Foam Rollers as an Alternative to Massage

Last weekend I took a short course on using foam rollers. Foam roller exercises offer many of the same benefits of massage therapy without the massive expense. It’s not all that uncommon for fitness centres to have foam rollers available to their clients. If they’re new to you, I’ll explain how they work.

How Foam Rollers Work

Foam rollers allow you to do myofascial release, a type of body work in which the practitioner applies gentle, sustained pressure on soft tissues while the superficial fascia is in traction.

The superficial fascia is a soft connective tissue just below your skin. It wraps and connects the bones, muscles, nerves and blood vessels of the body. Together, muscle and fascia are known as the myofascia system.

For various reasons including disuse, lack of stretching or injuries, the fascia and the underlying muscle tissue can become stuck together. This is called an adhesion, and it is known to restrict muscle movement. It also causes pain, soreness and reduced flexibility and range of motion.

Myofascial release softens and lengthes the fascia and breaking down scar tissue or adhesions between muscles, skin and bones. It has also been shown to relieve various muscle and joint pains such as IT band syndrome and shin splints. It also helps improve flexibility and range of motion.

Foam rollers are inexpensive (mine cost $34 Canadian taxes included) and with a bit of experimentation you can target just about any muscle group.

Foam Roller Exercises

The focal point of the seminar I attended was longitudinal immobilization, which is simply lying straight on the foam roller. The very act of lying on it, without doing any special movements, helps release tension along the spine and in the shoulders. It also helps improve posture and some research suggests that it helps increase total strength.

Here is a brief video showing how to do longitudinal immobilization:

In addition to lying on the foam roller, you can also tilt and shift your head to the sides for additional stretching for the shoulders. This really helps with a particular trigger point in my right shoulder that develops regularly on me from using a mouse. We also leaned the shoulders and hips off the foam roller to stretch the upper and lower back. I say “lean” but it’s more like spilling different parts of your body off the foam roller than gently drawing them back up again.

Our instructor also showed us a stretch for the IT band, the muscle area along the outside of the thigh. It can be quite painful, particularly if you use this muscle group a lot for things like kicking or running. But if it is painful, it means you probably really need this kind of stretch.

Here’s a video showing the IT band stretch using a foam roller:

This article really only scratches the surface of how these foam rollers can be used. If you have a particular part of your body you want to work on, chances are you can find a video on how to use a foam roller for it on YouTube. And here is a great article on fascia and myofascia release from Men’s Health Magazine.

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