spectrum may also develop trigger points as a means of creating stability. In their scenario it is wise not to deactivate them until you’ve learned to create active stability. These individuals can use foam rolling to decreasing their feeling of “tightness,” but follow it up by stabilization exercises, opposed to stretching their areas of tightness.
Nothing can replace the work of a good massage therapist, but knowing how to treat your own soft-tissue in between massage sessions is extremely important.
In order to get better at a specific skill you must do it more often. When attempting to improve the quality of your own soft-tissue, you must treat it regularly. The more frequently that you can be exposed to these stimuli the better your body will adapt. I recently had the pleasure of meeting Amber Davies and she recommended self-treating anywhere from 2-6 times a day.
The debate is out there as to the exact mechanism behind foam rolling. There are those who advanced a mechanical model, suggesting that the heat and friction from the pressure of the foam roller decreases fascial viscosity, making it more gel-like and pliable, thus increasing ROM. The mechanical model also proposes that the pressure applied from the roam roller can directly break up adhesions and scar tissue.
The longer I work as a massage therapist, the more I realize that this may not be the answer for why you feel so good after foam rolling. I don’t believe leaning into a piece of foam produces sufficient force and direction—in terms of amplitude or precision— to cause one stuck layer of tissue to begin to move freely on another.
This is where the neurophysiological model comes in. This camp believes that self-myofascial release works by stimulating muscle receptors, which, in turn, alters signals sent to the central nervous system and inhibits specific groups of motor units.
Instead of affecting the physical properties of muscle it helps the nervous system inhibit overactive musculature. In essence, decreasing the tone of specific musculature and increasing its available range of motion.
I’ve also recently been exposed to the work of pain experts David Butler and Lorimer Moseley. The two talk about a term called diffuse noxious inhibitory control (let’s call it DNIC to save me future typing). It’s a fancy way to say that your brain has the ability to inhibit danger signals from your body that travel up your spinal cord and to your brain. From what I’ve come to understand this process is a way for the brain to make a decision about the significance of mechanical threats, or if the problem is not that serious; and that your expectation of pain relief plays a large role in whether DNIC works.
What if rolling a painful spot on the foam roller will help them feel better by allowing their brain to think that pain from the roller is good and beneficial. Then, DNIC takes place, danger signals are no longer being sent to the brain, and tissue guarding and stiffness are temporarily diminished.
BOOM you now have the opportunity to move better!
Regardless of the intricacies taking place within your body while you make your way up and down the foam roller, I see too many benefits to neglect making foam rolling as part of your everyday routine. Foam rolling can have benefits as part of a warm-up, for short-term recovery, long-term recovery, your general health, and most importantly I feel it gives someone an opportunity to move better.
Check out many of the possible benefits foam rolling has below:
Increase joint ROM without impairing muscular rate of force development
Reduce muscle soreness
Improves blood supply to local tissues
Opens windows for improved quality of movement opens windows for loading movements patterns à gets people strong
Trains core stability (if you put yourself in good positions on the foam roller)
The use of smaller implements also allows you to treat your own trigger points.
When to Foam Roll
Now that you understand some of the scientific theories behind why self-myofascial release is important it is time that you begin to make it a staple in your training program. Foam rolling can be used in three different portions of your training program, as well as doing more specific trigger point work as an at home activity.
Depending on the allotted time you have, you can go through a full-body foam rolling routine or just work on any specific tissue that needs to be inhibited. Or tissue that will lead to an increase in the quality of the movement patterns that we’ll be using during that day.
I just worked one side of the body in the above video. After completing one side, turn and repeat on the other. Be sure to roll at a slow place and be thorough. When you get to a location of increased sensitivity slow down and spend some more time there. If you find the roller too uncomfortable, choose a roller of less density or add on layers of clothing.
Within the Workout
There’s one great benefit that comes from being able to quickly create new ROM mid-workout (even if it’s not long lasting): loading through a more complete motor pattern.
A1) Barbell Backsquat
A2) Pin & Stretch Posterior Hip w/ lax ball
A1) Standing Landmine Press
A2) Foam Rolling Lats/Teres Major
This goes back to the idea that the more frequent exposure the tissue has, the greater opportunity for the quality of that tissue to improve. Foam rolling post-training serves as an opportunity to inhibit areas of tension as well as stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (rest & digest) and begin recovering for the next training session.
It’s hard to pass up on the many benefits foam rolling has to offer, but check out the list below to make sure you’re not causing any harm.
Rolling on bony prominences/joints
Some chronic pain conditions and hypersensitivity
There are many different tools that can be used for self-myofascial release other than the traditional foam roller. The softer and larger the tool is, the less pressure you will feel. The denser and less surface area the implement has, you’ll feel a greater amount of pressure. Below are some of my favorites and in upcoming articles I’ll be showing you my favorite ways to use each implement.
Foam roller (various densities)
Your own hand