What is Self-Myofascial Release?
Self-myofascial release has been gaining popularity among active individuals, but most are not entirely sure why they are participating in this new craze. The purpose of self-myofascial release is to break up adhesions, or more commonly known as knots. Muscles contain two neural receptors, the Golgi Tendon Organ and Muscle Spindles. These receptors are involved in reflex relaxation and reflex contraction and when pressure is placed on muscles and their musculotendinous junctions, the Golgi Tendon Organ overtakes muscle spindle activation causing the muscle to relax, releasing tension, known as autogenic inhibition. Self-myofascial release provides many physiological benefits to the body when done properly.
Range of Motion and Flexibility
Fascial restrictions can occur in the body after intense workouts, injuries, and lack of exercise leading to a decrease in range of motion and flexibility. A study designed to examine the effects of SMR as part of a warm-up on quadriceps range of motion and muscle activation was conducted over four sessions using eleven college aged males. Their results indicated a significant increase in knee range of motion by 7-10 degrees when self-myofascial release was applied to the quadriceps. After two minutes post-foam rolling an increase of 12.7% was seen in knee joint ROM and after 10 minutes, an increase of 10.3% was seen. Not only did foam rolling increase range of motion, their study also discovered that this increase in ROM did not have a negative impact on muscular force production, which is a common drawback for static stretching. The healthy fascia that is found around our muscles is rather fluid-like, but as the body begins to break down and physical activity begins to decrease, the fascia begins to take a thicker form. With continuous stress or lack thereof, scar tissue begins to form creating adhesions. The purpose of the self-myofascial release is to break down these adhesions by applying a constant pressure. This pressure creates heat at the muscles which helps return the now solid fascia back to its fluid-like form.
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness
Delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS for short, consists of muscle pain following a high intensity or unfamiliar workout. Sometimes DOMS is so severe that people will actually discontinue their exercise program until DOMS has disappeared. The only issue with this is that DOMS could take multiple days to cease and by the time the individual beings exercising again DOMS will prevail once again due to the bodies inability to familiarize itself with an exercise routine. According to an article in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, patients who foam rolled after a high intensity exercise had a significantly lower perceived pain than those who did not foam roll post exercise. Although self-myofascial release does not completely rid the body of DOMS, after only ten minutes of foam rolling, the pain is reduced for up to thirty minutes. For athletes who complete multiple high intensity workouts per week, DOMS is a continuous issue without a cure that can lead to performance decrements up to 72 hours post exercise. By including self-myofascial release in an athletes post-exercise protocol, it can provide a cost effective and efficient modality to enhancing muscle performance as well as decreasing perceived pain.
Atherosclerosis, the hardening of the arteries, is a leading cause of heart disease and stroke. This stiffening prevents arteries from properly regulating blood flow and can create high blood pressure and damage to vital organs, but there is a way to combat this. According to a study consisting of ten healthy young adults, the use of foam rolling significantly reduced arterial stiffness and improved vascular endothelial function. Although, it is unclear to what caused the decrease in arterial stiffness after the myofascial release, the study mentions a potential culprit, being enhanced endothelial function. Vascular endothelial cells regulate vascular activity by producing plasma norepinephrine, which plays a vital role in arterial stiffness. This study tested the plasma NO concentration before myofascial release and post-myofascial release and discovered an increase in plasma NO, suggesting that myofascial release decreases arterial stiffness. The findings of this study also suggest that one session of foam rolling proves to have many cardiovascular benefits and that myofascial release can be used to increase overall health in adults, whether it is used post-exercise or not.
Types of Self-myofascial Release
Studies have shown the benefits of self-myofascial release, but unless the participant understands how to release fascia, they may not receive those same benefits. The first step is knowing what equipment to use. There are different tools to perform self-myofascial release including foam rollers, trigger point balls, massage sticks, and even cheaper alternatives such as lacrosse balls, golf balls, and tennis balls.
Each of these tools target different areas of the body and are used for slightly different purposes, but they all accomplish the same goal, myofascial release. Foam rollers provide a constant pressure and is commonly used when targeting large muscle groups and entire body myofascial release. Trigger point balls are used for specific areas on the body where an individual experiences a pin point pain, known as a knot or trigger point. By using a trigger point ball, lacrosse ball, golf ball, or tennis ball, the individual is able to release the tension in that one area by providing more pressure than a foam roller because of the smaller surface area of the ball. Lastly, a massage stick may be easier to use for some individuals who are not as mobile as you are able to apply pressure onto your muscles using your arms. A mistake beginners make when purchasing their first foam roller is knowing what density to purchase.
Foam Roller Denisty
For a beginner who is not use to the feeling of myofascial release, as it may be uncomfortable and sometimes painful, they should start with a standard density foam roller that provides a medium firmness. As an individual progresses, firm density foam rollers are available for a deeper, more intense massage.
Foam Rolling Technique
Although foam rolling is a very safe and effective way to relieve muscle tension and increase blood flow, there are a few safety directions to consider before reaping the full benefits. When foam rolling, a low load rolling force must be applied across the tissue, at a rate of about one inch per second, to achieve myofascial release. Too fast and you may be doing more harm than good. It is also good to remember that whatever body part you are foam rolling, there must be a bony surface behind the myofascial release point you are targeting or else you might irritate internal organs. When foam rolling the muscles of your back, make sure to proceed with caution over the spine. Highly dense foam rollers lead to an increased pressure on the spine and core which could decrease its benefit.
What to Foam Roll?
Now that we’ve discussed foam rolling technique and precautionary measures, we can focus on key and common areas of the body that will greatly benefit from myofascial release:
- Pectoralis Major
- Opening Chest
- Latissimus Dorsi
- Upper Shoulders and Traps
- Thoracic Spine
- Lumbar Spine
When foam rolling these areas, make sure you are applying enough pressure/weight to achieve myofascial release. Sometimes you may have to maneuver your body to get the right amount of pressure. Foam rolling is rather an art and there are hardly strict rules on how to foam roll muscles. Some tips to consider is to foam roll parallel to the muscle fibers and to apply enough pressure until there is slight discomfort. This discomfort tells you that you have hit a trigger point. Once a trigger point is found, continue to roll over this area to release the balled up tension. According to NASM Elite Trainer’s, when that trigger point is found, is it beneficial to foam roll over that area for 20-30 seconds or until that release is felt. For tight muscles, this release can take longer. It is important to not rush this process and to not quit after discomfort is felt, as it will subside after 30 seconds.
Foam rolling has also been proven to help correct posture and alignment. Most individuals are constantly hunched over whether its working a desk job, sitting in lectures all day, or even looking at their phones.
Most of our stress builds up in our upper back and by releasing that tension, your chest can actually open up leading to better posture.
When to Foam Roll?
Now that we understand the reasoning and uses for myofascial release, it is important to know when to implement it into your exercise programming and routine. Foam rolling prior to a workout can help decrease muscle density and promote a better warm-up by reducing muscle tension, improving muscle length, and increasing blood flow. Foam rolling post-workout benefits muscle recovery by reducing muscle soreness. So, is there a specific time and place to foam roll? Absolutely not, but it is more beneficial for an athlete to foam roll before and after an intense bout of exercise.