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Best Tools for Self Myofascial Release

Massages are expensive. And your favorite place is always booked. But there’s a reason why many top athletes get massages every single day: they improve recovery, assist in healing, and increase mobilization of your joints and muscles. While most of us can’t get massages as often as we’d like, we can obtain some of the benefits by performing self myofascial release on ourselves.

What is Self Myofascial Release?

Self myofascial release, or SMR is a type of self-massage that focuses on adhesions, knots, or tender spots in the muscle—and the fascia that surrounds and envelopes it—often using tools or implements to effect real change. The popular conception is that SMR is “breaking up” muscle knots in a real physical sense, but this probably isn’t the case. What you’re doing is triggering a neuromuscular response that reduces the tenderness and allows better, more fluid movement through the affected tissues.

You’re “teaching” your nervous system not to tense up and tighten when the tissue is poked and prodded or movement is initiated. You’re blunting the pain and wiping the movement pattern slate clean so that you can then go in and establish a new, better pattern.

How to Do Self Myofascial Release the Right Way

The way most people I see do SMR is they sit on the foam roller (or lacrosse ball, or whatever tool you’re using) for an hour, exploring all their tissues, hitting every body part and being extremely thorough. Sounds great, but it’s the wrong way. Basically, you don’t want to turn self myofascial release into a total body workout in and of itself, because you’re negating the real opportunity the practice presents.

Mobilization before training

SMR works best on a short time horizon. When you hit a tender spot and it starts feeling better, you should immediately work that tissue—preferably under load. This helps establish a healthier, better movement pattern. You’re effectively wiping the movement pattern slate clean and then establishing a superior one.

The thing is that the effect SMR is fleeting. If you wait too long to train a movement after hitting an area, the “neuromuscular inhibiting effect” disappears, or at least diminishes.

Sit on the lacrosse ball, hit the foam roller, or whichever implement you want and then immediately after load the tissues you just “released.” This will entrain the movement patterns you just opened up and begin mobilizing the tissues the way they’re designed to move.1

If you mobilized your shoulders, immediately hit some rows, pull-ups, pushups, and/or presses. If you mobilized your hips or calves, do some squats.

Whatever movements the tissues were inhibiting or “making sticky,” do those movements and begin entraining newer, healthier patterns. There isn’t a lot of compelling clinical research support for self myofascial release, and I think the primary reason is that people aren’t doing it the right way. They aren’t “releasing” the tissue and then loading it with resistance training in order to “cement” the improved movement pattern.

Stress release after a long day

It also makes sense to do SMR at rest, perhaps while you’re watching TV or something. Get down on the floor and make the otherwise “non-productive” time suddenly productive. This is a great way to relax, sort of an active form of meditation. I often do this after the sauna—warm up the tissues, make them more “pliable,” and then do some light self myofascial release.

Don’t tense up

When you do the actual SMR, relax into it. Don’t tense up, even if it’s painful (and it will be painful at times). Don’t grimace. Any outward expression of pain and discomfort will register with your nervous system. What you’re trying to do here is reassure your body that you can handle the pain, that the pain isn’t all that bad, and the tissue can start feeling better.

Focus on the tissues above and below the painful area

If your knee hurts, releasing the knee itself probably won’t help. If your calves hurt, massaging the calves can help but not right at the spot in the calf where it hurts. Instead, focus on the tissues above and below the painful area.  Keep rolling/releasing/massaging/scraping the tissues around the painful area, working your way above and below until you find the tender spot.

The Best Self Myofascial Release Tools and How to Use Them

1. Scraper

A scraper is a metal implement that resembles a dull blade that you can use to massage the fascia. First, use it lengthwise along the muscle fibers—”with the grain”—to “lengthen” the fascia. To confirm you’re going with the grain, look at a muscular anatomy image and look for the muscle you’re targeting. Next, scrape at a 45°-90° angle to the grain of the muscle and think about “broadening” the fascia.

You can do superficial scraping across entire limbs or targeted scraping that focuses on individual muscles and muscle bundles. Don’t go too hard. It shouldn’t hurt, but it may be uncomfortable. This scraper is a good one.

2. Lacrosse ball (or two)

Lacrosse balls are hard, dense, heavy balls the size of tennis balls that you can use to pinpoint hard-to-reach tissues. Hamstrings, the TFL, the glutes, the pecs, and specific points in the thoracic spine seem to respond well to lacrosse balls. They offer more direct, targeted pressure and can really get deep in there. Tape two balls together to provide more stability and hit tissues from different angles.

3. Foam roller

A foam roller is a blunt and broad SMR device. It can hit large swathes of tissues. You can adjust the resistance by placing as much or as little of your weight onto the roller.

Explore range of motion when you roll. When you find a tight, tender spot on your quad for example, stay on that spot. Then extend and flex your knee through its full range of motion. This seems to make foam rolling more effective than if you were to just stay on the spot with zero movement through the knee.

4. Theragun or Hyperice massage guns

Both the Theragun and Hypervolt devices are mechanical percussive massage devices that effectively vibrate against your tissues.

They can help improve range of motion, increase mobility, and are probably most effective used pre-workout or to potentiate the adoption of a new motor pattern—just like the other tools listed here. However, you must exercise caution. These can be powerful little tools, and I know of at least one case of a cyclist giving herself rhabdomyolysis through excessive use.2 Use it sparingly and do not linger on a single tissue for more than a minute.

5. Massage cane

The cane is curved with proper ergonomics for letting you hit places you’d otherwise have trouble reaching, like the back, neck, and shoulders. What’s also nice is the double dense balls at one end, which you can use like two lacrosse balls taped together. This massage cane is a good one.

6. Voodoo Floss bands

These are compressive wraps that apply strong pressure to tight tissues and help increase blood flow (and thus healing) to the area. If your knee is feeling tight and uncomfortable during squats, for example, you might wrap the quad right above the knee, then do squats. Or if you have elbow pain, wrap above or below the elbow and then practice flexion and extension. After a few sets of Voodoo Flossing, remove the bands and try the movement again. It should feel better than it did before the treatment.

7. MobilityWOD Battlestar kit

This kit of massaging rollers is a great investment if you really want to do thorough SMR. Designed by Kelly Starrett of MobilityWOD/Ready State, this collection will help you hit just about every tissue you could hope to reach.

8. Your elbow

If you don’t have anything at all, using your own elbow to dig into tender places can work quite well. You’re obviously limited as to which tissues your elbow can reach, but you can get pretty creative.

What Do I Use for Self Myofascial Relase?

As for me, I’m not a big devotee of self myofascial release. I think frequent movement, lots of walking, taking cold plunges, generally reducing stress, and never really overdoing it in the gym are my keys to good movement and pain-free tissues. If I were still competing in endurance sports at a high level, I’d probably change my tune and fill my closet with every tool under the sun—or get daily massages.

I do like the Voodoo bands and the scraper, and I keep a lacrosse ball or two around to work my glutes, hips or thoracic spine when I need it.

What about you, folks? Ever try self myofascial release? What tools do you like to use?

Take care, everyone.

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