The 4 Best Home-Based Tools for Self Myofascial Release

Self-myofascial release sounds like a complicated subject, doesn't it? And while everything that has to do with the body can get pretty complicated, for the everyday consumer, self-myofascial release is simply a type of self-massage designed to help release trigger points, or "adhesions," that develop in the connective tissue surrounding your muscles.

Self-Myofascial Release: The Basics

Connective tissue, known as muscle fascia (hence the name, myofascial release), has a tendency to get "jammed up." And while the mechanics of these "trigger points" involve more complicated physiology, you know them intimately as "knots"—those incredibly painful spots in your muscles that can make you feel tight, or that can contribute to headaches or referred pain.

The loosening of these knots can be helped along by a professional masseuse, chiropractor, physical therapist, or personal trainer with the appropriate certifications, but self-myofascial release is an affordable home-based treatment that works especially well in conjunction with these other forms of therapy. "The simplest form of self-myofascial release, or SMR, is called ischemic compression," says Dr. Matthew Mendillo, DC, a chiropractor based in New Jersey. "This is where the blood flow is blocked by pressing very hard directly on the trigger point (to an individual's level of pain tolerance), which then results in a surge of blood flow upon the release of the pressure." This surge of blood flow helps loosen up the fascia to restore mobility to the soft tissue.

The technique can be done manually or with various inexpensive tools, but Mendillo notes that it always involves some active movement and compression to a trigger point. As the trigger point begins to loosen up, the level of pressure to the adhesion can be increased, further loosening the fascia while "freeing up" the underlying muscle tissue.

Benefits of Self-Myofascial Release

There's evidence that self-myofascial release helps relieve some types of pain, including non-specific low back pain and plantar heel pain, but the benefits of incorporating self-myofascial release into your regular routine extend beyond pain relief to some pretty nice performance benefits. In fact, some studies indicate that self-myofascial release can help:

  • Increase range of motion and flexibility at specific joints, without reducing muscle activation or force. This makes it an excellent pre-workout warm-up activity.
  • Reduce post-workout soreness and fatigue. This makes it an excellent post-workout cool-down activity.

If you're still confused about what self-myofascial release is, then you may have heard of it by its more popular name, foam rolling. And while foam rolling is certainly one form of SMR, those hard foam cylinders aren't the only tools available to target muscle adhesions and provide physical benefits. If you're looking to start a little bit of performance-enhancing self-massage, consider stocking your self-care arsenal with these tools for self-myofascial release.


A Great Foam Roller


Not all foam rollers are created equal, so it's important to understand the market. You see, foam rollers come in many different sizes, shapes, and densities. Some feature bumps or knobs, while others vibrate. Some cost about $20, others cost over $100, which makes choosing a foam roller more confusing than it has to be.

At its core, a foam roller is simply a cylinder of foam that you balance on and roll over, passing your muscle tissue across the roller's hard surface to help loosen adhesions. The good news is, most people don't need any of the overly complicated features that hike up the cost of the tool. What you do need is a roller made of high-density EVA foam. This type of foam won't break down or get "soft," making the roller less effective with time.

A basic, 36-inch roller, like the j/fit high-density EVA roller, is both effective and affordable, and a great "entry" roller for those just getting accustomed to foam rolling. This is because initially, foam rolling can be uncomfortable since you're specifically identifying and pressing on painful knots in your muscles. (Don't worry—you likely find the surprisingly substantial relief from pain that results well worth the effort.) A long, 36-inch roller, like the j/fit, enables you to perform a number of different exercises without placing greater pressure on some areas, as can happen with more specialized rollers with varying shapes and surfaces.

If, however, a 36-inch roller is too long and impractical for your needs—for instance, you need to take it with you to work or the gym—or if the standard EVA foam roller no longer seems to do the trick, it may be time to upgrade. One great option is the Rollga. It's an 18-inch foam roller that comes in either a soft or firm version, depending on your needs.

Most importantly, though, it features a surface design of "hills and valleys" that helps protect your bony structures, such as your spine and hips, while enabling you to dig deeper into common areas of challenge, including the muscles running alongside your spine. As an added bonus, it's also more affordable than many other, more specialized foam rollers, making it a good option for just about everyone.


A Massage Ball

Massage Ball
Trigger Point Performance Therapy

As wonderful as foam rollers are, sometimes they simply don't provide enough targeted relief for painful trigger points. The relatively flat surface of the cylinder can't really dig into specific points. That's where massage balls come into play. The most classic example is a lacrosse ball. These hard rubber balls are about the same size as tennis balls, but much more dense, allowing for a more aggressive massage of specific areas, especially the glutes, upper chest, and areas to either side of the spine. Plus, they're cheap. It's possible to get a two-pack from your local sporting goods store for less than $10.

Of course, lacrosse balls aren't your only option. You can use tennis balls for a gentler massage. You can use golf balls to target your hands and feet. You can use softballs to target larger expanses of your glutes or quads. Or, if you're dying to lay out some cash, you can buy similar massage tools, such as the line of massage balls from Trigger Point Performance Therapy. These balls come in varying densities and sizes, all designed to deliver a muscle-loosening massage.


A Massage Stick

Namastick massage stick

Massage sticks are especially nice for work and travel, as you can target the same, wide expanses of muscle tissue as you can with a roller, but from the comfort of a chair. Plus, they're lightweight and reasonably small, making them easy to throw in a bag or a suitcase.

What's different about massage sticks is twofold. First, you're using your hands and upper body to apply pressure to the stick when giving yourself a massage, allowing you to increase or decrease the force as needed. Second, you can use the stick to apply a frictional force against the tissue at varying angles. For instance, you can more easily target your quads from varying angles with a massage stick than you can with a foam roller.

One great option is the Namastick. This 16-inch long hardwood stick features a ball on either end. It's this design that makes the Namastick so useful. In addition to working as a massage stick, it can do double-duty as a massage ball or a foam roller for some exercises. For instance, you can place it on the ground and roll out your quads or hamstrings in a similar fashion to that of a foam roller, but you don't have to try to balance yourself on top of the roller. It's a more accessible option for individuals who want the benefits of a foam roller but may not have the balance or upper body strength to effectively use one.

You can also use the balls on either end of the Namastick to target the bottoms of your feet or to identify and work on knots in your hips or low back. As long as you stay away from bony points and joints, it's a flexible option for finding and releasing fascial adhesions. 


A Wheel

Plexus Wheel

Don't confuse a wheel with a foam roller. While both tools are cylinders, wheels are narrower, typically have a wider diameter, and are specifically designed to be rolled along your spine.

The Plexus Wheel is a great example. This product comes in three different sizes, can support up to 500 pounds, and is narrow enough to fit between your shoulder blades, essentially tractioning the spine when you roll over the top of it. Because of its size and shape, the Plexus Wheel provides targeted massage up and down your spine, encouraging your chest and shoulders to "open up," counteracting the common forward slouch of your upper body that develops from activities such as sitting at a desk job, texting, and driving. By counteracting this forward slouch, the wheel can help prevent and correct muscular imbalances that contribute to back pain while massaging the tight musculature along your neck and spine.

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