This is probably the most popular use of the foam roller. The goal is to “loosen up” that stiff connective tissue on the outside of the thigh.
Especially if you are a runner, foam rolling the IT band is likely in your mobility routine.
I used to have many of my clients lie on a foam roller, directly over their IT Bands, before workouts. I mean why not, they are tight there and need mobility. This was before I learned a few things that made me question what I was actually doing.
My goal in this article is to share with you some scientific data that may change your opinion on the effectiveness of IT Band foam rolling, because it sure changed mine.
The IT Band is technically a tendon of the TFL, a typically tight hip muscle, and attaches to the outside of the tibia. While the TFL feeds directly into this “band”, other muscles also attach to it. Most notable of these are the quadriceps and hamstrings.
While the TFL pulls on the band in a vertical direction, the hamstrings and the quadriceps pull it in a horizontal direction. Tightness in one or more of these muscles can pull on the IT Band, causing it to feel tight and restricted.
The IT band is made of dense irregular connective tissue. Essentially what that means is it’s very tough and non-pliable, with a cross-fiber arrangement. Ligaments are made of a more elastic connective tissue than tendons.
In my physical therapy program, we do cadaver dissections. It’s a truly incredible experience and has taught me so much. One day I needed to make an incision to the IT Band, and was shocked at the thickness of this tendon! It was hard to get through, even with a blade.
This is when I started to rethink my foam rolling techniques…
When we try foam rolling the IT Band, we are attempting to loosen up an incredibly tough connective tissue that is being pulled tight in every direction from the surrounding muscles.
I find it hard to believe that a foam roller is able to realign a tissue that a medical grade knife has trouble getting through.
That being said, a foam roller can still be helpful for IT band tightness, just using a more indirect approach.
As I mentioned earlier, the TFL, quadriceps, and hamstrings all pull on the IT band. All of these muscles are prone to tightness in our clients. Therefore this is where you should focus your lengthening efforts. Foam rolling has been proven effective for creating better length and motion of muscle tissue.
If your client has tight IT bands, start by foam rolling their lateral quad and hamstrings, as well as the TFL. This will release tension of the muscles pulling on the band and cause it to loosen as a result.
I have found much better results using this approach. Try it with your clients and let me know what you think!
Doctor of Physical Therapy Candidate, Corrective Exercise Specialist, Certified Personal Trainer
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