When it comes to myofascial self-massage, less (pressure) is more.
Beyond the element of safety precaution discussed in part 1 , it is better to default to soft tools because, as counterproductive as it seems, more pressure does not always equal more of the changes you’re seeking.
You may be surprised how effective a soft object can be against a hard or semi-hard body part. Not only can soft objects work on “stiff tissues,” but often times they work even better than hard objects.
In fact, research actually suggests that softer tools are about twice as effective as harder ones for impacting connective tissue. Rolfer and fellow YTU instructor Brooke Thomas summarizes this study well in her Breaking Muscle article Yoga Tune Up® Therapy Balls vs. Lacrosse Balls vs. Foam Rollers.
“At the Fascia Research Congress, Leonid Blyum presented a study in which he utilized engineering principals to test out how different mechanical stress transfer mediums (i.e. tools of varying hardness and softness) would affect human tissue. The result of the study showed that softer implements impacted the connective tissue about twice as effectively as the harder implements. (If you read Blyum’s study, note then when he mentions “rubber” as a hard tool, he was using hard tire rubber, not springy responsive rubber.)”
From personal experience and as evident from this study, soft myofascial release tools can work to cause desirable changes in tissues, especially when combined with movement, breath control, hydration, and other factors. Why, in this case, is less more effective?
There isn’t a consensus among researchers and professionals in this field as to how and why a lot of fascia-stuff works, but one aspect many would agree to be part of the equation is the nervous system.
The tissues we’re trying to affect are, themselves, soft. To follow the screw analogy from part two, your “stiff quadriceps” or the “tight knot” in-between your shoulder blades are more like plastic screws than metal ones. Just because they’re screwed in tightly doesn’t mean you need a super-hard steel-forged screwdriver to loosen it. Even when your muscles feel “rock hard,” remember that they’re still classified as soft tissue for a reason.
The Intruder Alert
If I punch you (I promise I won’t), you will flinch. If I pretend to punch you, you will also flinch. Even if I only poke you, or just touch you with the pointed tip of my finger, your muscles will likely tighten up. This is what I personally call the intruder alert.
Rather than pretending to understand the complicated anatomical and biomechanical science of this, I will share an anecdotal explanation that has helped me and my students understand this phenomenon in an experiential way.
Your body (via the nervous system) senses that there is an abnormal presence, a foreign object entering the premises, so it attempts to fortify its defense systems, so to speak. For example, if you’re about to be hit in the gut: you want your abdominal muscles to harden so they can protect your internal organs from the incoming object.
When you’re being massaged, something similar happens. Sometimes, when you’re not expecting to be touched, it’s the fast-twitch knee-jerk reaction of someone being punched, a visible intruder alert like slamming the door when you see an invader coming.
Often times, however, it’s not such a dramatic response, but more like the door is already closed and you lock to door to make sure it stays closed. This is more like what happens when you’re poked or massaged with too much force.
Whether by an instrument of your choosing or someone else’s hands/elbows/feet/etc, when something presses against your body, your nervous system responds. In order for our tissues to yield to foreign objects, there cannot be muscular bracing, whereby the signals from the nervous system prevent the muscle from relaxing, or even cause muscular contraction, as a defense mechanism.
In essence, soft tools are more likely to signal to the body something like “Okay this feels good and is not too invasive… our nerves don’t seem like they’re in danger of being pinched… our muscles don’t feel like they’re going to be bruised… alright let’s open the doors and let our guests in…” This is what happens when the parasympathic (aka rest and digest) part of our nervous system is dominant.
It’s like deciding whether or not to let a guest into your home when they’re standing at the door. A “BANG! BANG! BANG! Let me in!” isn’t likely to receive a warm welcome. Rather, it activates the sympathetic (aka fight or flight) part of the nervous system.
A friendly and polite knock is much more likely to get your foot in the door.
- Soft tools can work for a relaxing self massage.
- Hard tools can be counter-productive by causing the body to tense up.