athletic massage

What Is Self-Myofascial Release and How Does It Work?

What Is Self-Myofascial Release and How Does It Work?

Have you been looking for ways to boost your recovery and overall well-being? If so, you might’ve heard of a natural technique known as self-myofascial release

This form of self-massage uses the help of restorative tools — such as foam rollers or massage balls — to relieve aches and improve muscle function. And if you’ve looked into it, you might’ve noticed its wild popularity among athletes, runners, and others with active lifestyles. But what exactly does it do, and how can you try it for yourself?

In this post, we’ll dive into how self-myofascial release works, along with its benefits, tools, and techniques you can try today. 

What Is Self-Myofascial Release?

Self-myofascial release (SMR) is a technique that uses pressure to soothe tension in your muscles and fascia. 

Fascia is fibrous, thin tissue found everywhere in your body. It supports your muscles, joints, bones, nerves, and even your organs. And according to the Cleveland Clinic, healthy fascia is flexible and stretches easily. But when it tenses up, it can cause feelings of stiffness and even lead to certain health conditions.

How Self-Myofascial Release Works

Fascia can become tight for plenty of reasons  — including overuse, stress, trauma, or injury. And although exercise is a primary cause of tension in the body, not moving enough (or living a sedentary lifestyle) can also cause your connective tissue to stiffen up. Thankfully, that’s where self-myofascial release can help. 

SMR techniques use sustained pressure — often coupled with stretching — to help decrease the tension in connective tissue, all while giving the muscles a soothing massage. 

Myofascial Release Vs. Massage

If you want to try SMR, you might wonder: What’s the difference between plain old massage and self-myofascial release? 

It’s true that they’re similar, and SMR is technically a form of self-massage. That said, myofascial release tends to have a different focus than traditional massage. 

Instead of being a totally relaxing experience, myofascial release targets smaller, more specific problem areas. For this reason, it brings on a “hurts-so-good” feeling and more discomfort (at least initially) than classic massage.

The Potential Benefits of Self-Myofascial Release 

So, what kind of wellness benefits can you reap from self-myofascial release? 

Here are four ways this natural tool can enhance your recovery routine and overall health:

Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)

Weightlifters, runners, and athletes are some of the biggest fans of foam rollers and other SMR tools — and for good reason. Many find that it relieves their workout-induced soreness and, in turn, helps them perform better.

In a 2015 study, researchers found that 20 minutes of foam rolling after a workout, and once per day after, eased soreness in the quadriceps. On top of that, it also improved certain markers of performance during dynamic movements.

Stress and Relaxation

If you often feel overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of life, SMR can be a great way to unwind. It soothes overactive muscles, relieves sensations of pain, and relaxes the body as a whole. Plus, you can use it to break up tension in the areas that stress affects most – like the traps, shoulders, and upper back. 

Mobility and Range of Motion

When your fascia holds onto tension, your movement can feel restricted and stiff. The good news is that a quick SMR session can mobilize your muscles, boost flexibility, and help you move more freely again.

In a 2015 review, researchers looked at 14 articles in which participants used self-myofascial release. Remarkably, they found that SMR seemed to improve joint ROM and muscle performance both pre and post-workout.

Breaks Up Trigger Points

Knots (aka trigger points) are tight bands of muscle that can feel like “mini cramps.” And if you’ve ever felt a sharp, spasm-like pain between your shoulder blades, you probably know what one of these feels like.

Fortunately, kneading out your muscles with a massage ball or roller can work wonders for painful points like these. And if you have an especially achy spot, research shows that SMR combined with stretching can bring even deeper relief.

Self-Myofascial Release Tools

So, what are some common self-myofascial release tools? Here are three of the most popular options, along with how to use them.

Foam Roller

In the world of SMR, foam rollers are one of the most user-friendly tools on the market. They’re well-loved among athletes, older adults, and just about anyone who wants to boost their muscle health. 

And these products are exactly what they sound like — cylinder-shaped tubes made of foam. They can vary in density and texture, and there are several types to suit different needs. Large, textured foam rollers can give you a “deep” massage experience, while smoother, softer ones are better for whole-body relaxation.

