Just as a car needs regular tune-ups and oil changes to run smoothly, the human body requires constant upkeep to stay in top physical condition. And if you’re an athlete who experiences the wear and tear of intense exercise, you’d better be your own best mechanic.
One of the most common forms of self-maintenance is foam rolling. Foam rolling has become so popular that everyone from NBA All-Stars to soccer moms is using the self-massage logs. But if you’re big and strong, you may have noticed that some foam rollers feel less like deep tissue massage and more like cushy pillows.
In this article, we’ll show you two simple tools to kick your foam rolling up a notch.
How Foam Rolling Works
Foam rolling is a form of myofascial release, a therapy that relaxes tense muscles and improves mobility by massaging the fascia, the “web” of tissue that wraps around muscles, bones and organs.
Some experts say massage actually changes the fascia, while others believes the benefits are purely mental. But although research on myofascial release is limited, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that foam rollers are part of an effective warm-up.
Some say foam rolling’s greatest benefit is getting tense muscles to “calm down.” When pressure is applied to muscles during massage, mechanoreceptors cause them to relax and rehydrate, which improves mobility and reduces pain and soreness.
One thing’s for sure: if you don’t apply enough pressure, rollers won’t do a darn thing. So if you’re too muscular for a soft roller, use these advanced techniques to loosen up tight or sore muscles in ways that regular foam rolling cannot.
PVC pipe is the perfect progression when soft foam isn’t enough. It is both denser and cheaper than foam. You can grab a 6-inch-wide PVC pipe and get it cut to any length at your local hardware store for less than $10.
Use the PVC pipe just like a regular foam roller, targeting areas like the upper back, lats, quads and IT bands. Perform 20 to 30 seconds of slow, controlled passes on each body part at the beginning of your warm-up.
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WATCH: how the University of Maryland men’s soccer team rolls with a PVC pipe.
For those hard-to-reach places, a lacrosse ball provides targeted relief that’s impossible to achieve with a regular roller. But be warned—your first encounter with a lacrosse ball won’t be comfortable. Start slowly and apply greater pressure as your muscles relax.
Place the lacrosse ball on the floor to hit lower-body muscles like the glutes and piriformis, or wedge the ball against a wall to massage upper-body muscles like the pecs and shoulders. You can even put the ball on a plyo box to roll often-ignored muscles like the forearms, which can get nasty knots from gripping barbells and dumbbells.
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Get Ready to Rock . . . and Roll
Treat your body like a Ferrari, not an AMC Pacer. Take time every day to perform maintenance on your tired muscles, and invest in better tools if you’ve grown too big and strong for a regular foam roller. Just a few minutes a day can ensure you’ll be roadworthy for a lifetime.
Get started with these four excellent foam rolling exercises.
Cressey, Eric, Bill Hartman, and Mike Robertson. Assess and Correct: Breaking Barriers to Unlock Performance. 2009.
DiGiovanna, Eileen L., Stanley Schiowitz, and Dennis J. Dowling. “Myofascial (Soft Tissue) Techniques.” An Osteopathic Approach to Diagnosis and Treatment. 3rd ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins, 2005. 80-82.
Hemmings, B., et al. “Effects of Massage on Physiological Restoration, Perceived Recovery, and Repeated Sports Performance.” British Journal of Sports Medicine 34.2 (2000): 109-14.
Schleip, Robert, et al. “Strain Hardening of Fascia: Static Stretching of Dense Fibrous Connective Tissues Can Induce a Temporary Stiffness Increase Accompanied by Enhanced Matrix Hydration.” Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies 16.1 (2012): 94-100.