By Dr. Mercola
Poor flexibility and mobility can greatly impair the quality of your movement, which in turn can seriously jeopardize your health and quality of life. With most people spending a large percentage of time sitting, mobility training is a necessity for most of us, but it's particularly important as you get older.
Mobility training can improve not only your fitness goals, but also your health in general. There's even a study showing that your ability to rise off the floor from a seated position can predict your risk for early mortality.
If you have to use both hands and knees, or use something to help you get up off the floor, chances are you may be weak or have poor range of motion, placing you at an increased risk for early death — that's how important mobility is for health and longevity.
Examples of effective mobility exercises include Active Isolated Stretching (AIS), Whole Body Vibration Training and different types of mobility tools.
I've also included a recent interview with Kelly Starrett above, who has written an excellent book on mobility called "Deskbound." It's one of the best manuals out there to help you understand the importance of mobility, and how to increase your mobility in your day-to-day life by making small changes to the way you live and work.
1 of My FAVORITE Mobility Therapy Tools
One of the best mobility tools I have encountered is called the Tiger Tail. The one linked to here is about $30 but less expensive versions are available. I keep it by my bedside in case I get an occasional exercise related leg cramp during the night.
The cramps I get don't respond to the typical extension of your toes routine as they are typically some of the smaller muscles, making it hard to isolate the motion that will stop the cramping.
The Tiger Tail takes care of this problem. After a few minutes of intensely rolling the cramping muscle, the cramps have always disappeared or significantly reduced. This roller is not just for leg cramps but works for any area that is stiff and sore as the rolling will increase blood flow and lymphatic flow to the injured tissue.
Today, as I am writing this, a friend of mine had crippling scapular pain that prevented her from doing simple tasks, so I pulled out the Tiger Tail and within minutes her pain was gone. She was pleasantly surprised and ordered one.
The Many Benefits of Foam Rolling
Besides the Tiger Tail and similar hand-held rollers, foam rollers are inexpensive therapeutic fitness tools that can:
- Release trigger points and tight muscles, tendons and ligaments
- Increase blood flow through your skin, fascia and muscles, thereby improving tissue quality and cellular function
- Engage core muscles and build strength
- Increase range of motion in your spine
- Improve posture by strengthening your core
Foam rolling is beneficial both for general fitness and for tackling common pains. As noted in a recent Epoch Times article:1
"When we experience … pain and stiffness around weight-bearing joints … the instinct is to get some sort of treatment — if not a conventional painkiller or some invasive surgical procedure, then at least some alternative therapy …
A less obvious and often more effective approach is to work at improving blood circulation around the problematic area through deep pressure work and dedicating oneself to stretching the muscles and ligaments around the affected joints. Sometimes, short and tight muscles and ligaments are the root cause of a joint region becoming dysfunctional and producing pain and stiffness."
When and Why Should You Use a Foam Roller?
Foam rolling can be done:
- Every day to prevent or address pain, stiffness, range of motion or postural issues
- As a pre-workout warmup, focusing on problem areas that may be prone to injury
- Post-workout; focusing on all of the muscle groups worked that day will help with lactic acid removal and speed up recovery
Besides your iliotibial (IT) band, popular target spots include your hip flexors, quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes, but just about any area of your body can be rolled. A hand-held roller can be used on areas where foam rolling on the floor is too difficult.
Benefits of Foam Rolling Are Scientifically Backed
Sometimes the simplest activities offer the most profound fitness benefits and foam rolling is certainly a demonstration of this. Don't let its simplicity fool you — foam rollers have scientifically proven benefits. For example, research shows that:
- Foam rolling your hamstrings can significantly increase your range of motion in as little as five to 10 seconds2
- Using a foam roller reduces arterial stiffness and improves vascular endothelial function3
- Older women who used foam rollers for balance training experienced improvements in dynamic balance after just five weeks4
General Usage Tips and Recommendations
Many people wait to use a foam roller until they feel a tight spot in a muscle, then simply "roll" it out. While this can be effective, it's a mistake to regard the foam roller as only an occasional fitness tool. Using it daily, even for just a few minutes, will help prevent trouble spots in your muscles from occurring in the first place.
Keep in mind that when using a foam roller you should apply enough pressure so that you feel some tension released, either with constant pressure or by making small movements back and forth. A mild amount of discomfort is to be expected, but you should not experience pain, unless it is a "good" pain that makes the discomfort you are treating decrease.
A painful area may be the result of tension imbalances elsewhere in your body. Rolling a painful, inflamed area might also increase inflammation and inhibit healing. It's often best to roll just a few inches away from a highly sensitive area first and then use large, sweeping motions to cover the entire area.
Avoid rolling too quickly; your movements on the foam roller should be slow and deliberate. If you roll too fast, your muscles won't have time to adapt to and manage the compression, and you're not going to eliminate adhesions. If you're new to foam rolling, start out gradually with lighter pressure and a shorter session. In time, you can progress to more intense pressure.
