Foam rolling and other techniques under the so-called self-myofascial release (SMR) continue to gain popularity in the fitness world today. These days, we can find foam rollers everywhere: in gyms, physical therapist have them, in living rooms, athletes travel with them… Like many other things invented in the last 20 years, in our fitness industry this training or treatment approach is, for some fitness professionals, also extremely important and beneficial, whilst for others is a complete waste of time. However, the truth lies somewhere in between. But, as we work with the real people and if we consider ourselves professionals, we owe our clients or athletes the best of what they need. When we want to apply some training methods, we need to have all the available knowledge not only about how to apply it, but also all the necessary knowledge about the science supporting it.
So let’s start talking about what the SMR can really do to our body:
- Autogenic inhibition and tissue desensitization
We all know what Golgi tendon organ (GTO) and muscle spindles are and without peeking too much into the science, they are two important neuroreceptors that are working together reflexively to regulate muscle/tendon stiffness. Like muscles, fascia also has receptors and they are called Pacini receptors and Ruffini corpuscles (there are more neuroreceptors both in muscles and in fascia, but these are the most common and therefore I will mention only them). They are all specialized to provide information with regard to touch, pressure, vibration and tension to the central nervous system. When, for example, the tension rapidly increases, the GTO inhibits muscle spindle activity within the working muscle (agonist) to prevent possible injury of the muscle or tendon. This reflex relaxation is called autogenic inhibition. Basically, it is a self-induced, inhibitory, lengthening reaction that protects against the muscle tear. With the proper application of SMR, we can simulate these and other neuroreceptors by compression of the tissue, which will result in less tension in the muscle. This tissue desensitization is possible by compressing and stimulating neuroreceptors of the fascia too and by using the SMR techniques we can decrease the fascial tone.
- Increased blood flow and recovery
In the research published in Journal of Strength and Conditioning, foam rolling can lower the risk of developing coronary artery disease, blood clots, and other atherosclerotic diseases. (1)
Normal, healthy arteries relax and contract in order to increase and decrease blood flow, but they get stiffer and more rigid as we grow older or become inactive. The researchers found that foam rolling not only advances the blood flow and circulation to the muscles, but also loosens the arteries to maximize vascular performance. The deep compression of the muscles allows the normal blood flow to return and restores the healthy muscle tissue. More flash blood in the muscles-tendon and surrounding fascia means that we can speed up the recovery process to some extent. Moreover, healthy tissue acts as a sponge; through the movement and stretching there should be a sponge-like compression and expansion of the tissue with associated water in/out-take through the tissues. The tissue that does not adequately act like a sponge will cause pain after some time and will become “bonded”, without normal sliding between tissues.
- Relaxing trigger points
Trigger points can be found in both muscles and fascia and are made of thick and knotted tissue. We are actually talking about the tissue misalignment caused by trauma or injury, poor motor control patterns and emotional distress. Sometimes, trigger points can be accompanied by the inflammation and, if they remain long enough, what was once healthy fascia is replaced by inelastic scar tissue. Trigger points can be caused by poor posture and, if dysfunctional movement patterns remain long enough, the brain consequentely turns off the stabilizing muscles so that the prime movers start to work like stabilizers and become overtoned and tight. Below you have the example of process how scar tissue is formed in muscles that are always “on”.
This is one of the main reasons why we have so sensitive areas like upper trapezius, SCM, pectoralis minor, tensor fasciae latae…
SMR can be beneficial for relaxation, desensitizing these trigger points and adhesions formed between the muscle layers and fascia. What is important to emphasize is that it is impossible to completely break down trigger points or tissue adhesions or scar tissue by using the SMR techniques. For that, you will need a manual treatment practitioners as well as changing your posture or dysfunctions that are causing them!
These are three main things we can accomplish with SMR, and now I will try to explain two completely incorrect explanations of SMR benefits:
- Improving flexibility
Foam rolling or any other technique used in SMR can’t improve flexibility!
When we are talking about improving flexibility, we are actually trying to make a muscle longer by increasing sarcomeres in series. If we try to do it (and there is no exact scientific evidence that this is possible), we need to put the muscle in its maximal length position and hold it there for a minimum of 30 minutes according to the Shirley Sahrmann’s theory.
Simply as it can be, when applying foam rolling, we don’t move the muscle through large excursions, which means we are not stretching the sarcomere in a new position!
But, after foam rolling, lots of people will say they feel much more flexible than before. This sensation is real because through the stimulation of neuroreceptors, you regulate your neural tone and with less neural tone in muscle and fascia, you can move more easily with fewer restrictions. But what is really important to understand is that these changes are not permanent, after 5-10 minutes everything returns back in what is considered the normal state for every individual.
- Improving the joint ROM
Available joint ROM is depending on many things that are linked together. How one joint will move depends on the surrounding muscles, tendon and fascia, on their flexibility, good coordination during action, if tissues are gliding one over the other smoothly. In addition, the stability and mobility of surrounding musculature crossing one joint have a big impact on how this joint will move. Then there are intrinsic factors, which include joint capsule with ligaments and other collagenous tissues and finally the joint structure itself (not everyone have the same joints with regard to the angular positioning of the different bones that are creating one joint). All of these factors have tremendous influence on joint ROM.
Now why is the SMR ineffective with regard to the joint ROM.
We can’t influence the anatomic composition of the joint with SMR. For example, limited ROM can occur because of the joint capsule tightness and can be treated only manually. There is no way you can treat such delicate areas with any technique from the self-myofascial release arsenal. If we want to improve joint ROM, we simply need to enter in these limited joint positions and “play” there with different techniques. Furthermore, whilst applying SMR we don’t work on the stability/mobility of surrounding muscles. Muscles on which we apply the SMR are mostly in passive position and there is no way to have the impact on the stability/mobility issues if they are the limiting factor in joint ROM. We can only influence the soft tissue extensibility and tone, where again changes we make are only temporary. These are the most obvious reasons why SMR cannot be considered as a technique to improve joint range of motion.
Here is a video clip from dr. Andreo Spina, where he is going even further trying to explain why foam rolling and other techniques can not actually be included at all under the name of myofascial release:
From strength and conditioning trainer’s perspective, the SMR is definitely worth it, but my impression is that this supplemental training approach is taking too much credit for things it can’t accomplish.
If you work with an athlete or a client who doesn’t have the possibility of regularly working with manual treatment practitioners (and by that I mean minimally 2-3 times a week), then SMR should be an integral part of each workout. In this situation we, as trainers, can use the SMR not only for warming up or recovery purposes, but also for “scanning” the body to find the tissue that is repeatedly too sensible during the SMR. This can give us information about what is wrong and can help us modify your training plan.
In the situation when you have the help of a manual practitioner who works on the soft tissue, there is no need to incorporate SMR techniques into every workout. Rather then spending time on a foam roller, do some real mobility work by putting your joints in restricted positions where, by using breath, isometric contractions, irradiation, you can make more difference and help someone to move better.
(1) T Okomoto et al. “Acute effects of self-myofascial release using a foam roller on arterial function.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (2014): 69-73. PubMed. Web. 2 September 2015. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23575360>