Myofascial Release: Foam Roll Your Way to Better Fitness Results

Your workouts and desk chair are doing a number on your muscles—and inhibiting the effectiveness of your exercise routine.

You know that foamy, cylindrical, piece of equipment you’ve been seeing pretty much everywhere—from your Instagram feed to your after work grinds at the gym? If you’re still baffled as to what exactly it is and how it fits into your workout routine, don’t sweat it—we’re about to school you on foam rolling.

Foam rolling, known amongst fitness professionals and the really technical as Self Myofascial Release (SMR), is actually a stretching technique that relies on gentle force or pressure applied to targeted muscles. Now before you start envisioning how you can bring this roller into your warm up or cool down routine; let’s consider what it really means to stretch and how SMR can not only improve the key movement patterns of your workout, but also lead to efficient post-workout recovery, and ultimately improved fitness results.

Stretching: From Static to SMR

As a personal trainer, I encourage all of my clients to stretch before and after our sessions. This is a key step since stretching releases tension in the targeted muscles.

If we jump into a workout—be it cardio, strength, or power based—with tight muscles, we’re not going to get the most out of certain movements and the workout overall will be less effective. Similarly, if we end a workout without a cool-down stretch the chances of muscle tightness or delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) increase.

Your muscles need to have a base level of flexibility and elasticity in order to work through the full range of motion of an exercise. Stretching allows for a lengthening of the muscle fibers, which improves flexibility. This lengthening is also key in reducing muscle tightness and soreness post workout.

You can go with the more well-known form of stretching (static) in which you passively take a muscle to the point of tension and hold the stretch for a minimum of 30 seconds. Think: calf stretches where you plant your heel into the ground and lean forward in a staggered stance, or a rear delt (shoulder) stretch where you extend your arm and pull it across your chest.

This prolonged hold creates an inhibition effect on the spindles deep within the muscle layers that are causing the tightness or reduced elasticity. Static stretching alone won’t always do the trick though, which is where SMR comes in.

When it comes to SMR, what we’re targeting is the fibrous tissue that surrounds and separates muscle tissue, this is the stuff that tightens when overworked during exercise and can result in a knot, which has the potential to impede your next workout. The gentle pressure from foam rolling breaks down the fibrous tissue knots, while promoting blood flow to the area for efficient muscle recovery.

Too Tight to Work(out)

Speaking of impeding a workout, a tight muscle that seemingly has no relation to the exercise at hand may actually be negatively impacting your range of motion, form, and even pain level. For instance, tight lats (a muscle in the back) can totally throw off your overhead press, since the overactive muscle impedes movement patterns in the shoulder. Fortunately, a roll out over a foam roller can begin to fix that.

SMR has a way of manipulating the receptors of the nervous system and allowing for the alteration of muscle extensibility. That gentle pressure placed on the fibrous tissue causes a release that can help you return to a straightened alignment. Pretty similar to how a masseuse would knead out a knot, only the roller and your own body weight are doing all the work.

Keep in mind, though, that these knots and misalignment aren’t just a result of physical activity. Even inactivity can lead to a tight muscle. For instance, prolonged sitting can cause the hamstrings to tighten and poor posture (slouching at the shoulders) can cause tightness in the traps.

So if you’re feeling a little tight, or finding that you’re not getting as deep into those squats as you’d like, here are a few starter tips for giving foam rolling a go:

  1. Relax. There’s already enough tension bundled up in your muscles, so no need to add more. Plus, the more rigid you are the more difficult it will be to break down the tightness.
  2. Scout the tender spots. You want to be sure you are targeting the tightest of areas. They’re typically marked by a feeling of tenderness; similar to that of a bruise, which throbs when pressure is placed on it. This throbbing is actually a tightening of the soft tissue muscle spindle activity.
  3. Roll out. Once you’ve got the tender spot marked you’ll want to roll over it and hold, as you place pressure onto it, for a minimum of 30 seconds. Then roll out to follow back through, repeating for  a series of holds until you feel the tension dissipate; this could be 5 minutes or 30 minutes.

When to foam roll:

  1. Before warming up and static stretches. Research has shown that foam rolling before a workout can enhance range of motion without impairing muscle performance. SMR simply breaks down any lingering tightness or knots, improving the muscle’s ability to lengthen during static stretches, as well as the workout.
  2. During cool down. Being that foam rolling is known to aid in the reduction of DOMS, you could say it’s a pretty solid recovery tool when dealing with exercise-induced muscle damage. SMR may substantially reduce muscle soreness at all time points while substantially improving range of motion.
  3. Special considerations. Foam rolling isn’t limited to just pre- and post-workout. This technique is beneficial for anyone putting their bodies through the daily grind of life, which can result in compromised posture, lack of rest, increased stress, and other lifestyle factors. To break down the tension and balance out the result of daily movement patterns, you may want to consider rolling out before hopping in the shower in the morning or climbing into bed at night.

