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How to use rollers & massage balls for self-myofascial release

SMR/TPR for Tensor Fasciae Latae

There are thousands of different self-treatment tools like rollers and massage balls that vary in their size, shape, materials, etc. Many of my clients have at least one of these tools, as do most gyms & fitness centers. With that said, it seems that very few people know the basic principles of applying these tools and how they actually work. Let's talk about it!

The main reason people tend to use rollers & massage balls is to gain relief from the sensation of tight & achy muscles. They are attempting to perform self-myofascial release (SMR) or triggerpoint release (TPR). When using these tools, people will often apply them to a relatively large area of their body while constantly moving the tool or themselves on the tool. This is not wrong and may even be helpful, but greater benefits may be found with a more dialed-in approach.

Triggerpoint & Referred Pain Map for Upper Trapezius

Initially using your tool on a larger area of the body can be a great way to find "that spot." I call this scanning. The idea is to find a specific spot called a "triggerpoint," which often feels like a deep-ache when pressure is applied to it. People will typically experience referred-pain as well, which is the sensation of pain or discomfort radiating from the triggerpoint to another part of the body. A common example of this is when the upper trapezius & levator scapulae muscles are treated, people will often feel referred-pain moving into the head and neck.

SMR/TPR for Latissimus Dorsi, Teres Major, & Serratus Anterior

Once you have found "that spot," you want to maintain constant pressure on that spot for about 30-90 seconds (and sometimes up to 2-3 minutes in more stubborn areas). It should feel "intense, but tolerable;" if you are squinting your eyes, clenching your jaw, and beads of sweat are rolling down your forehead... you are probably pushing too hard! It should also feel like a productive type of discomfort or a "hurt so good" kind of feeling. Signs of successful treatment are usually obvious; the treated area should feel less-sensitive to applied pressure and moving the treated-area should feel better. If your pain/discomfort is worsened, that is a typically a clear sign that a different method of treatment is required. If this is the case, please do not continue this form of self-treatment and consider seeking help from a healthcare professional like me!

SMR/TPR for Hip Adductor Group

Assuming this is a safe treatment-approach, what is the right tool for the job? Generally speaking, rollers are better for larger and/or thicker areas of the body (back, hips, legs, etc.) and balls are better for smaller areas (shoulders, hands, feet, etc.) Depending on your level of sensitivity and area of the body you are treating, a harder or softer tool may be a better fit for your needs. Harder tools are not inherently better... there is a common misconception that we are using these treatments to "break up scar-tissue and muscle knots..." this is NOT the case. It takes thousands of pounds of force to distort fascia and scar-tissue, so we are primarily interacting with the nervous system with these treatments. However, there is some evidence we may be improving the lubrication (and glide) between layers of fascia.

Cork Roller & Ball Set from Aquanimous

I hope this article has helped you understand how to use rollers & massage balls more effectively. Please understand that SMR & TPR should be considered complimentary to a holistic strength, aerobic conditioning, & mobility routine that is tailored to your personal needs. As mentioned previously, there is a wide-variety of self-treatment products on the market and most of them can be used to some degree of effectiveness. I would like to highlight a company called "Aquanimous," that is mindful about the environmental-sustainability of their products and packaging materials. They sell beautiful rollers, balls and yoga mats made out of cork and educate people how to care for themselves! Keep in mind, cork is lightweight and is generally a bit harder than the average foam roller or lacrosse ball. If you are interested in learning more about Aquanimous and their products, click the button with my affiliate link below.

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