I’m sure most of you have seen by now someone in a gym with a big piece of foam. You then watch as they begin to roll around on it with some questionable facial expressions, not sure whether they are in immense pain or deriving some kind of weird pleasure from it. To be honest, it could easily be both.

Foam rolling or self-myofascial release (SMR) has become a main staple of many peoples training which in my opinion is great. However having some basic understanding of what you are doing may help you grasp the importance of such maintenance or ‘prehab’ work.

Your body is made up of a system known as the kinetic chain – this system incorporates the soft tissue system (muscles, tendons, ligaments and fascia), neural system (nerves and CNS), and the articular system (joints). As the name implies the kinetic chain is a system which is responsible for producing movement and force, requiring all the elements of the system to work together to function correctly. If one element isn’t functioning efficiently, then other components must compensate, leading to tissue overload, fatigue, faulty movement patterns and potential injury.

Going into more depth, if we look at the cumulative injury cycle, along this cycle we can see how adhesions to the soft tissue can lead to altered neuromuscular control which in turn leads to poor movement and potential muscle imbalances.

cumulative_

What this means is that if we have a muscle that is tight due to adhesions, muscle length or neural hyperactivity it will affect the range of motion available at a particular joint. If the joint motion is altered then the neural feedback to the central nervous system (CNS) will be compromised resulting in poor movement patterns. These poor movement patterns will result in your body compensating through other joints or muscles leading to imbalances and potential injury. For example if you squat and have tight hamstrings, it could restrict the ROM and thus alter the joint motion of the knee and send the wrong signals to the CNS. Do this repetitively and it could result in the above issues.

This is where SMR comes in. Its primary focus is to alleviate such adhesions that can alter soft tissue structure also known as trigger points. It achieves this through a principle known as autogenic inhibition. The golgi tendon organ (GTO) is a mechanoreceptor which is sensitive to change in tension within a muscle/tendon group. Its main responsibility is to avoid high levels of tension within muscles through inhibiting the muscle spindles activity and causing the relevant muscles to relax (autogenic inhibition). With foam rolling the pressure you apply to the roller can simulate this high level of muscle tension causing the GTO to relax the muscles, allowing you to remove adhesions and improve ROM. So in a nutshell SMR can:

– Improve mobility and ROM
– Can help correct muscle imbalances
– Relieve muscle soreness and joint stress
– Reduce scar tissue and adhesions
– Decrease tone of over active muscles
– Improve quality of movement

So now we know how SMR works and how it can benefit us, let’s look at a few other tips to consider when carrying out SMR and a few basic techniques.

– Foam rolling can be used anytime, but as it has been shown to improve short term flexibility for over 10 mins it’s worthwhile using it in your warm-ups. This means you can build on your new found flexibility with strength and stability work.
– Try and avoid rolling directly onto injured areas. Think about the muscles up and down from the injured area and focus on those first.
– While we are trying to roll out adhesions and activate autogenic inhibition which can feel uncomfortable, we don’t want to be in excruciating pain. Rolling though high levels of pain can have the opposite effect and cause your muscles to tighten up even more.
– Roll slowly and smoothly for best results. Fascia is a thick, fibrous web of tissue and as such needs slow and deliberate pressure to release.
– If you find any really tender spots or trigger points then hold the roller in place on that spot and relax for 20-30 seconds. Ensure you take full deep breaths and avoid high levels of pain.
– Finally, ensure you adopt good posture when rolling. For example when rolling the quadriceps, try and ensure you maintain a neutral spine rather than allowing the hips to ‘sag’ towards the floor.

SMR can be a great tool for mobility, recovery and injury prevention. However to truly get the benefits, it needs to form a regular part of your training and done correctly. Once in a while just won’t cut it. See below for a video on some of the basic techniques.

