Almost every client that comes into our gym at one point or another hops on a foam roller or some other kind of self-myofascial release (SMR) tool (lacrosse ball, softball, etc.) before they begin their session. When someone first begins to use a tool for SMR there is almost without a doubt the initial reaction of “ouch” along with some moans and groans or muttering of explicit words. Following this initial reaction we often hear “Why am I doing this again?” or “I thought I was here to workout.”
To answer this question, it’s important that we cover myofascial release as a whole and the integration of foam rollers and SMR tools. From there we then need to look over some of the basics regarding what happens exactly, both physiologically and psychologically, when someone foam rolls.Once all the above is addressed, we can delve into how foam rolling benefits the workout its self.
Myofascial release is a technique that was originally used by massage therapists, athletic trainers, or physical therapists. The ideology behind this is to manipulate “tight” fascia or muscle tissue that may be causing a restriction in movement through a movement pattern or joint range of motion. This can in turn limit some individuals from fully performing movements, such as the squat or overhead press. This tightness is thought to occur from a variety of different circumstances. An example of such circumstances are the constant shortening of a muscle along with the surrounding fascia or weakness in a certain muscle (Findley et al, 2012). This tightness is also referred to as a “trigger point.” Trigger points are “Tender spots in discrete, taut bands of muscle that produce local pain.” (Bron and Dommerholt, 2012).
In a response to the need for cheaper and easier access to myofascial release, SMR tools were made available to the mass public. The thought behind this was that it would allow anyone to somewhat simulate the effects of myofascial release by someone like a massage therapist, in a cheaper and more convenient manner. It was once thought that the positive effects of self-myofascial release were due to changes in fascia or muscle tissue that would “release” the trigger points. SMR tools however, are not capable of applying enough force to the targeted tissue to cause actual physical changes to the tissue itself. So if no changes are occurring to the tissue why do we still have our clients foam roll?
The answer lies in what is happening on a more psychophysiological level when someone foam rolls. When someone applies pressure to an area where there is increased ‘neural tone’ it sends a signal to the muscle that is being targeted to relax (Schleip, 2003). According to Dr.Vladimir Janda certain muscles have a tendency to become tight while others have a tendency to become weak.
When a muscle possesses the qualities of being ‘tight’ it often causes restricted movement capabilities in the patterns we ideally like to target throughout a training session. By having our clients foam roll prior to a workout, we can help to get rid of some of this neural tightness, sending a signal to the muscles to relax. With this newfound relaxation of a particular group we can place an individual in a position to gain range of motion in a movement pattern where they previously couldn’t without foam rolling. This of course allows us to effectively ingrain positive movement patterns in our clients, over time decreasing neural tone, thus allowing patterns we want our clients to move to become second nature.
In the words of renowned physical therapist Gray Cook, “We should first move well, then move often”. Foam rolling is a tool. This tool allows us to eliminate movement restrictions within our clients. The elimination of movement restrictions allows for our clients to move better during training sessions. Thus, we can help our clients to learn to move well through training, translating into better movement for life.
Bron, C., Dommerholt, J. (2012). Etiology of myofascial trigger points. Current Pain and Headache Reports, 16(5), 439-44.
Findley, T., Chaudhry, H., Stecco, A., Roman, M. (2012). Fascia research – a narrative review. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, 16(1), 61-75.
Schleip, R. (2003). Fascial plasticity a new neurobiological explanation. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, 7(1), 11-19.
By Dan Cerone
Dan Cerone is a Staff Coach at Halevy Life.
Dan holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Clinical Exercise Science and a Master’s Degree in Human Performance, which were both completed at Ithaca College. In addition, Dan is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and Functional Movement Screen Specialist (FMS).
Prior to joining the team at Halevy Life, Dan completed a coaching internship at one of the country’s premiere strength and conditioning facilities where he worked with a wide variety of athletes, but mainly professional and collegiate hockey players. More recently, Dan worked as a Strength and Conditioning Coach at Ithaca College where he programmed and worked with numerous varsity teams.
Dan is a competitive powerlifter who has placed first in multiple competitions.