Myth Busting: Fixes for Tight Muscle & Knots
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.
TAKE THE HEALTHY HIPS 10 DAY CHALLENGE AND UNLOCK YOUR TIGHT, STICKY HIPS IN LESS THAN 10 MINUTES A DAY.
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.
The neurological change that takes place in the tissue is the load produced by the massage device. When you place load upon tissue, you’re essentially stretching it, which when performed long enough, causes a “relaxation” response created by the brain. It’s the same sensation that you get when you hold a certain stretch for about 2 minutes. At first the stretch feels very “tight” but eventually it loosens up. The massage device simply speeds this process up.
Myth #2: Massage gadgets make long lasting changes.
The second biggest misconception with massage gadgets is that they produce long lasting changes. This concept is posted all over their marketing content by saying “increases range of motion” or “makes you more flexible”.
Again, this is not true.
The changes that these devices make is only temporary. Yes, you will see a small increase in range of motion right after using them, but as we just learned, it’s caused by warming up the tissue and creating a stretch sensation.
Unfortunately, within in about 90 minutes to 2 hours, that new range of motion will be lost. These devices produce a passive change, meaning an external force produced them. Passive changes do not produce permanent change.
The only way to make permanent change is by using active modalities, like mobility training. Your body is the one producing those movements, so no help is coming from something else. You have to earn those permanent changes, just like if you were trying to get bigger biceps…you’d have to put in the work week after week to see change.
Benefit #1: Massage gadgets help increased blood flow.
This first one is that they help to increase blood flow. By heating the tissue up, and placing load upon the tissue, blood flow will be greatly increased.
Why is this important?
The human body is one giant sophisticated pump. By increasing blood flow to all areas of the body, especially the hip, the human pump will be more efficient, promoting better performance, health, and recovery.
Benefit #2: Massage gadgets help increase lymphatic drainage.
The lymphatic system is the human body’s waste management system. Think of it like little garbage men moving through the body picking up all the waste so it can be removed. Pretty cool huh?
But what happens if those little guys don’t show up to work? When the lymphatic system is blocked, the system is no longer able to shuttle out all of the waste produced by the body, causing many of the health issues we see today.
Massage devices help the “garbage men” by ensuring the system is always flowing optimally, just like when increasing blood flow.
Benefit #3: Massage gadgets provide a temporary reduction in pain.
Our third benefit is the temporary reduction in pain, which really does mean “temporary”. If someone hits you on the arm, what’s the first thing you do? Besides hitting them back, you start to rub the boo boo.
Why do you do this? Because it feels good and soothes the sting away. This is called the “analgesic effect”. Rubbing the pissed off area simply feels good and the massage devices, when used properly, can promote a similar feeling.
However, if you’re experiencing pain in an area on a regular basis, you need to go visit a certified health practitioner and get to root of the problem before it gets worse.
Benefit #4: Massage gadgets help increase sports performance.
Do your ears perk up when you think about increasing your sports performance? Massage gadgets can help with this but the key is in how you use the tool.
Think of using the gadget as sparking the nervous system. For example, if you quickly tap your chest moving all over the tissue, you’re basically waking it up.
Exciting tissue before using it has been shown to increase the contracting rate of the tissue, which means force can be produced. More force produced means bigger weights and better performance.
So how does this happen? You start taking advantage of the sympathetic nervous system, aka “fight or flight”. If you’ve ever done a heavy set of squats, you know it’s a fight. Getting the body ready for this is crucial for maximizing your workouts!
Benefit #5: Massage gadgets enhance recovery.
Probably the biggest benefit of these devices is the recovery aspect. Recovery is quickly becoming a huge buzzword in the fitness community, and for good reason. You can only train as hard as you recover.
If you’re always crushing your workouts, no matter what they are, you must spend the same amount of intensity on your recovery, or eventually your body will shut you down and force you to do it. If you start to notice that your lifts are plateauing, you don’t have the same energy, or your sleep is becoming harder and harder to get, you need to look at your recovery.
Massage devices have the ability, when used correctly, to help you start tapping into the parasympathetic nervous system state. This is also called “rest and digest.” If your body is always amped up, and you’re burning the candle at both ends, this process can never occur. Without it, you can kiss that sports performance we work so hard for goodbye! Learning when and how to enter into this parasympathetic state will allow you to skyrocket your recovery so you can continue to crush it!!!
Stretching, is by far one of the most controversial topics in the health and fitness industry. I often get questions like: Should I stretch before, during, or after a workout? Should I stretch something that feels “tight” or irritated? Should I stretch aggressively forcing it to the max, or make it nice and easy?
It’s time to answer a few of these questions and reveal some of the common myths about stretching.
Myth #1: Stretching can prevent injuries.
First off, if anyone ever says they can prevent injuries, run away as fast as you can because it’s impossible.
Think about it. From stumbling off of a curb, to getting tripped in a game of basketball, life is way too unpredictable and unfortunately, there’s not a way to magically build up a body that’s immune to that.
