Beginner's Guide to Self Myofascial Release

As part of an article I wrote a few months back on warming-up before exercise, I briefly touched on a soft-tissue mobilization technique called self-myofascial release (SMR).  SMR is a popular form of self-massage used to reduce soft-tissue stiffness, aid post-workout recovery, and maintain normal muscular function.  

Although many of these techniques originated in the rehabilitative setting, SMR has gained a lot of popularity with fitness professionals over the last decade. In most health clubs, foam rollers and massage balls are as common as treadmills and tank tops. 

Despite the growing popularity of SMR techniques, I still find that most people are confused about its proper place in their strength and conditioning program. Is it a simple matter of gyrating your hips against a cylinder of hard-foam for a few minutes at the beginning or end of every workout?  Or is there more to it that you should know?

It turns out there is quite a bit more to understanding the important role that SMR plays in your overall health and musculoskeletal function.  And there’s no better place to start than getting to know one of the most abundant substances in your body – fascia.  

The Wonderful World of Fascia

If you understand fascia, then you understand that a lot of what we thought we knew about the musculoskeletal system was wrong.  Muscles are not isolated entities with clearly defined borders and individualized functions.  Our musculoskeletal system is just that: a system of systems, linked together by a highway of connective tissue we call fascia.

Fascia penetrates and surrounds every muscle and organ in our body.  It links together muscles, and groups of muscles, from the top of our skulls (epicranial fascia) to the bottom of our feet (plantar fascia).

It is made up of tightly packed collagen and elastin fibers, woven together like the fibers of a sweater, that are reside in a gel-like bath called ground substance.  Ground substance has the unique ability to go from gel to liquid-form in response to pressure, heat, or stretch.

Fascia also contains specialized cells called fibroblasts, which give it the ability to produce more fascia. This usually occurs along lines of mechanical stress as a sort of reinforcement mechanism. You see this happen a lot, especially in the upper/middle back of office workers.    

As a corollary to being able to reproduce itself, fascial tissue also contains smooth muscle cells and proprioceptors embedded within its cellular matrix.  These give it the means to not only sense stretch and positional change, but the ability to contract or relax in response to it as well (another thing that we thought only muscle could do).  Fascia contains up to nine times as many mechanoreceptors than regular muscle tissue. 

The two main types of proprioceptors in fascia are Ruffini and Pacini endings.  Ruffini endings decrease muscle tone and inhibit sympathetic nervous system activity in response to stretch or direct pressure.  Conversely, Picini endings tense your muscles in response to pressure or vibration, providing joint stability throughout the body.


Houston, We Have a Problem

Unfortunately, the qualities that make fascia so dynamic also make it susceptible to deformation.  Fascial tissue that is repeatedly exposed to excessive strain can become dense, knotted or otherwise stuck together.  These areas of increased tension and are called adhesions.  These adhesions can cause your muscles to lose independent movement, dragging their neighbors along with them for every movement. 

Adhesions often develop around the site of previous injury and in areas of high mechanical stress like the upper back, neck, rotator cuff, glutes, and calves.  They often cause decreased blood flow, are painful to the touch, and alter normal posture. 

Fortunately, there are a number of excellent myofascial release techniques to choose from to keep these adhesions at bay.  Myofascial release is a manual therapy technique in which gentle, sustained pressure is used on the soft tissues while traction is applied to the fascia. This technique results in softening and lengthening of the fascia and breaking down of scar tissue and adhesions between skin, muscles and bones.

The most important tools in your toolbox

Although myofascial release therapies traditionaly required the assistance of a qualified body worker, we now have the luxury of performing many of these techniques on our own.   

Below are three inexpensive, yet highly effective tools that I put to use at the beginning of every workout.  Each helps to reduce compensatory movement patterns, gets blood flowing to muscle and fascial tissue, and allows the joints to move with greater freedom. 

