Foam rolling is everywhere. You see people in Gyms all over the world grimacing like they just snorted a line of wasabi whilst rolling the hell out of their ITB’s or quads. No pain no gain right???
Foam Rolling, also known as self-myofascial release, is apparently designed to release muscle tightness or ‘trigger points’ and is the go-to thing to do when you’re feeling a bit tight or restricted.
Myofascial release (or self myofascial release, as it’s referred to when you’re going at it solo) aims to relax contracted muscles, improve blood and lymphatic circulation and stimulate the stretch reflex in muscles according to An Osteopathic Approach to Diagnosis and Treatment (3rd Edition) Chapter 12.
Bear that definition in mind as I nerd out for a minute and go into a bit of detail about muscles and reflexes from a Neural Perspective to demonstrate why bashing away at your muscles with a foam roller might not be the best idea if relaxing contracted muscles and stimulating the stretch reflex are what you have in mind….
Now some of you are probably thinking “yeah… but it’s supposed to be for the good of the fascia.” Well that’s awesome, if you could take the fascia out, roll it, then put it back in without affecting the underlying muscle tissue. But you can’t so it’s pointless talking about one and not the other.
Hardware vs Software
Every system in the body is governed by the brain. You can survive without almost any other organ (albeit you’d need to be connected to a machine if some didn’t work) but if you’re brain dead, that’s it. Kaput, Game Over, you’re cactus mate.
Even though the brain is an organ and the nerves are made of tissue like everything else, a good way to envision the relationship between the neural network and the rest of the body is to use a computer analogy. In this analogy, the nervous system will be the software whilst the muscles, fascia, joints, viscera etc are the hardware.
Initially when we enter the health and fitness industry, we’re taught to deal primarily with the hardware, the nervous system is touched on but the intricacies aren’t gone into in much detail, much like the intricacies of nutritional biochemistry isn’t covered in detail, because both are some pretty heavy shit and are beyond the scope of the basic Fitness Certification. Most course providers equip you with the essentials so that you can get by and then leave it to you to study further if you feel that’s the path you want to specialise in.
Behind all of that hardware though is a vast array of complex software, and without this software the rest of the material that we so heavily focus on as fitness professionals would be dead and inert. It is the interaction of the specialised receptors that live in the muscles, joints, skin, fascia, ligaments and tendons with the spinal cord and the brain that brings the tissue to life. When we look at a client’s movement we are really looking at how well the software is controlling the hardware.
Muscle Spindles and Golgi Tendon Organs
Two primary sensory receptors that live in our muscles are neuromuscular spindles and Golgi tendon organs.
In basic terms muscle spindles monitor the length, and the rate of change in length of our muscles constantly. They are under reflexive control and will fire to varying degrees whenever a muscle lengthens to control the motion. They live in the belly of the muscle tissue and can be manipulated in many ways through sensory stimulus, brain based drills and manual manipulation.
Simply put : Spindles when excited facilitate a contraction reflexively within the muscle. This means that if you use a foam roller on the belly of the muscle as the vast majority of people do you are exciting the spindle, causing a reflexive contraction. Remember the goals in the definition above? Well this is about as counter to those goals as you can possibly get.
Golgi tendon organs monitor the level of tension/contraction within a muscle and respond accordingly. Think of a tight pec minor which draws the gleno-humeral joint anteriorly. In this scenario the volume of the pec’s spindle apparatus could be considered to be too high and the GTO’s too low. GTO’s live in the musculotendinous junction and their stimulation, which further increases the tension within the muscle would result in a reflex inhibition of the spindles and ‘relax’ the pec ultimately improving joint centration.
Muscles are either over facilitated or inhibited
There is no contraction without the nervous system. When we describe a muscle as being tight we are really saying that there is too much input going to that muscle. It is never an accident and always an intelligent adaptation of the nervous system in response to the sensory stimulus being provided to the brain. If a muscle is inhibited we would commonly refer to it as weak, this too is an intelligent adaptation of the system.
