To Roll Or No To Roll

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Foam rolling, or using any other tool like balls or fit sticks, is quite the fad. You walk into any gym, or watch any fitness expert they will tell you to foam roller your injuries out.

You may even have your physiotherapist or chiropractor tell you to foam roller different part of your legs, hips and calves.

What is exactly happening inside when you do foam rolling or any other type of tool for self-myofascial release (SMR)?

For starters when you roll you aren’t just rolling connective tissue or fascial tissue – nerve, muscle, skin, vessels, they are all getting ‘rolled’ too.

When you roll you essentially squeeze out the liquid or water out of the tissue, and then it gets sucked back in when the pressure moves or is taken away. This isn’t a bad phenomena.

It won’t make the area stronger or ‘loosened’ but it will promote flow of blood and other fluids in our tissue which is healthy.

So what about it is bad? Well I won’t say anything about is bad, but what we are intending to accomplish with the rolling may not be occurring.

Most people use the foam roller to loosen tissue, or stretch a part of the body out. Fascial tissue requires quite a large degree of pressure to cause it to stretch. The amount of pressure would probably leave you screaming and in pain for a while.

So what is it doing.

Deep sustained pressure can stimulate certain nerve endings that would improve dilation of your blood vessels bringing more oxygen and nutrients to the tissues in the area.

This sustained pressure is best when it is done in a shearing way. Making sure your tool stays still and you slowly, very slowly roll over it would attain this.

How about the ‘sensationful’ feeling of using such tools? Some may suggest that that pain you feel is good. That you are working through something.

In reality, too much will cause the local tissues and blood vessels to contract which is counter productive to what we are trying to accomplish. As well, it will stimulate free nerve endings that will signal pain responses reducing muscle activity in the area which only exposes us to possible injury.

If you are rolling through pain in areas where there was an old bone break and the connective tissue, or ‘scar’ tissue, has accumulated is probably the only time I would suggest rolling through pain.

What rolling is very useful for is to ‘awaken’ areas of the body that have sensori-motor amnesia, loss of awareness and activity.

For that useful process, you don’t need to roll your IT Band, the most common area rolled with foam rollers and other devices.

This area has plenty of activity throughout the day keeping you standing on two feet. As well it is dense connective tissue similar to your plantar fascia, and they cannot be ‘lengthened’ through foam rolling so don’t think they are doing this. It will definitely leave you feeling better in the area, for a short period of time, but won’t do anything to lengthen the area.

However, areas of the body like the inner thighs, or deep pelvic rotators in your buttocks are good areas.

To put this in practice watch this video to show where you can roll.

In the ideal world, it is much more beneficial and effective for you to see someone who has a deep understanding of the human body to use the right methods to cause change in your body. Having said that, I also understand that you want to be able to effect some change in your body so here are some things to keep in mind.

  1. Move slowly – Fast rolling is less effective at ‘squeezing the sponge’, and can result in creating useless muscle tension, bruising and perhaps receptor damage. The deeper you are going, the more slowly you should move.
  2. Look for ‘unknown’ places – Doing the same rolling program continually has rapidly diminishing returns. Keep rolling different places in your body, and look for the places you haven’t touched yet, and get in there. For example: Lying on your side and rolling the inner side of your upper thigh over the roller. Rolling the front and back of your armpit. Your back has many, many layers and can be usefully rolled at deeper levels, but will not respond to the same-old-same-old.

Hold the roller or tool still – Move over it to create a shear that will de-adhese the fascial planes.

There is always information that isn’t completely accurate, and approaches that aren’t bio-physiologically accurate so its important for you to be informed. Rolling done with an understanding of what it is doing – improving fluid dynamics, activation and NOT lengthening – and perceptively, with focused attention will provide you with the benefits that this approach provides.

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