Stiff shoulders. Niggling neck and back pain. Sore feet. From head to toe, our bodies are bastions of tension and tightness that accumulate from activities as mundane as sitting and as strenuous as exercising.
Massage is a reliable tool for easing this musculoskeletal tension, but not everyone has regular access to the practice. Time and money are limiting factors for many people, though the rewards — relief from muscle pain and headaches, reduced anxiety, improved sleep, and bolstered circulation — often justify the costs.
While the occasional professional massage can work wonders, there are things any of us can do in between sessions to ease daily aches, pain, and tension. This, in turn, can help make expert massages more effective when you do get them.
You can reap many of massage’s benefits through the power of your own hands. And self-massage techniques — including trigger-point therapy (TPT) and self-myofascial release (SMR) using foam rollers, massage balls, sticks, and canes — can give your muscles and fascia the immediate TLC they need, from the comfort of your home or at the gym.
Self-massage isn’t a wholesale replacement for professional bodywork. But manipulating your own tissues, for even a few minutes a day with or without equipment, can help offset the chronic physical, hormonal, biochemical, and neurological problems tied to persistent, unchecked tension.
One of the primary benefits of self-guided bodywork for fitness enthusiasts is its role in supporting recovery, which can boost exercise performance. This, says physical therapist John Rusin, DPT, CSCS, ART, is the “holy grail to becoming stronger and leaner.”
Massage has been shown to stave off the delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) that often occurs after working out. Plus, it sets tissues up to regenerate more efficiently by creating a healing environment. Research suggests that massage encourages increased circulation in the vascular and lymph systems; better circulation more efficiently transports blood and lymph fluid to remove toxins that accumulate in sore, strained areas.
“Massage flushes large amounts of blood through the tissue and assists in preserving the quality of the tissue,” says Trisha Haws, LMT, a Scottsdale, Ariz.–based massage therapist and cofounder of Movement Restoration, a program that stresses the use of soft-tissue massage to support recovery and muscular regeneration. “If you’re able to work on the tissue before the onset of DOMS and flush these chemicals back into the bloodstream, you can reduce soreness.”
Rusin says self-massage can be effective when done both in postworkout hours and on recovery days, using foam rollers, various types of balls, and other tools.
With regular self-massage, the body is often able to move with greater ease over time. This alone can improve performance. (Learn more at “The Recovery Zone”.)
Moreover, a regular self-massage practice can help you tune in to your anatomy and physiology, says fitness therapist Jill Miller, author of The Roll Model Method. “When you’re conscious of unraveling the ties that overbind you, you’re more likely to sustain that release.” This results from a combination of consistency and improved self-awareness of your physical being.
Ready to give it a try? Read on as our experts explain two techniques for becoming your own bodyworker.
Trigger-Point Therapy (TPT)
This technique focuses on the body’s trigger points, those pesky tight spots that often feel like knots or lumps under the skin. Trigger points are areas of heightened, spontaneous electrical activity that are more constantly contracted, preventing the muscle from fully engaging, says Rusin. TPT, also known as neuromuscular therapy, involves applying pressure to the knots so they relax and dissolve.
It’s important to note that muscle fibers are not literally “knotting” or “dissolving.” These terms commonly describe the mechanisms by which our muscles respond and adapt to stressors. Mus-cle fibers are layered on top of each other and run in all directions throughout the body. Spending a lot of time in one position (sitting at a desk, for instance), sustaining an injury, or being dehydrated can cause muscles to lose mobility. When this happens, the fibers begin to congeal into nodules; it can also result in a tightening up and drying out of fascia, which creates further stress and “knottiness” in the muscle tissue.
TPT helps relax those lumps, improving blood and lymph flow to return hydration and mobility to the muscles.
“If you’re able to loosen up postural muscles that are short — such as the hip flexors, pecs, and anterior shoulders — it helps get the body in a more neutral position before movement,” says Haws. “Your brain can then feel what it’s like to be in this more neutral place, and ideally try to keep you here as you move.”
How to Do It
“Go hunting” for your trigger points by focusing on sore regions, says Rusin. Within a general area (hip flexors, chest, back, etc.), find where your muscles hurt the most and apply pressure there using a tool of your choice (see “Tools of the Trade,” below) for one to two minutes at an intensity of about 6 to 7 on a scale of 1 to 10. You’ll soon be able to find those knots — and you’ll notice when they release.
It’s important to ease your way into a trigger point, says Miller. “Our bodies are very good at shielding — the nervous system is designed to protect us, so if you roll aggressively into tissues, the muscle spindles tell the muscle to stay taut. You can work your way around this by creating a sense of safety.”
Pay attention to your sensations, she adds. If your breath seizes up as you work a trigger point, that’s an indication that you need to reduce the pressure or alter your position on the point.
Self-Myofascial Release (SMR)
While TPT homes in on trigger points, SMR applies pressure to larger swaths of the body to lubricate and mobilize fascial tissue.
