Foam rollers are everywhere, from big commercial gyms to garage workout dojos. Self-myofascial release (SMR) has gained huge popularity over the the years, and for good reason. Foam rolling and other forms of self myofascial release are fantastic tools to provide therapy for ourselves without having to go see a manual therapist. The ability to provide ourselves with a therapeutic intervention to aid recovery from intense workouts, to prepare tissues for a current workout, to improving proprioceptive awareness, or to try and resolve specific movement dysfunction or pain is invaluable. However, there are several misconceptions when it comes to foam rolling and other SMR techniques.
In this article, we will cover:
How does foam rolling work?
What is it useful for?
What is it NOT useful for?
How do I get the most out of self-myofascial release?
Without further ado, let’s dive in!
How Does It Work?
There is a huge misunderstanding when it comes to foam rolling and other SMR techniques, in that it helps to “break up” scar tissue and adhesions within tissues. Generally, most SMR techniques are not nearly aggressive or targeted enough to actually mechanically tear the tissues in order to allow for reconstruction of the tissues in the area. The connective tissue we are most affecting, fascia, is known to be almost as strong as steel pound-for-pound. Would it really make sense that we are able to to create enough tension and force to tear steel cable simply by lying down on a roller and moving back and forth? Not quite.
The effects we get from foam rolling and other variations of SMR are primarily neurological. I’ve written before about the concept of input & output, and how the nervous system is what governs muscular tension, and thus mobility, flexibility, range of motion, and pain. What is actually happening when we take a roller or ball to our tissues is this:
The input of the pressure from the implement (roller, stick, ball, etc.) creates a neurological response, sometimes helping to downregulate a specific muscle we are targeting. If we provide enough stimulus, whether it is direct pressure, stretching, or muscular contraction, we are simply tapping into neurological reflexes. With enough stimulus, the targeted muscle will reflexively inhibit. This inhibition is often the release that we feel, and it sure feels good!
Getting into some more specifics, some of the concepts discovered through the work of Jose Palomar and P-DTR help us to better understand just what is happening at a neurological level. We know that pressure is an anti-nociceptive stimulus. If there are high signal nociceptors in a given area, providing input for the CNS to process, and the CNS creates muscular tension as an output, we can reduce this output by reducing/changing the input the nociceptors are receiving. If you spend enough time applying pressure on a high-signal pain receptor, it will turn the signal down, and associated muscles will relax. In a similar vein, soft rubbing serves as an anti-mechanoreceptor stimulus. If you spend enough time rubbing over a dysfunctional area, it will turn the receptor signal down, and associated muscles will relax.
There are numerous examples of this phenomenon depending on the different types of peripheral receptors involved, how the receptors are communicating with each other and the CNS, and the compensational relationships between them. Often times we can also get drastic effects in one area of the body by applying stimulus to a different area of the body. Case in point, it’s pretty common to get an increase hip flexibility and range of motion by simply spending a few minutes releasing muscles on the bottom of the foot.
Like any other therapeutic modality, we are simply applying stimulus to certain areas of our body in the hopes that it will improve muscle tone, and thus improve mobility, flexibility, activation, and proprioception. It often works well, producing a temporary effect that allows us to start with more of a blank slate, which then allows us to reprogram our motor control during training. The main takeaway from all this is that the changes we often experience from performing SMR are almost always primarily neurological, not mechanical.
What is SMR Useful For?
Now that we have a better understanding of the physiological mechanisms behind how SMR works, we can better appreciate its usefulness. SMR is great for providing non-specific neurological effects to help prep for a training session, recover from a training session, or to simply use as a means of continual feedback about what is going on in our bodies.
