It doesn’t matter if you’re an athlete pushing your limits or a desk jockey. Give it some time and a musculoskeletal injury will occur sooner or later. It can come from developing a faulty movement pattern when you walk, run, do housework or exercise, or just sit at your desk to work. If one part of your body is not performing optimally, it will cause another part of the body to compensate, and over time, this can cause a muscular imbalance. Imbalances can come from overusing one side of the body more than the other, from poor posture or, from an accident or old injury. Eventually this can lead to injury because one area of the body will be getting stronger or tighter while another gets weaker. If you’re the proactive type, you may go to a Physical Therapist or Chiropractor to get balanced out when you feel something isn’t quite right. But too many of us let the little aches and pains fester until they get so bad we need to go to the doctor – we may even get so used to having them we forget they’re there. Aside from needing medical treatment eventually, there’s another down side to living with these buggersome, low-level aches and pains and that’s stress. Subjecting our bodies to chronic stress can lead to a whole other host of icky issues like increased levels of cortisol (hello belly fat), increased risk factors for diseases, and generally just not being pleasant to be around.
Fortunately there is a method of self-care therapy you can do fairly easily that has shown to be effective in combating these maladies. It’s called Self-Myofascial Release (SMR) and you’ve probably seen some form of it or even tried it. The most common method you’ve seen at a gym, studio or physical therapist’s office is the foam roller, but that’s just one of several tools.
First let’s get some definitions down and see why SMR is even a thing.
- What is fascia? Fascia a type of highly innervated connective tissue throughout your body (primarily made of collagen) that creates a three-dimensional matrix of structural support and is part of a body wide system that transmits tensional force.
- Is myofascia different? Kinda. Here we’re specifically talking about muscle fascia or, “myofascia,” meaning the fascia that permeates and surrounds the muscles, bones, nerves and blood vessels. Myofascia is directly related to movement because it transmits force throughout the body, allowing us to move in multiple directions.
- What is SMR? Self Myofascial Release is simply a form of manual therapy you can do by yourself to ease areas of tightness in the fascia that is causing muscle pain and potentially restricting blood flow.
- When doing SMR, you may encounter specific “trigger points” which are tender spots in distinct, taut bands of hardened muscle and oh man, when you hit one, you know it! The general term is for pain from trigger points is referred to as Myofascial Pain Syndrome (MPS). Bringing this all full circle, trigger points can also cause muscle imbalances since they can affect our movement patterns when we’re trying to avoid pain. Like a domino effect, trigger points can refer pain to other areas, create adhesions (what we call “knots” in a muscle), limit our movements and increase risk of injury.
Performing SMR may be an effective solution and one which the fitness industry and manufacturers have caught onto a while ago. Self-care treatments including “foam rolling,” the most common form of SMR, has even been a top industry trend for the past few years.
Although research in the field is still new and emerging and, some studies have come to different conclusions in regards to certain benefits, overall the effects of SMR and foam rolling have been very positive.
SMR is also versatile. It can be used as a warm-up before exercise or as a cool-down afterwards because it circulates fresh, oxygenated blood through soft tissue which can speed up recovery, stave off DOMS (delayed onset muscles soreness), improve range of motion and flexibility which makes fascia healthier.
According to experts performing SMR regularly can:
- Help correct muscle imbalances
- Help Muscles Relax
- Improve range of motion in joints and optimize length-tension relationships
- Decrease soreness and improve tissue recovery
- Reduce or suppress pain from sensitive trigger points
- Improve elasticity of muscles and reduce muscular hypertonicity (chronically contracted short, tight muscles)
- Improve neuromuscular efficiency for better movement
- Decrease the overall effects of stress
Products for SMR have exploded over the past several years. Here are some types of tools you can use:
- The foam roller. Many varieties exist from super soft and gentle to meat grinders. Above are my three go-to’s. I regularly use the bumpy roller, lovingly referred to as the “meat grinder” because the soft spikes feel like fingers digging into my muscles. It also comes in a harder density for masochists. If you like deep tissue massage, you’ll dig this one (subtle pun intended). The Grid by Trigger Point became a huge hit with trainers. It has a three-dimensional surface which the company says “allows tissue to aerate while you roll, promoting the flow of blood and oxygen—the nutrients needed to repair muscles.” And of course there is the namesake, the foam roller made of Styrofoam or similar material. There are plenty of brands to choose from and you can find a wide range of densities and sizes.
- Massage balls. Back in the days when mainly just Physical Therapists used myofascial release tools, my PT gave me 2 tennis balls duct taped together and a golf ball for a couple of my injuries, but like foam rollers, massage balls have really evolved. There are different sizes, densities and materials for whatever ails you from soft and squishy to hard and spikey balls resembling a medieval weapon. A pair of massage balls is great to put on either side of your vertebrae in the upper back area and in between the shoulder blades to release those nasty knots (known as adhesions which are usually a small section of muscle in spasm). Using one ball is great for getting into the hips (front, side and back). Tight hip flexors, butt muscles (particularly the piriformis just under the glute max as well as the sides of the glutes) and the Tensor Fascia Latae (the side of the hip / upper outer thigh) are problem areas for most people who either sit for long periods of time without stretching or workout a lot. Basically, a lot of people!
- Stick rollers and foot rollers. Stick rollers are great for areas you can reach yourself, like your thighs and calves. But if you have a partner or trainer, it’s a really convenient way for someone else to do myofascial release on you. With stick rollers, you don’t rely on the weight of your body to create the pressure on the muscle, rather, you can adjust the pressure with your hands. Foot rollers are great for people with plantar fasciitis or neuromuscular foot pain and you can easily adjust the pressure with your foot. These are gentler than a ball because the surface area is more spread out. They can also be used on the calves or thighs depending on the width of the roller.
- Mechanical or electrical massagers. Aaaah….. for the truly lazy SMR’er. Like a stick roller, you can hit a few key areas by yourself like your legs, but you’ll need a friend to get your back. And believe me, it’s good to have a friend for this. While there are plenty of mechanical massage devices out there which can be purchased at various retail stores from Walgreen’s to Brookstone, the MyoBuddy takes it to a whole new level. When I came across them at a fitness convention this past summer, there was a line of people waiting to get MR’d. When it was my turn, I understood why. You know those motorized buffers they use on your car when it gets detailed? It’s a lot like that but this heats up and vibrates too! The company describes it as “a professional grade deep tissue, warming, trigger point and vibrational massage in the palm of your hand.” It’s hard for me to even call it myofascial release because it isn’t painful whereas MR or SMR generally incorporates some amount of “good” pain. At my house, we refer to the MyoBuddy as “the Buffer.”
If you’re new to doing SMR, it would be best to have a professional show you how to use specific tools, which techniques to use and where to use them. Many of the tools come with basic instructions and there are books and videos you can also learn from, using the wrong tools for your body or the wrong techniques could backfire. Note that there are certain medical conditions in which doing SMR are not recommended. For example, people with congestive heart or organ failure, bleeding disorders, or skin conditions should speak to their primary care giver first.