Some of the most effective places to use a foam roller include the hamstrings, quads, calves, and upper back. But because they’re so versatile, you can use them to target just about any muscle on your body.

Massage Ball

A massage ball is a powerful SMR tool for working into small, achy pain points. And if you don’t have an actual massage ball on hand, don’t worry — a tennis or lacrosse ball can work nearly as well.

Typically, you’d use a massage ball by placing it between your muscles and either a wall or the ground. Then, you can use your body weight to apply rolling pressure and massage the muscles. These tools can work on almost any area, but they’re especially helpful for trigger points in the shoulders, arms, and back. 

Massage Gun

When you need targeted, deep relief, massage guns are an excellent option. Unlike other SMR tools, they use electric or battery-powered percussive therapy to quickly break up tension in dense muscle and fascia.

Because they’re so powerful, a short session (one or two minutes per muscle group) is often all you need to feel the benefits. These tools are best for trigger points and any large muscle regions that could use some extra TLC. 

5 Self-Myofascial Release Exercises to Add to Your Recovery Routine

Now that you know the common tools and benefits of self-myofascial release, how can you try it for yourself?

Here are five exercises you can use to relieve stiffness and pain in some of the tensest areas of the body:

Upper Back and Neck Release 

Man using foam roller on upper back.

If your upper back and neck feel achy by the end of every day, you’re not alone. Luckily, a textured foam roller is the perfect SMR tool to use on these muscles when they’re strained and overused. Simply:

  1. Lie down on a yoga mat, and place your foam roller underneath your neck. If using an electric roller, start by setting it to a low vibration setting.
  2. Take a deep breath, and slowly roll your head from side to side. This will gently massage the suboccipital muscles, or the muscles at the base of your skull. This area is a common hotspot for tension — especially if you struggle with poor posture, stress, or teeth grinding.
  3. Then, move the foam roller to your middle back, right near your bottom rib.
  4. Keep your feet flat on the floor in front of you, with your legs bent and your knees pointing upward.
  5. Clasp your hands behind your head for support (think the classic sit-up position), and use your body strength to lift your glutes up off the floor.
  6. Then, roll your body downward in a slow, controlled motion. Once the foam roller reaches the top of the back, roll your body in the opposite direction until you return to the starting position. (Tip: Be sure to avoid rolling your lower spine.) 
  7. Repeat for 30 to 60 seconds.

Foam Rolling for Hip Flexors

If you’re like many people, your hip flexors hold some serious tension — and most of us don’t do enough stretching or massage to keep them loose and pain-free. Fortunately, SMR in the form of a foam-roll session can bring you much-needed relief. 

Here’s one simple exercise that can help relieve tightness in your hips:

  1. Get on all fours above your foam roller, and slowly lower your body so that your right hip flexor rests on top of it. Extend your right leg straight out behind you, with your toes on the floor, and your left leg bent out to the side for support.
  2. Be sure to keep your spine stable and in alignment, and roll forward and backward to massage the hip flexor for 30 seconds.
  3. Rotate your body to the left and right to knead the muscle tissue from different angles. Feel free to pause and hold pressure on areas that are especially tense and sore.
  4. Switch your leg positions, and repeat with the other side. 

Foam Rolling for Hamstring Release

Man using foam roller on hamstrings.

As some of your body’s most active muscles, hamstrings are prone to stiffness. And when they become excessively tight, it doesn’t just affect your upper thighs — it can also impact your lower back, knees, and even your posture. Luckily, plenty of SMR techniques can help you stretch, massage, and relieve these busy muscles.

If you’ve got a foam roller on hand, here’s one exercise you can try today:

  1. Sit with your hands out behind you and legs out in front of you.
  2. Place the foam roller underneath your right hamstring, near your glute. 
  3. Use your upper body and leg strength to lift yourself off the ground. Then, extend your right leg and point your toes in the air.
  4. Applying a moderate amount of pressure, roll your body forward and backward to massage the hamstrings. Start from the bottom of your glute and roll until you reach the area just above the knee.
  5. Continue to roll for 30 to 60 seconds, and repeat with the other side.

