Here is a quick guide to proper foam rolling techniques and how it can help improve your client’s performance.
Foam rollers have become pretty commonplace in the fitness world. Most gyms have plenty of them lying around and if you are using one regularly, good job! But I want to make sure your clients are all using the proper foam rolling techniques to decrease pain and stiffness, and increase mobility and performance.
Healthy muscle has fibers that are arranged longitudinally and slide across the fascia (connective tissue covering groups of muscles) smoothly. What can happen is through repeated stress, trauma, etc. the muscle fibers become adhered to the fascia and no longer glide appropriately. This affects how muscles are recruited, activated, and used.
There are multiple receptor types (GTO, Ruffini endings) in the muscle that respond to the deep, dull pressure of the foam roller. It causes a relaxation and release of the tissue from the fascia. This leads to healthier muscle tissue, increased range of motion, and better muscle recruitment patterns.
There is a tendency that has developed somewhere to roll long, semi-fast strokes up and down a muscle belly. While it may feel good, it is not accomplishing what you want for your clients. Studies have shown that fast rolling on the muscle actually causes excitation and further solidifies the adhesions. Not what we want. The goal is to inhibit overactive muscles to break up the adhesions which are causing movement dysfunction and/or pain.
Identify the muscle group that you want to target. Have the client position the foam roll directly under that muscle group, using extremities to vary the amount of pressure desired. For example, rolling out a quad, clients can use upper extremities and the opposite lower extremity to decrease the amount of body weight pushing into that spot on the foam roller. Start at the origin of the muscle, and slowly move through it until you find a knot. Stay on that knot for 30-90 seconds (depending on force applied) until a “release” is felt. Continue to move down slowly repeating this throughout the muscle belly.
On days your clients have training sessions with you, I would recommend doing it before starting the “meat” of the workout. It is best that the muscle fibers are gliding smoothly across the fascia before having them move through full ranges of motion and moving weight.
If you wait until after the workout, your client has already done every exercise with altered muscle activation due to the adhesions. If you can break these adhesions first, you can now start retraining the body to use the muscles with appropriate timing, amplitude, and synergy. Outside of your training sessions I would have your client roll out any painful spots, or spots you have previously identified, once a day.
A foam roller is just one tool you can use for Self-Myofascial Release (SMR). There are different densities of foam rollers. You can use a PVC pipe, for those hardcore clients. Other options are medicine balls, tennis balls, lacrosse balls, handheld rollers, and S shaped hooks. Depending on the muscle tissue being targeted and the pain tolerance of the client, some are more appropriate than others.
There are contraindications to these foam rolling techniques, so make sure to clear your client properly in your initial assessment. Things like osteoporosis, RA, blood clots, bursitis, open wounds, and fractures are all contraindications to Self-Myofascial Release/ foam rolling techniques.
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Doctor of Physical Therapy Candidate, Corrective Exercise Specialist, Certified Personal Trainer
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