On A Roll: Myofascial Release Exercises
Like the sign on the door to my gym says, “If it hurts to tie your shoes, you’re doing it right.” Amen.
There are plenty of ways to get relief from soreness, such as warm baths with Epsom salts, rest and massage. However, if you want something fast and cheap, stick with me.
Have you tried foam rollers? They cost less than a 30-minute massage, last for years, take up almost no space and can be used in your living room, with or without a partner.
They’re also wonderful for developing core strength and for stretching, but today we’re going to focus on self-myofascial release techniques (SMRT).
What It Is
The fascia is a layer of connective tissue that surrounds muscles, joints and bones. It has three layers, the superficial, the deep and the subserous. There are three types of dense connective tissue in the body (the other two being ligaments and tendons) and literally extends from head to toe.
Its purpose in the body is to provide tension, and that’s part of the problem. When overused and lacking in release, trigger points are created.
Trigger points are places in the body that are painful to the touch. The muscle knots and forms tight bands where it was formerly smooth, and they just flat out hurt. You can have trigger points in muscles, bursae, fat pad or where muscles and tendons connect.
When you have trigger points, they can alter the way you move. This is because they compromise muscles, and therefore cause you to overuse other muscle groups to achieve the same movement.
Since you’re now using a muscle for an unintended purpose, it will get injured, and round and round we go. This is part of the reason that proper form is important for athletes, as is resting your injuries. That’s also why SMRT is such a vital, though largely underutilized, technique.
Choosing A Roller
There are a few criteria to choosing a foam roller for SMRT. You’ll want to note the following:
Length: 30-36″ is best. 24″ rollers can be had, but they won’t allow you to work the paraspinal muscles. When you spend a great deal of time working the back, these muscles get a lot of work, so it’s best to choose a roller which, for a few dollars more, will work every area you need to release.
Density: Go with a density labeled “firm.” Medium will compress pretty significantly, defeating the purpose. Extra firm will make it really tough to dig into the muscle because the excruciating pain you’ll experience will prohibit real relaxation. Go for a roller made from closed-cell foam for long life.
Shape: They come in both half round and full round. I prefer full rounds as they help you move through a fuller range of motion. The half rounds are acceptable, but they’re often too shallow to really create counter-pressure where you need it, especially on the hamstrings and back.
Cover: If your life doesn’t include small children or pets, you really don’t need a cover. I’ve had a roller ruined due to the cats thinking it was a scratching post, so I use one at home. It’s also convenient if your kids wipe their dirty mitts on it after dinner. I’m just sayin’.
Upper Body Exercises
Thoracic spine (upper back): This is one of my favorite exercises as I carry a great deal of tension in my shoulders and upper back. Start with the roller mid-back with your hands behind your head to support the neck and roll slowly upward. You may shimmy slightly to one side to work each side more extensively.
Teres major/Lats/Triceps: Lie on one side with your shoulder perpendicular to the ground, supporting your upper body on a bent forearm. Start with the roller under your arm pit, and roll down the length of the muscle. This one should be accomplished as slowly as you can manage for best results.
Because three muscles converge here, you may also wish to straighten the supporting arm and roll upward from the arm pit to the elbow joint. This will allow some relief to the triceps, though you may not feel a great deal because there isn’t much body weight to get deep into the muscle.
Lumbar spine (lower back): You need a partner for this exercise, but it feels beyond amazing. Lie down with the roller at the small of your back. Allow your weight to settle on it for a moment, then have your partner roll it out from under your bum slowly and gently. Just give it a try; I know it sounds strange.
Paraspinals (muscles surrounding the spine): Lie lengthwise, with head and tailbone on the roller and feet on the floor. Allow your spine to sink into the roller, then rock gently from one side to another. This is a micro-movement, one that is 2-3″ per side. Honestly I could sleep like this. It feels that good.
You will also feel a beautiful opening in the chest here if you allow it. Feel the weight of your shoulders pulling down to open up the pectorals. You may wish to spread your arms into a T- or even a V-position for greater stretch. Because we spend so much time in forward flexion, this is a wonderful counter stretch.
Lower Body Exercises
Hamstrings (back of legs): Sit with the roller just beneath your glutes, hands on the floor behind you. Roll from the bottom of the glutes to the back of the knee, stopping wherever you feel a trigger point. For more resistance, cross one foot over the other.
Quads/Gastrocs (thighs and calves): Lie with the roller on your hip bones, supporting yourself with your hands. Roll from hips to knees, stopping when you find a knot. People who squat heavy will likely have a hard time with this exercise, but take your time. It’s really worth it to get it right!
Glutes: This exercise is heavenly, especially once you realize how much tension the glutes hold. Sit on one side with the other foot across the leg you’re rolling. Roll from top to middle of the bum until hot spots diminish. This is especially good for people with low back pain as it allows you to dig into the piriformis.
Iliotibial (IT) bands: OK, you’ve done the easier stuff, now here’s the real work. IT bands will be pretty excruciating for anyone who engages in cardio regularly. It’s a wonderful exercise for those with knee and hip flexor pain, as well.
Start at the hip flexor on one side and roll from the hip down to the knee, balancing the upper body on your arm. You will find knots, so work slowly. You may want to actually cry, or if the pain is minor in comparison, just swear a lot. I spend 3-5 minutes per side on this one and try to work it every day.
Be sure to roll at the end of your workout when your muscles are nice and warm. If you try to roll out cold muscles, it will be much more painful and you’re not going to get the relaxation you’re looking for.
Aim for one to two minutes per exercise, per side. Roll slowly and stop when you hit a trigger point. I let the pain reduce for 30 seconds to a minute (until it diminishes by 50-75 percent) and then repeat from top to bottom to make sure it’s mostly gone.
Breathe! Being present and breathing through the pain will help it diminish more quickly.
If an area is especially tight, move on and come back to it later in the exercise. I’ll often hit IT bands 2-3 times in one session because they’re so painful for me.
Try to release every day to work through the knots in the muscles, especially if you’re very physically active. Over time, you may be able to reduce your rolling to three times per week.