Once upon a time I visited a very talented massage therapist who changed my life. The massage therapy was excellent but the life changing moment occurred after the massage. When this massage therapist was finished with his work he educated me on how to self-treat my trouble spots with a lacrosse ball (this was before the Kelly Starrett MobilityWOD craze). I had never heard of or been shown how to do self-myofascial release (SMR) with my own tissue before and it was a game changer.
The massage therapist is Mike Papciak. I have mentioned him before in previous posts. If you are in the Bay Area I highly recommend seeing him. He is a climber of many years, a talented and passionate massage therapist and has a practice in Berkeley, California.
WHAT IS SMR?
Self myofascial release is performed by an individual on themselves rather than by a practitioner using a foam roller, lacrosse ball, tennis ball, or pinky ball. Foam rolling is the most popular form of self-myofascial release.
Self-myofascial release is probably better termed “tool-assisted self-manual therapy” because of current uncertainty regarding its mechanisms of action. For the sake of simplicity I will call it SMR throughout this post.
When performed properly, self myofascial release can be very beneficial for athletes for performance, injury prevention and recovery. In this post I am going to discuss the basics of SMR and how climbers can incorporate it in their daily training and recovery routines.
HOW DOES SMR HELP?
Self-myofascial release causes an increase in short-term flexibility.
Self-myofascial release may also be able to increase flexibility long-term, in programs of >2 weeks.
Self-myofascial release may reduce perceived soreness and increase pressure pain threshold as a result of DOMS during the 48 hours following damaging exercise.
Self-myofascial release may potentially improve arterial stiffness, improve vascular endothelial function, reduce cortisol levels post-exercise, increase parasympathetic activity, and reduce sympathetic activity.
HOW DOES SMR WORK?
The mechanism by which self-myofascial release affects flexibility is unclear. We know that it works we are just not clear yet on why. Current best evidence is explained in the following links:
READ HERE for more explanation.
OR HERE for more specific discussion about foam rolling.
AND HERE for a discussion of some recent studies on foam rolling.
WHERE & HOW TO ROLL?
The most common areas where climbers need release work are:
- Upper traps
- Levator scapulae
- Teres major
- Thoracic paraspinal muscles
- Pec major/Pec minor
These are not the only areas. Just the most common. Climbing uses so much of the upper back, chest and arm muscles that these areas tend to be the most likely place for overuse injuries to occur and therefore the area where we need to direct most of our attention towards when it comes to self treatment.
It will probably be a little uncomfortable when you first start out and maybe even slightly painful. However, you should avoid outright pain caused by using too much pressure. It should be a “hurts-so-good” kind of pain. If something feels weird or not right, consult a professional. Avoid rolling on bony structures, stay on the muscles.
WHAT YOU WILL NEED
1. Foam roller (pro tip: for those on the road you can also use a large clean canteen or nalgene or get one of these)
2. Lacrosse ball (get one on Amazon or any sporting goods store should carry them)
3. Double lacrosse ball (tape two lacrosse balls together or grab one of these)
Rogue has a large selection of self torture tools. Check them out here.
Place a lacrosse ball in the area shown. Pull the arm on the side you are rolling across your body to expose the teres muscle. Roll from front to back as shown in the photo.
Place the arm you want to roll behind your back. Place a lacrosse ball on your forearms on the palm side. Lean against a wall and roll back and forth.
Next to a wall pin your arm against the side of you body with your palm facing away from the wall. Place a lacrosse ball between the wall and your forearm and lean into the wall to apply pressure. This area can be tricky to roll, one thing that I like to do is find a spot that is sore and wiggle my fingers or open and close my fist to work the muscle. Start at the top of the forearm near the elbow and work your way down towards the wrist.
Place a lacrosse ball on your chest closer to your shoulder and roll inward towards your sternum staying under the collar bone.
Lay on your side with a foam roller on the back of your armpit and roll down the side of your ribcage. Be sure to roll a little towards the spine because your lat actually wraps around to your low back.
Lay on a foam roller with the roller perpendicular to your spine. Place your hands behind your neck to support your neck. Your knees should be bent with feet flat on the ground. Lift your hips off the floor and use your legs to roll from your lower ribs up towards the base of your neck.
You can accomplish the same thing in a slightly more aggressive way with a double lacrosse ball.
FREQUENCY AND DURATION
Corrective work needs to be done everyday.
In Dr. Kelly Starret’s book, Becoming a Supple Leopard, he says;
“When it comes to mobility there are no off days.”
To make change in the affected tissues consistent work must be done. It doesn’t have to take a lot of time.
Fifteen minutes a day is enough.
For most climbers I recommend working for 1 minute on each area (at a minimum) daily. If you are recovering from an injury or have a particular trouble area you may want to spend a little more time on the area involved.
For those of you who may be a little over-zealous, a warning: it is possible to spend too much time rolling. Deciding what is too much is really up to you and your ability to listen to your body. As a rule of thumb I wouldn’t spend more than 3-5 minutes rolling one particular area.
Changing your body is a process and should be accomplished little-by-little. Aggressive pressure or too much time spent in one area can cause tissue damage and will impede your body’s ability to recover.
I’ll say it again, corrective work needs to be done everyday. Consistency is key.
WHEN TO SEEK HELP
If you are in pain, suffering from an injury (either new or re-occurring/chronic), are experiencing numbness and/or tingling, SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP!
At least get a diagnosis so you know what you are dealing with before wasting time Googling symptoms and trying to self treat. Trust me. It will save you time, money and suffering in the long run.
“The body is extremely complex and it is rarely possible for a non-medic to confidently exclude possible diagnoses. An example of this is nerve compression syndromes of the back and neck which mimic exactly the symptoms of elbow tendon pain.”
If you are in the San Francisco area and need professional help I am available for consultation. I specialize in treating climbers specifically. I also treat large numbers of Crossfit athletes, powerlifters and olympic weightlifters.
Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any concerns. You can shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a question in the comments section of this post and I will do my best answer as soon as possible.
The last thing I want to see is an athlete battling with an injury that could easily be resolved with the right guidance and therapy.
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