Fascia is the fibrous connective tissue beneath the skin that encloses muscles and organs, connecting them to one another and holding the body together. Composed mostly of collagen, it is everywhere. “You can’t put a hand on your body without touching fascia,” says integrative manual therapist Thomas Myers, author of Anatomy Trains.
Rich in sensory receptors, fascia also identifies and gathers information about the body’s location in space and how much load any given part is bearing.
“Because it forms a continuous network of communication, fascia doesn’t just affect the specific muscles a person thinks they are targeting,” says corrective-exercise therapist Anthony Carey, MA, CSCS. “Fascia surrounding one muscle can have a noticeable influence over neighboring muscles.”
Chronic joint or muscle stiffness, intermittent tingling or numbness in your fingers or toes, or feeling clumsy or weak are common signs of restricted fascia. SMR can help by rehydrating dry fascial tissue, allowing it to glide more smoothly and function more effectively, explains Myers.
Research has yet to prove that myofascial work has a direct effect on muscle function or energy level, and some claims have been debunked. For instance, you can’t easily or quickly stretch fascia — it’s too tough.
The term “myofascial release” itself has come under fire by some experts who say it doesn’t actually release anything.
Still, doing the work to keep these gooey sheets of tissue from getting stuck to one another is worth the time — even if just to remind you that everything is connected.
“Fascia is no more or less important than any other body tissue,” Myers says. “It’s just that we haven’t paid much attention to it. We’ll do better in rehab, training, and physical education if we understand how it affects us.”
How to Do It
SMR can be performed on any part of the body, particularly across large, muscly areas like the upper back and quads. Simply follow the contours of your body with your tool of choice, taking your time and moving slowly. Experts advise adding SMR after your warm-up or at the end of a workout, for 15 minutes or so.
Keep in mind that you can use SMR and TPT together. For example, you can use a foam roller to apply SMR across your upper back and shoulders. If you encounter tender spots — trigger points — you can hang out and apply additional pressure.
Moreover, you can use SMR to increase your awareness in movement, which can boost overall performance and ensures safer, more effective exercise.
You can expect a little tenderness during self-massage, because you are stimulating restricted tissues and nerve endings, but it shouldn’t be painful. Aim for no more than 5 or 6 on a pain scale of 1 to 10.
With both TPT and SMR, says Carey, “you’re creating an environment where you can further improve function afterward, where good things will happen if you start to integrate it with movement.”
Tool of the Trade
A cylindrical piece of polyethylene foam or EVA foam, typically about 6 inches in diameter and 18 to 36 inches in length. The density of foam rollers is indicated by color: White is typically the softest and black the firmest. There are also variations that have a PVC-pipe core, ridges or other textures, and even vibrating capabilities.
Best for: Addressing trigger points and fascia in large, easy-to-access areas of the body, such as the calves, quads, back, and glutes. Aids in postworkout recovery by helping to improve circulation.
Worst for: Small, complex areas, such as the hands, feet, and neck. Less sensitive areas, such as the hamstrings, may require a firmer tool.
When to use it: Prior to exercising, work areas with trigger points. Postworkout, target areas with large muscles.
How to use it: Position the foam roller beneath the area you want to target and apply pressure using your body weight. As the muscles loosen up, roll over the foam.
Suggested Massage: Upper-Back Mobilization
Practice this basic thoracic-spine mobilization exercise, recommended by John Rusin, at any point during the day. It’s especially helpful for breaking up long bouts of forward-flexed postures, such as sitting.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, with a foam roller positioned under an area of your thoracic spine, or upper back. Support your head and neck with your hands.
- Lift your hips slightly off the ground and begin rolling up and down on the foam roller, in a range of no more than a few inches.
- Allow yourself to relax gently into slight extensions of the spine as you roll, making sure to maintain neutral alignment without flaring your ribs.
- Target this specific segment of the thoracic spine for 30 to 60 seconds.
A hard plastic stick with knobs or wheels that spin.
Best for: Areas of the lower body rich in connective tissue that can sustain greater pressure than what a foam roller provides.
Worst for: Arms, back, feet, and anywhere you have a hard time reaching with your hands.
When to use it: Prior to exercise that involves the lower extremities, especially lower-body muscles that are noticeably tight or stiff; on recovery days after activities such as running, jumping, or cycling.
How to use it: Position the stick roller against the area you want to target, and use your hands to apply pressure on the handles while rolling the stick up, down, and across.
Suggested Massage: Lower-Leg Release
This technique will soften trigger points and stimulate receptors in the lower leg, which can have a positive, excitatory effect on your nervous system.
- Bring the stick to the outside of your lower leg, just above your ankle, holding it horizontally against the space between the fibula and Achilles tendon.
- Gently roll the stick up and down, moving about an inch at a time and working your way up your leg. Spend more time on areas that are tender.
