Commentary by Seth Tucker
When it comes to the mechanics of movement, most of us are familiar with the major joints, the bones that come together to make those joints and that muscles pull on those bones in order to move our limbs. These muscles consist of several layers and groups stacked on each other all throughout the body.
The muscles work by gliding across one another in a symphony of contraction and relaxation, all coordinated around electrical impulses sent by the brain to achieve movement. The muscles exist inside another matrix of tissue called fascia, which helps keep the muscles grouped and pulling more effectively and efficiently. However, fascia is susceptible to becoming matted or stuck to the surrounding tissues, and different lifestyle factors will dictate which areas are most affected. When tissues effectively become matted together, it causes restricted movement, tightness and oftentimes pain. Stretching is useful but has its limitations.
The good news is there is a whole field of study around soft tissue mobilization, or the attempt to physically manipulate the muscles and fascia in different areas of the body to keep the tissues moving effectively. Like changing the oil in your car, it is important to perform regular maintenance on the body. Of the many methods available, there are two modalities that are relatively cheap and can deal with most tightness and restriction. Those are the foam roller and a lacrosse ball.
There are many ways to utilize the foam roller and lacrosse ball. You can find several methods demonstrated on YouTube, but for simplicity’s sake, here is a brief description of how you can reap the benefits of these tools. For large muscle groups like the upper and lower leg, you can reach for a medium-density foam roller. As for getting deeper into muscles like those found across your back, you may choose the lacrosse ball. When using the foam roller, the idea is to apply enough pressure to the muscle that you create tolerable discomfort and work in small, concentrated areas. You can either maintain static pressure or very slowly roll back and forth only 2 to 4 inches at a time and focus on deep, controlled breathing until the muscle begins to relax, usually around 30 to 90 seconds, before moving on to the next section of muscle. For people who spend a lot of time sitting at a desk with their shoulders slouched forward, you may benefit in opening up the chest and extending the spine of the upper back, also known as the thoracic spine. You can do this by laying your upper back over the roller while elevating the hips, engaging the abdominal muscles and supporting the neck and head. Do not foam-roll the low back; stop where the ribs stop on your spine.
The lacrosse ball is similar, but instead of rolling back and forth, you will simply maintain pressure on a single point and attempt to relax the muscle while using controlled, deep breathing until the muscle begins to relax in that 30- to 90-second timeframe. Spend some time exploring different muscles for tightness. Avoid using the lacrosse ball directly on bones or the spine.
In some cases, you may be dealing with an actual injury or structural issue in the body and you should consult a physician. Always use your best judgement and listen to your body. For more examples and details from a licensed physiotherapist, you can search YouTube for one of Kelly Starrett’s many videos on lacrosse balls and foam rollers.