Rubber, Ribbed and Rubbed
Updated: Sep 21
When to use resistance bands, rollers or get a massage... Let's talk about it.
Image by Serge Bloch Instagram handle: @serge.bloch
It's hard deciding which kind of therapist to see when your body needs attention, it's bad enough you have search high and low for a clinic, then you spend a further 30 minutes on the phone to reception to discuss whether you need to see an osteopath, a physiotherapist or a massage therapist. But then, after your treatment (which you may or may not have enjoyed) you could be walking away with a page full of exercises and stretches to practise and find yourself at the counter paying for a tennis ball and a resistance band on top of a very expensive treatment as well as being told to come back next week. Do we need all of these tools? Can we do it all ourselves? What's wrong with just stretching? How many sessions is enough?
The body is incredible, it changes, adapts and functions to serves us as best it can, it keeps us safe, it supports us and it regenerates. It is working non-stop just to keep us alive and we have a tendency to ask a lot from it... without much appreciation or thanks for what it can do.
I tell my clients that rehabilitation of the body is just as important as conditioning of the body. The problem is, our bodies are outstanding at performing some incredible things, without asking for a stretch, a foam roll or even a shower afterwards so it can be confusing to give ourselves treatment when we are not in pain. However, our body's are not invincible and it is only a matter of time before it demands help in its recovery before eventually breaking down. Much like a car, it's not going to ask for an oil refill after every drive but after a while it will give you a warning light. Should you ignore that light, you can expect a broken car and a hefty bill.
Thing is though... you an replace a car.
Therapists have varying approaches in regards to warming up and cooling down the body; none of which may be wrong. Their focus may be specific to your needs and with difference approaches different opinions arise. So don't be surprised if one therapist tells you one thing and another tells you something different. They also have lots of opinions on bands and balls and rollers. I'm not here to set the record straight but to try and encourage you to think about what best serves you... and maybe save you a couple of pennies.
What each bit does (without all the sciency words)
Warming up the body is a preparing the body for the activity that you are about to perform, so no 2 warm ups will be the same: A snowboarder, an opera singer, a gymnast and a pianist will all warm up according to the demands of their profession/sport, the importance of it is priceless and can really effect their performance and longevity. Warming up can be taxing and sometimes may seem like it s a waste of time however it will bring psychological awareness to certain areas of your body, it focus' the mind, it decreases your chances of strains and sprains, it will increase your performance longevity and it will increase your performance rate. It is about activating your mind and muscles, mobilising joints and being kind to your body in the process.
Cooling down reduces delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) as well as helping to release waste product in tissues from exercise. Cooling down encourages fresh oxygen to muscles and can help decrease your heart rate efficiently improving cardiac fitness. It encourages length within muscles fibres which in turn keeps your range of motion in your joints higher, allowing for a greater ease of movement in day-to-day activities reducing injury and retaining posture. Not to forget to mention that quicker recovery will allow for faster progression.
What can we do in our Warm ups and Cool downs?
Long passive stretches are asking the muscle to "power down" and relax. Being passive it encourages gravity or a stretching aid (like bands) to do the work in increasing the stretch as the muscle fibres lengthen. This is great for cooling down. Foam rolling can have a similar effect (but not always) in relaxing tissue in the body by using the weight of the body to "roll" along a roller or ball to ease tension out of the tissue. Dynamic stretching is much more common in warming up, it is quick stretching of the muscle that isn't held or, is not held for a long period of time it can be great for joint mobilisation but, when done badly, dynamic stretching is like when you stretch a balloon out a couple of times before you blow it up. Though you may think that you've actually loosened the rubber, if you stretch too hard to fast, you can cause micro tears the latex of the balloon and it will burst as you blow it up (imagine if that were your hamstring).
You want to manipulate the tissue, generate heat in the body and stretch into areas that will push the joints into their full range so that your body moves with ease, comfort and strength however, activation is also key in a warm up. Activating the pelvic floor, glutes and abdominals before going for that 5k run is the difference between running with jelly in a mesh bag and jelly in a plastic bottle 😳. Activation can also include short repetitions of what you are about to ask the body to do e.g. playing scales on the piano or kicking the ball before a football match. Not only does this warm the body, it familiarises your body with the movement and connects the brain with the body to prepare you psychologically for what you are about to do.
So when should we pull out the toys 😏?
Bands and Straps
Resistance bands are amazing for strengthening, stretching and rehabilitation. But my favourite place to use them would be during activation in warm up or as a stand alone workout tool; around the knees during lateral walks or glute bridges are good examples. They come in a range of resistant strengths coded by colour so you can increase workload safely without weights as well as working as a great proprioceptive tool to focus on form. Stretch straps or yoga straps are not stretchy, so will aid in passive stretches when you want to deepen and go further into the stretch or when you are unable to assist stretching with your hands and want to go deeper whilst keeping form.
