Hey Readers! I am so happy you are here! In today's blog post, I will give an overview of what self-myofascial rolling is and what the benefits are. Self-myofascial rolling (SMR) used to be referred to as self-myofascial release, but the term "release" has recently dropped out of the general lexicon. In general, SMR is used to release tension or decrease activity of overactive myofascial tissues, helping to restore mobility of said myofascial tissues. SMR is an excellent self-care routine that helps to keep your muscles and surrounding tissues healthy and pliable.
Before we dive into the nitty-gritty, let's talk about what "myofascia" is. "Myo-" refers to muscle, and "fascia" refers to the soft-tissue seam system that threads all your tissues to each other. Thus, "myofascia" refers to muscle AND the soft tissue that encases it and connects to it. All of your muscles are quite literally connected to each other via your fascia.
Jill Miller, creator of the Roll Model Method (RMM), defines fascia as, "...an interconnected, three-dimensional web of tissue that extends from head to toe, front to back, and interior to exterior." Your fascia is loaded with many types of sensory neurons, including proprioceptors and nociceptors. Proprioceptors are specialized neurons that detect where your body is in space and then relay that information to your brain for interpretation and modulation of movement. Nociceptors are specialized neurons that detect painful stimuli and then transmit that information to the brain. Fascia is responsible for:
Providing structural integrity and support to muscles, bones, and organs
Shock absorption and the transfer of force across the muscle to the joint
Acting as a home for sensory neurons
What Exactly is SMR?
Self-myofascial rolling (SMR) is a compression technique where an external object, such as a foam roller or roller ball, compresses myofascial tissues. SMR can restore more appropriate movement, sensation, and range of motion (ROM) to myofascial tissues. To sum things up greatly, when doing SMR, you find a spot of tension in a myofascial tissue (e.g. glutes or feet) using an external object (e.g. roller ball). Then, you hold that position while continuing to breathe calmly and deeply, for 20-60 seconds. After this period of time, you can perform active movements while the external object presses into the myofascia, such as contracting and relaxing the muscle or moving a joint uptown or downtown from the roller object. For example, if you were doing SMR on your glutes, you might contract and relax the gluteal musculature while the rolling object presses into the glutes, or you might bend and straighten through the knee joint.
SMR can be performed before or after a workout and at any time of the day. Depending on the size of your external rolling object, you can even do SMR when driving or completing various daily tasks. For example, you could place a roller object, such as a roller ball, under your hamstrings while on a conference call for work. Unless you have medical reasons that dictate otherwise, you theoretically can do SMR on most days of the week. When doing SMR, it is important to roll the external object slowly over the myofascial tissues. It is also SUPER important that you breathe in/out through your nose using a diaphragmatic breath (click here to read more about diaphragmatic breathing).
Another factor to consider when doing SMR is the difference between "pain" and "sensation." Sensation is "comfortable discomfort," or "hurts so good." Sensation can be an intense experience, but it is typically not dangerous for the body. Pain, on the other hand, is "intolerable discomfort," and is usually experienced as a burning, stinging, or stabbing feeling. Pain is your body's way of communicating to you that where you are rolling is not okay. This signal means that you need to back off on the pressure, modify how/where you are rolling, and/or discontinue rolling that area until you speak with your physician. SMR can be quite sensational, depending on the body area being rolled and your experience with rolling. Typically, SMR is incredibly sensational the first few times you engage in it because your tissues are likely to be laden with trigger points. However, as you continue with your SMR practice, this sensation typically decreases because your tissues become more balanced, conditioned, and healthy. As my mentor, Lauren Reese M.S., E-RYT always says, you must "be a student of your body" in order to determine if you are feeling pain or sensation.