SMR, Stretch by Stretch

Ready to get started? Here are five basic moves you can use to work out the kinks in specific body parts:

Stretch1

Upper Back

  1. In a seated position on the ground, place the foam roller behind you and lay back so that it sits just below your shoulder blades.
  2. With feet hip-width apart and heels firmly planted, extend your hips upward allowing for pressure from your upper back to be placed into the foam roller.
  3. Begin to roll your upper back along the roller by pushing through the legs until you come across a tender spot.
  4. Once you have the tender spot, hold for 30 seconds and roll out; continuing until you feel the tension dissipate.

Stretch2

Quads

  1. In a kneeling position, place the foam roller in front of you and lay forward over it into a plank position so that the roller sits just below your hips at your upper quads.
  2. With feet hip-width apart and toes balancing on the ground, begin to roll yourself forward with your forearms allowing for pressure from your quads to be placed into the foam roller.
  3. Once you come across a tender spot, hold for 30 seconds and roll out; continuing until you feel the tension dissipate.

Stretch3

Lats

  1. Lie onto your side with the foam roller positioned just beneath your armpit, in a side plank position.
  2. With the leg closest to the ground fully extended, take the opposite leg and bring it in front of you getting a solid footing as you extend your hips and place pressure through your lat muscle into the foam roller.
  3. Begin to roll your lat along the roller by pushing through the grounded leg until you come across a tender spot.
  4. Once you have the tender spot, hold for 30 seconds and roll out; continuing until you feel the tension dissipate.

Stretch4

Hamstrings

  1. In a seated position on the ground, place the foam roller under you so that it sits just below your butt and at the top of your thighs.
  2. With legs fully extended and your hands positioned behind you, palms planted firmly on the ground, extend your hips holding your weight through your arms.
  3. Begin to roll your hamstrings along the roller by walking yourself backwards with your hands until you come across a tender spot.
  4. Once you have the tender spot, hold for 30 seconds and roll out; continuing until you feel the tension dissipate.

Stretch5

IT Band

  1. Lie onto your side with the foam roller positioned just below your hip, in a side plank position.
  2. With the leg closest to the ground fully extended, take the opposite leg and bring it in front of you getting a solid footing as you bring your arms forward for added balance. Extend your hips and place pressure through your IT band into the foam roller.
  3. Begin to roll along the band/outer quad by pushing through the grounded leg until you come across a tender spot.
  4. Once you have the tender spot, hold for 30 seconds and roll out; continuing until you feel the tension dissipate.

Note: Never roll over a joint. Also, keep in mind you may be sore the next day. After all, you are breaking down muscle fibers. Be sure to hydrate and wait at least 48 hours before your next roll out to aid in full muscle recovery.

No Foam Roller? No Problem

If you haven’t took the plunge and invested in a foam roller just yet, you can still mimic the effects of certain exercises using everyday items you have sitting around the house.

Frozen Water Bottle

As a marathon runner and a personal trainer who has trained her fair share of 13.1 to 26.2 clients, there’s no denying the power of a frozen water bottle.

Here’s the deal, we’ve got 33 muscles in our foot alone and a good handful more in our legs, so when you jump into a new routine or hit a familiar one harder than usual, there’s a chance one of these muscles are going to tighten up, which is where our dependable frozen water bottle comes in.

The shape, density and temperature of the bottle are all key. The curvature fits perfectly along the bottom and sides of the foot, while the density of the ice allows for the benefits of self myofascial release. Think massage as you place pressure down onto the bottle along the tight muscles slowly rolling yourself back and forth over it. At the same time, the cold temperature helps reduce inflammation of the muscle.

Rolling Pin

If you’ve had the chance to get rolled out with a massage stick (another SMR tool) after an intense workout, then you know what true muscle relief feels like. Unfortunately, these can be rather pricey pieces of recovery equipment. Fortunately, most of us have the next best thing right in our kitchen drawer: a rolling pin.

The rolling mechanism in the kitchen tool is crucial in your post-workout recovery, as it allows the wooden rod to easily roll over tight muscles relieving tension by compressing and stretching the muscles in segments. Let’s say you went a little overboard with bicep curls or overhead presses, be it in number of reps or weight load, this is the perfect time to have a friend or family member carefully roll out those biceps.

Warm Rice in a Dress Sock

Warm compresses are great post workout, especially if you’ve developed a muscle strain. The elevated temperature increases blood flow to the area, in turn aiding in the flush of workout byproducts like lactic acid creating an opportunity for healing.

Simply take a cup or two of rice, microwave it for three minutes and carefully transport it into a dress sock. You want to be sure the sock is made out of a thin material so that it allows the heat to transmit through to your body. Simply place your body weight into the warmth, just as you would onto a foam roller.