Hey, Meat, we found your gym checklist:
Show up. Lift heavy things. Go home.
Solid plan. The problem is, this narrow set of goals completely ignores one of the most important methods of mobility development: SMR, or self-myofascial release. Most people are at least minimally familiar with the concept of SMR, even if they don’t know it, but fewer have adopted it as a standing task on their workout checklists.
SMR is the practice of manually attempting to release or eliminate muscular adhesions and scar tissue, usually by way of foam rollers, lacrosse balls or deep-tissue massage. It’s the most tedious and painful investment you can make in the durability of your chassis, health of your connective tissue and the longevity of your training life.
Research published in a 2015 issue of the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy examined 14 different peer-reviewed studies on the effectiveness of SMR. The goal was to determine whether SMR could a) improve joint range of motion (ROM) without affecting muscle performance, b) enhance post-exercise muscle recovery and reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), and/or c) negatively impact muscle performance.
Range of Motion
Researchers found that subjects who used a foam roller for 30 to 60 seconds before and after exercise may offer short-term benefits on hip, back, knee and ankle mobility. But how? Quoting the study, “It has been postulated that ROM changes may be due to the altered viscoelastic and thixotropic property (gel-like) of the fascia, increases in intramuscular temperate and blood flow due to friction of the foam roll, alterations in muscle-spindle length or stretch perception, and the foam roller mechanically breaking down scar tissue and remobilizing fascia back to a gel-like state.” Put simply, it’s keeping your myofascial complex healthy and making it more efficient at doing what you want it to do.
Muscle Recovery and DOMS Reduction
It’s as crippling as it is rewarding, but foam rolling may be one of the best ways to combat DOMS and speed recovery. Researchers found that a 10- to 20-minute tussle with the ol’ foam roller postworkout helped reduce perceived pain in subjects while reducing expected drops in performance. Why? It is thought SMR helps to facilitate blood lactate removal while reducing swelling and bathing your muscles in recovery-inducing oxygenated blood.
Effect on Performance
Research has steered us away from the old practice of cold-stretching muscles or spending too much time static stretching between sets. This is because placing the muscle under stretch may acutely weaken the muscle. But foam rolling — which helps increase muscle pliability and blood flow — shows no such risk of performance issues. Subjects who foam-rolled for just 30 seconds preworkout (after a dynamic, lower-body warm-up) demonstrated a longer time-to-fatigue than those who did not roll. It should be noted that the inclusion of the SMR protocol did not necessarily enhance performance but no negative effects were shown.
Many SMR protocols exist, and there is no meta-analysis that will soon arrive at a conclusion on which way is best. As a general rule, try rolling for 30 to 120 seconds before training but after a dynamic warm-up and again for 10 to 20 minutes postworkout on key areas, including, but not limited to, the following:
IT bands (the fibrous band of connective tissue on the outside of your upper thigh)
Thoracic (midback) spine
Note: For some upper-body SMR interventions, a lacrosse ball against a wall while standing is a strong, viable alternative to floor work.
If you hit a tender spot, focus additional attention on that area because the local pain could signal an existing or developing problem with your fascia. Bottom line is that if you don’t already own a foam roller, it may be time to invest in one. Try the TriggerPoint Core Foam Roller, available at vitaminshoppe.com for $29.99.