Nowadays, it’s impossible to walk into a gym without seeing people rolling around on large foam cylinders. Ever wonder what exactly they’re doing? It’s called self myofascial release and it’s one of the most popular and effect methods of stretching around today. Unfortunately, it’s a physical therapy technique most people don’t really understand and don’t use very effectively. To understand how to use foam rollers, it helps to understand a little of the science behind this particular method of stretching. First, a quick little brush-up on the physiology of flexibility.
Within your muscles, you have two main sets of specialized cells responsible for moderating muscle tension: muscle spindles and golgi tendon organs or GTO’s. Spindles are located through the belly of the muscle and detect absolute muscle tension as well as the rate of change in muscle tension. When they are stimulated, they cause the muscle to contract. It’s a defense against overstretching. GTO’s are located primarily in the muscle/tendon junctions and detect the exact same stimuli. The difference is, when GTO’s are stimulated, they force the muscle to relax; also a defense against the building of excessive tension.
Traditional stretches put tension on the muscles by pulling the ends further apart, like touching your toes puts your hamstrings on stretch. Foam rollers put tissues on stretch by localizing tension to the part of your body pressing into the roller. When you lay on a roller, if you’re likely to come across areas that produce soreness during the stretch. This is actually exactly what you want. This soreness represents an overactive area of muscle contracting to resist the stretch; an area where the aforementioned muscle spindles are triggered too easily causing that portion of the muscle to contract, often even at rest. Most people roll right by these spots. They roll back and forth on the rollers as if rolling out dough. This triggers these overactive reflexes, but never actually addresses them. What you want to do is maintain the pressure in these areas. After 20-30 seconds or so, the GTO’s will fire and force the area to relax. This relaxation will desensitize the spindles over time. The result is your muscles become softer, more flexible, and less resistant to movement over time. Once one spot relaxes, you roll to the next tender spot. You do this for each spot until the entire muscle has been addressed. If you actually roll from spot to spot, versus lifting up and resetting in a new position, you get the added benefit of rolling out the fascial tissue which can become disorderly and adhered with time. This can also aid with flexibility and movement.
Some areas are more easily addressed with smaller implements like tennis balls or softballs. The technique remains the same however. This method is one of the most effective around, but there are some times when it shouldn’t be used. In general, rolling is best for larger muscle groups. Rolling the spine (including the neck) directly should be avoided. You shouldn’t roll an area of active infection or swollen areas. Also, if you’re diabetic, you should avoid rolling the lower limbs all together. Rollers are available in different densities. You should use the softest one that still allows you to find the tender spots. The technique works best if done daily. If you’re doing it frequently enough and with proper technique, you should notice fewer sore spots the more you roll and that those spots are less sore. If you come across a spot that just won’t relax, skip it and come back to it later. You may find it’s a little easier after having relaxed the areas adjacent to it. Give it a shot. Results can be pretty much immediate.