Thursday, May 8, 2014

Problems with the Mobility and Foam Rolling Rage

Problems with the Mobility and Foam Rolling Rage

  • Foam Rollers and Lacrosse balls are meant to mimic Deep Tissue Massage
  • Lengthening the wrong muscles only make problems worse
  • Generic Mobility drills shouldn't be applied to everyone. 1 size does not fit all.
  • Assessments must be performed in order to know what the underlying condition is.
  • Most personal trainers and coaches do not have the required training to instruct people how to perform mobility work or foam roller/lacrosse ball work.


In the recent years there has been a surge in mobility work and the use of foam rollers/lacrosse balls for myofascial release. As a massage therapist I'm torn between thinking that it's great that people are taking the initiative of self care and people wrecking themselves because they don't understand what they're really doing.

Personal trainers of all sorts seem to be the biggest culprits in this problem. We want our clients to feel better, move better, and think that we have all the answers.

"Your hamstrings are tight? Here roll them out." I've heard it a thousand times.

"Rotator cuff problem? Here stick this lacrosse ball back there and ram it around for a few minutes."

You then might say to yourself - "That's not me though, I saw a Youtube video from a physical therapist about rolling out."

Congrats that you're doing your research! Really, learn as much as you can. But what you need to ask yourself is do you know when to really prescribe that work on that muscle or muscle group? What pathologies or dysfunction is causing your client to have tight hamstrings? Lets use the pelvic tilts to explain since that seems to be a topic most trainers understand.

In the picture we see an anterior tilt in the pelvis and a posterior tilt. What muscles are causing this dysfunction? If you don't know you shouldn't be directing people to foam roll. If you can say that tight hamstrings can cause a posterior pelvic tilt, great, you're 1/10th correct. Hip flexors cause an anterior tilt, also 1/10th correct. 

The pelvis is a very complex system of muscles, fascia, and joint alignments of the pelvis itself, but also the knee, ankle, and arches of the foot. If you haven't been trained in assessing the alignment of these systems you aren't qualified to instruct people to how to roll out.

To explain further, a muscle can feel "tight" for many reasons; one because it's short and "concentrically loaded", but another big option is that it's being pulled long and is "eccentrically loaded". If you have your client roll out an eccentrically loaded and long muscle you're only increasing their potential for injury. Could it give them some temporary pain relief? Sure, you can release some trigger points (knots) but they're going to come right back because you didn't take the tension off the muscle. In fact you can actually lengthen the muscle that's already pulled long, making their problems worse and worse.

Mobility work falls into this same trap. Trainers and coaches with their weekend certs don't have the training to assess joint range of motion. They may be able to see that a client can't get their arms overhead to be in alignment for a snatch or overhead lift. Ok, that's step one of about 15 steps before acting on it. You don't just start them on the mobility you saw in the last Youtube video you watched.  Once again there are muscles that are tight and short, and muscles that are tight and long. Not to mention that how the scapula rests against the ribcage is a huge player. Then it's how the ribcage sits in relation to the pelvis. How's the curvature of their spine? Are the shoulder girdles aligned left to right? Front to back? Probably not since we always have a dominant side. 

There are at least 17 muscles that are major players in how that shoulder is going to move, and there's even more that act on the shoulder or on correlating movements. How can you feel confident in just blindly having your client roll those muscles out if you don't know which ones actually need the work and which ones will only suffer more?

Please, please, leave this work to people who have the training and experience. Refer your clients out to a physical therapist or a massage therapist who specializes in structural bodywork. Your clients will thank you, and they'll be more likely to stay with you because they're pain and dysfunctions will actually be corrected instead of made worse.

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