The reasons why muscles become over facilitated or inhibited are many but often times the brain is modulating muscle lengths and tensions in response to faulty information from the receptors within the muscles, joints and connective tissue. Essentially the brain is making decisions and generating responses based on bad information. Injury and poor movement/lifestyle choices are often to blame. Emotions, our organs, eyes and vestibular system (inner ear balance system) can also drive faulty muscle recruitment patterns. Assessing and correcting many of these systems is the focus of pretty much everything we do at A.M.N and what we teach as well.
Manual muscle testing is an essential tool in accurate assessment of the nervous system with regards to movement. It provides information as to which muscles are inhibited or ‘weak’. If you do not know how to manual muscle test you can look at the body via observation and pick up clues from posture and alignment as well as comparing basic ranges of motion. Range of motion tests show which muscles are over facilitated or ‘tight’.
Self myofascial release and stretching
Self myofascial release such as foam rolling and other torturous implements have gained huge popularity over the last 8 years or so. Generally speaking people are advised to roll muscles frequently whenever they feel tight. With the information provided in this article we can begin to apply these interventions with more accuracy.
Foam rolling to strengthen a muscle
To facilitate a ‘weak’ muscle we can use the roller to apply pressure through the belly of the muscle while shortening or contracting the same muscle.
The muscle spindles lie in the belly of the muscle and when pressured will have a reflexive response to increase facilitation to the same muscle. This can be further enhanced by actively shortening the muscle at the same time.
To strengthen a muscle I recommend rolling for a maximum of 6-8 seconds followed by a short rest 1-3 times. Rolling for longer periods of time will most likely result in inhibition.
Foam rolling to lengthen a muscle
To inhibit a ‘tight’ muscle we can use the roller to apply pressure towards the origin while lengthening the muscle or contracting its antagonist (reciprocal inhibition).
The GTO’s live in and near the musculocutaneous junction where the muscle becomes tendon. Follow the same protocol as above and retest range of motion after a few applications of the technique.
Re-assesment is key to applying any manual therapy technique. Did you provide enough or too much stimulus? It’s always necessary to check.
You may have to get a little inventive with body position and which torture tool to utilise but once you understand the concept your corrective exercise and rehabilitation approaches will be improved.
Classic static stretching
Again this is another type of technique that is used incorrectly in a lot of cases. Muscle spindles are sensitive to stretch and therefore fire when a muscle is lengthened. Performing a static stretch on a muscle for a short period of time will actually make it stronger, not inhibited or ‘longer’ as is often the intension.
Let’s use the classic ‘tight’ hamstring as an example. First of all without any assessment procedure you really don’t know what is going on. Just because someone says their hamstring feels tight doesn’t mean that it is. Compare passive and active ranges of motion between each side of of the body. If you establish that one leg has less hip flexion range of motion than the other the common stock response will be to stretch that muscle.
This will most likely generate a poor result. With the information provided here in mind it would be more appropriate to foam roll the origin of the ‘short’ hamstring group in order to stimulate the GTO’s which will reflexively inhibit the gain or volume of the spindles and relax the muscle increasing hip flexion range of motion.
Often also in this scenario, the antagonist to the over facilitated (tight) muscle will be inhibited or ‘weak’. Static stretching the quadriceps group for multiple repetitions of 6-8 seconds or less will strengthen the muscle. Equally, you could foam roll the belly of the quads to illicit the same result.
The combination of the two approaches will increase hip flexion ROM and have knock on effects to overall function such as pelvic alignment and rhythm.
ONE LAST TIP… Please STOP rolling your IT Band. It’s absolutely pointless and just causes unnecessary pain. Endlessly foam rolling the ITB can not only irritate the fat pad but compresses Vastus lateralis. Focussed soft tissue release should be directed at TFL and Gluteus Medius which act as a direct tensioning to the fascia but no role in the ‘release’ of the fascial band itself, which is adherent via a fascial investment to the femur along its length.
written by David Fleming, AMN Co-Founder, Director of Education