Self Myofascial Release: Are You Being Effective AND Efficient?


One of the hot topics within the physical therapy and performance sectors is Self Myofascial Release (SMR).   Today, it seems the debate revolves around weather or not a tissue is really being influenced or if it is wasted time and energy.  This is not a road I care to travel down because I am unlikely to actually change a viewpoint with this writing. However, if you do choose to perform SMR I want you to be as successful as possible.  I want to share five ways both effectiveness and efficiency can be improved.

Reduce surface area

The traditional foam roller is very broad and contacts a larger surface area.  This is not a bad thing, but with increased surface area there is reduced peak pressure applied.  However if you find an exquisitely tender point within the fascial system you may be better served to replace the foam roller with a smaller implement such as a mobility sphere, lacrosse ball, softball, etc.  By doing so, peak pressure is increased and acute tissue adaptation is more likely. However it is unknown how much pressure is created during an SMR technique while using a foam roller. The current biological research shows that for a soft tissue to deform, a moderate to large amount of pressure is needed.  Increased levels of pressure is believed to stimulate mechanoreceptors within the fascial system to yield the biological response desired in the targeted tissue. Thus, to achieve an optimal response, it is logical to consider reducing the surface area.

Move in 360 degrees

Moving away from the foam roller and switching to a sphere of some sort also allows you to manipulate the tissue in multiple planes, or rather cover all 360 degrees.  Tissue adhesions/trigger points don’t occur uniformly. For simplicity, think of a healthy tissue as uncooked spaghetti. Just like uncooked spaghetti, muscle fibers tend to run parallel to one another and intentionally influence the position of multiple fibers.  This is contrasted with an unhealthy tissue full of adhesions, which is more like cooked spaghetti. You try and pull a single noodle out and it will increase the stress applied to a large quantity of the noodles. It seems nearly impossible to free a single noodle if you only try to pull in one direction.  Now apply this to an SMR technique, what happens when only one plane of motion is addressed? Limited success.  The fascial system cannot be freed by addressing only one direction. Rolling in all directions will give a better chance of making a worthwhile adaptation.

Add Active motion

Another useful angle is very similar to the pin and stretch technique.  Some of the most effective forms of manual therapy occur when a muscle is shortened, contact is placed on a palpable adhesion, and then the muscle is lengthened through its’ range of motion.  Similarly if a restriction is found in a muscle regardless of the implement, foam roller or sphere, if the tissue is pinned at an adhesion and then that SAME MUSCLE is moved back and forth through its range of motion you can achieve a similar result.

Move Adjacent musculature

Moving the adjacent musculature is a fourth modification that can be made.  It too builds off of the pin and stretch concept. Myofascial research shows that our muscles are meant to slide and glide past one another.  This is a sign of efficient movement. However some adhesion formations will restrict this muscle play and impact movement patterns. Thus if a muscle is again pinned at an adhesion and the ADJACENT MUSCLE is moved through its full motion, muscle play can be restored to an optimal state.  

Create Compound Context

The final technique to improve efficiency and effectiveness hangs its hat on the fact that the effects of foam rolling are very short lasting.  This is why people feel like they need to continuously “roll out.” If an SMR technique is paired with an exercise emphasizing the mobility of the same structure the effect will be greater.  The rationale or belief is that SMR increases the available mobility, which increases the neurological window for retraining a movement pattern. Thus, performing back to back exercises or incorporating SMR into a circuit can create neurological priming to a tissue and thus allow for a greater adaptation when the tissue is subsequently loaded.  This forces muscular adaptation. The result, more resilience and sustainability within a tissue.

Try any or all of these five techniques the next time you perform a Self Myofascial Release technique to improve both your effectiveness and efficiency.  This will allow you to redirect more of your time and energy into your exercises to create longer lasting adaptations that will keep you healthy!

Stay Well, Stay Strong,