- Work your way around the diameter of your calf, rolling from bottom to top and making sure to avoid direct contact with your bones.
Balls of various firmness, density, and texture specifically designed for massage, often with a surface that allows them to create traction and a squishy texture for easing into tissues and rolling around bony areas. You can use sports balls, such as tennis and lacrosse balls.
Best for: Massaging smaller areas with trigger points and working layers of fascia.
Worst for: Because they’re available in many sizes and levels of squishiness, you can use massage balls virtually anywhere on the body.
When to use it: Prior to exercise, use them to relax trigger points in areas you plan to train. On recovery days, use them on tight areas to promote healthy fascia.
How to use it: Position the ball against the area you want to target and apply pressure using your body weight.
Suggested Massage: Neck Release
Practice this release, recommended by Jill Miller, prior to exercising your upper body, or after you’ve been in a hunched-forward posture.
- Find a wall with a corner or edge and stand with your left shoulder next to the wall. Place a massage ball (ideally 2 to 3 inches in diameter) just behind your collarbone, sandwiching it between your body and the wall.
- Rest your head against the wall; then pivot from side to side, allowing the ball to traverse the muscles of the neck, shoulders, and upper back.
- After one minute, place your right hand on the ball. Keep your body still while you spin the ball in its place with your hand, until you feel a gentle pinch.
- Continue holding the ball in place as you move your arm and neck in various directions.
- Finish by taking three deep breaths, inhaling and feeling your rib cage expand, and then exhaling and noticing it contract.
A cane-shaped tool made of hard plastic and featuring protruding knobs.
Best for: Targeting trigger points in your back that are difficult to reach with your hands.
Worst for: Your neck and other sensitive areas that don’t respond well to pressure.
When to use it: Prior to working out to address trigger points, and on rest days.
How to use it: Position the knob at the curved end of the cane against the hard-to-reach area you want to target. Use your hands to apply pressure against the cane to relieve tight or sore areas.
Suggested Massage: Back Massage
Practice this massage, recommended by Thomas Myers, when you need a convenient way to relieve tension in your back.
- Hold the straight end of the Thera Cane and move the rounded end around your back, feeling for areas that are tight or sore.
- When you find a tender area, press into it with the knob for about 30 seconds. Move your body to aid mobilization: Twist your torso; swing your free arm in various directions; press yourself into the Thera Cane, and then turn away from it.
Your best (and least expensive) tool, including your palms, digits, fists, and knuckles.
Best for: Targeting trigger points in areas where more precision is necessary; practicing when tools are unavailable.
Worst for: Hard-to-reach areas.
When to use them: When you’re sitting at your desk, waiting in lines, watching TV, or times when you don’t have access to tools but have noticeable areas of tension you can easily reach.
How to use them: Use your fingers to seek out tight, tender, and sore spots, and apply pressure using a combination of fingertips, knuckles, palms, and fists.
Suggested Massage: Forearm Massage
Practice this massage, designed by Trisha Haws, after bouts of sitting at your computer or doing other work with your hands.
- Turn your left arm so that your palm is facing up.
- Starting at the pinky side of your forearm near your wrist, gently press into your forearm with your right thumb, moving up the arm until you reach your elbow.
- Repeat for two additional passes, wrist to elbow, down the middle of your arm, and on the thumb side.
- Flip your forearm over so your palm faces down. Use your index finger to make your way up your arm five times, each time moving from wrist to elbow in line with one of the digits. In tender areas, pause while pressing against your flesh and move your wrist in different directions.
Self-Massage Dos and Don’ts
This expert advice can help you get the most out of self-massage.
DO stay away from intense pain. “Massage doesn’t have to hurt in order for it to work. Less can actually be a lot more,” says fitness therapist Jill Miller.
DO mix it up. Vary your tools and technique, advises corrective-exercise therapist Anthony Carey. Try moving up and down, and side to side; alternate broad and short strokes, with sustained pressure. When working with fascia, “speed is the enemy of depth,” says integrative manual therapist Thomas Myers, so move slowly and deliberately for best results.
DO match your tool to your target area, suggests physical therapist John Rusin. Use smaller tools to home in on smaller muscles (a lacrosse ball for the calves, for instance) and reserve large implements like a full-size foam roller for larger areas (like the upper back).
DO keep moving. “Move your body while you apply pressure to areas with tension,” says massage therapist Trisha Haws. “For example, if you’re working on your feet, rotate, flex, and extend your ankle as you address trigger points.”
DON’T massage the site of an acute injury, such as a sprain or strain. Also, avoid rolling directly where you feel pain, as this may increase inflammation.
DON’T spend a long time working on the same spot, because you could cause damage to tissue or nerves.
DON’T shrug off the power of professional bodywork. Receiving physical care from a trained expert who has an in-depth understanding of anatomy and technique can be extremely beneficial, so don’t be afraid to seek out the extra help.