Massage and Rolling Out

When I began massage school, I knew my body needed a lot of help. The fact that massage offered relief from my constant pain was the reason I enrolled in the first place! What I didn’t realize, however, was the efficacy of rolling out in combination with regular massage. If you’re anything like me, you would feel incredible after your massage session only to quickly have that bliss replaced with your old pain and dysfunction. If this sounds familiar, continue reading to learn how 10-15 minutes a day can bring you to your next massage without taking 2 steps back. This approach will not only teach you about your restrictions, but it allows you to explore and release muscles that you may not have realized were part of the issue.

So where do you begin? Well, this post is going to be less about specific techniques for rolling out and more about how to approach it generally. There are a few basic things to consider as you begin the process. What part of your body hurts? What are you trying to accomplish? How much pressure do you use? And are there specific tools you should use? Before we go anywhere, however, let’s start with something even more basic.

1. Is there anything you should avoid? Simple answer… definitely.

These areas are off-limits:

  • Spine (sensitive structures: spinal column/chord)
  • Front of the neck (sensitive structures: trachea, windpipe, nerve routes, arteries, veins)
  • Armpits (sensitive structures: lymph nodes, nerves)
  • Backs of the knees [legpits?] (sensitive structures: lymph nodes, nerves)
  • Top of the groin (sensitive structures: lymph nodes, nerves, arteries, veins)
  • IT Band – So you won’t actually damage anything here, but it’s not very effective. It causes a hell of a lot of sensation with almost no results. Instead, consider rolling out your glutes or your TFL.

You can avoid hurting yourself by staying away from the areas listed above. More importantly, never roll out by rote. Be engaged in the process and feel what you are doing. The sensations you feel are your guiding force when you roll out. If you feel your pulse throbbing under where you’re working, stop. Don’t restrict your blood flow or damage the walls of your arteries or veins. Obviously. If you feel any sharp, electric, pins and needle-like pain, you should also stop. You are probably on a nerve. Nerves take forever to heal (or they don’t), so back off. That being said, see if you can move slightly (maybe a centimeter or two) to avoid the sensitive structures of the body while still affecting the muscle. If you can do that, then by all means, go for it! 

A final note here: Listen to your body. Without sounding too woo-woo, use your intuition to listen to the messages your body is sending. If you get the feeling you should not be working somewhere, don’t! Your body is smarter than you are and it is constantly letting you know what it needs. As you continue to practice you will begin to learn the language of your body (hint: it uses sensations and feelings, not words). Learn to feel them. Use this like any other practice to get a little more in touch with how your body is feeling. So with all that in mind… where do you actually start? 

1. Where are my points of pain? So first, you should determine your points of pain, restriction, and dysfunction. Put simply, what hurts? Determine the sensitivity of “the spot” and allow yourself to think about this spot a little more globally. What do I mean by globally? Well, can you gently roll out the sensitive area (at a 1/10) and move well beyond the spot that hurts. Can you move inches to a foot away and still feel the connection? Can you find the edges of the pain? As an example, if you have a knot on your thigh, can you map out the entire thigh? Particularly, find the parts well above and well below the area that hurts. Find areas you might not think are involved, but almost certainly are. After you’ve mapped out the area you can start adding some pressure.

2. How much pressure do I use? Start at the very edges of the map you laid out in the previous step. As you first begin the process, start at about a 2/10 pain wise and move super slow. My biggest pet peeve is seeing people rolling across the foam roller from the top of their thigh to their knee in about two seconds. You are doing nothing lasting to your muscles. For this modality, I’ve found that muscle and fascia are affected to a significant degree when you move at a glacial pace. To be effective, keep your pressure consistent (less is more) and move slow enough that you don’t slip off the muscles your working.

So let’s go back to our leg example. The pain is in the middle of your thigh. Start at the top of your leg at about a 2/10 and just wait there. Let the tissue begin to feel the pressure and release into it.  Notice how your tissue is responding. If it feels like it is beginning to fight you, you’ll need to back off. If you are starting to sink in and get some movement, allow that to keep happening. Allow the sensation to gradually build to maybe a 4/10. Do not progress too fast here. The slower you sink in, the more muscle you will effect with far less pain.  

Once you are at a good working depth begin to slowly work toward the center of the pain. If the pain suddenly begins to increase, back off a bit, but keep the pressure on the muscle! You should have a therapeutic “good-hurt” throughout the duration of the stroke. To be even more “scientific” about it, think… “it hurts so good” sensation; not “I can barely breathe and my face is contorted” sensation. A good marker for how your doing is your breath. It should be consistent, calm, and steady the entire time. Yes, as you become more familiar with rolling out you may be able to dig in to like a 7/10 while you deepen your breath to keep yourself relaxed. But please, be honest with yourself. If this causes you to tense your muscles, you should back off and start again. This is not an exercise in suffering. It should genuinely feel good and productive. OK, so now that we’ve got the basics down, what are you actually going to use?

3. What kind of material should I use? A quick google search will give you a whole host of different massage tools. You’ll find foam rollers of varying shapes, sizes, and materials. You may even come across some alien-looking contraptions that people have come up with over the years like the pso-rite, thera cane, fascia blaster, and others. Personally, I like to think simple. Don’t be fooled into thinking the tool is the biggest factor. Your skill and patience are far more important. 

That being said, I use a standard 6” foam roller, a tennis ball, and a lacrosse ball.  You will want varying sizes and materials that you can use target areas that are more or less sensitive. Again think simple here. If an area is more sensitive, try using a material that is larger like the foam roller. The larger surface area makes the pressure less intense. You can also use a softer material like the tennis ball. Finally, just don’t push so hard! As things begin to loosen up you can move on to something denser (like your lacrosse ball) or add a little more pressure. 

4. How long should I roll out? Don’t feel obligated to spend hours on end rolling out your body. Spend 5-10 minutes on one part of your body and move on. As you get used to the process, you may spend more time rolling out. At first, however, keep with the simple maxim that less is more. Consistency over time is far more important than doing a heroic 3-hour roll-out session once a month.

5. How can I tell if I’m doing a good job? As you move through your muscles you will know you’re doing a good job when you actually feel the muscles release. What’s this you might ask? Think back to a time when you were really tired. As you were slugging coffee to keep yourself awake, did you ever notice your eyelids twitching? This is similar to what you’ll feel in your muscles as they let go. They will quickly twitch/spasm and release. Intuitively, this will feel really nice. Thinking in broader terms, over the course of a few weeks the spots that were really sensitive should begin to feel softer, looser, and easier to dig into. The pressure that initially gave you a 7/10 will now only give you a 3/10. 

So what’s the most important factor in your success? It’s as simple as feeling what you are doing with openness and curiosity. Healthy muscle tissue will not be painful. The pain sensations you feel are really your guiding force. Move deliberately and with intention along your lines of pain and allow them to let go. Treat this like any other skill. You will be ineffective at it at first. Give yourself time to learn how to do it and you will definitely get better! With enough practice, you may not even need to come in for a massage when you have that tweaky low back or hip! Stay tuned as I’ll be posting future videos on how to roll out specific areas effectively. Until then, if you have any specific areas you’d like to know about, post below and I’ll give you a quick answer before posting a video.

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