How to Do Self-Massage

by Anna D

Have you ever seen those weird looking round foam equipment lying around in your gym? Maybe, you’ve even seen people use it from time to time. They’re called foam rollers and it is an excellent tool for performing getting our bodies working as they should. Let me explain…

I’ve always known that stretching is an important part of any fitness program. But, I didn’t know how beneficial it really is to my overall well-being until I studied flexibility training in more detail and experienced how much better I feel after doing it regularly. Now, I’m not talking about the regular stretching exercises that people usually do before and after a workout. Those are helpful too but there’s nothing like a good self-massage a foam roller provides.

Ok, I’m going to be a bit more technical for a minute and I hope I don’t confuse you in the process. Self-massage exercises that are done with foam rollers are called Self-Myofascial Release (SMR). The process is basically done by applying gentle pressure on “tight” muscles.

So, how do muscles become tight? When we perform exercises regularly, carry out repetitive movements such as sitting at your work desk, standing, bending, etc, or simply have bad posture, our muscles tend to be overworked or “stuck” at a certain length. Your muscles will eventually tear or form adhesions and ultimately repair itself. The problem happens when they repair and they do not go back to their normal state. The muscles stick to each other which causes them to be stiff. Imagine a scar forming after being wounded – the skin is not as supple as it once was and it’s now replaced with hardened scar tissue. When this happens to your muscles, your movements, in exercise and everyday tasks, will not be as efficient as they once were. At the same time, your posture will be greatly affected. Just imagine an old person walking with a cane. This is, at some level, a result of bad posture and muscles getting tight.

Self-Myofascial Release is Like Deep Tissue Massage

Ever heard your massage therapist say that your muscles are tight in some areas? Self-myofascial release is basically deep tissue massage and does the same thing a massage would do to your muscles but it’s a cheaper alternative (although, I highly recommend getting a massage regularly especially for those hard to reach areas like the shoulder muscles). When done regularly, the pressure from the foam roller against your tight muscles will force them into their natural, straight alignment. This will help you achieve better posture and better movement patterns which may help us avoid joint pain or other types of body pain later on. At the same time, our muscles will be working at their proper length which will make our exercises more efficient and burn more calories.

Why do you not want tight muscles?

Tight muscles can cause many problems like:

  • Increased pain from muscle soreness
  • Muscle spasms during exercises – this used to happen to my calves a lot especially while I’m running
  • Movement compensation – you would not be able to practice full range of motion during exercises because your tight muscles are preventing you from doing so.
  • Further muscle imbalance – when some of your muscles are tight while performing any type of movement, the other muscles that participate in that movement will compensate for that muscle causing further harm to your posture and exercise form. In technical terms, this is called the Cumulative Injury Cycle

How does Self-myofascial Release work?

When you apply pressure to a tight muscle or “knot,” you decrease the activity of the muscle spindles and stimulate the Golgi Tendon Organ (GTO – no, not Pontiac GTO…lol). Muscle spindles lie parallel to your muscle and they are sensitive to the change in muscle length and how fast (or slow) that muscle is lengthening while GTOs are sensitive to muscle tension and how fast (or slow) the tension is being applied. When muscle spindle activity is decreased and the GTOs are activated, your muscles relax. It is only at this time when you can “straighten” your muscle. This means that when you apply gentle pressure on your tight muscle, your muscle relaxes and straightens.

How to Perform Self-Myofascial Release

Basically, you can apply tension on any muscle by rolling on top of a foam roller and using your body weight to create pressure on that muscle for 20 to 30 seconds.

Upper Body Foam Rolling:

Lower Body Foam Rolling:

Foam rollers can be purchased from places like Sports Basement in Walnut Creek, Sports Chalet in Concord, or Sports Authority at Sunvalley Mall in Concord. If you’d rather buy it online, you can do so at
Performbetter.com. Be sure to get the 3ft long and 6 inch round foam roller so you can do a lot more exercises with it. The shorter one does not support your upper body fully.

Foam Rolling Frequency

Currently, I’m doing 3 muscle groups a day, 3 times a week on days when I don’t workout. Most people would probably be better off doing more muscle groups at a time when they first start doing SMR but starting with just a few muscles makes it more manageable. I have to tell you that it can also be very painful especially if you have a lot of tight muscles. This may discourage some people from doing it on a regular basis but knowing the benefits that it can have on your posture and overall movement may just give you enough motivation to want to do it. I promise that it will be less painful the more you do these and you will feel better in the long run.

Lastly, most people forget that dynamic and efficient movement starts with proper posture. When your posture is not correct to begin with, your muscles will suffer in the long run which may lead to pain and injury.

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