Rolling Refined

Foam Roller
I have so many clients that come to Pilates to be more flexible and relieve tension throughout the body. I recommend these clients regularly roll on the foam roller. Five years ago, people had no idea what rolling was but now people know the many benefits of the foam roller. It is wonderful that clients are rolling but recent research findings suggests we need to refine their rolling use slightly.

The foam roller has gained in popularity because it’s inexpensive and accessible to everyone, unlike a weekly deep tissue massage.  It is an excellent self-care tool allowing one’s own body weight to determine how much pressure to apply to an area and providing that “good pain,” similar to the feeling of a myofascial massage.

The benefits of rolling include increasing flexibility, increasing blood circulation, reduction in muscle soreness and tension, aid in breaking up trigger points (knots), adhesions and scar tissue. Foam rolling is great for releasing soft tissue of the glutes, hamstrings, calves, quadriceps, upper and back. So keep on rolling these areas.

It has never been advised to roll the neck or lower back. And in the last year or so, new research has demonstrated rolling the IT Band dangerous. The IT Band or Iliotibial band is the dense strip of fascia on the lateral side of the leg, running from the hip to the knee. Previously, the thinking was rolling the IT Band would release tension in the leg and take pressure off the knee and hip. But muscles from the front of the leg and back of the leg feed into the IT Band. Rolling the IT Band pulls on both sides of the leg which are opposing muscle groups. That can create problems. So to release IT Band it is best to use The Stick or work with a massage professional.

Keep Rolling Your: Glutes, hamstrings, calves, quadriceps, upper back
Do not Roll: Neck, Lower Back, or IT Band.

Lastly, keep in mind that foam rolling can become addicting, craving that “good pain” everyday. But as with exercise, it is necessary to give your body time to recuperate and process the information that rolling gives your muscles.

Keep on rolling!

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3 Comments on “Rolling Refined

  1. Thank you for this post, Holly! I remember when I first learned about foam rolling, nearly 8-9 years ago, it was nearly impossible to find a roller in a sports supply store and my dance teachers were telling me to roll out the entire length of my IT band to release my glutes. I went to a back health store (they sold Tempur-Pedic mattresses and the like), found a roller, and then went to town on my IT bands, pain and all… but I’m not sure how much harm or good all that rolling did, as my range of movement didn’t seem to change much. This isn’t the first place that I’ve seen that rolling out the IT band isn’t as beneficial as people once thought. I am encouraged, though, by the new research on rolling, especially in the hip area, as that is where I have the most trouble. I’ll also make sure that my students in my oriental dance classes—where we use the glute max and glute medius to power a lot of our hipwork—also know about these new findings; many of them still roll the length of their IT bands, too.

    It seems that the tools for self-myofascial release are improving every day, and hopefully we will be able to convey this knowledge to our students and clients in a timely and safe manner as the research reveals more about the mechanics and structure of the body.

    – A

  2. Hi Holly,

    As a CMT and exercise professional I disagree with the idea that the foam roller can pull on the opposing muscle groups surrounding the IT band. Just like the stick, the roller just compresses the tissue, one area at a time as you roll on it. Because it’s a cylinder, it’s not designed to create traction, just continuous compression. This doesn’t address, however, the idea of compressing dense fascia as opposed to stretching it.

    • Thank you for your feedback!

      Here’s why I don’t recommend rolling the IT Band on a foam roller:
      The IT Band is tendonous at the top and ligamentis at the bottom. And the IT Band attaches to opposing muscles groups at on the back and the front of the leg. We don’t recommend stretching tendon or ligaments anywhere in the body. We also do not recommend stretching two opposing muscle groups at the same time. Putting direct pressure on the IT Band could do both of these things.

      Are you rolling the IT Band because it’s too short/tight? When the IT Band is short it causes compression. So putting the entire weight of the body on the IT Band through the foam roller could compress it more, potentially worsening the problem.

      It’s not to say one should never roll the legs. Rolling the quadriceps or hamstrings is great. The rolling just needs to be specific, not just roll straight up and down the side of the leg.

      The beauty of The Stick or other hand-held massagers is they offer much less compressive force because you’re not putting the weight of your body and gravity into them. They also can easily roll the tissue in multiple directions and can be directed more precisely into the area that needs work.

      The best option is manual therapy such as massage or A.R.T. A trained manual therapists like yourself can best prepare the tissue and work through the trouble spots.

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