This article is largely summarizing the “background” aspect of a workshop/presentation we were asked to do this past week. Due to popular demand, the chosen topic for it was “Self-Mobility,” or in the words of many clients/gym members, “teach us more about foam rolling.” I think it is a great topic to break down because there are a lot of misconceptions of what foam rolling does do and what it doesn’t do. If we can gain a different perspective of the reasons behind the things that we do, we will be able to utilize them more effectively. Kelly Starrett often says “If you give people better information, they’ll make better decisions.” So here it comes.
Let’s start with a little anatomy background relevant to the topic. I promise I’ll be quick. All movement comes from bones moving relatively to other bones. Our skeletal system is our deepest layer. All the bones are attached to each other by groups of fibers called ligaments. Then we have muscles which attach at each end to bones by tendons. Your brain calls all the shots and it has nerves which lead from it all the way to each muscle (as well as all other structures), telling it to contract, and when it shortens it pulls the bone to move. Most people get that part. An often neglected and important aspect of your anatomy is a structure called fascia. Fascia is like a webbing that wraps around every muscle fiber, tendon, ligament, nerve, and bone lining, making the body one interconnected unit. Everyone has peeled an orange before right? Oranges have fascia, well maybe it’s called something different in fruit but same idea. You rip off the peel, separating the outer layer and you see those white fibrous webs tearing. But then you still have the orange kept in place by deeper layers which hold all the orange slices together, which you can rip apart further. You can even tear into each slice without it popping and spilling OJ everywhere. The primary purposes of this fascia are to provide stability to the body’s structures and to store energy, allowing force to be absorbed and released elastically, kind of like a trampoline. You can’t tell your fascia to contract consciously, like you can with muscles, but it can tighten as a reaction to physical, emotional, or subconscious stimuli.
This is where we start to run into trouble, because to move and exercise properly, we need full range of motion. And to have full ROM, we need to have all the tissue layers of our body gliding over each other freely and smoothly. If this fascia starts contracting and shortens, or the fibers get stuck together, causing what we call adhesions, then the body cannot move freely. It will be restricted by the lack of fascial pliability. This tension can cause us pain and can cause us to compensate in other pain-inducing ways. To visualize these restrictions, you can imagine if you tug on the bottom corner of your shirt, how tension would be translated across the rest of your shirt and you could see your opposite sleeve shift. It would prevent you from being able to move all the way if you tried to rotate to the opposite direction. Similar restrictions can happen in muscle fibers, where as a result of overuse or underuse, the muscle fibers can get sections where there are micro-cramps going on called trigger points (AKA knots) which cause tension and restrict movement, as well as cause pain because the waste products get trapped because circulation can’t get through. Lastly we can have entire muscles that get tight in an over-contracted way due to the brain telling it to be active. These muscles feel firm and constantly engaged. Often they are caused by a lack of activation/weakness elsewhere that they feel the need to compensate for. These will restrict motion and cause weakness as well. This is what we would call a muscle tension problem.
So what do we do about it? Certainly part of the equation is to address the causes such as weakness of other muscles, bad posture, or overtraining. The fun part of the equation is that we get to release it. Surely it would be ideal to go see an awesome physical therapist, massage therapist, or chiropractor who does soft tissue work, but those people aren’t going to be following you around 24/7 unless you’re somebody like Kobe Bryant who actually does have that. For the rest of us we can do self-myofascial release, which might be foam rolling or might be using some other devices to apply pressure in a way that increases our flexibility and decreases pain. This happens through improving the elasticity of the fascia, increasing muscular temperature, increasing circulation, changing your brain’s perception of tension, un-sticking those adhesions, and decreasing over-activation. These qualities should all allow us to express more movement with less pain.
This takes care of the pathological side, but there are also uses that can apply even if you feel and move great. These take place in the realm of exercise preparation and recovery. Primarily, many of us would benefit from improving our mobility before a workout, unless you’re in the hypermobile 10-20% of population, but the increase in temperature and circulation and also improved awareness of your body are beneficial to prepare you to train. Other means of gaining flexibility like stretching decrease power output, and can be less than ideal before a workout, but foam rolling has been proven to increase range of motion without negatively affecting muscle activation. Recovery is the other end of this spectrum. Self-mobilization after exercise has been shown in research to improve performance long term, decrease inflammation, increase cellular adaptation after workouts, and decrease anxiety to put you in a more relaxed state throughout the day. In my experience working in the NFL I saw teams start every workout with a foam rolling routine, and we lay out all types of rollers and balls to use prior to games. Those are multi-million dollar athletes who have league-mandated limitations on workout time, so they really value bang-for-their-buck and time efficiency. It says a lot that they prioritize these techniques instead of adding more exercises.