4 Reasons You Should Get Friendly With a Foam Roller and How To Do It Part 3 (10 minute read)

In part one of this this blog series we described the foam roller and listed four good things it does for your fascia. Here are the four benefits we listed (remember, SMR stands for self-myofascial release): 

  1. SMR hydrates fascia
  2. SMR wakes up your slumbering parts
  3. SMR organizes your fascia  
  4. SMR decreases neural drive to overactive neuro-myofascia

In part two we explained just how benefit number one is acheived through SMR. In part three we will explain what we mean by “slumbering parts” and exactly how SMR wakes those bits up. If you missed parts one and two click here. If you’re ready to understand the wake-up power of your foam roller, read on! 

How SMR wakes up your neuromyofascia

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Wether you are a light or a heavy sleeper, you probably use some outside stimulus to wake up in the morning. Most of us need to sense a sudden change in our environment to cue us to switch from the sleeping state to the waking one. This may be an alarm clock or the sun spilling in through bedroom windows. As it turns out, sometimes parts of our nervous, muscular and fascial system go to sleep too. In other words, sometimes there are parts of our motor system that are habituallly “turned off.” When this happens, we call it sensori motor amnesia. [1] Just like we react with an alarm clock, turned off parts of our motor system “wake up” when they sense a sudden change (or an interesting one) in their environment too. Before we explain how this works let’s describe how parts of our neuromyofascial system go to sleep. 

Every shape you habitually place your body in is stored as a model in the middle of your brain. That’s why you hardly have to think to stand up from your chair or to sign your name. If you were able to remember the first time you wrote your name or the first time you stood up on your own, you would probably also remember that your brain was workong overtime to execute those movements. But, now! Now you can start those movements and they seem to run themselves! This is because your body has stored all the information about how much load, tension and effort is required in each motor unit (read muscle, nerve, fascial unit) involved in these movements. So you have a movement repertoire or movement blueprint in your brain. If you were without this blueprint, you would have to think REALLY hard about each and every movement you execute in a day. It’s also partly because of this blueprint that you don’t move like a monkey or a dog. 

Our movement blueprints require maintenance. If there is a model for a movement stored in our  blueprint that we haven’t used in a while, it fades and is eventually erased. Sometimes there are just parts of a model that are damaged.

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When part of a model is damaged or the whole thing fades away, the specific motor units associated with that movement (remember when we say “motor unit” we mean all the muscle cells, nerves and fascia used to execute that paticular movement) forget how much tension, load or effort to use to make the movement the model represented. If we don’t wake that model and the associated motor units up again, soon sensori motor amnesia sets in. Matters are made worse when there are other movements we don’t practice that are associated with the same motor units. All this lack of movement leads to stuck neuromyofascial tissue. To understand how fascia becomes stuck review part one of this blog series. Lack of movement also makes fascia sticky (by "stuck" we mean not moving well; by "sticky" we mean... sticky). To understand how fascia becomes sticky read part two of this blog series. Stuck and sticky fascia that hasn’t been stretched and used becomes sleepy. 

As an extreme example, let’s picture old crotchety grandpa Joe. Joe used to play ball in college. His legs were strong. When he ran there were no restrictions as his hips fluidly opened with each stride, propelling him swiftly down the field. These days Joe’s hips stay pretty flexed. Most days he sits in front of the TV, putters, sits to eat, naps, drives around on some errands and spends eight or nine hours sleeping. None of these daily activities require Joe’s thighs to extend the way they did when he used to fly down the field. In fact, because of all that flexion his hip flexors are thicker with collagen. That collagen is sticky. His hips have forgotten how to extend. That model has fallen off his blueprint. We can see all this when we hear Joe groan as he pushes himself up from his recliner and walk across the room, bent over at his hips. 

Granted, due to age, Joe may have lost the muscular and hormonal support to run in the way he used to. His nervous system is likely tuned differently than a younger man’s. His older fascia may be dryer and less extensible. But does he have to walk with a stoop or struggle to stand up? Not if he could “wake up” his slumbering neuromyofascia! 

While hypothetical-Joe’s case is not uncommon, it is an extreme example of what we are explaining here. The process is the same, for example, in the case of someone who struggles to have full shoulder flexion because they injured themselves during a pressing movement. Young or old, we all have parts of our neuromyofascia that have gone to slumbering!  The gist is: the parts of our neuromyofascial net we don’t move go to sleep. Here’s the good news: you can wake those parts up! If we stimulate the nerves that used to communicate well with parts gone dark, the light comes on! Using a foam roller is a great way to accomplish this. 

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Movement under pressure, created with SMR, stimulates proprioceptive and interoceptive neurons.* As a result, slumbering motor units wake up. If we combine SMR with stretching and strengthening we can even get back some of the models that have fallen off our blueprint! So someone who struggles to get up and down, from and to the floor, can help themselves regain that ability partly through SMR. Someone who hurt themselves with an overhead press and has serious ROM issues can help themselves with SMR; retraining to safely press overhead again! 

Along with hydrating and waking up unhealthy fascia, foam rolling can benefit you in two more ways. We will discuss those and talk “how-to” in the next three blogs. 

 

 

 

*Writing about the effects of manual manipulation of fascia, Robert Schleip (Robert Schleip, Ph.D. is Research Director of the European Rolfing Association in Munich, Germany.) explained "that fascial responsiveness cannot be explained by its mechanical properties alone.” [2] These effects are of particular interest to Structural Integrators. But Dr Schleip’s clarification can help us understand the benefits of SMR. Notice, in particular, his comments about Ruffini organs and their response to tangential pressure (lateral stretch):

Immediate fascial plasticity cannot be understood by mechanical properties alone. Fascia is densely innervated by mechanoreceptors. Manual stimulation of these sensory endings probably leads to tonus changes in motor units which are mechanically linked to the tissue... Of particular interest are the Ruffini organs (with their high responsiveness to tangential pressure) and the very rich network of interstitial receptors, since stimulation of both of these receptors can trigger profound changes in the autonomic nervous system. 

Stimulation of fascial mechanoreceptors leads to changes in muscle tonus which come primarily from a resetting of the gamma motor system, rather than the more volitional alpha motor coordination. Additionally, stimulation of Ruffini organs as well as of many of the interstitial receptors effects the autonomic nervous system, which can result in a lowering of sympathetic tone, or in changes in local vasodilation. [3]

 

 

 

 

[1] Hanna, Thomas. Somatics: Reawakening the Mind's Control of Movement, Flexibility, and Health. Da Capo, 2004.

[2] Schleip, Robert. “Fascial Plasticity â a New Neurobiological Explanation: Part 1.” Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, vol. 7, no. 1, 2003, pp. 11–19., doi:10.1016/s1360-8592(02)00067-0.

[3] Schleip, Robert. “Fascial Plasticity â a New Neurobiological Explanation Part 2.” Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, vol. 7, no. 2, 2003, pp. 104–116., doi:10.1016/s1360-8592(02)00076-1.