The benefits of foam rolling (SMR – Self myofascial release)

by Trevor Aung Than on August 14, 2012

Lebron James using the Triggerpoint GRID roller

In both my classes and physio practice I teach SMR using a foam roller to alleviate pain in various body parts. The benefits of using a foam roller in this way is quite profound; knee pain can be alleviated in 2 minutes, ankle range of movement can be increased significantly in the same timeframe and a sore back made much less sore in a matter of minutes.

How does it work?

My philosophy behind foam rolling is based on the paradigm of fascia vs muscle and how they both relate to pain syndromes. Most people currently advocating foam rolling are still following a very ‘myocentric’ or muscle-based paradigm. Most therapists will advise foam rolling a ‘trigger-point’ in the muscle tissue.

Is this wrong or right?

This philosophy is not incorrect and certainly advice given in this regard should help relieve some pain and dysfunction. But if we look at the body as an integrated system, using this myocentric model soon becomes flawed if we just focus on individual muscles. For example, how can SMR in the calf release low back pain? Certainly there are no common muscle attachments between any of the calf muscles with the lumbar spine so how do we explain this using a ‘trigger-point’ model?

We have to use the fascial lines

But using the fascial lines or Anatomy Trains as a model gives us a paradigm in which this can be explained. These fascial linkages throughout the body helps us explain how tightness in the hamstrings can be alleviated by releasing the plantar fascia and how releasing the intermuscular septum in the arm can help with shoulder pain. For a detailed overview of the Anatomy Trains go here.

Promote the ‘sponge’

SMR looks at promoting the sponge-effect in the connective tissues. It is believed that healthy connective tissue acts as a sponge; through movement and stretching there should be a sponge-like compression and expansion of the tissue with associated water in/out-take through the tissues. Tissue that does not adequately act like a sponge will cause pain and get ‘glued’ or ‘stuck’ down. SMR with a roller helps to re-invigorate the sponge in these tissues (Go here for more info).

Where should you roll?

This depends but there are some common areas in most people that will help certain problems (Ed. Please note that you should always see a qualified professional for appropriate advice, preferably someone that knows the fascial lines and SMR technique). My good friend Ian O’Dwyer taught me that often it’s not the central area of either muscle or fascia that gets stuck down, it’s near the bony prominences. This makes a lot of sense, as it is near these bony areas where there is a lot of fascial overlap and opportunity for the fascial planes to get stuck to one another.

How hard should you roll?

Some amount of pain is inevitable with these SMR techniques. Reason being is that fascia is deeply innervated, with up to 9 times more receptors than muscle. Essentially, when I teach SMR, you should try to find that sore area as it is most likely where you are stuck down. If there is no pain, it is unlikely you are stuck in that area.

How often should you roll?

Long lasting fascial changes can take a long time to effect, anywhere between 6-24 months. Just remember you took a long time to get the way that you are!! The main points are consistency (a little often is better than a lot just now and then) and firm pressure. Rolling every 2-3 days should be sufficient for most conditions, but to be persistent – it should become a part of your workout routine just as your strength or stretch component.

Have fun!!

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