Last week I decided to try something new with a client who had chronically tight hips and low back. Previously I had worked on stretching her hips, actively, dynamically, statically and plentiful use of foam rollers, but they stayed tight. So on a whim I decided to try something that made her think I was not only crazy, but possibly wasting her money. I decided to have a session where she did nothing but self-myofascial release with a travel roller (a small and really hard version of a foam roller) and a few SMR balls (think tennis ball, indian rubber ball, and baseball in stiffness). I wanted to go through her entire lower kinetic chain, beginning with the bottom of her feet, through her shins (peroneals, calves, tibialis anterior), through her thighs (IT band, medial & lateral hamstring, quads), glutes, piriformis, hip flexor, and then finally into her lower back. She was sweating pretty well after using the tools I gave her, as the fascia began to stretch and remodel (it’s pretty painful if it’s really tight), and by the end of the session she felt amazing, with minimal pain and a greater range of motion throughout her entire body. The next day, she stopped by my office and said she was feeling great and couldn’t believe how breaking down tissue in her feet lead to her back pain being reduced.
For those who are not aware, fascia is the tissue that wraps pretty much every muscle and tendon, and forms lines of connective strength between muscles, allowing the body to multiply force through summing muscles, as well as providing stability to excessive motion through a joint when needed. If you have ever seen an uncooked chicken breast, fascia is the thin membrane that joins the big piece to the small piece. I know, this may not seem like much significance, but the fact that it wraps all muscles, restricts all muscles, and allows all muscles to move fluidly when healthy, it has some pretty important characteristics. If you want to learn a lot about fascia, Tomas Myers has a great booked Called “Anatomy Trains” that goes through it in detail.
Back on topic. When the body is exposed to too much force, it tries to get stronger to prevent damage. One way it does this is to lay down collagen as scar tissue. This collagen is very stiff, immobile, and loves to stick to fascia to create a minimal range of motion (no motion means no chance of injury. Very efficient!!). The downside is that when the body tries to create movement through this effected range of motion, it pulls on the scar tissue and creates pain, thus limiting movement that much more. this leads to more scar tissue, and less range of motion, in a feedback loop that leads to dysfunction. Additionally, when you pull on this scar tissue or cause any type of muscle damage from movement or through injury, the body releases inflammation chemicals that become a sort of “super glue” that makes tissues sticky (think clotting factors), and causes the fasica to bind to itself, shortening and reducing mobility. The body heals best when it doesn’t have the chance to heal, so this makes it beneficial for repairing any damage. The downside is that when the body is repeatedly exposed to damaging forces, these tissues keep breaking down, releasing the inflammatory super glue, and creating more fascial restrictions over and over again.
This is where myofascial release comes in. By applying pressure to scar tissue formation and moving along the lines of fascia, the body has the ability to break down the scar tissue, stretch the tightened fascia and reduce the stress on the body to restore movement, reduce pain and increase blood flow and strength through the area. For my client, this meant breaking down restrictions from her feet all the way through her hips and lower back to make her hips have less pressure and inflammation. This can have an immediate impact on the health of an individual, and can be seen in as little as 10 seconds to 10 minutes.
An easy way to see this in action is to take a tennis ball (or a golf ball if you are feeling adventurous), and roll it along the bottom of your foot a few times. Before you do this though, you should see what your back and hips feel like to see if there is any benefit from this. While standing up, bend forward from the hips with your knees straight, and try to touch the ground. Make a note of how far from the ground you are, or how far onto the floor you can touch. Now roll out both feet, if it hurts, keep working it, making sure to put as much pressure on your foot as you can stand. After rolling for a few minutes, repeat your front bend and see if you have been able to get any farther. Odds are you have. Pretty cool, ain’t it!!?! Try to work myofascial release into your workouts at the beginning of the training session, and odds are you will see more strength gains and less injury than ever before.