They come in all shapes and all sizes, they come in a range of colours, some have knobbly bits and some even vibrate so no wonder people don't know which one to buy, and again, these beauties can be used for workouts and mobility exercises, most commonly they are used for cooling down. When done well nothing beats a therapist using their forearm to release the tissues in your quads. My forearm is not knobbly, neither does it vibrate and it does a great job at releasing tension so long as the tissue is relaxed and the pressure is right. So... it's not actually about the the roller, it's how you roll. Lighter and quicker rolling sessions are good to warm up the tissues, help mobilise joints and encourage blood flow. Deeper slower rolling is brilliant for breaking down waste product and autogenic inhibition (muscle relaxation) but the kind that is telling the muscle to slow down... not get ready. So lighter, quicker rolling to warm up and deeper, slower rolling to cool down.
If you are going for a deeper session it will only work if you go slow and your muscles are relaxed so give yourself time, work slowly into the depth of the tissue and remember to breath.
Which roller do you get? Whichever one you like. I use the wooden 'Essential Rolling Pin' from Waitrose priced at £3. Works a treat.
Trigger Point Release is amazing. Again something that is only going to work on relaxed muscle and if you go slowly into the depth of the tissue. Tennis balls are good for superficial tissues like the rhomboids and traps and forearm extensors. Lacrosse balls are great for the thicker or deeper tissues like the glutes or the Tensor Fascia Late (TFL). The deeper the pressure the slower the speed so take your time, relax into the discomfort and don't forget to breath. Peanuts can be replicated by placing two tennis or lacrosse balls in a sock and tying the sock so that the balls stay together. Golf balls are great for the feet and rolling pins can work wonders in the suboccipital muscles. Balls are my preferred rolling tool for hamstrings and claves instead of foam rollers and there are softer larger balls that work really well for myofascial, abdominal and diaphragm release.
How quickly did you all go and buy one of these to never use it? Lots of my clients have purchased a percussive therapy device and found it to give instant and or/short term relief however, have retired the devise to the cupboard where it now gathers dust. As always there is a place for everything and if it works for you then it works for you. If a client tells me they have and use a percussive massage device and it helps them then I encourage them to keep using it. Vibration and Tapotement in massage is used to "wake up", prepare and activate tissue for sport and activity as well as to disperse lactic build up and prevent cramping after sport. So I do encourage percussive therapy as part of your pre-workout and yes I do encourage it for part of the cooling down process, especially after anaerobic exercise and yes... I do use a percussive device in my practise sometimes, but not all therapists would agree with me or care for them and for very valid reasons.
When, where, how long for and how often?
I would recommend adding your warm up and cool down into your workout time so if you only have 30 minutes for that run, that 30 minutes should include your warm up and cool down. How much you warm up and cool down depends on what you are preparing for and how long you are doing to be doing it, it's all relative so it is important that you check with a coach or therapist what it is you need to be doing not only to keep a healthy body but to achieve new goals and workout effectively and proficiently. A ballet dancer is going to mobilise the hips for a lot longer than a swimmer and weightlifter is going to do a lot more muscle activation than a golfer so what you do, how long you do it for and what you are hoping to achieve is important to know when approaching your warm up and cool down.
Stretching I encourage after all exercise even if it is short and you're strapped for time. Hold the stretches for at least 30 seconds, breath into the stretches and go deeper if you have time, take it slow and keep the stretch in the muscle fibre... you want to keep the stretch sensation in the muscle and out of the joint.
Foam rolling I encourage more post exercise, to get a deep effective release requires time and concentration but like stretching, you can go quicker and lighter if time is not available to you as every little helps. I would however suggest coming back to a slower and deeper session when you can.
If your exercise regime is high I suggest once a week taking an evening to have a warm bath, stretch and roll. Take the evening to get your body warm and sit in some passive stretches allowing the body to open up and release both fascial and muscular tension. I also advise rolling out the muscles slowly to give a different release and allow the body to open up through different sensations #netflixandroll.
And finally massage (of which I am a huge advocate)
Massage is a very effective way to reduce injury, relax the tissue, retain, realign and recover. It's also a brilliant way to get into the tissues that you struggle to release, a wonderful way to get deeper into the discomfort you shy away from and it's passive, so you don't have to do anything apart from lay there and relax. The massage therapist can roll, stretch and rub, (some can tap, needle and cup too).
Ultimately it doesn't have to be one or the other, you can share the load. I like to roll my own quads stretch my hamstrings and really appreciate my therapist getting into my psoas with their hands and my calves with their hands and some needles, then to target my whole posterior chain I find yoga the perfect solution.
You can go deeper and discover NormaTec, stick mobility, ice baths, TENS machines, infra-red, Gua Sha... the list keeps going alongside the arrange of hands-on therapies that are available. It takes time find your own regime and your own therapist but when you do... you'll wonder why you didn't do it in the first place.
You can do a lot of rehabilitation and recovery at home and no, you do not need to buy all of the gadgets to get the best out of your warm up and cool down. Tennis balls work a treat, tea towels instead of stretch straps are a great substitute, and rolling pins are my personal preference. If you can, take classes, buddy up and ask questions as you can learn a lot from working out with other people or just asking what works for them. Try new things and get to know your body. It's pretty magical what it does without your help so imagine what it can do with your help.