To Roll Out or Not, That is the Question

To Roll Out or Not, That is the Question

There has been some recent chatter online about whether or not rolling out your muscles is effective. If its a wasteof time, and if it actually works. I will make this simple for you: yes it is, no its not and yes it will.

I’m not going to beat around the bush on this one, or throw a bunch of whizzy multisyllabic words and explain how every synapse you have affects how your body moves, gets injured or how you fix that. You can dig up plenty of neuromuscular information on the process of rolling out that would put speed freaks on crack to sleep. What I will do, which is much more important,  is tell you why you get tender spots, and why you need to get rid of them for optimal movement performance.

The reason you want to do self myofacial release (SMR) is to release adhesions (knots or trigger points) in the muscles to restore proper function. SMR WON’T cure movement dysfunction on its own, but what it WILL do is give you a much better shot at correcting it. And since you can’t stretch a knot, this is critical for proper muscle tissue health.

Keep in mind repetitive stress activity (can you say endurance sports?) create movement dysfunction. This is not another might, or could, but WILL. Your body deems this to be an injury and initiates the following process:

  1. Tissue trauma is sensed
  2. Inflammation occurs
  3. Muscles spasm to protect you
  4. Adhesions form
  5. Neuromuscular control is altered
  6. Muscle imbalances/movement compensations are created
“We develop scar tissue in our fascia due to trauma to the muscle. This trauma can cause poor posture, muscular imbalances and poor flexibility leading to a host of problems such as neck, shoulder, hip, low back, knee and ankle pain,” says Dusty Feldman, BS, CPT (Self myofascial release, January 2010). “One way to eliminate soft tissue adhesions and scar tissue is through massage, active release technique or other deep tissue modalities. One need not look past the overwhelmingly positive results numerous individuals have had with eliminating these soft tissue adhesions.”
These adhesions are inelastic and the reduce the elasticity of  otherwise healthy muscle tissue causing:
1) altered length tension relationships (resting length of a muscle and the tension it can produce from this length) which leads to reciprocal inhibition (muscles on one side of a joint relaxing to accommodate contraction on the other side of that join). Think glutes not working to allow hip flexors to become overactive.
2) Force couple relationships (muscles creating movement with multiple joints) are also altered leading to synergystic dominant muscles. For endurance athletes think under active glutes from over active hip flexors.
3) Arthrokinetic dysfunction (abnormal joint movement and altered proprioception) causing altered joint mechanics.

The National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) uses the following protocols to improve movement capabilities, and in my opinion, it is one of the best ways I’ve seen to do it. It is pretty comprehensive in that there is a step by step method to follow to get results. And other than in people with structural damage to soft tissues (tears, sprains, etc), I’ve seen this work every time I’ve used it.

The NASM corrective exercise continuum looks like this:

  1. Inhibit knots with SMR
  2. Lengthen muscles with flexibility work
  3. Activate more muscles through strength work
  4. Integrate dynamic movement for performance improvement.

Since soft tissue aligns itself along lines of any stress created (Davis’ Law, NASM Essentials of Corrective Exercise Training), you need to do whatever it takes to keep tissue fibers properly aligned. Realigned tissues block muscles from working correctly which will then lead to relative flexibility (movent compensations in your kinetic chain). This is where SMR comes in because by applying pressure to a knotted area in a muscle, you can begin to release tension created by the original adhesion formed by tissue trauma.

When you put pressure into your “hot spots,” you stimulate mechano receptors that are responsible for sending info to your central (CNS) and autonomic nervous system. In turn the CNS initiates a series of reactions that begin to change tissue properties as tension is released allowing corrective work to be more effective.

“In terms of potential benefits, there are a number of mechanoreceptors in the skin/fascia which report to the brain about things such as muscle tone, proprioception, etc. These different receptors are all sensitive to different stimuli,” said Patrick Ward, MS CSCS LMT from Optimum Sports Performance in a response to my post on the topic to

“Some being receptive to high velocity movements (think chiropractic manipulation), some being sensitive to constant pressure (think compression of tissue or a trigger point as done with a foam roll or with a practitioner’s hands or elbow) and others being sensitive to slow strokes that glide across the tissue (think using a foam roller or a therapist moving along your muscles with their hands, fingers, or elbows).”

The fascia/skin are the vehicle through which the therapist (or potentially even the foam roll) is attempting to influence the brain, ultimately (if done properly) leading to decreases in muscle, increaed relaxation (globally and locally), and greater proprioception and awareness of a region of the body or perhaps an increase in certain movement or mobility.”

NASM’s official take on rolling/SMR:
“The practical significance of using a foam roller to perform soft tissue work is that by holding pressure on tender areas of tissue (trigger points, etc.) for a sustained period of time, trigger point activity can be diminished. This will then allow the application of a stretching or lengthening technique such as static stretching to increase the muscles extensibility, reset the muscles length and provide optimal length-tension relationships.

With optimal length-tension relationships, subsequent use of corrective activation and integrating strengthening exercises will ensure an increase in muscular coordination, endurance strength and optimal force couple relationships (muscles working together) will produce proper joint mechanics (arthrokinematics). Collectively, these processes enable the human movement system to re-establish neuromuscular efficiency. – (N.A.S.M)”

There aren’t definitive studies validate the use of SMR, but there is enough evidence based instances of positive results from using a roller, tennis ball, golf ball, etc to address the knots you’ve got in your muscles. So keep doing it, it helps!


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Never attempt any new exercises mentioned in the Fitness411 blog without a thorough evaluation from a physician, personal trainer, strength coach, athletic trainer, physical therapist or sports chiropractor.