Roll Out

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More and more, I notice that every gym and PT clinic I happen to pass through these days has a stack of foam rolls piled in some corner of the facility. As ubiquitous as the foam roll has become in the gym, it never fails to amaze me how users of these devices have little to no knowledge in terms of how or when to used them.

(Editor’s note: If you think the picture above is a foam roll, you may need more help than this website is designed to give you.)

Let’s go over a few basics to help you get the most out of the quality time you’re spending with that piece of foam.

The Why

Static stretching is so 80’s. When you sit and hold a muscle in a stretched position, you are mainly stretching the weakest and thinnest part of the muscle. This type of stretching (static or held stretches) doesn’t create real change in the pliability of a muscle or decrease your risk of injuring that muscle.

Foam rolling is a targeted form of self-massage that hunts down the tightest parts of your muscle tissue (often the thickest part of the muscles) and melts those tough spots like a hot knife through butter. If you want to cure your chronically stiff hamstrings, this is the place to start. If you know how to do it, that is. Which brings us to:

The How

Let’s use your quads for an example. Consisting of 4 muscles running vertically down your thigh, this group of muscles does some major work in terms of hip and knee function. Unfortunately, in the sedentary world of today where we spend between 70-85% of our waking hours in a seated position, the quads in particular get brutally short and stiff.

If you were to watch the novice guy or gal at the gym foam roll their quads you’d notice a few things. First, they would continuously roll up and down their thigh with the roll, never taking a second to stop on a spot that felt particularly tight, sore, or painful. The direction of the rolling would always be in line (vertically) with the muscle. And you’d never see them try to move to the inside or outside of the thigh or try to bend or straighten their knee.

Here’s how you help the gym newbie (and yourself) get more out of the foam roll.

  1. STOP on the spots that hurt. The roller is a diagnostic tool. It’s putting a micro-stretch into the muscle and if it hurts that’s a sign of abnormal (non-stretchy) muscle tissue. The WHOLE POINT of the roller is to find and work out those spots.
  2. Once you stop on that spot, start working into it. Rolling up and down your quads just pancakes the tissues together, it doesn’t work out the stiff spots. Stay on your hot spot and start rolling side to side (we call this “The Pressure Wave”) until you start to notice some improvement. Alternately, you can keep pressure directly on that spot and perform the “Tack and Floss” technique-the foam roll keeps the stiff spot “tacked” down while you begin flexing and extending your knee to “floss” the tissue out. Again, stay on it until you start to notice some change for the better. This could take anywhere from 2 to 5 minutes so ante up!

These rules apply pretty much all over your body but the angles of your body and the foam roll will change based on where you have the roll. Flossing (moving) the nearest joint to the muscle you’re rolling out always brings about a tremendous change in your overall mobility in short order.

The When

If you’ve ever had a massage, take a minute now and think about how you feel when you’re done….how relaxed did you feel? What did you feel like doing next? I’ll give you a few options:

Question #1-After your massages do you feel like:

  1. Taking a nap.
  2. Driving home then taking a nap.
  3. Looking for someone to drive you home so you can take a nap.
  4. Setting a new World Record in the Deadlift.

Here’s a hint: any answer except #4 is the correct answer. Same for what we want you to do after your foam rolling session. Take a nap or call it a night. Foam rolling (and most forms of massage) stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The PNS is also know as your “Rest and Digest System” and when activated makes it easier for you to go to sleep. Not so much to hit a new PR at the gym.

One Final Thought

If you are foam rolling your IT Band (I’m talking to you, distance runners and cyclists), for the love of all things holy, STOP!!!

Your IT band is connective tissue, not muscle tissue. It takes about 2,000 pounds of force to tear the IT band in half. Do you think your 2-ounce foam roll is going to lengthen that thing out? Save yourself the pain, agony, and frustration of forever rolling your IT band. Instead, roll your quads and hamstrings and watch your IT band “syndrome” magically disappear.

Have a great weekend and enjoy the start of the Olympics!

USA!!! USA!!! USA!!!


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