Self Myofascial Release and How to Prevent Training Injuries

By on August 27, 2014

I’ve been struggling with a painful lower back for about the last few weeks. It’s not been enough to prevent me from training, but it has robbed me of any motivation to get up and get going in the mornings and it’s made sitting at the desk working… miserable.

This morning I found a weird spot on my thigh that sent shockwaves through my body when I pressed on it… and after about two minutes of pain, my backache went away. Want to know how I did it? Read on, it’s about time you became bulletproof in the gym…

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Unfortunately, aches and pains are a reality of working out when you get older. One of my training buddies in fact is so prone to injuring himself that he even avoids the bench press. Pushing yourself too hard can result in an injury that prevents you from being effective in the gym for weeks to come, and then there are the ‘chronic pains’ that almost become a part of you.

I had a bad knee for over two years. During this time, walking down the stairs was nigh impossible and squatting was certainly out of the question. But I never let it become a part of my identity, and now two years on the knee pain is gone.

If you’re going to maintain a successful career in the gym, then preventing, fixing and dealing with pain and injury should be at the top of your priorities. It might seem a little soft to worry about things like foam rolling when you’re a huge powerlifter… but ultimately it’s going to help you to lift more and for longer.

Let’s take a look at some of the best strategies for injury prevention and recovery.

The Useless: Stretching

First of all then, let’s take a look at stretching before workouts which seems oh-so popular for preventing injury. I never have stretched before training and I never intend to. I’ve never pulled or torn a muscle and that’s even though I tend to hop right on the bench press cold and start pressing 100kg+.

Then a study came out that actually backed up my seemingly reckless behaviour (1). It turns out, that if you are someone who normally stretches before a workout and you forget to stretch, then you might injure yourself. But if you have never stretched… well then you don’t need to. In fact one study says that stretching before a workout can make you feel weaker and ‘wobblier’ (2). So wean yourself off that shit, it’s a waste of time. Still don’t believe me? Here’s a big overview of lots of studies coming to ultimately the same solution (3).

Stretch to improve flexibility. But as a pre-workout warm up? Forget it.

The Good: Self Myofascial Release

So we don’t like stretching. On the other hand though, we do like self myofascial release, which is the fancy name for foam rolling. Those people rolling around on foam cylinders are actually onto something (although real men used tennis balls).

Essentially, when you foam roll, you are giving yourself a deep tissue massage. This helps you to address two serious problems that could be causing you discomfort and limiting your performance: knots (trigger points) and fascial adhesions.

Knots: When you decide to contract a muscle, your brain sends a signal through your nervous system via electrical impulses. Eventually those electrical signals reach ‘motor end plates’ where they send chemical signals (containing calcium among other things) to the muscle fibres to trigger the contraction. Knots are what happen when your muscle doesn’t manage to get rid of all the calcium, resulting in a continually firing ‘false positive’ that leaves you with a small contraction in a single point in your muscle. This tiny bulge of localised tension can result in tension across the whole muscle, along with difficulty moving normally and probably a fair bit of pain, but with massage you can ease this tension and return the muscle to normal function. Most of us carry around a lot of knots, especially if we train, and this leads to referred pain (pain you feel elsewhere) and poor performance. You know you’ve found a knot when you press on a lump in the muscle and it either spasms or feels tender to the touch. Roll it out with that tennis ball until it’s smooth again, like you’re tenderising meat.

Fascial Adhesions: The fascia is the thin, white film that covers all of your muscle and holds it nicely together. Its role is to keep everything in place, allow muscles to slide easily over one another, and to provide you with extra stability.

The fascia is interesting. Because it doesn’t show up easily in MRI scans, it doesn’t tend to get much attention. And yet the fascia is one of the most pain-sensitive parts of your body and is crucial for normal movement. With the vast majority of lower back pain being ‘non-specific’, there’s a large chance that damage to the fascia could be the explanation.

Problems with the fascia occur when small tears heal incorrectly resulting in scar tissue. Now the collagen fibres that make it up will be all knotted and crossed over, which results in reduced flexibility and hindered movement. By using rolling, you can break up those scar tissues and adhesions and give the fascia back its flexibility.

Foam rolling should occur after a workout and can be done at home in front of the TV. If you’re doing it right then it should hurt in the same way that a sports massage hurts, but in the long run you’ll feel a lot better.

Muscle Imbalances

Other pains can come from muscle imbalances. These occur when you build up one set of muscles too much while ignoring another. A classic example is building up the pecs and ignoring the traps, another is building the quadriceps but not the hamstrings, or building the abs and ignoring the erector spinae. The result? Unequal strain on the join leading to awkward angles in the pelvis or upper back and bad posture.

There is a tendency among gym-goers to focus too much on the ‘mirror muscles’ – the ones that look cool and get women. In reality though, it’s often the muscles you don’t see (intrinsic muscles) and muscles around the back that are the most important for your power, strength and stability. This is why compound movements are so important – they build the whole body evenly and in a functional manner.

You’d be surprised what neglecting even minor muscle groups can do to your health and function. If you have knee pain for instance, there’s a good chance that you simply need to strengthen your hips to correct your running technique.

Sooo many people have weak lower backs, which is why so many people injure themselves when squatting or even curling. People used to watch my videos and comment that I was going to kill myself when leaning back into my bicep curls for cheats. I never did, because my erector spinae were strong enough to take it. Strengthen yourself enough in the right places and spend some time building those muscles up, and you will be far more durable against gym injuries when you start piling on the weight. Yoga is one way to (very slowly) do this, but I’ve always preferred more weightlifting.

I only just discovered self myofascial release because I’m getting older. Until now, my best defense against injury has been being really strong.

Injured? Keep Moving!

How did I fix my knee? Well actually I had a patellar tracking disorder, which meant that the kneecap wasn’t moving correctly over the knee and was causing me pain. It was like a train that wasn’t quite on the tracks correctly.

The way I fixed it eventually was simply by using resistance machines for the legs on very light weights while using a very slow cadence. Without hurting myself, I was this way able to re-strengthen the surrounding muscles and re-teach my leg to track correctly. Fixing my running technique also helped. I fixed a shoulder complaint in a similar way.

Of course the same doesn’t apply for broken bones – but there’s a good chance that this isn’t what you’re dealing with if you hurt yourself in the gym.

This is how I did it, because I’m bloody-minded and because I couldn’t get an appointment with a physio for 6 months. However it’s advisable that you speak to a professional before trying to fix your own aches and pains – they’ll give you some safe exercises to do that will help achieve the same thing. Then just make sure you do them, and that you don’t spend too much time lying around feeling sorry for yourself.

It is crucial that you slow-down in the gym if you injure yourself. If you are experiencing severe back pain, then you probably don’t want to continue those 150kg squats. At the same time though, completely giving up and staying in bed isn’t the answer either – as it will only cause the muscles to weaken and tighten and make you focus on the pain. Movement also lubricates joints and sends blood and nutrients to the area (as does self-massage with the foam roller). Aim to gently correct the movement and strengthen the surrounding muscles. If you are unsure where to start, then a physiotherapist will help to put you on the right track.

And whatever you do, don’t let your injury become a part of your identity. The body is remarkable at healing itself, and if you keep moving and take care you’ll be back to full health in no time.

Oh and start self myofascial release. I use a painful little bouncy ball and roll around on it while listening to Electric Light Orchestra.

That’s how I roll.

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