Step One of Perfect Workout: Rolling

In a previous post I discussed my version of the Perfect Workout, which consisted of eight steps.  The first step is to deal with soft tissue abnormalities that lead to pain and/or poor movement patterns.  Here, I discuss this further.

Unless you are a newborn, when you walk into a gym — quite a feat for a newborn — you are going to have some muscular tightness…some tension or “knots” in muscles that occur from chronic movement patterns that are less than ideal.  We all have less than ideal movement patterns.  This is not a judgment…it’s just a fact.

Those of us with chronic coughs especially develop tightness and tension in the thoracic spine, and neck.  Those who sit at work or at home at a computer for many hours a day can also develop muscular tension in the neck and back, as well as tightness in hip flexor muscles and hamstrings.  A good way to think about this is that over a long time sitting in a chair, your body tends to become “chair-shaped,” i.e. short and tight hamstrings and hips.  If that’s not scary enough to imagine (a chair-body), the ugly truth is that muscles don’t live in isolation from their neighbor muscles.  The entire soft tissue system (muscles, ligament, tendons and fascia) is all interconnected.  So a tight, knotted muscle in one area very definitely affects muscles, tendons, etc. both upstream and downstream from it.

This is why a knot in the middle of your back can cause pain all the way up into the back of your head.  Or in my case, this explains why spending a few minutes rolling the bottom of my foot around on a lacrosse ball can help me loosen up my ankles and calves.

So why do we care?  We care because it isn’t just that pain in one area leads to pain in another, but muscular weakness (resulting from those painful knotted tissues) leads to imbalance and weakness elsewhere, which leads to improper movement.  Somebody famous once said, “The body does what it does perfectly.”  So if the body moves imperfectly, it then perfectly continues to move imperfectly.  And if we, for instance, go for a walk or add resistance to imperfect movement, we solidify that pattern in our brains, and become nicely set up for injury…and more pain!

So what’s a (tight and knotted up) body to do? Well, before asking the body to work, it is nice to do whatever you can to lengthen and unknot the muscles that need attention.  This does not have to be a long process, and you don’t need to spend 30 minutes on your foam roller, thus using up your workout time allotment.

I have three favorite tools that I use for this purpose.  First, the aforementioned lacrosse ball is a must for my feet, and occasionally for very tight knots in my back.  If a lacrosse ball is too hard (and you will definitely know this), you can start with a tennis ball and move to a harder ball as your tissue gets more pliable and your nerve endings get used to the process.  For my feet, I simply stand up and put one foot on top of the ball and roll it around.  You will automatically gage how much weight to put on the rolling foot (by how much pain you can tolerate).  When I started this process, I could barely tolerate any pressure—I have very tight feet. But I persisted, 5 minutes every day.  After a couple of weeks, I didn’t mind it at all.  Now this actually feels good.  I don’t usually do this at the gym.  Instead, I have found that the easiest time to do it is when I do my treatment every morning.  It’s like giving myself a foot massage!  I also keep a lacrosse ball in the bathroom.  You figure it out.

The second tool I use is the foam roller.  You’ve probably seen these around.  Most are about six inches in diameter and about three feet long.  They are made of Styrofoam, and have lived in the gym scene for years now as a favorite instrument of torture.  I say this because they are used for “self-myofascial release,” a process that is slightly uncomfortable, especially when it is really needed.  I roll my calves, hamstrings, gluteals, and if I’m really feeling masochistic, my quadriceps over such a roller.  You will know what you need to roll by how painful it is.  The more it hurts, the more you need it.  You simply modify the move to a tolerable level of pain by taking some of the weight off the body part being rolled.  I generally spend five minutes or so rolling as the very first part of my workout.

Tool number three is a very expensive, intricate and complicated instrument.  Kidding.  It’s called a “peanut,” and is comprised of two tennis balls duct taped together to form a peanut-shaped duo.  This handy little tool sets my thoracic spine back to where it’s supposed to live every single day.  The maneuver is simply to place the peanut on the floor under your lower ribcage, and lay back on it so that the groove in the peanut is directly under your spine.  This places each ball of the peanut perfectly under the bundle of muscles that lie adjacent to your spinal column.  You simply roll back and forth on the peanut several times in the position, then move it up the spine about an inch and repeat.  Moving this way all the way up to the level of the big protuberant bone at the bottom of your neck takes only a couple of minutes, and is one of the best things you can do for knots along the spine as well as mobility of the spine (to be discussed in a later post).

That’s it!  Soft tissue rolled out…now it’s time to move on to mobility work.

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