Thirsty (for knowledge) Thursday: Foam Rolling Advice

>> Thursday, January 22, 2015

I recently came across this article that lists the 5 biggest mistakes people make when foam rolling. This was written by Chris Howard, who's a NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, and a Licensed Massage Therapist. I'm not ready to take this as ABSOLUTE FACT, but he's got some interesting points. Here they are:

Mistake #1: You roll directly where you feel pain.

When we feel pain, our first inclination is to massage that spot directly. However, this might be a big mistake. “Areas of pain are the victims that result from tension imbalances in other areas of the body,” says Sue Hitzmann, MS, CST, NMT, manual therapist, creator, and author of The MELT Method.

Let’s take the IT band, for example. Foam rolling is a commonly prescribed remedy for iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS). While religiously rolling out your IT band might feel good, “the idea that you are going to relax or release the IT band is a misconception,” Hitzmann says. The phrase roll out your IT band itself makes it sound like you are rolling out a piece of dough, but your IT band is anything but pliable. It’s a remarkably strong piece of connective tissue, and research has shown that it cannot be released or manipulated by manual techniques such as foam rolling. “If you iron out areas of inflammation, you can increase inflammation. And if you are in pain, your body will be too stressed to repair itself,” says Hitzmann.

A lot of people in the comments of the article disagree with this point, and I KINDA do too. There are times I go in hard where it hurts (like on my calves), but there are other areas that refer pain other places (like my current hip/sacrum issues). I've always been told to roll my calves when they hurt. I don't really buy into this point.

Mistake #2: You roll too fast.

While it might feel great to roll back and forth on a foam roller quickly, you’re not actually eliminating any adhesions that way. “You need to give your brain enough time to tell your muscles to relax,” says Monica Vazquez, NASM certified personal trainer and USA Track and Field Running Coach.

YES. Coaches/Docs have always told me to go slow over tender areas. And that leads to the next point...

Mistake #3: You spend too much time on those knots.

We’re often told that if you feel a knot, spend time working that spot with the foam roller. However, some people will spend five to 10 minutes or more on the same area and attempt to place their entire body weight onto the foam roller. If you place sustained pressure on one body part, you might actually hit a nerve or damage the tissue, which can cause bruising, according to Vazquez.

My go-to ART Doc whom I'd trust with every part of my body (don't take that TOO far, people...) has always told me to do 10-12 slow reps on my IT band or my calves, and then call it quits for a couple of hours. Really work that area, but then take it easy and let it rest.

Mistake #4: You have bad posture.

Wait, what does your posture have to do with foam rolling? A lot. “You have to hold your body in certain positions over the roller,” says Howard, and that requires a lot of strength. “When rolling out the IT band, you are supporting your upper body weight with one arm.” When you roll out the quads, you are essentially holding a plank position. If you don’t pay attention to your form or posture, you may exacerbate pre-existing postural deviations and cause more harm.

This seems pretty random to me. Sure, I can see it as a point, but it's not the most important. Again, don't roll for too long (point #3), and you shouldn't be throwing something off by rolling with potentially imperfect posture.

Mistake #5: You use the foam roller on your lower back.

“The thing that makes me cringe is when people foam roll their lower back. You should never ever do that,” say Vazquez. Hitzmann agrees. “Your spine will freak out and all the spinal muscles will contract and protect the spine.”

The fix: According to Vazquez, you can use the foam roller on your upper back because the shoulder blades and muscles protect the spine. “Once you hit the end of the rib cage, stop.” If you want to release your lower back, try child’s pose or foam roll the muscles that connect to your lower back — the piriformis (a muscle located deep within the glutes), hip flexors and rectus femoris (one of the main muscles in your quads).

People in the comments section of the article seem to be unsure of this last one as well. Some people are like "oh yeah, don't do that," while others are like "hey, I roll my lower back and it's helped a lot!" What Howard and Vazquez say SEEMS to make sense, but I don't have a big opinion on this either way.

But what I can "second" from this article are these reminders:

That article makes foam rolling come across as kinda scary and something you could screw up. Buy give it a try if you haven't. Follow the 2 "big" rules above, and try to rub out those legs!

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Shinianen 8:29 AM, January 22, 2015  

I agree with your comments. AND, I'm not sure why this guy is dead set on scaring folks off the foam roller, because that's what it sounds like to me.

Anyway, on a tangent to foam roller talk, I just bought one of these and I love it. I find I can relax easier when I roll out with this rather than trying to balance on the floor with a foam roller:

I bought mine at Target, FYI.

SteveQ 10:13 AM, January 22, 2015  

Foam rolling the IT band usually helps a little, but the real problem tends to be the small tensor fasciae latae muscle of which the IT band is just a long connector and working the body of the muscle with a foam roller helps a lot. [Anecdotal evidence, of course]

Steve Stenzel 12:18 PM, January 22, 2015  

Shinianen, I haven't seen that one, but I'm familiar with something like it called "the stick." People love those things!

SteveQ, your anecdotal evidence is always worth a lot to me. I bet you're right. I'll look that muscle and try that sometime. Thanks!

Trihardist 4:38 PM, February 05, 2015  

I've done a lot of reading on this topic and talked with other personal trainers, and the empirical evidence doesn't say much yet. It's kind of a guess-and-check thing at this point, from what we can tell. So I'll have someone roll out an area that seems tight, then re-test them using a functional movement screening to see if it helps.

It might help to think of the molecular structure of fascia tissue, though. It's kind of like a non-Newtonian fluid, from what I've read, which means that if you put fast, sudden pressure on it, it will stiffen up, and if you put slower, gentler pressure on it, it will be more likely to relax. But there's also the neural component to take into account, specifically the fact that you might tighten up more if you actually feel pain in the area.

It's a complicated issue. But I agree with a lot of what you said. This article doesn't seem very well-researched or well-sourced to me, and there's not a lot of science in this area, yet.

I definitely never roll my low back, though. Yowza! Go see a massage therapist to work on that area!

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