There is no shortage of anecdotal evidence that tissue work can reduce neural tension, thus improving mobility, flexibility, and opening up previously unavailable ranges of motion. It is important to know that these improvements are usually temporary, and thus SMR is most effectively used in conjunction with movement. For this reason, SMR is quite useful prior to training. For example, if you are going into a training session where you’ll be squatting, and you know that your right hip internal rotation is limited, and performing SMR on the bottom of your right foot and left neck extensors tends to improve your hip mobility deficit, then it’s a great idea to specifically work on those tissues prior to training. By releasing those areas, and then doing some exercises to help increase the functional capacity of the muscles that internally rotate your right hip, you’ll likely increase the efficiency with which you can squat during your training session. Isn’t that the entire purpose of training? To improve the efficiency with which we perform any given movement? SMR can be a valuable tool in this regard.
When it comes to recovery, SMR can work for us in a very similar way. Often times, particularly when we are training with appreciable intensity, the accumulated stimulus from our training sessions has the potential to make us feel stiff, tight, sore, or even create pain as a result. The day after an intense training session can be a prime opportunity to implement SMR. Going back to our original example, let’s say the day after our intense squatting session, we notice that our right adductors are feeling particularly sore and tight. By performing SMR on the adductors, and combining this release with a drill that helps to increase neural drive to the hamstrings, we might potentially be able to reduce the tension and stiffness in the adductors. This can help in the recovery process by allowing the adductors to contract and relax more efficiently, and thus promote better movement of toxic material out of the area and vital nutrients into the area, expediting recovery.
SMR is also a great option for those who do not have easy access to a skilled manual therapist. I will always recommend that people find a good manual therapist to have as an integral part of their health and wellness team. No self-administered techniques will work as effectively as getting treatment from a skilled therapist. That said, many things can hinder our ability to see a therapist regularly. Financial constraints, schedule, or any number of logistical obstacles might prevent us from seeing our therapist when we need to. It’s great to have a secondary option for when we are in a bind and need some sort of therapeutic intervention. Sometimes we just need a quick release to make us feel better to get us through the day, or to tide us over until we get more specific work done. It is also incredibly important to take responsibility for your own musculoskeletal health. Having a go-to modality like SMR puts the ball in your court, and allows you to not have to rely on a therapist every time something feels off.
What is SMR NOT Useful For?
Due to the nature of SMR being relatively non-specific, it can have several shortcomings when it comes to addressing specific issues. While I just spent a good chunk of time espousing the usefulness of SMR when it comes to prepping for or recovering from training, we must understand it has its limitations.
A common approach is to roll out anything that feels tight. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it doesn’t. Most the time it helps, but only temporarily. This is why combining SMR with movements is usually more effective than SMR alone. However, the answer is not always simply, “if it’s tight stretch it,” or “if it’s painful, release it.” With this mindset we will often go after the areas that are symptomatic. However, as I already briefly touched on, often times the area where we feel symptoms is not necessarily where the symptoms are originating from.
This is perhaps the biggest shortcoming of all when it comes to self myofascial release techniques: they are almost purely focused on creating neurological changes by manipulating muscles and connective tissues. Very often it is the case where the symptoms are not being generating via the tissues at all, but instead are the result of deeper neurological mechanisms. Sometimes a muscle is tight or painful, not because there is some inherent quality in the muscle itself, but instead because of dysfunction in an associated ligament, or an associated organ, or an due to an emotional trigger, or perhaps is lingering dysfunction from an old injury or surgery.
When we breakdown the hierarchy of functional neurology, the muscles and tissues themselves are the most superficial aspect of any dysfunction. Citing our previous example, our adductors might feel super tight and restricted after squatting because of dysfunction within the adductors themselves, but more than likely the true or more significant source of the neural tension could be coming from aberrant signaling from any number of associated ligaments, lumbar nerve root compression, endocrine system dysfunction, or the circulation/sex meridian, to name but a few other potential factors. If looked at from a biomechanical perspective, we might notice that the adductors tend to be over-recruited in gait, and this dysfunction might carry over to the squat. Perhaps getting the adductors to work better in rotational gait patterns is what is needed to reduce the chronic adductor tension to allow the adductors to work more efficiently in a squat. The variables are endless. SMR simply does not address the numerous other variables potentially creating or perpetuating symptoms.