There are many different types of external objects that can be used for SMR. Foam rollers (e.g. long, cylindrical foam object) are super common in the health and fitness industry. Foam rollers are great for applying pressure to broad regions of myofascia, and they can help to loosen up some tension in the muscle and surrounding tissue. But, because of their large size, they typically cannot provide precise contact with smaller muscle knots and hard-to-reach tissues near joint junctions. I am actually trained and certified in the Roll Model Method (RMM), and I highly PREFER the therapy balls used in the RMM over most other external objects. The RMM therapy balls come in different sizes, and the material of these balls makes these tools PERFECT for rolling your soft tissue and rolling over bones and joints.
Why Should People Practice SMR?
There are many reasons to include SMR in your wellness routine. Here are some of the documented benefits of an SMR practice:
Improved circulation and perfusion of your soft-tissues. Your muscle and fascial tissues can become dehydrated from lack of fluids and/or lack of movement. When this happens, your fascias can stick to one another, creating adhesions, which affects movement of the myofascia (e.g. muscle contraction or lengthening). SMR can help water molecules bind to the fascial web, thereby hydrating the tissues. This tissue perfusion acts like a pump, bringing nutrients into the tissues and bringing waste products out of the tissues. And this helps your muscles to function much better.
Relieve aches and pains. When your muscles develop trigger spots, or adhesions, it can cause that area to become overactive with nervous system signaling. This can result in painful or achey muscles. SMR can help to reduce these aches and pains by decreasing tension in these areas. Also, SMR can improve your overall proprioception, which can reduce your nociception.
Enhance breathing function. Your breathing muscles (e.g. diaphragm, intercostals, etc. - click here to read more), like all other muscles in your body, can become rigid due to a lack of use, protecting an injury, poor posture, and even carrying excess weight on your body. When your respiratory muscles "lock up," it can dramatically reduce their ability to move well during normal respiration. This can lead to shallow breathing, which triggers your body's stress response system. Deep, diaphragmatic breaths actually trigger your body's "rest, digest, and restore" system, making you feel calmer and healthier (click here to read more about this). SMR can restore mobility to your respiratory muscles, making it much easier for you to use diaphragmatic breathing throughout the day.
Increase mobility and proper movement patterns. When myofascia becomes filled with adhesions, the muscle and surrounding tissue cannot lengthen nor contract as easily. This can reduce mobility and may cause your body to recruit the wrong muscle(s) for a given motor task. SMR can restore motion into myofascia that is tired, achy, and stiff, by helping to break apart adhesions in the muscle and fascia. These loosened muscles are better able to do their jobs when executing a motor pattern, allowing your entire body to move with more ease.
Improve posture. When your body employs poor static (i.e. stationary) and/or dynamic (i.e. during movement) posture, it can cause muscle imbalance around affected joints (i.e. one muscle becomes too long and another muscle becomes too short). Muscle imbalances can lead to compensatory movement patterns (i.e. where the wrong muscle takes on the job of another muscle), which can ultimately initiate the cumulate injury cycle (discussed in the next section). SMR can loosen up muscles and fascia that have become too tight, giving your body a better foundation upon which to execute appropriate posture.
Reduce stress. Myofascia that contains adhesions is sort of like a muscle that will not stop contracting. And, in some ways, this is exactly what is happening - that muscle has increased tension because the nervous system is telling it stay in this tense state. When your muscles are tensed up, it can trigger your sympathetic nervous system (click here to read more about this), which is your body's stress-response system, or the "fight, flight, or freeze" system. SMR offers a micro-stretch to the myofascia that is being rolled and eventually switches "off" the receptors that were perpetuating the increased tension. This allows your muscles to relax, which signals your parasympathetic nervous system to turn "on" (click here to read more about this).
Improve body awareness. SMR is a wonderful tool to help you embody your own body. Through the practice of SMR, you become more aware of where certain bones and muscles are in your body. SMR is also fabulous for stimulating your proprioceptors (i.e. your body's inner GPS system), so you get a better sense of where your body is in space and how you are moving through that space. Increased body awareness helps you move with more ease and more appropriate muscle recruitment, potentially reducing your risk of injury or musculoskeletal pain.
