Fixing yourself with a foam roller?

What are the benefits? What can it do and what are its limits?

There is a lot of confusion out there at the moment with regards to what you can and can’t achieve with corrective stretching, rollers, massage balls and guns. This article attempts to correct a lot of the misconceptions so that people can use them sensibly and with realistic expectations.

There are all sorts of videos and articles illustrating a particular restriction or compensation in a lift. The tissue responsible for the compensation or restriction is usually correctly identified, the athlete gives it a good rub, stretch, fires it up with a massage gun etc., they get increased range and the next set looks much prettier.

Where’s the problem in this? Really, there’s nothing wrong in this. If you want to improve the next set, rolling will do this. Using a roller or any sort of massage tool will promote blood flow into an area that is probably lacking it. The Gray Institute have some nice drills for this which help you to make this sort of self treatment more multiplanar. But if your goal is to improve the lift over time this isn’t really going to take you too far. Why?

So, we need to ask what is the rolling or stretching doing and why is there a problem in the first place? If the problem is in the joint capsule or fibroblast infiltration in the tissues then rolling or stretching will do nothing for the issue. If you want to fix these other issues, we would recommend Functional Anatomy Seminars. They have a series of courses for assessing and treating these issues.

Leaving that aside, lets go to the muscle. If a particular muscle is interfering with your form on a primary lift, improves after rolling or stretching, that is gets to a greater length, the issue is most probably neurological. So if the muscle won’t allow you access to the range that you want, but is clearly capable of that range, you have to ask why? It is most likely that the nervous system doesn’t want you there and the reason it doesn’t want you there is most likely that is is weak in that position and with that load. It doesn’t have enough experience there. It hasn’t spent time there, exerting that level of force there, and is apprehensive about that position and trying to protect you. So rolling / pnf stretching and such variants are a neurological trick. It will have an acute effect on the next set or sets but this isn’t a long term solution. Your weakness there is an indication of your training, your environment and anthropometry. The roller won’t change it.

Let’s say you do lots and lots of this, several times a day. Will that have more of an effect? Yes. But it is still time consuming and as the forces you work with go up the corrective stimulus needs to go up. If 5 minutes with a massage ball gets you to a perfect 60kg, do you need 10mins for 120kg? Do you have to stretch for twice the amount of time or with twice the intensity? Would you want to trick a weak muscle into giving you more range with heavier and heavier weights when your nervous system is telling you it doesn’t want to be there? Even if you did, there is a ceiling on how much you can effect the tissues that are responsible for the restriction by tricking them into release. This is because the underlying issue is weakness.

So if you really want to fix the issue, you need to get strong and you need to be specific. You need to be specific about the muscle in question. You need to be comprehensive about the muscle group. You need to be specific about the joint angle. You need to be specific about the position. Yes eventually you will probably exhibit the same compensations because that is the way your body is set up. But it will happen at a heavier weight. You will be addressing the issue by getting stronger, rather than trying to get in a short term trick which isn’t addressing the weakness.

In closing, it is still useful to use rollers and massage guns. We aren’t saying not to. But we just want people to understand what they can do and how far they can actually take you. So what are they good for? They provide an acute relaxation effect on a muscle that is probably putting an uneven strain on a joint or joints. There is nothing wrong with that. It doesn’t fix the problem but you are giving the joint a bit of a break. To fix the problem you can check out our anatomy gaps Foundation Course for the theories and strategy required. There’s another benefit for the tissues in question. These muscles will often have limited neurological activity and blood flow. The effect of self massage causes blood flow in a tissue that is probably deprived of it and promotes neurological activity. Perhaps the final benefit is self diagnosis. You can use the roller to help an athlete or client build a picture of where their issue areas are and give them feedback on where they may need to be careful and do extra work. Feeling is more powerful than explaining a concept. The roller might give them the impetus to work on the problem area, but they need to strengthen it. They aren’t going to roll it out.

For more on three dimensionalising your rolling and promoting hydraulic blood flow check out the Gray Institute.

For the difference between joint capsule, neurological and mechanical restrictions, how to treat them and identify them as well as stretching that actually strengthens and provides solutions we’d recommend Functional Anatomy Seminars.

For identifying anthropometry issues, programming around them with custom primary lifts and corrective conditioning strategies that can be incorporated into your weights routine check out one of our workshops.

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