Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Rolling, smashing and mobility training explained

Someone once told me that there is an inverse relationship between the amount of time a trainer has to blog and the amount of time he actually spends coaching people to get better. I couldn't agree more. About two months ago I resigned from my duties coaching at a Crossfit gym and now work full time as a personal trainer. The hours are about double what I was working before and my blog time has gone out the window. However, I decided to take the afternoon off today and hopefully  I can use this time to provide you all with some quality content for the first time in almost 2 months.

In the last month I have seen the following things

- My old CF gym hosting a workshop on foam rolling

- a trainer at my new gym reaching tremendous levels of success by building his entire business around various myofascial release techniques, with very little application of any real training [1]

- Kelly Starrett, a very popular physical therapist in the CF community, released another bestselling book aimed at restoring mobility and movement quality to the general population largely through the use of myofascial restoration techniques

Kelly Starrett has been a huge influence on my training. I probably agree with about 95% of what he says. I'm looking forward to checking out his new book. 

Clearly mobility is on peoples minds. Specifically self myofascial release or SMFR (foam rolling, lacrosse ball rolling or any other form of applying pressure to various tissues of your own body). This is a good thing. Being mindful of range of motion and quality of movement should theoretically lead to improved performance. However I think many people are over/misusing  or simply not understanding some of these fantastic techniques.

When I started in the fitness industry (6 years ago) none of these things were particularly popular. Throughout my entire coursework in college we hardly ever mentioned myofascial release. And my program was very heavily focused on mobility. We focused heavily on dynamic warmups and full range of motion resistance training in conjunction with static stretching after each workout. As far as I was concerned tissue quality was the job of physical therapists and massage therapists. I was a strength coach and I was supposed to make people strong through a full range of motion.

The first time I actually heard of any of this was when I was hired to work at Equinox in 2011. Trainers looked at me like I was crazy because I wasn't having my clients hop on a foam roller for 5-10 minutes before lifting. "Dude, their fascia is gonna be so tight!" So I did what the veteran trainers told me to do and I made all of my clients hop on the roller. And they got better. Flexibility, strength, alleviation of minor pains etc. But what was I actually doing? What happens when one applies tension to a muscle with a foam roller, and why does it make you more flexible and able to lift better?

Let's break down the science behind SMFR in the simplest way possible. In your muscles there are receptors called GTO's (Golgi tendon organs) They sense changes in tension. When tension is extremely high the GTO's basically pull the plug and force the muscle to relax so that nothing is permanently torn or damaged. When we foam roll we are applying tension to an area of the body. The GTO's in that area sense tension and then cause the muscle to relax, allowing for greater range of motion following the foam rolling session.

With regard to pain management there is also the idea that rolling simply provides a counter irritation effect. I will explain further. If a segment of the body is in any way irritated it will send signals up to the brain, which can be interpreted as pain. One way to decrease the discomfort is to send a second signal to compete with the original noxious signal. This is why when we bang our elbow on a door frame we immediately rub it. The rubbing of the painful area sends a second signal to the brain to interfere with the original signal that is leading to our pain. So if your hip is causing discomfort sometimes rolling it with a ball or foam roller can provide a secondary message to the brain, thereby decreasing the pain response.

So, to summarize, what we are doing is allowing for muscle tissue to relax and be restored to it's normal length and/or providing secondary messages to the brain from a painful area. Either way we are creating temporary change in the nervous system by providing a novel input. We are not stretching or lengthening anything. I would even be skeptical of the idea that we are "breaking up adhesions" "untying knots" or whatever other analogy you want to use. If we were really doing that we wouldn't have to repeat the process every single day. The "knots" would just be untied and then we could happily go about our squatting (or sprinting, or down-dogging, or whatever it is you do). We are simply changing the neural input to the muscle in order to reduce tension.

When we foam roll we create a change, but this change isn't forever. This change lasts only for a brief window following the exposure. Studies looking at foam rolling alone (no stretching or strength training in conjunction with the foam roller) have not shown that foam rolling has any positive effect on long term flexibility improvements. Only when used in conjunction with other training modalities is foam rolling useful. So all of that foam roll while watching TV advice doesn't help unless you follow it up with something useful like movement drills [2]

With that window we have a variety of techniques that we can use to make mobility "stick". Some options include

- Yoga: this has the benefit of utilizing full range of motion through most movements, and the added bonus of incorporating deliberate diaphragmatic breathing, which is one of the most underutilized methods of improving movement quality

Some yoga poses are silly and ridiculous. And some are awesome. This falls into the latter category

- Weight training: Obviously this is my personal favorite. Resistance training gets a bad rap for making muscles tight but that's really an issue of correlation vs causation. A lot of dudes like to lift weights and don't like to do it through a full range of motion or perform logical, intelligent programs. Therefore, a lot of dudes lift and are also very tight.

However, lifting through a full range of motion can actually be one of the most effective forms of flexibility training available. Try doing Bulgarian Squats, Romanian deadlifts, kettlebell presses or overhead squats with a pause in the deepest position and watch your mobility go through the roof.

- Movement quality instruction: This is intentionally a very vague category. I just want to be clear that you don't need a bar on your back in order to make lasting change. Just learning to hip hinge, or even performing simple patterns like rolling, crawling and stepping can be fantastic starting points. This can be whatever you deem "corrective exercise", it can be stability drills or basic locomotor patterns. The key is that we use the window of opportunity created by the SMFR work in order to explore new movements and provide a stressor that will get the body to adapt in a permanent manner

These methods all apply some form of stress on the muscle/joint in it's newfound range of motion. That newfound stress triggers adaptation from the body. The common analogy is that foam rolling is like working on a document on the computer but resistance training is like hitting save on that document (all the more reason to not resistance train with poor patterns. Some documents are better off not being saved). Going to full range of motion with some form of loading provides stability in these new positions. It's like telling the brain that a position is safe, and it's ok to go back there.

So when doing your mobility training please don't lose sight of the bigger picture. We do mobility work so that we can use that mobility for a purpose. Maybe you run marathons, maybe you put big weights over your head, but either way your foam rolling session don't need to take more than 5-10 minutes. Get on the ground. Roll out chronically tense/tight/painful areas then get the real work started.

I wonder how much of his time is spent foam rolling?


[1] You could make the argument that the tissue quality work is "training" in some sense but I mean big weights in your hands or heart beating out of your chest type of training, not movement prep

[2] It may help with temporary pain relief but not really provide anything additional in terms of long term movement quality enhancements

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