However, with proper forms of training like mobility training, you can mitigate and reduce the risk of injury. For instance, if you’ve trained your hips to be able to handle being in an internal rotation position, and you unexpectedly get placed there like on a basketball court, you’ll have a better chance of coming out unscathed or with minimal injury.
But if you’ve never trained your body to have strength and control in that internal rotation position and you get put into this position, then your knee is probably not going to be happy afterward. And no amount of stretching will prevent this.
Myth #2: Stretching before working out increases sports performance.
Unfortunately, there seems to be zero conclusive evidence that stretching before working out or competing increases performance.
There is research suggesting that slow duration stretching can decrease force and power production in lower extremities, specifically in lower body lifts, running, and jumping. On the flip side, some research has suggested that certain types of stretching can increase ranges of motion of a few particular joints, therefore allowing for more force and power to be produced. In summary, researchers have suggested due to the inconsistent structures of all the types of stretching being used, it’s almost impossible to know what’s right.
However, what we do know is that warming the body up, which provides increased internal core temperature and blood flow, is definitely going to improve sports performance. So for now to be on the safe side, let’s focus on utilizing a solid conservative warm-up prior to exercise that consists of light intensity cardiovascular training and save the stretching for a more appropriate time.
Myth #3: Stretching can make something painful go away.
This particular myth is something we’re all guilty of. It’s like it’s ingrained in our DNA that if something aches or hurts, we should start stretching it to death.
Take the hip flexors for instance. If your hip flexors are super tight and sore, the first thing you do is hop on the ground and start cranking on them. However, this only makes it worse.
If you think of that irritated tissue like a knotted necklace, what happens when you pull on the ends of it? You’ve got it, that knot gets even more tangled and knotted up. The same thing happens with your tissue.
Tight irritated tissue must be strengthened in a specific way, not stretched, in order for them to finally relax.
Don’t get me wrong...
Stretching feels good! And if you want to hop down and stretch your hamstrings after a bike ride, go for it! You’re not doing anything wrong with a quick stretch, but if your intention is to get rid of nagging aches, knots, pain or tightness….then stretching is like pulling on that knotted necklace.
Before we dive in, let’s set the stage with a few factoids here.
Static stretching is defined as holding a particular stretch for an extended period of time. For the rest of this blog, static stretching is what I’ll be referring to.
Research has shown that static stretching for at least 2 minutes on a particular muscle, creates an acute increase in joint range of motion that can last for 60 to 90 minutes.
What does that mean?
For example, if you hold a hamstring stretch for 2 minutes without moving, you’ll increase how far you can go in that the stretch, and will feel more flexible for 60-90 minutes.
So what’s the point of holding a stretch, if that range of motion goes away in an hour?
This brings us to our first benefit of stretching.
Benefit #1: Stretching primes your tissue.
Static stretching is a great way to prime the tissue so you can open up new ranges of motion. But remember, you only have this 60-90 minute window of opportunity. We then use this window to build strength in that new range, which leads to permanent change in flexibility, control, and freedom of movement.
Do we want to put that part here about strength training?
Benefit #2: Stretching reduces stress and promotes sleep.
One of the other major benefits of stretching, is that it can reduce stress and promote better sleep. Unfortunately, our lives are usually spent running around like crazy people with endless tasks that need to get done. Sometimes, we need to just take a breath and relax.
Stretching can be the perfect elixir after a rough day, calming the body by tapping into the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is the rest and digest part of our nervous system, where once we enter it, a state of calm is present.
Ever taken a traditional yoga class? I’m not talking about boot camp yoga where they’re crushing you with fast movements and hand weights. I’m referring to classic yoga that focuses on breath and long duration stretches. After this class, your mind is calm and you’re probably ready to take a nap. This is what I’m talking about when referring to the benefits of stretching.
Next time you’re having a stressful moment, do the simplest stretch you can think of, breathe and watch how your body naturally calms down.
HOW DO YOU USE THESE MODALITIES
If you’ve made it this far through the blog, you must really have tried it all and realize there’s gotta be a better way than to be using these modalities day in and day out.
If you’re looking for lasting relief I’d recommend taking a look at any of these online mobility training programs to give you the tools to take control of your self care, efficiently and effectively.
Like I’ve mentiomned, there ARE great ways to use foam rollers, passive stretching and massage gadgets which is why I’ve created a bonus in the Healthy Hips 10 Day Challenge that goes over exactly when and how to use every one of these modalities for all of the benefits I listed above. Click below to learn more about the Challenge and how you can unlock tight, sticky hips in less than 10 minutes a day.
ABOUT COACH MATT PIPPIN
Matt is a Strength and Mobility Coach with over 15 years experience in his field and has coached over a thousand professional, collegiate and everyday athletes with the goal to help them move, feel and perform at their highest level. He's incredibly passionate about bringing simple and effective online mobility training programs to everyone who wants to take control of their self care and make lasting change. CLICK HERE to learn more.
NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist
Level 3: Fascial Stretch Specialist
Level 1: Institute of Motion Health Coach
Certified FRC Mobility Specialist (FRCms)
Level 1 Kinstretch Instructor
Weck Method Qualified