Why I Love Self-Myofascial Release
Today’s post discusses Self-Myofascial Release, including what it is, how to do it, and why I love it. I truly believe that proper foam rolling and self-myofascial release techniques are a huge missing piece from so many people’s workout routines.
Hopefully, after reading this post you will be inspired to incorporate at least some self-myofascial release into your routine and reap the benefits! Read on to learn more…
Traditionally, the training focus for soft-tissue (i.e. muscles, tendons, and fascia) has been to stretch the tight and strengthen the weak. If you have a tight muscle, then the remedy is to stretch it until it isn’t tight. If you have a weak muscle, all you need to do is get it stronger and your problem is solved!
While this thought process isn’t necessarily bad, it does not encompass everything that is needed to maintain healthy tissue.
Healthy soft-tissue should not only be strong and flexible, but it should also have good quality and tone.
What do I mean by this?
When I say tissue quality I am referring to the quality of the fibers that make up the muscle or tendon. For example, is the muscle healthy and made up of cells that have good contractile and elastic properties, or is it fibrotic and laden with scar-tissue from injuries that have not healed properly?
Additionally, when I talk about tone I am not using it in the same way as it is used by many group fitness classes or home exercise DVDs which promise you “toned” muscles. Instead, I am referring to the amount of neuromuscular tone that is held by your body.
Neuromuscular tension is driven by your nervous system, and when the nervous system is on overdrive, you end up with muscles that are toned up and tense all the time. In this case, less tone is a good thing for a healthy, mobile body.
So, when it comes to managing the quality and tone of your soft-tissue, you have to look beyond simply stretching and strengthening. You must add something to your training that affects the quality and tone of your muscles, tendons, and fascia.
Enter, Self-Myofascial Release (or SMR).
The reason why I love SMR is because it is a great means by which soft-tissue quality and tone can be regulated.
Now, at this point you may be wondering what I mean by “self-myofascial release.” In order for us to be on the same page, I should probably define my terms.
What is Self-Myofascial Release? Or Myofascia, For That Matter?
Firstly, myofascia is a term that refers to the muscles and fascia (which is simply a sheath of fibrous connective tissue) which are interconnected throughout the entire body. While muscles are the part of the soft-tissue network that are most well-known and studied by anatomy students, it is important to recognize that muscles and fascia do not exist as separate entities.
In fact, fascia intersperses and interconnects the muscles, tendons, and even organs throughout our body to form one continuous soft-tissue network. This continuous network has a much greater say in both our static posture and how our body moves than individually tight or weak muscles.
In order to see this in action try out this simple exercise:
First, from a standing position, perform a forward bend as if to touch your toes. Take note of how low you go and how it feels in that position. Next, stand back up and take a tennis ball or lacrosse ball and begin rolling it along the bottom of just one foot as deep into the tissue as you can while not causing excessive discomfort. Keep this up for about a minute or two, and then retest your forward bend. Take note of the difference in length and feeling from side-to-side running up the back of your leg and into your back. You should feel a difference in the length and tone of your soft-tissue, not just in the foot, but all the way up the posterior chain on the side that you rolled.
Why does this happen? It is simply because your muscles and tendons are not exclusive of one another, but rather are connected via fascial connections.
In this instance your plantar fascia and short toe flexors on the base of the foot are connected to your Achilles tendon and Gastrocnemius (or calf). This connects to your Hamstring, which then connects to your Sacrotuberous ligament (which is a small ligament on the back of the pelvis running from the bone you sit on to your tailbone). The Sacrotuberous ligament integrates into your Sacrolumbar Fascia/Erector Spinae muscles that run along your back from the pelvis to the base of the skull. Finally the connection continues to your Epicranial Fascia, which runs from the back of your skull, over the top of your head, and ends on your forehead.
All of these muscles, tendons, and fascial components of your body are connected through one continuous fascial network. If you’d like to learn more about these concepts, check out Thomas W. Myers’ book “Anatomy Trains.”
Below is a video a Myers demonstrating this line of fascial integration which he has termed the “Superficial Back Line.”
Rolling the ball on the bottom of your foot is, in fact, one form of self-myofascial release. The goal of this exercise is to release tension that is held throughout the soft-tissue line that begins on the base of your foot and runs all the way up the posterior chain. Doing this allows for greater freedom of movement throughout that chain.
Self-myofascial release, then, is basically self-massage. It is any means by which you can perform massage techniques on your body with the goal of causing transient (i.e. lasting only for a short time) changes in soft-tissue tone, quality, length, and mobility.
The most common form of self-myofascial release is foam rolling, but many other modalities, such as using “The Stick,” a tennis ball, or lacrosse ball are also popular and effective.
How Does Self-Myofascial Release Work?