Upper Back and Shoulder Release With Massage Ball

Whether it’s due to exercise, posture, or daily stress, pain in the upper back and shoulders is all too common. The good news is that a quick SMR session with a massage ball can be an effective way to soothe pain and relax your muscles along the way.

To get started, simply follow these steps:

  1. First, grab a tennis (or massage) ball, and stand next to a sturdy wall.
  2. Begin the exercise by placing the ball in the region between your shoulder blade and spine. Lean against the wall to hold it in place.
  3. Roll your body up and down and side-to-side with gentle pressure for 30 to 60 seconds, taking a few seconds to pause over any knots or tight bands of muscle tissue.
  4. Then, place the ball on your pectoral muscle, just under your collarbone, and lean against the wall to keep it in place. 
  5. Use rolling motions to massage your pec muscles for 30 to 60 seconds more.
  6. Repeat with the other side.

Self-Myofascial Release for Calves

Man using foam roller to massage calf muscles.

If you deal with tight, achy calf muscles, SMR can be an excellent tool to add to your daily wellness regimen. To begin, grab your foam roller and follow these steps:

  1. Place the foam roller underneath your right calf near your ankle. Keep your other foot planted firmly on the ground for support.
  2. Lift your body off the ground with your calf still resting on the roller. As you do so, be sure to keep your posture straight, chest open, and shoulder blades pulled back. 
  3. Roll forward and backward to massage the calf, starting with light pressure and increasing as needed. (If you have especially tight calf muscles, prepare for this exercise to be intense!)
  4. Repeat for a total of 30 to 60 seconds.

When to Use Self-Myofascial Release — and When Not To

Myofascial release is an incredibly relaxing recovery tool – but in some cases, you may want to hold off on it, avoid certain muscles, or forgo it altogether. These include times when: 

  • You have any condition that may interact poorly with physical pressure. These include diabetes, osteoporosis, blood clotting disorders, heart conditions, and other ailments. When in doubt, always be sure to check with your doctor. 
  • You have a recently inflamed injury. In this situation, massage, kneading, or other forms of pressure may aggravate your pain. 
  • You have any skin conditions or open wounds, as these may also become irritated by SMR.

So, When Should You Use Self-Myofascial Release?

While there are certain instances where you should avoid SMR, there are also plenty of times when it can bring wellness-boosting benefits to your body. 

For example, a foam roll or massage ball session can be helpful:

  • Before a workout, to boost blood flow, loosen up your muscles, and encourage mobility.
  • After a workout, to promote recovery and reduce muscle soreness.
  • Any time your body feels achy, stiff, and tight. This could be in the morning, after a long work day, or even right before bed. 
  • When you notice a trigger point or knot that’s getting in the way of your daily activities.

How Often Should You Use SMR?

How often you use SMR depends on which tool you’re using, the pressure level, and your body’s unique needs. But as a rule of thumb, one daily 10-to-20-minute session (with 1 to 2 minutes per muscle group) works well for most people.

Tips to Get the Most of Your Session

Before you get started, here are some tips to help you get the most out of your new SMR routine:

  • Be slow, mindful, and intentional about each exercise. Many people make the mistake of quickly rolling or massaging, without putting much thought into it. To get the most relief (and avoid injury), be sure to take your time with each movement.  
  • Listen to your body. Some discomfort is totally normal when kneading out muscle tension with self-myofascial release. However, it’s best to dial back the pressure if you feel any sharp or excessive pain.
  • Avoid working on bones, joints, and anywhere without soft tissue. Like massage, using SMR tools on bony areas can be unhelpful and even painful.

The Takeaway on Self-Myofascial Release

SMR is a recovery method that uses tools like foam rollers or massage balls to relieve tension, boost flexibility, and promote whole-body well-being. And because it’s so simple to use, it’s a great tool for anyone wanting to improve their everyday self-care routine.

With all this in mind, it’s essential to listen to your body while using SMR tools. Avoid massaging sensitive or bony areas, be mindful of any pain you feel, and be sure to check with your doctor if you have any questions or concerns.

Get Advanced Relief at Home

If you’re ready to improve your recovery routine with SMR, the physician-trusted tools from MedMassager can help. Check out the Rollvibe Max oscillating foam roller today, or explore our full line of restorative tools here.

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