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foam rolling

I spent a recent morning dozing in the rearmost aisle seat of a cramped plane, flying from Minnesota to warm, sunny Phoenix, Ariz., for a fitness conference. After a total of eight hours in transit — seated, of course — it made for beautiful synchronicity that my first conference workshop was all about mobility and foam rolling.

The four-hour continuing-education course was part of the annual NASM Optima, a conference coordinated by the National Academy of Sports Medicine for fitness professionals like trainers, coaches, and gym owners as well as general fitness enthusiasts.

Today’s course, titled “From Assessments to Performance: Using Mobility as the Foundation for Function,” focused on how to conduct assessments to suss out mobility issues and coach myofascial compression and release techniques using TriggerPoint’s MB5, a 5-inch massage ball, as the primary tool.

As often happens in workshops such as this, we split into small groups to take turns practicing coaching each other. And as also often happens, I was left wondering: What if someone doesn’t have access to a personal trainer or coach?

Individualized, assessment-based programming is powerful if someone can afford the time and financial investment. But, realistically, many people work out on their own or in group-fitness environments where programming is fairly generalized. How can that population make the most out of quality time with a foam roller or massage ball?

“Luckily, for better or worse, most people move in the same way,” explained our instructor, Kyle Stull, DHSc, MS, LMT, NASM-CES, when I cornered him at the end of class. “For the average human being just trying to live life, there are common areas [of the body] that everyone could benefit from rolling.”

Most people can afford improved mobility in the ankles, hips, and thoracic spine, all areas that, even if you’ve never been injured, can become tight from sitting, in a hunched position, for long periods on a consistent basis. This includes sitting at a desk, looking down at a smartphone, driving in a hunched position, walking with poor posture, and the like. If you have been hurt, say in a car accident or sports injury, issues could be compounded further.

According to Stull, if you don’t have access to an assessment and personalized plan, you can accomplish a lot by rolling out the following areas:

  • Calves
  • Quads
  • Glutes
  • Lats (the dense “wing”-like muscles along your back, beneath your armpits)
  • Pec minor, the outer/upper chest area (for women, imagine following the strap of your sports bra, avoiding breast tissue)

The rules of the foam-rolling game, says Stull, include:

  • Avoid pain, throbbing, and tingling/numbness.
  • Begin by finding a tender (not painful) spot and hold for about 30 seconds, then roll gently over the area two to four times.
  • Aim to roll at least three times a week, spending about five minutes each session; a popular time is before your regular workout, but you can roll on rest days, too.

To Roll or Not to Roll?

Most important, says Stull, don’t overthink it. “It doesn’t matter how you roll,” he says. “The literature shows that rolling anything, with any tool you like, is better than not rolling.”

In all honesty, despite the research supporting it, I don’t have a rolling regimen. But after feeling the improvement in how I moved and felt after this afternoon’s session, I’m eager to play around more to find what works for me.

Want more resources to build your mobility practice? Check out EL’s past coverage below — and let me know if you have any specific questions you’d like to see answered or revisited in future issues. Connect with me via email or social @maggiefazeli.

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