Tension-Busting Self Massage Techniques to Restore + Rebalance Your Body
May 02, 2019
This is a guest post written by Holly Hicks. Holly Hicks has over 20 years’ experience working as an elite sports and remedial massage practitioner and stretch therapy coach. Holly hopes to inspire you to take better care of yourself so you may inspire others to take better care of themselves, with simple, practical strategies and techniques you can easily implement at home or work. Get in touch email@example.com or through ‘Fluid Movement and Wellbeing’ on Facebook.
What is Self Massage?
Self massage (or self myofascial release SMFR) is a brilliant way to relieve common muscular aches and pains that can cause headaches, neck pain, back pain, as well as many other muscular related conditions.
By applying a gentle force or pressure directly onto the soft tissues (muscles, fascia), we can stimulate a neural response to help remind the tissue of its normal resting tension.
Used regularly, SMFR assists recovery, promotes improved mobility, flexibility and pliability of the tissues (including muscles) by softening and relaxing excessively tight or overly tense muscles and fascia (connective tissue).
During one of my regular live training sessions recently, a (very articulate) student of my Restore+Rebalance stretch program described the problems with our modern day lifestyle perfectly. She said…
“We have designed an environment that encourages us to move as little as possible, and in very rigid ways.”
I couldn’t have put it better myself.
The pain of modern life
Our modern, sedentary lifestyle breeds muscular aches and pains purely due to the lack of movement required on a day to day basis for healthy bones, muscles, joints combined with rigid (often seated) positions for sustained periods of time.
While we might not think anything of it, being in any one position for an extended period of time uses a lot of energy and puts undue pressure on our soft tissues.
This can force them to behave more like our skeleton, providing framework and structure, rather than providing movement.
Aches and pains begin to creep in, often subtle, and can easily be brushed off.
But these seemingly ‘little niggles’ or ‘annoyances’ are signs your body is trying to send you a message; something isn’t right. Something needs to change.
SMFR is an easy, inexpensive, convenient and quick way to tackle those niggles to help restore and rebalance your body, before it starts screaming at you!
As an elite sports + remedial massage practitioner + stretch therapy coach, I recommend my clients + students use SMFR to complement their massage or stretch sessions. In doing so, it helps them prolong the benefits and manages their typical muscular aches and pains in between treatments.
If you’re new to SMFR, there are two key tools I highly recommend for your at-home self-care kit. Even better, you get started for under $60. Here are my two fav must-have’s:
1 x Foam roller
2 x Trigger Balls
So, how do you choose the right tool for the job? Let’s take a look…
Although these staple SMFR devices have evolved in many ways in recent years, I prefer the smooth, long, full round version.
They are incredibly versatile, great to attack broader areas (like your ITB – outside of your thigh – for example) and can also be used for joint mobility (think: back bend over the roller) as well as direct self-massage.
I recommend staying away from the rollers with lumps, spikes or other torture like features as the pain from those lumps distracts from getting a good release. If you travel a lot, go for the smaller, full round version for easier packing.
These would have to be my #1 all-time favourite self-massage tools. They’re dense but with a little bit of give; they will happily take your full body weight without busting (unlike tennis balls) and are perfect for targeting smaller, more specific areas with laser-like precision.
The size of a tennis ball, Trigger Balls are very portable and easy to take anywhere with you. For maximum versatility, I recommend grabbing two of them so you can use them tied together in a sock or individually. See video below.
Similar to the foam roller example, I prefer these to spikey massage balls as the spikes can be distracting (sometimes painful), rendering you unable to apply maximum weight or pressure over the area you’re trying to relieve and spikes don’t target specific spots any more effectively than a Trigger Ball.
Slow, steady + targeted makes for happy tissues
Soft tissues don't respond well to being ‘smashed’ about. Instead, they tend to tense up to guard and protect the area being ‘smashed’. This is the complete opposite effect to what we’re after from a self-massage session.
Instead, follow these principles to safely, effectively and efficiently relieve tight, tense to restricted tissues:
#1 - Go slow
Too fast and you’re simply skimming skin-deep across the surface. You can also potentially miss the signals your body is giving you about areas you may be damaging or areas you may need to spend more time on.
#2 - Apply as much weight or pressure as you can bear
Too hard and you’ll tense up. General rule of thumb; apply as much weight or pressure as you can comfortable handle – if you're tensing up, trying to claw away or can't breathe, it's too much. Back it off and go again.
#3 - Build the pressure
Start light and as the area you’re working on begins to desensitise (feels less tender), go deeper. Go back to #2 as often as you need to.
#4- Focus on the soft tissues (i.e. muscles + fascia)
Bones and joints don’t like being rolled over (and it bloody hurts!), so take your weight off to go over a joint or bone, then get back on it to focus on the soft stuff.
#5 - Hang about
When you come across an especially tight or tender area, stay there for a few breaths. Don’t be scared of the discomfort. Back off the pressure if you need to but give it 30-45 seconds to see if the discomfort dissipates. Still there after 45 seconds or so? Move onto another area and come back to it later.
#6 - Breathe
Sounds obvious but it’s surprising how many of us hold our breathe when using balls or rollers! Holding ou breathe makes our body tense – the opposite to what we’re trying to achieve.
If you find yourself holding your breath during a release, first, take a big deep breath in and out. As you breathe out, focus on relaxing the areas you’re holding tense. If you still find you’re holding your breath, back off a bit and go in again. Slower, this time.
#7 - Use supports
Use bolsters, cushions, pillows, squishy chi balls or whatever you can to support the area you’re trying to release.
#8 - Use a firm, flat surface
A mattress or bed isn’t a good idea (too soft + will absorb too much pressure). Grab your mat and roll on the carpet, floor or wall instead.
#9 - Remember, everyone is different
There’s no set length of time to spend rolling. I find spending a couple of minutes on each area long enough to be beneficial and not to feel sore by the end of the session.
I also find working the ‘bad side’ (if there’s a left + right side) at least twice, alternating with the ‘good side’. If the ‘bad side’ is particularly tender, try working the ‘good side’ first – this helps the brain understand the body is ‘safe’ and not under threat and is less likely to initiate its tightening, protective mechanisms when working the ‘bad side’.
#10 - Look around
You may need to release other areas before getting to the area you feel like you want to release.
*BONUS* #11 - Hydrate
SMFR increases hydration of the fascia (connective tissue), improving flexibility + mobility – so drink up and roll!
Lunch time rolls
Many workplaces today are getting on board and supporting employee health + wellbeing. If you’re one of the lucky ones to have a space at work for a little lunchtime self-care, request a couple of foam rollers and trigger balls for your workplace wellbeing space.
Even better, get your colleagues involved and have a good roll around the floor together at lunchtime! There’s no better way to get to know your work mates!
One of the best ways to enhance and prolong the benefits of self-massage (and massage treatments) is to implement a consistent stretching regime – and stick to it.
For more on self-care, self-massage, or stretching join me on Facebook (search ‘Fluid Movement and Wellbeing’) every Tuesday at 12:30pm (QLD time) for a FREE live where we chat about everything self-care.