Research on foam rollers and other self-massage devices has produced some hard evidence to support their use—and revealed some surprising benefits to the body. Tennis balls loosen tight tissue. Foam rollers expand joint range of motion. Massage sticks soothe recovery from high-intensity workouts.
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It’s called self-myofascial release (SMR), and it has found legions of fans among fitness professionals since the early 2000s. Still, serious fitness pros who resist latching onto the latest fads have legitimate questions about SMR:
- What is self-myofascial release?
- Does science back up the efficacy of SMR?
- How do we make sure our clients use scientifically sound SMR techniques?
- Which SMR tools are best suited to specific fitness goals?
This article reviews the latest research on SMR to answer these questions.
Defining Self-Myofascial Release
The key to understanding SMR is knowing what came before it.
The term traces back to the practice of myofascial release (MR), a clinician-administered therapy named by osteopath Robert Ward in the 1960s and popularized by physical therapist John Barnes in the 1980s. Barnes described MR as a safe, effective way to apply gentle, sustained pressure to connective tissues to eliminate pain and restore motion.
MR is still practiced by osteopaths, physical therapists, chiropractors and licensed massage therapists (Barnes 2012; Tappen & Benjamin 2000).
The key for today’s fitness pros lies in the prefix “self”: Fit pros are helping clients use specific tools to enjoy some of the benefit of MR even if they don’t have access to a professional therapist. In other words, SMR is MR performed by oneself on oneself.
The Science of SMR
Before the early 2000s, there wasn’t much scientific data on SMR. The rationale for foam rollers, lacrosse balls and massage sticks arose from the benefits of manual therapies such as ischemic pressure to release trigger points (Hanten et al. 2000). But as SMR’s popularity grew, scientists grew more curious about its effects. To date, dozens of studies have delved into SMR and self-massage tools.
FLEXIBILITY AND RANGE OF MOTION (ROM)
Most studies have focused heavily on SMR’s ability to enhance flexibility and increase range of motion. That makes sense, given that flexibility is so critical to performance and functional daily living. Several factors contribute to flexibility, including joint integrity, muscle length, age and activity level. Tight muscles create postural imbalances, restrict functional movement and impede coordination. Decreased muscular tension—coupled with increased joint ROM—has been linked to performance improvements, especially in athletes who require full range of movement.
Using SMR on overactive myofascial tissues releases adhesions (see image), making muscles more pliable and increasing joint ROM (Roylance et al. 2013; Macdonald et al. 2014; Healey et al. 2014).
The release in muscle tension is believed to occur when the Golgi tendon organs (GTOs) are activated, imparting an inhibitory reflex (autogenic inhibition) (NASM 2018). Note: Studies typically use firm, dense foam rollers and apply significant pressure to stimulate the GTOs and ease muscular tension. If you want the same results, you must employ the appropriate tool. Using a dense tool (firm foam roller, ball or massage stick) with significant pressure is recommended prior to a workout.
DELAYED-ONSET MUSCLE SORENESS (DOMS)
Vigorous exercise often causes microscopic muscle tears that produce pain or discomfort 1–3 days later, best known as DOMS.
Three studies—two with a foam roller and one with a rolling massager—suggest that SMR reduces DOMS in both trained and untrained individuals (MacDonald et al. 2014; Pearcey et al. 2015; Jay et al. 2014).
One review (Beardsley & Skarabot 2015) indicates that fascia may play a pivotal role in the experience of DOMS. Findings revealed that the fascia covering overexercised muscles became more sensitive to painful stimulation than the muscle itself.
In effect, it is fascia, not muscle, that senses pain. Perhaps DOMS should really stand for delayed-onset myofascial soreness!
SMR’s ability to reduce the effects of DOMS appeals to athletes, trainers and coaches alike. And the considerable success in pain reduction with untrained subjects makes SMR an attractive protocol for weekend warriors who overdo it from time to time. Furthermore, SMR tools are widely accessible, providing an inexpensive option for recovery.
Note: When DOMS produces extreme pain, a less aggressive tool—such as a softer roller or ball—may be more tolerable. Using an air-filled ball (also known as a “sponge ball”) can help to manage pressure applied to affected body parts.
