What a Foam Roller Doesn’t Do

I want to say upfront, rather than at the end, that this post is not about saying self-massage tools aren’t useful. It sure seems like they can be. And I personally love and benefit from playing around on a roller or smooshing my foot on a tennis ball.

But it’s just not true that all that’s happening — or even what’s primarily useful — in a bodywork session is what’s being emulated by these tools: that is, the movement of the receiver’s tissue in a particular way.

(Is that ☝️ important? Of course. I’m not advocating that what a practitioner actually does — whether she shifts your sphenoid this way or that — doesn’t matter. It does.)

But here’s what’s not illustrated with self-release tools ...

1. the patient-practitioner connection (which, as I understand it, is part of what’s ascribed to the placebo affect of any clinical trial of, say, acupuncture).

2. the (bio) electric exchange between practitioner and patient. (Yes, some self help tools use electricity but let’s leave those out for now.)

For a super interesting read on this topic, google “the electricity of touch william tiller”; thanks to David at the AMN Academy for turning me onto this topic (via an interview I gave a couple weeks ago, coming out in a bit); I’m current a bit obsessed.

3. how long-game soft tissue (fascia and friends, as opposed to “short-game” shifts more in the neurology controlling muscle tonus) actually changes length. I won’t try to going to any great detail on this particular post, but the gist of it seems to be there is part of that change we could say is purely mechanical, but only part; the other part relies on a responsive nervous system, and particular the aspect of the nervous system that’s deep, surveying the landscape for danger, regulating your breathing and heart rate, etc. It’s not very whimsical with changing its long-term strategies.

If you could permanently change the shape of of the bottom of your foot with the amount of compression you get from stepping only a lacrosse ball, then every step you take — where you have 3x that amount of weight — should by that logic deform the bottom of your feet permanently. But it doesn’t. Same with foam rolling your bum can create some change, but sitting on your bum all day isn’t a “gluteal release.” Weird eh? Again, rolly balls are great, let’s just know it’s something more / different mechanics than “you smash your fascia so that it changes.”

Thanks for tuning in. As you may have noticed, I am largely out of the conversation around posture and bio mechanics; my interest lately is much more about emotions and relationships. But if I see one more ad that claims this or that roller is just like a massage ...


*one last note: two of these benefits of touch — relationship, bioelectrical exchange  — are most certainly not relegated to the world of bodywork or paid work of any kind. It’s availake to all of us if we have the gift of at least one friend with whom we feel safe to exchange loving touch. (Even something as simple as resting your hands on a friend’s back — not spacing out but with a present, loving intent — can do wonders for regulating their system. And maybe yours too.)