Foam Roller

Investing in a quality foam roller should be the starting point in any soft-tissue management program.  They're inexpensive, easy to use, and readily accessible in most gyms now.  The roller itself is a six-inch-round, foam-celled cylinder that looks like a big pool noodle.  To use it, simply put the roller on the ground and allow the weight of your body to press into the surface of the roller. 

You should roll at a slow pace, building up a deliberate wave of pressure over tender areas until they become less sensitive.  The pressure from the roller will produce a deep local stretch, pushing apart the gnarled tissue and relaxing over-stimulated fibers.

It’s best to begin rolling muscles at their proximal (closest to the body) attachments, then work distally (away from the center) to accommodate changes in intramuscular tension.   

As you get more comfortable on the roller, you should bear down with increased force.  Move from working both legs at once to one leg at a time, or stack one of your legs on top of the other to increase the amount of pressure.

If you’ve never been on a foam roller, I would recommend starting on a Perform Better Elite Molded Roller. If you have more experience rolling, and want to dial-up the intensity, try out the RumbleRoller.  Its surface contains specially designed bumps that are firm, but flexible, much like the thumbs of a massage therapist.  Plus, it gets bonus points for looking like a mid-evil torture device.

Lacrosse Ball (a.k.a. Pain Ball)

If the foam roller is a shotgun that peppers entire muscles with blunt waves of pressure, then the Lacrosse ball is more like a rifle that can be aimed with pinpoint accuracy.

As much as I love the foam roller, its size can prevent you from getting enough pressure on some hard to reach areas like the high hamstring attachments, hip rotators and rhomboids.

That is where the Lacrosse ball comes in so handy.  It’s small enough to get into the tightest spots, and hard enough to melt the densest fibers.  The only possible drawback is that it can, at times, be excruciatingly painful. If you find that this is the case, a tennis ball makes a good substitute.    

‘‘The Stick”

Aptly named, the original “Stick” is a 24-inch flexible plastic baton outfitted with a series of hard plastic rollers that is also great for hard to access areas.  I like this tool best to work the calves (especially in the front), quadriceps, anterior hip, neck, and IT-band.  It has a higher degree of precision than the roller, but with less overall pressure than the Lacrosse ball.

If you are willing to be a little creative, you can also use the “Stick” to get at the hard to reach upper traps.  Do this by anchoring one end of it against a wall, while using your opposite hand to guide the other end. 


Final Thoughts

When should I perform SMR?

There is some debate about whether SMR should be done at the beginning or end of a workout.  I’m not so sure there is a 100% correct answer here.  I do it as part of my warm-up in order to decease tension and improve range of motion before I lift.  That’s not to say you would be wrong if you programmed it as part of the cool down to kick-start the recovery process.         

How often should I do it?

To borrow a frequently repeated phrase from veteran strength coach Dan John; “if it’s important, do it every day.”  Every day we create the problems, so we should dedicate every day to fixing them. 

Is SMR right for everyone?

Not necessarily.  I do not prescribe SMR to clients who are hypermobile.  These people already have drastically reduced muscle tone, and therefore must over-rely on their passive tissue (i.e. ligaments and cartilage) for stability.  Pushing them further down the rabbit hole of instability doesn’t seem to make much sense. 

Should I see a massage therapist instead of doing SMR?

There are certain times where seeing a massage therapist, chiropractor or other qualified manual therapist is recommended.  I will be dedicating a separate post to exploring this subject in more depth soon.  What I will say is that if you are seeing a therapist for soft-tissue work, then it would still make sense to reinforce that work with SMR between sessions. 

About the Author

Adam Vogel

Adam Vogel is the founder of Pure Performance Training. He is a Certified Personal Trainer (CPT) through the International Sports Science Association, a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) through the National Strength and Conditioning Association, an Exercise Coach (EC) through the Corrective and Holistic Exercise Kinesiology Institute in San Diego, a certified Functional Movement Screening Specialist (FMS), and Level 1 (KBC) Kettlebell Instructor.

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