What Actually Happens to Myofascia When Practicing SMR?
SMR can help to break apart myofascial adhesions, or trigger points, that are created through the "Cumulative Injury Cycle" (CIC). The CIC is the body's response to repetitive movements (e.g. sitting too much, carrying a baby on one side of the body repeatedly, etc.), long periods of poor posture (static and dynamic), poor nutrition, and emotional holding. Repetitive movements, poor posture and nutrition, and emotional holding can lead to tissue trauma and inflammation.
Inflammation activates the body's pain response, which initiates a protective mechanism that increases muscle tension. The increased muscle tension can lead to muscle spasms in the myofascia. A muscle spasm is an involuntary contraction of a muscle, which is the body's way of immobilizing a joint through sustained contraction. As a result of the muscle spasm, adhesions, or restrictions, begin to form in the muscle. The adhesions form an inelastic matrix in the myofascia that decrease the normal mobility of that soft tissue - the myofascia sort of "sticks together," limiting movement. These adhesions also impair neuromuscular control in that tissue, which can lead to faulty movement patterns that continue the CIC all over again.
The tools used in SMR stimulate various sensory receptors in the myofascia that essentially override the dysfunctional, yet somewhat protective, CIC. Basically, the rolling instrument sends signals to the nervous system that tell the muscle to relax and let go of the tension. In this way, SMR can keep the myofascia healthy and mobile, making exercise and activities of daily living much easier and more comfortable. Also, when adhesions are reduced in the myofascia, muscle fibers can contract more fully, allowing you to generate more force for your daily movements.
If you are new to the practice of SMR, I highly recommend that you consult with your physician prior to beginning this practice. This is especially true if you have an underlying condition, such as diabetes or fibromyalgia. SMR is typically safe for most people; however, it is best to check with your doctor to find out if there are any areas you should not roll or if you should avoid SMR completely.
Self-myofascia rolling, or SMR, is a practice in which you use an external instrument to apply pressure to a muscle and the surrounding connective tissue. SMR has been shown to be effective at reducing adhesions, or trigger spots, in muscle and fascia. Adhesions can limit the normal mobility and contractile ability of a muscle, causing dysfunctional movement and/or pain. There are many documented benefits of a regular SMR practice, including better breathing mechanics, posture, and overall movement. SMR can also help to induce a state of calm and ease into your nervous system and myofascial tissues. Foam rollers are common objects used for SMR. I also recommend the roller balls used in the Roll Model Method program. If you are looking for specific instruction in how to use the RMM therapy balls, you can take an in-person or livestream class from Breathe Yoga Atlanta. Stay tuned next week for a second part to this post, where I go over some SMR wisdom I have learned from my personal SMR practice. Thanks for reading and happy rolling!
As always, the information presented in this blog post is derived from my own study of neuroscience, human movement, anatomy, and yoga. If you have specific questions about SMR for your body, please consult with your physician, physical therapist, or private yoga teacher. If you are interested in private yoga sessions with me, Jackie, you can book services on my website ("Book Online" from the menu at the top of the page), or you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about my services. Also, please subscribe to my website so you can receive my weekly newsletters (scroll to the bottom of the page where you can submit your email address). This will help keep you "in-the-know" about my latest blog releases and other helpful yoga and wellness information. Thanks for reading!
~Namaste, Jackie Allen, M.S., M.Ed., CCC-SLP, RYT-200, RCYT, NASM-CPT
Brookbush, B. (2019). Muscle Fiber Dysfunction and Trigger Points. Brookbush Institute of Human Movement Science. Article link here.
Miller, J. (2014). The Roll Model: A Step-by-step Guide to Erase Pain, Improve Mobility, and Live Better in Your Body. Victory Belt Publishing, Inc.
Clark, M.A. et al. (2018). NASM Essentials of Personal Fitness Training. 6th Edition. Jones & Bartlett Learning. Burlington, MA.