Warm-ups are one of THE most overlooked elements of training. Even those that know they should warm-up either do some random arm swings and stretches or skip it all together. Not only have you increased your injury risk by 1000% (ok, maybe not quite that much), you are also doing yourself a huge dis-service. Your performance won’t be anywhere near the level it should be if the muscles aren’t primed, the nervous system readied and ROM prepped. So even if you scoff at the thought of warming up to protect you from injury, what about its implications in making you a better athlete? Let’s take a look at the benefits of a warm-up.

–          A warm-up can increase the speed in which muscles contract and relax, this means more efficient performance.

–          A warm-up can reduce muscle stiffness through dynamic exercises thus increasing ROM and reducing injury risk.

–          It can facilitate nerve transmission and muscle metabolism therefore increasing motor unit recruitment. Put simply the more motor units recruited, the more force generated, the more force generated, the more weight you can move!

–          Warming up improves blood circulation and prioritises this circulation to the working muscles which means they receive more oxygen assisting with all of the above.

–          It’s also a good opportunity to develop any mobility, postural or activation deficits. Again reducing injury risk and improving performance.

–          Finally a warm-up can help you focus mentally on the task at hand and lead to a better workout.

So the warm-up has a whole host of benefits and implications and should be just as much a focus as the training session itself. However where do we start when planning a warm-up? I think the easiest way to start is ensuring the activities meet one or more of these criteria.

Focused – A warm-up routine should have a specific focus, whether it be addressing a specific mobility/stability issue, grooving a relevant movement pattern or preparing you for your main session in terms of the most challenging movement(s). This also means the warm-up should be structured into sets and reps which feed nicely into the next criteria.

Efficient – By having a focused approach and having sets and reps determined beforehand means that you get a quality warm-up without spending 20 minutes rolling your left quad. A warm-up should be completed within 10-15 mins max.

Relevant – To ensure our sessions are efficient we should only use movements that are relevant to the task at hand which you have already identified with your warm-up focus. So let’s say you have good thoracic mobility, using side lying windmills would still be a good warm-up exercise to prep thoracic spine for many movements but if you have good range, do you really need it in there? Will mobilising your ankle joints be relevant for shoulder press? If you have poor ankle range then maybe you’ve decided to address that until it’s improved so even though it’s not concentrated towards pressing it’s still relevant to your task of getting better ankle mobility. Take the time to think your warm-up through and stick with what is relevant for that session or overall mobility/stability goals.

So once you have an idea of what your warm-up should achieve through the 3 above criteria, we then need to start compiling the movements contained within it. Eric Cressey lays out some fantastic principles to help develop your structure and selection of movements, which I’ve outlined below.

Self-Myofascial Release – This involves foam rolling the soft tissue around the body. It’s a great tool for improving ROM and raising muscle temperature. Again if time is short focus on relevant muscle groups for that session.

Start with the largest base of support before placing more and more demand on balance and stability – This means start with ground based movements first such as quadruped rotations or bridges. This will gradually prep you nervous system and motor unit recruitment.

Start with single joint movements and then progress onto multi joint ones – This means we can address specific mobility/stability at a joint or muscle before incorporating it all into one system through full body exercises such as lunges w/overhead reach.

Address hips, ankles and thoracic spine – Due to todays technology rich lifestyle and sitting for long periods of time, these 3 areas take the brunt of bad positioning. Obviously if you are mobile and stable in these areas then they don’t need as much focus, use the 3 criteria and some basic ROM/stability tests to see where you are at.

There you have it, some basic principles and criteria to help you structure your warm-ups. Obviously these can be adapted over time when you start to improve in certain areas and one exercise may work well for one person and not so much for another. This is why there is no list on here of the best warm-up exercises as one doesn’t exist.

Finally have a look at the videos below for some inspiration and an idea of what my warm-ups look like. Again its simple an example, not gospel. Some trial and error may be required in the beginning as whatever movements you do use you should see immediate change when using them. So test and re-test, if there’s no change look for another movement.

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