I highlighted the importance of considering various neurological mechanisms when attempting to resolve tension or pain. This is not to imply that tissues don’t need addressing. As with any case, whether or not the tissues are driving neurological dysfunction, or whether neurological dysfunction is driving tissue restriction, it simply depends on the specific individual. More often than not, neurological mechanisms are more of a priority. However, plenty of times it is the case where until we address the adhesive or scarred quality of the tissue, the issue may not fully resolve.
When it comes to the topic of breaking up scar tissue, a foam roller or lacrosse ball is likely not the best tool for the job. Generally, we need something a bit more aggressive and specific. Instrument-assisted soft-tissue mobilization (IASTM), active release techniques (ART), or any other number of techniques administered by a skilled manual therapist are usually better ways of actually breaking up adhesions and scar tissue. It’s not as often that the breaking up of scar tissue is necessary, but when it is, we should seek out the best options. Foam rollers and balls are simply not the best options here.
How to Most Effectively Use SMR in Your Movement Practice
As I touched on earlier, self myofascial release is most effective when used in conjunction with targeted mobility drills and specific and strategized movement. The exercises we use, the intensity with which we perform them, and the order in which we sequence everything all matter. In order to get most out of the tissue work we do, we should have a good understanding of what other potential areas of our body are feeding into our symptoms.
Ultimately our goal when using SMR is improve neural tone and soft tissue quality in attempts to relieve or reduce symptoms like pain, tightness, weakness, or restricted movement. Knowing that we are only creating a temporary downregulation of the tissues we are targeting, we must use movements to reinforce the corrections we are attempting to make.
As far as what tools to use for SMR, not all are created equal. There are dozens of different foam rollers, balls, sticks, etc. Some are soft, some are hard, some even vibrate. I’ve seen just about everything out there, and I have a stand alone favorite tool when it comes to performing self-guided tissue work. A good friend and colleague of mine, Jill Miller, has created not only fantastic products for rolling out your tissues, but has also created an entire system of rolling, exercises, and education that can really help to guide you on your path to self-care through quality SMR. Foam rollers are too general to be useful outside of maybe rolling out your quads and lats. Lacrosse balls and golf balls are WAY to hard to allow for the proper relaxation necessary, not to mention you have to careful around bony landmarks when using them. The Roll Model balls are made of soft foam rubber, and come in various sizes to allow you to target any area of your body that needs work. If you are looking for the best tool for SMR, check out Jill stuff here: https://www.therollmodel.com/
Using SMR prior to a workout should be targeted and specific (e.g. release tissues restricting any given movement, see if that movement is more accessible after SMR, and then reinforce said movement by DOING said movement).
When it comes to the actual implementation of SMR, here are some key things to know when getting after your tissues:
Use it specifically and sparingly. There is no need to spend countless hours releasing your tissues. Rather than spending 30-45 minutes before a training session rolling out EVERYTHING, go after the key areas you know to give you the most improvement for the movement you are working on that day, and leave it at that.
Go slowly. Aggressively and rapidly smashing your legs on a foam roller like a rolling pin is not nearly as effective as scanning slowly, finding an area that feels particularly gunky, and then staying on that spot until it releases.
Focus on breathing and relaxation. If you stick a lacrosse ball into your calves, yet it is so uncomfortable and painful that you spend the whole time tensing up and guarding, you aren’t really doing anything useful. Remember, the mechanisms behind SMR are neurological. We are trying to reduce neural tone. Going too aggressively will simply increase neural tone via guarding, not decrease it. In the same way you should try to breath and relax to facilitate a better stretch, we want to have the same approach when it comes to releasing our tissues.
Hopefully this provided some useful insights when it comes to understanding self myofascial release. There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to SMR. The better we understand the physiological mechanisms behind our symptoms, the more effectively we can choose a therapeutic intervention. Whether we are trying to simply reduce muscle tightness, pain, or increase range of motion and mobility, SMR can be a useful tool in our toolbox. Just make sure you understand the full context, so that you also know when and how to apply it, and when it might be a good idea to seek additional help from a qualified professional.