The Foam Roller Isn’t Just For Traditional Self-Myofascial Release
Just because you are using a foam roller as a tool doesn’t necessarily mean that movement should be considered a self-myofascial releases (SMR) technique. This may be hard for some of you overly touchy feely soft tissue zealots to conceptualize, but the foam roller is just another piece of equipment in a gym, and its use is far from mandatory.
The tool does not create the result, even if we are talking about your beloved roller. And since a vast majority of athletes and lifters have a damn hard time actually seeing objective results from aimlessly flailing around on the floor, it’s time for a change in the way you think about the foam roller and SMR in general.
Alongside its popularity for decreasing neurological tone of soft tissues, the foam roller’s shape and size quietly providers a very novel mobility tool to help lifters and athletes enhance positions for stretching and mobilization based movements.
Here are the four most effective mobility drills that use a foam roller that are staples in my athlete’s programs. And no, these are not your traditional “foam rolling SMR techniques” that we’ve all developed such a love-hate relationship with. This is foam rolling… but better.
#1 Active Thoracic Spine Extension Over Foam Roller
One of the most common movement dysfunctions that a majority of lifters and athletes will present with is an inability to achieve thoracic spine extension, especially in a braced position under load. While this positioning deficit may seem minor, the real problem behind the inability to achieve and maintain a neutral or even semi-extended thoracic spine position is the undue stress this spinal position places on the shoulders and neck.
Simply put, the thoracic spine was anatomically designed to be a mobile group of spinal segments to take stress off the lower back, shoulders and neck during movement and physical activities. If this region of the spine loses its ability to be mobile in nature, the joints and regions I just mentioned are placed in a more vulnerable position for chronic or traumatic injury. This is part of the problem as to why achy shoulders and lower back pain are so prominent in the lifting population.
Old school thought was that if a tissue or region of the body was lacking mobility, the best way to remediate is through addressing the soft tissues with SMR techniques. While this can be a viable self-treatment option for some areas of the body, the thoracic spine isn’t one of those areas.
Thoracic spine mobility enhancement is highly dependent on mobilizing vertebral segments, not the soft tissues that are local to this region. This is the reason why using the shape and size of a foam roller to create a fulcrum point for you to mobilize individual segments is so effective for enhancing spinal positions through the mid back.
Sure, feel free to “foam roll” your upper back and thoracic spine, but make damn sure you prioritize the thoracic spine extension with diaphragmatic breath over the foam roller to really start seeing performance enhancement and mobility results.
The large superficial gluteus maximus gets all the glory when it comes to traditionalist SMR and foam rolling techniques. That’s fine as the glute is a great place to roll soft tissue, but it should be mentioned that much of the benefit for addressing the gluteal group is actually achieved through targeting the deeper structures responsible for stabilization of the hip and pelvis.
The gluteus medius muscle is a fan shaped muscle located deep to the gluteus maximus, and is located on the lateral side of the hip between two major bony prominences, the greater trochanter of the femur and the iliac crest of the pelvis. This muscle provides lateral stabilization of the hip and pelvis and also plays an active roll in some hip rotation and abduction.
Due to the anatomical location of this muscle, it is very hard to fit a foam roller into the soft tissue groove and roll it traditionally along the fiber orientation. For those of you thinking that you should just use a lacrosse ball instead, this type of pinpoint pressure placed in such an acute area where there are a ton of vascular and neural structures is just playing with fire. So how do we address this common area directly without pissing off the other all-important structures of the hip?
By placing the foam roller in perpendicular with the body in contact with that soft tissue area between the hip and pelvis as mentioned above, we will once again be using our body to move over the roller. This is worth repeating. We will not be “rolling” the foam roller underneath the body, but rather rotating our hip and pelvis on top of the roller while it is stationary.
This is a money move that I’ve been using with my athletes for years. But as simple as it looks, there are a few key points. Be sure to rotate slowly over the roller in order to not only hit the soft tissues of the lateral hip, but to also mobilize the pelvis and hips along with it. The slower you move and the better spinal position you can maintain, the better your results will be.
#3 Posterior-Lateral Thoracic Cage Pin & Reach Over Foam Roller
Ah, the lats! This muscle gets commonly tight and tonic due to it’s insertion point on the inside of the humerus, making it a secret internal rotator of the shoulder. Everyone who’s been on a foam roller has hit the lats once or twice, and yes, directly rolling this muscle and the structures surrounding it can absolutely do some good. But I’ve got a way to make this move even better.
Rolling individual structures like the lats is fine for systemic recovery or to tap into neurological relaxation, but for movement and training preparation, we can do better! The lats have a very broad attachment point throughout the back of the thoracic cage, thus targeting this muscle is highly dependent on also mobilizing the rib cage with active movements.
After you get done smashing the roller and ball into your armpit and hurting yourself so good, stick the foam roller under you and get some real lat mobility work in. Pressure down on the top portion of the lat while your body is positioned in side lying, and use your opposite arm and side of the rib cage to reach and stretch through to meet your hands together in an overhead position.
This awesome self-mobilization helps to target the lat on the roller from a soft tissue standpoint, but also incorporates the stretch and position of the thoracic cage and opposite side lat to get tension throughout the entire system. Due to many deep direct insertional and fascial connections, it is ideal to be mobilizing both lats at once. Give this one a try, as it feels great and will actually work to enhance your thoracic spine and rib cage positions as well.
#4 Active Pectoralis Group Smash & Stretch Over Foam Roller
Yes, you’ve all been waiting on the chest and shoulder mobility drill, so here it is. The pectoralis group is not only comprised of one big and superficial muscle we target on bench press, bur rather two synergistic muscles working together in unison; the pectoralis major and minor. I realize that only speaking to two of the muscles of the shoulder girdle is quite simplistic, as there are many more primary movers and key players in position throughout this region, but for the sake of targeting mobility, we’ll key in on these two.
Traditional foam rolling does a pretty good job of targeting the pectoralis major muscle, especially near its insertion point closest to the shoulder joint itself. But many times, overly aggressive stretching and SMR work can leave the tendons of the pec beat up while aggravating the smaller more intricate structures of the anterior shoulder girdle such as the rotator cuff and long head of the biceps tendons. A way to self-treat around this problem is by using the foam roller to enhance your angles for a pin and stretch type movement.
Since we want to be focusing on gaining mobility and flexibility through highly vascular and contractile areas of soft tissue such as muscle that have the ability to be highly neurologically receptive to tensional and pressure stimuli, it would be smart to try to take the tendons and other non-contractile tissues involved in a movement or position out of the equation.
For the pecs, we will be placing the foam roller under the chest arranged in a 45-degree angle to the body right under the meaty muscular portion of the pec itself. This area is found an inch or two up towards the shoulder from the nipple. By placing down a pressure through this exact area, then rotating your opposite shoulder and rib cage through to the opposite side, we not only mobilize the pec we have in contact with the stationary roller, but also the rib cage and thoracic spine.
This is a “catch all” move that really does a great deal of good for both the T-Spine and shoulders, so I highly recommend placing this into your daily prehab program.
Dr. John Rusin is an internationally recognized coach, physical therapist, speaker, and writer, whose published over 200 articles in some of the most widely regarded media outlets in the industry like Men’s Fitness, Testosterone Nation, Mountain Dog Diet, Bodybuilding.com, and Muscle and Strength, to name a few.
Along with an impressive laundry list of publications, Dr. John works with some of the world’s most elite athletes, including Gold Medalist Olympians, NFL All-Pro Quarterbacks, MLB All-Star Pitchers, Professional Bodybuilders and World Class IronMan Triathletes.