AUTONOMIC NERVOUS SYSTEM ACTIVITY AND RECOVERY
Studies note that SMR can influence the ability of the autonomic nervous system to enhance recovery. The ANS controls involuntary bodily functions such as breathing, circulation and digestion. It has two main divisions:
- The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) controls homeostasis and the body’s response while at rest. PNS lowers heart rate, relaxes muscles and helps restore a state of calm. Thus, it’s necessary for recovery.
- The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) mobilizes the body’s fight-or-flight response and adjusts physiological responses to threats.
Beardsley & Skarabot’s review (2015) found that SMR may modulate ANS activity to assist with recovery. Another study measured serum cortisol levels in healthy young women who completed a 30-minute walk on a treadmill wearing high heels—immediately followed by either passive rest or a bout of SMR using a foam roller. Although differences between the conditions were not statistically significant, there was a trend toward lower blood cortisol levels after the SMR, which study authors attributed to increased parasympathetic activation (Kim et al. 2014).
Similar effects have been found after massage therapy: heightened PNS activity, reduced heart rate and blood pressure, and increasing heart rate variability and endorphin levels (Weerapong, Hume & Kolt 2005). In another case, SMR using a baseball on the neck and upper back for 2 weeks increased PNS activity and decreased SNS activity (Chan et al. 2015).
To trigger the PNS response, fitness professionals may want to program SMR sessions with longer, more sustained pressure, rolling on one area for at least 90 seconds of sustained tolerable pressure (Barnes 2012). Gentle SMR techniques are most favorable for inducing PNS activity. Including breathing techniques in SMR practice is another powerful way to foster PNS activity.
NONLOCAL AND CROSSOVER EFFECTS
Findings from 2015 and 2016 show evidence of nonlocal and crossover effects from SMR.
One study compared the effectiveness of MR therapy and SMR techniques in releasing tight, short hamstring muscles by inhibiting the suboccipital muscles. The MR group received clinician-applied manual therapy of the neck muscles, while the SMR group did a self-release technique using a dense pillow and slight rotation of the head to apply pressure to the occipital region (Cho, Kim & Park 2015).
Hamstring measurements were taken before and after the exercises. Both groups showed positive results, though MR gains were higher than those of the SMR group. The authors suggest that releasing tightness in the suboccipital muscles may increase hamstring flexibility because the hamstrings are related to the suboccipitals via a myofascial sling identified as “the superficial back line” (Myers 2009).
Another study from 2016 (Kelly & Beardsley 2016) measured the effects of foam rolling on ankle dorsiflexion ROM. Volunteers performed three bouts of SMR with a hard roller on the calf of one leg for 30 seconds, applying as much force as tolerable. Results showed an increase in ankle dorsiflexion in both the treated and untreated ankles, suggesting a crossover effect. After the exercise, the ROM improvement lasted 20 minutes on the treated side and 10 minutes on the untreated side.
The results suggest that mechanical and neurophysical mechanisms were at play. The mechanical benefits may have derived in part from applied pressure, as seen in previous studies. At the neurophysical level, it was hypothesized that mechanical pressure from SMR signaled a relaxation response via the nervous system, in much the same way as static stretching does.
The presence of crossover effects from SMR is promising for the rehab and postrehab fields. Theoretically, an injured athlete could apply an SMR protocol on a healthy part of the body and yield therapeutic benefits and stimulate healing for a restricted or injured part of the body.
These nonlocal crossover effects point out that nothing in the body happens in isolation. The body has a unique multidirectional myofascial architecture linking and relating one body part to another. These links are referred to as “muscle chains” by Leopold Busquet and “muscle slings” by Kurt Tittel (Richter 2015).
SMR Methods and Tools
As self-massage became a profitable industry, hundreds of SMR devices emerged. Foam rollers are the most popular: They come in a vast array of sizes and shapes; they can be dense, soft, textured, contoured, or designed for percussive properties. Balls also come in all sizes and shapes—some smooth, some rough, some with knobs or spikes. Many handheld devices have different surfaces and vibrational capabilities. See “How to Choose SMR Tools” sidebar for more information.
