Posted: March 30, 2021 at 9:23 am

Most of the people I work with want to improve their mobility. I remember seeing a poll on Facebook in the BJJ community a few years ago targeted at the 40+ crowd, and it was asking what physical quality do you wish you still had now that you had in your 20’s – overwhelming the answer was mobility. If we are going to talk about mobility then it is helpful to start by establishing parameters / vocabulary so that we’re all on the same page. After we get on the same page for this, then I’ll dive into how/why I think foam rolling is helpful. But first, here are a few things that I think are worth establishing:

  • Range of Motion or “ROM” – essentially the amount of motion a particular joint has without eliciting unwanted movement / compensation from other joints
  • Active vs. Passive ROM
    • Passive ROM is the amount of ROM your joint can be taken through when assisted by a training partner or by gravity. Imagine laying down on your back and your training partner lifts one of your legs up for you into a hamstring stretch; because your partner does the lifting for you this is “passive”
    • Active ROM is similar to the above but now you are using your strength to achieve the range. Imagine the same stretch as above, but now you lift your own leg there instead of your partner doing it for you; this is “active”
      • Typically, improving ACTIVE ROM is the end goal of a mobility program – you want to improve ROM and you want to be able to CONTROL IT. However, in the vast majority of cases your active ROM will be limited by your passive ROM, so it is helpful to work on both
  • Suppleness
    • Many people familiar with Kelly Starrett know his famous book Supple Leopard, and I am shamelessly stealing this term from him 🙂 My interpretation of this is how smoothly and effortlessly you can move through your ROM, ideally with no prep work needed. It is helpful to use an example here:
      • Person A can touch their toes, but needs to move really slowly from a standing position and carefully descend inch by inch to get there
      • Person B can also touch their toes, and can drop right into it quickly and smoothly without a care in the world
      • Who is more “supple?” I think we can all agree that Person B is more supple. In spite of having the same actual ROM, they get there more smoothly and with less effort, and that is an important distinction to make.

OK, so let’s dive into this a little farther. Our goals of a mobility program are to:

1. Increase Active ROM (the amount of motion you have CONTROL over)

2. Increase suppleness, so you can move smoothly and seamlessly into your positions (most people with a large Active ROM are pretty supple, but this isn’t guaranteed).

So where does foam rolling come in?

Foam rolling is one of my favorite methods for decreasing unwanted “tone” in muscles. No, I don’t mean “tone” like your “long, lean, toned muscles” that certain magazines and studios say their workouts will give you. I mean “tone” in the sense that your muscles are always maintaining a certain amount of tension – if they weren’t you’d just fall over and collapse – but in many people our baseline tone at rest is excessive and is hindering our mobility in all forms (suppleness, passive ROM, and active ROM). Additionally, if our muscles are holding excessive tone, they will be less receptive to any other forms of mobility training that we plan to do, and if you are trying to strength train then your muscles will be less supple as you move into and out of position for your lifts. So, the message here is that step one of working on any aspect of your mobility is to try and decrease unwanted muscle tone – and foam rolling can be great for that.

Back in 2016 we hosted our friend Dr. Mark Cheng for a workshop at Industrial Strength, and some of the lessons from that workshop have a profound impact on our approach today. One of my favorite lessons from his workshop is that in a perfect world your muscle tissue should be able to receive a fair bit of pressure without it being too uncomfortable; however if you’re holding excessive tension / too much tone, then that pressure is going to feel “spicy” (his words 🙂 ) Foam rolling can help identify areas that are “spicy” and give you the chance to work through that tension, resulting in less tone and a more supple muscle. So, applying pressure to a muscle group is a technique we use to both identify excessive tension and help alleviate it – and the foam roller is the tool we use for this job (or a lacrosse ball, or some other nifty item that falls into this category).

In order to be successful this process shouldn’t be rushed – you will probably identify your spicy spots almost immediately, but in order to actually reduce tone you need to have some patience. Expect that it will take 1-3 minutes on a particular spot or region to actually feel it relax and desensitize to a significant degree. You also need to make sure you are trying to relax overall, including your breathing as well as your muscle tone in other areas … if you are holding your breath and clenching your fists I have doubts about how effective your foam rolling is going to be. So when you foam roll, spend a solid couple minutes on a particular muscle group, relax and breath, and patiently “wait it out” until you feel a noticeable decrease in spiciness / muscle tone.

Before wrapping up, it is a good idea to also manage expectations about what foam rolling will NOT do. In my opinion, foam rolling is analogous to using primer before painting. If you only primed and never followed up with paint, then your walls would look kind of ridiculous. However, if you only paint and didn’t prime first, your paint won’t “take” as well. The ideal combination here is to prime then paint. Foam rolling is your primer, and other mobility techniques (static stretching, PAILs / RAILs, end range isometrics, full ROM strength training) are the paint you apply on top. Manage your expectations: if you only foam roll and don’t follow it up with other work, you are probably not going to get much of anywhere, and especially will not get long term progress. However, if you thoughtfully include foam rolling BEFORE your other training, it can help your muscles be more receptive to what comes next, and the training will “stick” better in the same way that paint takes to the primer.

-Tony Gracia

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