March 19, 2021

What is Self Myofascial Release and How Does It Work?

Written by: Zaakir Shakoor, MSc
Reviewed by: Mubashar Rehman, PHD

Have you ever felt so stiff that its affecting your mobility? If so, a myofascial release might be just what you need. Within the body, we have something called myofascial tissue which is essentially the connective tissue surrounding the muscles and organs (1). Over time ground substances (extracellular matrix) within myofascial tissues solidifies forming "knots", thereby causing muscle stiffness, pain, and even injury from joint restriction, range of motion and poor flexibility (1). Personally, I've been in situations where I could not even move my neck from left to right; then I came across a strategy called self-myofascial release. The current theory is that myofascial release can decompose the solidified ground substance and scar tissue, subsequently enabling movement at the joint, reducing muscle stiffness and pain (1).

 

How to Administer Self-Myofascial Release?

You can easily administer self-myofascial release at home or in a gym-based setting (1).

First, you need a hard object and some tolerance for discomfort/pain.

Second, you find a trigger point by applying a small amount of pressure at a stiff area of the body i.e., calves. A trigger point is essentially an area where a large amount of ground substance may have synthesized; application of pressure on the trigger point causes significantly more discomfort compared to other areas of the muscle (1,2). Once the trigger point is located, you must slowly apply some positive pressure with the object into the area for 30 seconds with 2-3 sets, attempting to drive deeper into the myofascial tissue each set (2).

 

Example Exercise 

Step 1. Place a foam roller on the floor

Step 2. Sit on the floor 

Step 3. Position the posterior portion of the lower leg (calf) perpendicular to the foam roller

Step 4. Begin by gently rolling the foam roller on the lower leg to find a trigger point.

Step 5. Position the foam roller on the trigger point and slowly increase pressure for 30 seconds 

Step 6. Repeat for 2-3 sets

 

For a more detailed instruction on how to target each body part, you can refer to these links:

1. Self Myofascial Release for the Neck
2. Self Myofascial Release for the Upper Back
3. Self Myofascial Release for the Shoulder and Rotator Cuff
4. Self Myofascial Release for the Lower Back
5. Self Myofascial Release for the Hips to Legs

 

Self Myofascial Release Tools 

 

#1 The Foam Roller

The foam roller is a long cylindrical object constructed of dense foam. It is ideal for targeting large areas of the trunk and lower extremities such as the pectorals, back quadriceps(trapezius and latissimus dorsi), hamstrings, and gluteus muscle groups. However, the foam roller has a limitation in that it cannot reach some areas of the body e.g. adductor muscles of the leg. 

#2 The Massage Ball

A massage ball is a small dense spiracle object and, in my opinion, is perfect for delving deep into a trigger point within myofascial tissue which otherwise would be very difficult to reach. Myofascial release of the iliotibial band, which is a thin fibrous tissue that runs parallel and centered from the hip to the knee on the outer leg, is best achieved with the massage ball. Now, it may come as a surprise that you do not necessarily need to invest in a 'physiotherapy massage ball', and you can use a tennis ball or lacrosse ball lying around in your sports cupboard.

#3 Muscle Roller Stick 

The muscle roller stick, as the name suggests, is a thin rubber or plastic stick with handles, just like a rolling pin. The muscle roller stick is great to maneuver around areas like the carves, quadriceps, neck, etc. A limitation of the muscle roller is that some individuals may be unable to produce enough pressure.  

#4 Trigger Point Tool 

If you Google 'trigger point massage tool', you will come across a curved stick with a round ending. This tool is perfect for targeting specific areas of the body that may be missed otherwise, such as the rotator cuff muscles surrounding the scapular (shoulder blades) or the erector spinae (spine muscles).

#5 Massage Gun

You may have come across the massage gun as it has recently gained a lot of popularity. The massage gun is essentially an electronic device shaped like a gun with a dense spiracle ending. The massage tool is switched on and the ending is placed against a muscle to create a positive pressure similar to any other tool. The pros of using a massage gun are that it is very easy to maneuver and creates its own positive pressure, but it can be expensive. In my opinion, a massage gun in its current form is not superior to any of the other highlighted tools.

#6 Massage Chair 

The massage chair is an electronic device that you would sit back on. Most massage chairs have a variety of settings and modes, which may release some myofascial tissue in the back. A massage chair has many limitations as it is expensive, only targets the back, and may not reach individualized trigger points.  

#7 Your Hands

This is one of my favorites as it's so easy and effective to reach areas such as the neck, biceps, forearms, triceps, and muscles around the pelvis. Generally, I tend to use my thumb, index finger, and middle finger to pinch trigger points that have become stiff overtime. The only con with using your hands is that some individuals are not strong enough to produce enough positive pressure. 

Conclusion

Self myofascial release is a very simple, cheap, and effective strategy that can help to breakdown the solidified ground substance or the scar tissue that builds up within fascia, therefore reducing joint/muscle stiffness and promoting more adequate movements. There are a variety of tools that are designed to administer self myofascial release in different areas of the body. The main key point to take away is to drive positive pressure into trigger points.  

 

References

1. Beardsley, C., &.,Skarabot, J. Effects of self-myofascial release: A systematic review. Journal of bodywork and movement therapy. 2015; 19(4): 747-758

2. Cheatham, S., Kolber, M.J., Chain, M., et al. THE EFFECTS OF SELF‐MYOFASCIAL RELEASE USING A FOAM ROLL OR ROLLER MASSAGER ON JOINT RANGE OF MOTION, MUSCLE RECOVERY, AND PERFORMANCE: A SYSTEMATIC REVIEW. International journal of sports physical therapy. 2015; 10(6): 827-838

Disclaimer: all of the information within this article is for educational purposes and is NOT intended as a personalized exercise prescription. No one can be held liable under the circumstances of damages, reparation, or monetary losses as a result of the information.

Article written by Zaakir Shakoor, MSc
Zack Shakoor Kayani was born and raised in the South East of England/London. Zack has attained a bolus of knowledge regarding biosciences through academia and his career experiences. In terms of his educational background, he has a Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology (Hons.), a Postgraduate diploma in sports nutrition with the International Olympic Committee, and a Master’s of Science in Nutritional Sciences. Zack has been fortunate enough to apply his Exercise Science and Nutrition Knowledge to aid Hundreds if not Thousands of Patients and Athletes, providing 1-1 consultation, Personal training, Information sheets, offering recommendations to collate nutrition and exercise programs, etc. Not to mention, in 2020, he authored a book called ‘Obesity Decoded’

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