Study findings on SMR are less conclusive than those on traditional MR, creating confusion about how and when to apply SMR. Fitness professionals use several types of rollers, balls and sticks, but knowing which to use and when can be a challenge. Here’s a look at studies on specific kinds of devices:
DENSE FOAM ROLLERS
One study used foam rollers to investigate the short-term impact of SMR on mobility of the thoracolumbar fascia (see “A Sample Routine: The Thoracolumbar Fascia,” sidebar for more). Researchers divided volunteers into two groups, both of which used dense foam rollers on the same body parts (Griefahn et al. 2016).
The experimental group received the instruction to apply as much pressure as tolerable, while the control group was told to use only light pressure. Researchers saw no change in mobility among the control group, while the experimental group showed a significant increase in thoracolumbar fascia mobility. These findings suggest that significant pressure is needed to release tissue and enhance mobility.
SOFT ROLLERS AND BALLS
Soft rollers or balls may be a better choice for clients with chronic lower-back pain (LBP). A study on SMR’s effects on thoracolumbar fascia in clients with chronic LBP (but no previous surgeries) used soft rollers and balls to apply SMR (Sanjana, Chaudhry & Findley 2017).
The researchers measured pain levels, flexibility and thickness of the thoracolumbar fascia. Results revealed significant decreases in pain and fascial thickness, plus increases in lumbar flexibility. It was not clear whether these changes could be attributed to the softness of the SMR tools. Even so, softer tools may be more tolerable for people with chronic pain.
PERCUSSION AND VIBRATION
Percussion and vibration are becoming popular in SMR products. A study using a massage stick with vibrating oscillation on 111 male break dancers found improvements in mechanical tissue properties (Gordon et al. 2016). The dancers performed self-manipulation with the stick for 8 minutes on one thigh. They saw a considerable increase in elasticity, a decrease in stiffness, significant desensitization of the treated leg and an increase in local temperature.
At follow-up, researchers revisited 30 of the original break dancers and measured tissue hydration with a bioimpedance method using the same stick. Fascia hydration had increased significantly, suggesting multiple positive outcomes from using an SMR tool with vibrational oscillation.
VIBRATION VS. FOAM ROLLERS
Intrigued by their results with the vibrational oscillation tool, the same group of researchers compared this tool with a traditional foam roller. The objective was to investigate the effects of different SMR tools on the quadriceps muscle (QM) and iliotibial band (ITB).
Volunteers were divided into a “shearing group,” which used the vibrational oscillation stick, and a “rolling group,” which used a traditional foam roller. The study showed that both groups had an increase in local temperature, a significant decrease in stiffness, and increased elasticity in the QM but not the ITB.
Only the shearing group saw an increase in overall hydration, suggesting that rollers and vibration tools create distinct biomechanical impulses. Rolling uses a continuum of pressure, while vibration oscillation creates a multidirectional shearing force. The study authors hypothesized that shearing from the vibration promotes better hydration (Gordon et al. 2017).
Hydration of myofascial tissue is critical for mobility and proper muscle firing. Using foam rollers and other self-massage tools can rehydrate fascial tissues (Chaitow 2009; Schleip et al. 2012). One way to visualize this is to think of a dry sponge being hydrated with water. Recommendations for rehydrating include applying slow, sustained, undulating (wavelike) passes in a variety of directions at various angles (Schleip & Müller 2013).
SMR’s Research-Proven Benefits
The majority of research on SMR points to these advantages:
- enhances flexibility, increasing joint range of motion without hurting performance
- eases delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and may improve recovery time from exercise, training sessions or competition
- increases parasympathetic nervous system activity, which may enhance recovery
- is inexpensive, with readily available tools
Sources: Schroeder & Best 2015; Beardsley & Skarabot 2015; Kalichman & David 2016.
Massaging the Data
SMR is essentially a do-it-yourself massage. Though science has a lot to learn about its efficacy, current research shows promising results.
Many of the studies investigating SMR have examined young, healthy volunteers. Research on aging, deconditioned or injured clientele is lacking. Nonetheless, the findings we do have are interesting and certainly advocate SMR as a valid fitness methodology.
For fitness professionals, SMR represents an opportunity to help clients become more deeply invested in their training regimens. After all, SMR techniques let clients take the initiative on improving flexibility and managing the pain that often follows intense exercise. That should give them a healthy sense of release.
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