“Just smash it!”
It seems to have become the rallying cry of Crossfitters everywhere as self-myofascial release continues to grow in popularity amongst a variety of fitness circles.
Admittedly, recovery is a hot topic these days, I even wrote about it in passing given all the recent hype.
In fact, if you’re interested in recovery then you’ve probably investigated foam rolling as a viable solution to delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) or transient increases in range of motion (ROM).
However, despite the increase in popularity, the topic is shroud in misinformation with many claiming it can “break up scar tissue”. Not so fast, chief.
Odds are, if you’ve ever used a foam roller, you’ve probably made one of the following mistakes…
1. Assuming You Need to Foam Roll Daily
Foam rolling is like doing your laundry – it’s a necessary part of life but there’s no need to do it more than once or twice a week. However, you’ll see some folks in the gym who foam roll more often than they brush their teeth. To quote one of the best in the sports medicine industry:
“If I learned one thing over the last couple of years, it’s that I can foam roll the crap out of someone! Why would I do that? Why would I try to alter the structure of tissue every day without giving it time to remodel? I don’t do that with my manual work, I don’t do that with strength training, why would I do that with foam rolling?”
– Sue Falsone (first female head athletic trainer in any of the four major sports in the United States: MLB, NFL, NHL, NBA).
Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t utilize any sort of active recovery modalities. On the contrary, I personally utilize and recommend foam rolling for my clients and athletes but I believe these modalities should be appropriately dosed relative to an individual’s current fitness level as well as their training load.
Twice a week is plenty for the average gym goer – additional time may be recommended for specific body parts relative to the ergonomics of one’s work environment, personal wardrobe choices, or the overall emphasis of a training cycle.
PRO TIP: Keep a lacrosse ball in your bathroom and roll out the bottom of your foot (base of the toes to base of the heel – NOT on the heel) every other night. Given your feet are your immediate connection to the ground, they can garner quite a bit of tension and may require a higher frequency of soft tissue work to maintain tissue integrity.
Spend a minute or 2 traversing the length of each foot while brushing each side of your mouth. Who knows, your dentist might thank me for this one, you'll be focused on rolling your foot and may end up brushing longer.
2. Using Excessively Hard Foam Rollers
It seems within the fitness industry many tend to associate pain as a badge of honor. News flash slick, no one gets a participation trophy for “Most Bruising Incurred While Foam Rolling”.
I know, I know, some guru on the internet somewhere told you that it helps to “break up fascial adhesions”. I’m sure it sounds cool to tell someone that you’re mechanistically altering tissue tensegrity but unfortunately that’s simply not possible with a foam roller. As I noted in a previous article:
“…Ruffinian and Pacinian corpuscles are two low-threshold mechanoreceptors, which respond to very minute levels of tactile input. These receptors can be thought of as “slow twitch” since they are mainly responsible for posture and joint positions over an extended period of time.
When pressure is applied to the skin and muscle tissue underneath, the proprioceptors are overloaded and shut down, thus decreasing resting tension of the fibers. So in essence, the physical length of the tissue itself is not changed, but tissue extensibility increases as neural input is reduced due to compression.”
In other words, you aren’t “breaking up scar tissue” with any sort of compressive self-myofascial release technique. Hate to break it to you, but you’d need a scalpel for that. Spend some time in a cadaver lab dissecting fascial layers and you’ll quickly find that they’re incredibly tougher.
PRO TIP: PVC pipes and barbells can work for larger framed individuals with higher levels of lean body mass but for the average individual, you need to be careful with extremely high levels of compressive forces coupled with weighted implements.
Remember, there is much more inside your meat suit than just a massive network of musculature – nerves don’t like being smashed, chill out with all the aggressive soft tissue work if something doesn’t seem to quiet down initially.
3. Assuming You Can Fix Every Problem on Your Own
The entire goal of fitness is to promote resilience and anti-fragility but at some point, you might exceed a tissue’s individual load tolerance and incur an acute or chronic injury. If that’s the case, then you may need to enlist the help of a trusted professional rather than trying to Macgyver the situation on your own.
Not to mention, if the issue is chronic, then a voodoo floss band probably isn’t going to fix you overnight. Sorry, you can watch as many Kelly Starrett videos as you’d like, but nothing will replace the skill and expertise of a true clinician.
For example, I work with a collegiate basketball team and many of them battle jumper’s knee (patellar tendinitis) throughout the course of their competitive season due to the exceeding high volume of ground contacts they experience from practice and game settings.
Now, we can work to combat this issue by monitoring total training load, reducing fatigue with lifestyle interventions, improving antioxidant status via nutritional recommendations, or altering programming to address individual compensations.
However, as a strength coach and sport scientist, none of my work is meant to replace the role of an athletic trainer or physical therapist. Ideally it is meant to function in conjunction with their skill sets to form a comprehensive and synergistic atmosphere to provide the team with the best opportunity for success.
Choose your team wisely but don’t feel like you need to go it alone.
PRO TIP: If the problem has persisted for more than a month, odds are you need to get it assessed by a professional. Also, please understand that if you have a chronic soft tissue issue, it will likely necessitate therapeutic modalities (ART, dry needling, IASTM, etc) along with programming modifications.
Don’t think you can jump right back into your pre-injury programming without any negative ramifications.
Let’s Get One Last Thing Straight…
If you have to continually stretch/foam roll the same muscle group, odds are there are other factors at play. Strength training through a full range of motion in multiple planes, provides a weighted stimulus in a variety of positions which can help to alleviate specific tension generated within an isolated muscle group.
Given that’s the case, there isn't as much of a need to dedicate more than 5-6 minutes to a dynamic warmup before training.
If you're having to spend 20-30 minutes on foam rolling, joint mobilizations, breathing, core stabilization, and glute activation prior to any lift, then you're probably more jacked up than you realize. Perhaps it’s time to take a look at your programming and overall recovery status before automatically assuming you need to smash or stretch something.
Muscles are dumb, they're controlled by your nervous system - they only contract when they're told to by a higher order. If a specific muscle is constantly "on" (i.e. what you perceive as “tightness”), then you need to dig deeper and ask "Why?" rather than simply reaching for the lacrosse ball or turning yourself into a human pretzel.
Poor cueing while training?
Nervous system dominance (i.e. poor vagal tone)?
Lack of variability in one’s programming?
Underlying low level perception of threat?
Maybe you hate your boss and your job stresses you out so you end up storing all that tension in your upper back and traps while sending endless emails and trying to keep up with a bottomless inbox.
Maybe you don't need to stretch...
Maybe you should consider looking into a new job?
Maybe you should consider getting outside and going for a hike?
Maybe you should consider taking a vacation?
Maybe you should consider getting off your phone/computer after 8pm?
Maybe you should consider going to bed before 11pm and see what happens?
Maybe you should consider deleting social media for a while?
Maybe you should consider playing some golf?
Maybe you should consider going to the park and playing with your dog?
Maybe you should consider getting a massage?
Maybe you should consider singing in the shower/car?
Maybe you should consider closing your eyes and taking a few deep breaths?
Maybe you should consider how much mental energy you dedicate to situations, people, or decisions which are out of your control?
The brain runs the show, don't get lost in the periphery.
Life is short, examine it deeply.