While the jury is still out on the exact mechanisms that cause an SMR technique like foam rolling to be effective, we do know that it is effective.
Based on the evidence we have, it seems that SMR is effective at:
Improving joint range of motion
Improving tissue extensibility
Improving blood circulation
Decreasing muscle soreness
The main way in which SMR affects the soft-tissue, is by a principle known as autogenic inhibition. This refers to the ability of your body to sense changes in tension within the muscles and tendons and to reflexively shut down tone and relax the muscles. This is a protective mechanism that prevents injury when your muscles and tendons encounter increased tension.
What makes this possible is the fact that you have mechanoreceptors within your muscle-tendon junctions that are called Golgi Tendon Organs (GTO’s). These receptors are specifically designed to provide feedback on what kind of pressure changes are occurring in the muscle.
To read more about GTO’s and other mechanoreceptors check out these two articles that I wrote previously: “To Stretch or Not to Stretch: That is the Question – Part I” and “To Stretch or Not to Stretch: That is the Question – Part II.”
Fortunately, we can use this principle to cause relaxation or inhibition of the tension that is in the myofascia. In fact, that is exactly what happened when you rolled the ball on the base of your foot. You didn’t stretch any muscles, but rather you sent a signal to the GTO’s that there was increased tension on the base of the foot, and that your body needed to release tension throughout the chain to accommodate this.
So, with foam rolling or any other means of performing SMR, we can cause short-term changes in tension and length throughout the myofascia. This results in improved range of motion and flexibility without the negative side-effects of decreased power that have been shown to accompany long bouts of static stretching.
This is important when it comes to warming up the body for a workout or competition. SMR allows you to get into the necessary positions without injury, while still maintaining optimal force production capabilities.
Improved blood circulation is also possible because you are decreasing resistance throughout the myofascia and improving tissue quality.
This all results in decreased muscle soreness, which is likely a due to a combination of better tissue extensibility and desensitization of the myofascial unit.
It is also possible that by performing self-myofascial release, you can decrease scar-tissue or adhesions from being present within the myofascia. These can often form because of an injury or because of micro-trauma within the tissue due to repetitive stress and strain.
This lower quality tissue can result in trigger points, or dense, painful knot-like portions of the muscle. Adhesions like this not only cause discomfort, but also impede blood flow, preventing adequate nutrients from getting to the soft-tissue.
How and When to Perform Self-Myofascial Release
There are many different tools available to help you perform SMR, but you should at least have a foam roller and a lacrosse or tennis ball. The foam roller is a more diffuse mode of performing SMR, meaning that it covers a wide area. It is ideal for rolling larger muscles, such as those of the thighs or upper back.
A smaller implement, such as a lacrosse ball, tennis ball, or even a small medicine ball, helps to perform a bit more focal SMR. This is ideal for areas of the body that have smaller muscles, which are harder to get to with a foam roller (e.g. the base of the foot or the shoulder area).
You can experiment with what works best for you, but to get you started here is a foam rolling circuit that more or less covers all your bases:
Another good question to ask is when should you perform SMR? Because SMR acts on the myofascia on a short-term basis to cause release of the tissues and improved mobility, it is ideal to do as part of your warm-up immediately prior to a workout.
The goal is not necessarily to change the length of your myofascia on a long-term basis (although this can happen as you continue with SMR combined with mobility drills and good all-around movement). The goal is to release tension and open up better movement capability prior to your workout.
I generally follow this format with my workouts:
SMR to release tension, allow the body to reset, and move more freely
Targeted mobility and stability exercises (sometimes referred to as corrective exercises) to help remove compensations from the body and allow it to move better
Move right into the power, strength, speed, and conditioning portion of the workout
This format allows you to not only work on strength and athletic development in a workout, but also overall movement ability each time you are in the gym.
Depending on how much tension and movement restriction you have, it may also be a good idea to perform SMR on days that you don’t workout. If you need a lot of work on mobility, then performing SMR along with some mobility drills on 5-6 days of the week is not a bad idea.
Wrapping it up
Hopefully now you have a good idea of what SMR is, how it works, and how and when to do it. Personally, I began foam rolling about four or five years ago, and I haven’t stopped since. More recently I’ve added some work with a lacrosse ball to my SMR routine, and I never begin a workout without performing SMR.
I’ve found that it has not only improved my mobility, but also allows me to manage soreness after a heavy workout. I have also found that the more time I spend sitting, the more it pays to regularly perform soft-tissue work.
Most people lose mobility and flexibility as they get older, but I’m looking forward to maintaining good movement quality by continuing to regularly perform SMR and mobility exercises.
Try it out for yourself, and see the difference it makes. Taking care of your soft-tissue quality and tone pays off, and it will help you prevent injury while maintaining good movement. And that’s why I love Self-Myofascial Release.