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Myth Busting: Fixes for Tight Muscle & Knots

Updated: May 26



How did it get to this?


I’m walking through the gym one morning and see someone put a vibrating foam roller on a power plate, while massaging the rest of their body with a gun and then doing all of this while having a conversation with a passer by who asks them what they’re doing.


“Breaking up the knots before I start my workout” they say as they cringe with what I like to call the “pain face”.


Meanwhile, I see “Bouncy Bob” with his heal up on a bench, reaching down towards his feet with little bounces that I’m guessing are supposed to get him into a deeper stretch before moving on to the other leg.


I guess kudos for the multi-tasking and creativity but I hate to break it to you when I say you’re not actually helping the problem. And in some cases you may be making the problem worse.


I see this on a daily basis and have personally been there where I was trying anything and everything I could think of to get some relief. Those gadgets in the picture above? Yeah, those are just some of the items I have stashed away in my "gadget bag".


After years of wasted time and more money than I’d like to admit, I thought it was time to break down how you should and should NOT be using modalities like foam rollers, passive stretching, and massage gadgets so you can spend your time and money elsewhere.



WHAT’S YOUR INTENTION?

Now before we get started, I’m not saying these modalities aren’t effective. I’m saying they’re not effective or efficient if your intention is to get aches and pains, tightness, or knots to go away for good.


There are some awesome benefits when used properly so let’s dive into the myths and benefits of each.


If you’re like me, you’ve probably spent thousands of hours foam rolling and smashing tissues with every type of myofascial release tool out there. Not to mention, the hundreds of dollars spent on all the different options. But you do it because you’re hoping that the latest one will be “the one” to finally give you the loose muscles you’ve always dreamed of! The problem is, no matter how often you use these devices, those same knots and tightness are still there.


Now, don’t start throwing all these tools away, because there is definitely some value in using them. However, just like any tool, you have to make sure you’re using it for the right reasons. Let’s first break down some of the myths.


Myth #1: Foam rollers and lacrosse balls actually ARE myo-fascial release tools.

One of the biggest myths out there, is that these tools actually cause “myofascial release”. I’m not going to get too technical here, but true myofascial release occurs only when a manual therapist is able to get different layers of fascia to move independently of each other.


You have layers of fascia just under the skin and surrounding your muscles. When these layers can’t slide and glide over each other, an accumulation of fibrotic tissue, also known as scar tissue is formed. In order to actually break this apart, you need to apply specific load to the area, (usually the therapists hands or fingers), and you need the two different tissues to move independently of each other via contractions and relaxations of them.


This certainly doesn’t happen using a foam roller. When you roll back and forth you’re only compressing tissue and the tissues are not able to slide and glide at all.


Now if you’re using a lacrosse ball or something similar, you must have a very extensive background in manual therapy and know exactly where every origin and insertion point of each muscle is, otherwise you’ll never know where you’re supposed to be applying the force.


Myth #2: Foam rolling and lacrosse balls make you more flexible.

When I was big into powerlifting, on my lower body lifting days, I would warm up with a few squats to judge how flexible I was that day. If I was super stiff, (which was more often than not), I would slowly foam roll everything on my body, pounding every tender spot into submission and then I’d go and retest my squat to see if I could get deeper.


If I was still stiff, I would then shove a lacrosse ball in my quads, hip flexors, inner thighs, and every part of my glutes, beating the crap out of them and then retest that squat again. Usually 30-40 minutes of all this would work and my squat would then look and feel half way decent. In my mind, I was making myself more flexible and then hopping under that bar full of weight. Brilliant, right???


However, using these devices like this only temporarily made me flexible, and even that was a stretch, (no pun intended). I had to do this every single day wasting so many hours of my life just to feel flexible.


Unfortunately, when you use a passive modality, meaning something else is causing this physical change, that feeling of flexibility will go away rather quickly.


So to summarize, foam rolling and lacrosse balls only provides a temporary change in your tissue, not a permanent one.



Benefit #1: Foam rollers help to quickly warm up the body.

The biggest benefits of using the foam roller is that it’s an excellent way to quickly warm up the body. And during post workout, it helps reduce the amount of soreness that comes later.


If you typically sit a lot at your job, it’s probably a great idea to start getting the blood flowing before hopping into that next leg workout. The research clearly states the importance of a warm-up before working out, so you might as well maximize your time with the roller. If you do it correctly, you can almost instantly start getting the blood moving after sitting all day.


Like I mentioned, immediately after you workout, foam rolling has been proven to reduce soreness that accumulates after working out. The actual reason for this hasn’t been completely determined, however, it’s most likely caused by the rolling that’s increasing blood flow which facilitates the healing process.


Benefit #2: Foam rollers and lacrosse balls help reduce soreness after a workout.

This next benefit applies to both foam rollers and lacrosse ball-like tools and it’s that you can desensitize tissue if you’re feeling pain or discomfort in a particular area. Let me clearly state, this is not a substitute for seeing a certified health practitioner. If you’ve been dealing with something for a long time, or you’re in a large amount of pain, this benefit is not for you.


However, if you’ve got a little something that’s not feeling particularly great, like a soreness in your glutes, inner thighs, hamstrings, etc. then your foam roller or other device can provide some quick temporary pain relief. This will not make the pain go away permanently, but if you just need to get through your day then go for it.


Benefit #3: Lacrosse balls help bring neurological awareness to a particular area.

Let’s break this one down….


Most people aren’t really connected to their body. For instance, have you ever heard of someone not being able to “fire their glutes” or not being able to really feel a good stretch in them? Well, for starters their glutes are obviously firing, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to walk, plus every tissue has the ability to be stretched.


What’s really happening is that this person’s brain doesn’t “see” their glutes. When someone isn’t connected to their body, it’s like their brain is looking at their body with thick coke bottle like glasses. But when someone is really connected to their body, their brain sees them with crystal clear vision. The brain can perceive that stretch and the contraction in those glutes mentioned before.


If you’re fully connected to every part of your body, you’re going to be a much better functioning human. Using tools like foam rollers or lacrosse balls in conjunction with a particular sequence called “iso-ramping” you can instantly bridge this gap from your brain to the body.

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If you’ve been to a gym or even hopped on social media lately, you’ve inevitably seen some type of vibrating massage device. From the guns, the rollers, and the vibrating balls, there are so many varieties but also a ton of misinformation on how to use them effectively.


Myth #1: Massage gadgets break up scar tissue, adhesions, and knots.

The most common misconception out there is that vibrating massage devices break up scar tissue, adhesions, and knots. Don’t shoot the messenger here, but It’s just not true.


I can spend a whole hour explaining the anatomy behind why these things don’t happen, but the simplest reason is that it takes so much pressure…think thousands of pounds…to actually physically break up these tissues.


However, there is a temporary “release feeling” that people experience when using these devices and it’s both a biological and neurological change in the tissue.


The biological change that people feel is caused by the production of heat within the surrounding tissues. Heated tissue moves more efficiently than cold tissue, which explains that release feeling.


Think of it like a physical warm-up when you start doing a light jog, or hopping on the elliptical to get your internal temperate to rise. You start sweating a little bit, and the body starts to naturally loosen up. This is what takes place after using a massage gadget on your tissue.