There are many types of foam rollers. Please be sure to get one with a hard plastic shell as they will last much longer. The inexpensive pure foam rollers flatten over time and become virtually useless. They are a good addition to a mobility roller like a Tiger Tail and they complement each other. Also remember to never roll directly over or across a joint.
Leg Warmup for Beginners
Epoch Times recently published part one of a four-part series on foam rolling warmup exercises. You can find an infographic showing the basic moves for a lower leg warmup5 in their November 26 post. Below is a summary of the suggested moves. In the video above, Jill Rodriguez also demonstrates some of these foam rolling techniques, along with a few others.
• Foot roll: Sit on the floor with knees bent and your feet on the roller. Prop yourself up for balance by leaning back on your arms. Roll the soles of your feet from heel to toes.
• Shin roll: Position yourself on all fours. Lift your right leg, placing the roller beneath your shin. Support yourself on both hands and one knee while rolling your right shin, from your knee down to your ankle. Repeat on the left leg.
• Calf roll: Start by sitting on the floor with your knees bent to your chest. Extend your right leg and place the foam roller under your right calf. Roll the entire area from your Achilles tendon to the back of your knee by supporting yourself on both hands and left foot while lifting your buttocks off the floor.
Rotate your hip inward and outward to reach the inner and outer areas of your calves. Remaining stationary, you can also rotate your calf from side to side. Alternatively, you can keep both legs outstretched on the roller, with one foot crossed over the other. This will allow you to exert more pressure. Repeat on the left leg.
• Outer leg roll: Sit on the floor and place the foam roller under your knees. Bend your left leg, keeping your right leg extended. Support yourself on your arms and left leg, and lift your buttocks off the floor to roll your extended leg back and forth across the roller. Rotate your leg outward to reach the outer side of your leg.
Addressing Tight IT Band With Foam Roller
Your IT band runs along the outside of your leg, attaches at your hip and just below and on the outside of your knee. It helps stabilize your knee joint during movement. One of the most common sports injuries, especially among runners, is IT band syndrome, which occurs when this ligament becomes tight and/or inflamed. When your IT band is tight, just about any kind of knee movement can become painful as the IT band is pulling your knee out of alignment.
A foam roller can be very helpful for lengthening your IT band. The Runners World video above demonstrates how. If your IT band is very tight and painful and your core is also weak, you may find the IT band roll to be a challenge, as it requires stabilizing and balancing yourself on top of the foam roller. If you're working your right leg, lessen the pressure on your IT band by placing your left foot on the floor to carry some of your body weight.
A Full-Body Roll Out Routine
In this video, Los Angeles-based personal trainer Ashley Borden demonstrates a full-body roll out routine, covering:
✓ IT band
✓ Tensor fascia latae (TFL)
✓ Inner thigh
✓ Upper back
✓ Latissimus dorsi (lats)
Foam Rolling Fixes for Common Pains
If a certain area of your body is causing you pain or discomfort, consider buying a foam roller and using it daily. You'll experience far better and more long-lasting results if you're working the area a little bit each day, opposed to getting one therapy session (be it massage, chiropractic or other therapy) once a week or every other week. Following are four common pains that foam rolling can help alleviate:
- Low back pain: To address low back pain, you'll want to roll your hips, hamstrings, glutes and/or IT band.6 Do not roll your lower back directly, as this will cause your spinal muscles to contract. This is a natural self-defense mechanism to protect your spine, so never roll below the lower portion of your rib cage. Demonstrations of the hip, hamstring, glute and IT band roll can be found in Borden's and Rodriguez's videos.
- Upper back pain: Rolling the tight muscles in your upper back is fine, and can help relieve pain and stiffness. Place the foam roller behind your upper back, and slowly roll from the lower portion of your rib cage to your shoulders. Pressure can be increased or lessened by raising or lowering your buttocks off the floor. Be sure to keep your head and neck comfortably aligned and relaxed by interlacing your fingers behind your head. Avoid lifting your head as you roll.
- Neck pain: Lie on your back on the floor with the foam roller under your neck. Gently turn your head from side to side. You want the roller to be just high enough to where this motion massages the lower portion of your skull where muscles tend to be tight. To reach your traps, push your body up a bit and lean to one side, to where the roller is pushing against your traps. Using your legs, gently rock back and forth and up and down to massage and loosen tightness in this area.
- Knee pain: If you have knee pain due to an overly tight IT band — the tendon that runs along the outside of your thigh — rolling your IT band may not be enough. Rolling the inside of your thigh is often a better option that may help reduce inflammation in muscles that pull on your knee joint. This position can be a bit challenging, but Borden does a good job of demonstrating and explaining it in her video above.