Why foam rolling shouldn’t hurt

I was perusing my Facebook feed this morning and came across the post of a national fitness trainer. She had acquired a new fitness tool called the RumbleRoller, which she used so aggressively that it left her thighs covered in bruises.

Her post included a photo of the damage from these foam rolling exercises and a comment about how much she loved this new roller, because it let her go deep into the muscles.

I have no opinion of the RumbleRoller. I’ve never even seen one in person. However, common sense should dictate that your self-care program, which is meant to reduce stiffness and pain should not leave you bruised and beaten. Such a scenario belongs in a Fifty Shades of Grey, not the gym.

You would never work your muscles so hard that you bruised. If you did, it would it indicate muscle injury and strain. So, why create pain and injury during the time that you have allotted to decrease both of those things?

Beyond that, even if it feels good to wail on your body with a roller reminiscent of a medieval mallet, it probably isn’t the most effective way to do foam rolling exercises.

It’s true that intense sensation can make you feel like something is happening, but if you invoke pain to the point of bracing your muscles or wincing, you are creating more tension in your system, not less.

If you want to go deep, decrease pain or reduce tension, harder is not necessarily better. You have to go through several layers of connective tissue (aka fascia) and sensory nerves to reach the deeper muscle layers that the RumbleRoller and similar harder foam rollers are actually designed for.

Our fascia and nerves are intelligent. They exist to protect us. If we try to blast through them hard and fast, they will actually create more stiffness and tension in attempt to minimize trauma to the body.

The key to going deep is to start with a softer tool, and then do a second pass with a firmer tool once the superficial structures have been addressed.*

If you don’t have multiple rollers, you can still minimize the shock to your sensory nervous system by slowing down. This will allow your body to relax into the stimulus, so you actually achieve more change with less effort. It will also let you know if you overdoing it, so you can back off pressure.

Admittedly, I’ve specialized in light touch manual work like Aston Kinetics, which means that I prefer a gentler approach when it comes to massage and self-care. I don’t believe in creating pain to get out of pain. However, I’m not writing this to say that we should never go deep or that it is bad to use a firm or even hard roller.

Even in massage, where there are many effective deep tissue and heavy compression techniques, you would always start lighter before you went deep. Likewise, it’s a common massage tenant that the deeper you go, the more you need to slow down. Few people would enjoy a massage if their therapist’s first stroke was an elbow to the quad.

Ultimately, we can all benefit from appreciating the innate intelligence of our bodies. This means backing off when we feel an uptick of pain or tension in the system. It also means respecting that our body might have a holding pattern for a reason and maybe we should use the right tool for the job; not just treat every problem by demolishing it with a hammer.

Even if you love intensity, self-care isn’t the time to go Rambo on your aching muscles. Preferably, counterbalances all the physical challenges that you take on. Enjoy your killer workouts, but slow down enough to appreciate everything your body does for you.

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