4 Foam Rolling Mobility Hacks to Improve Lifting and Life

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When I first started weight lifting, I didn’t have the slightest clue what I was doing. I began with a bodybuilding split, hitting each muscle group once a week. I was sore 24/7.

My “warm up” consisted of a few lighter sets on the first exercise of the day. After this I would jump straight into my working sets.

Compared to what I now know, this was far from optimal. With time comes experience, and with experience comes knowledge. If you’ve read any of my previous articles, you already know how beneficial foam rolling, dynamic warm ups and mobility work can be.

But what if I told you there are certain tweaks you can use to make your mobility work 10 times as effective. Would you be interested?

Hack #1 – Foam roll EXTREMELY slow

One of the biggest mistakes I see folks making is foam rolling with little to no intention. They blaze over those cylindrical polyurethane pipes. You’d think their wife was in labor or the Super Bowl was about to come on.

Sometimes I wonder if CrossFit has a WOD for how fast you can roll out your hamstrings, glutes and IT bands. I haven’t seen one actually posted, but if it did exist you can imagine what the results would be.

Foam Rolling

There are certain tweaks you can use to make your mobility work 10 times as effective.

The goal of myofascial release is to influence proprioceptors that are responsible for governing the tension within your body’s fascial network. Muscle contains golgi tendon organs and muscle spindles, which influence contraction, force production and injury prevention, but fascia contains other receptors that are subject to neural input on a daily basis.

Most notably, the Ruffinian and Pacinian corpuscles are two low-threshold mechanoreceptors, which respond to very minute levels of tactile stimulation. [1] These receptors can be thought of as “slow twitch” since they are mainly responsible for posture and joint positions over an extended period of time. [1]

When pressure is applied to the skin while rolling, proprioceptors are overloaded and shut down, thus decreasing the resting tension of the fibers. So in essence, the physical length of the tissue itself is not actually changing, but the stiffness of the fibers and the neural input affecting their facilitation is being altered.

When someone glides over a roller like they’re on a conveyor belt instead of putting direct, focused pressure into adhesions (trigger points), they negate any possible benefits and simply generate more muscular activation. Without any sort of deep, stimulating pressure, they will never penetrate below the superficial layers of muscle tissue to inhibit the neural tone generating the hypertonicity.

So how slow should you go? A good example would be your IT band or the bottom of your foot – it should take you about 15-30 seconds to transverse the length of the tissue. For me, I typically spend around 1-2 minutes on any given area until pain decreases/subsides or I notice a change in my range of motion.

Bottom line: GO SLOW. Spend a minimum of 1 minute (preferably longer) on each problem area. When you hit a “hot spot” take a deep breath and RELAX; tensing up and gritting your teeth due to the pain will only exacerbate the issue.

Hack #2 – Stay on an area until a change is generated

I picked up this little tidbit from Kelly Starett after reading his book “Becoming a Supple Leopard”, and watching countless hours of YouTube videos. Here’s a good rule of thumb regarding soft tissue work: implement the test/retest strategy.

Essentially, if you’re trying to bias a certain position – bottom of squat, front rack position, overhead carry, etc – then you should be able to feel and see a difference in the position after some dedicated soft tissue or banded stretch work.

If you can’t, then you know you haven’t biased the tissues and you need to keep working on the area until you become a Supple Leopard.

Bottom Line: Test and retest. No difference? Keep working on the area until something changes and the position looks or feels different.

Hack #3 – Use a sandbag when foam rolling your calves

Starett also mentions this in his book but I was skeptical at first until I tried it. Normally I would just cross one leg over the other in order to provide more pressure (as shown in the video below) but the sandbag is a game changer.

You can have a “superfriend” (Starett coined the term) provide pressure using their bodyweight but if you’re alone and wanted to get in some serious calf smashing, this is the way to go. It allows you to implement consistent pressure while externally and internally rotating your leg and nothing gets in the way of your foot when you tack and floss.

Bottom Line: If you want to free your up calves and get more range of motion before you squat or deadlift, try placing a sandbag on them for more direct pressure and then roll them.

Hack #4 – Learn to differentiate between the sensation of an adhesion and a nerve

This one might take a little trial and error but you’ll learn quickly – trust me, pain is an excellent teacher. Being able to distinguish between nerves and triggers points is something that is a little tough to understand at first but, with a little practice and some anatomical knowledge you can learn the difference.

When you roll over a nerve, you might feel burning, tingling, or numbness. This is NOT what you want.

Adhesions can be quite painful when you roll over them initially, but if you stay on the area, take a few slow deep breaths, and focus on taking the tissue through its full range of motion, the pain should decrease substantially. If it doesn’t and you experience any of the above symptoms, you know that you’re sitting on a superficial nerve – get off it unless you want to feel pins and needles for a while!

For example, here are two that I’ve hit in the past that are rather uncomfortable:

  1. Sciactic nerve – When rolling on your glutes with a lacrosse ball, stay AWAY from the midline of the body near the crease of your gluteal fold. This nerve is rather close to that area and if you hit it, you won’t be a happy camper when that pain radiates down your leg.
  2. Peroneal/Fibular Nerve – When rolling your calves with a lacrosse ball or a foam roller, avoid the backside of the knee completely. Also, be careful around the head of your fibula (outer portion of your lower leg) given the nerve branch that extends laterally.

Bottom Line: Foam rolling will be painful especially if you’ve never done it before and you have a number of adhesions. However, learn how to differentiate between a trigger point and a superficial nerve. Burning, tingling, numbness = bad.

Tiger Fitness Foam Roller

Tiger Fitness Recoverollers are made with a rigid core to ensure no give during rolling and long-term durability.

Foam Rolling Recap

1. GO SLOW. Spend a minimum of one minute (preferably longer) on each problem area. When you hit a “hot spot” take a deep breath and RELAX; tensing up and gritting your teeth due to the pain will only exacerbate the issue.

2. Test and retest. No difference? Keep working on the area until something changes and the position looks or feels different.

3. If you want to free your up calves and get more range of motion before you squat or deadlift, try placing a sandbag on them for more direct pressure and then roll.

4. Foam rolling will be painful especially if you’ve never done it before and you have a number of adhesions. However, learn how to differentiate between a trigger point and a superficial nerve. Burning, tingling, numbness = bad.

Foam rolling and dedicated mobility work is one of the most important weapons an athlete can have in their arsenal. It can help to reduce injuries and improve longevity but these little tips can make all the difference in the world.

Remember, it’s always about quality over quantity – just because you rolled around on a lacrosse ball or foam roller doesn’t mean anything unless you can see and feel a difference in the tissue you were trying to bias.

Give these hacks a try and let me know what you think; drop a comment below or shoot me an email. Stay tuned for part 2!

References

1. Purves, D, Augustine, G.J., Fitzpatrick, D., Katz, L.C., LaMantia, A., McNamara, J.O., Williams, S.M. (2001). Neuroscience. Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates.

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