Getting More out of Foam Rolling: Breaking down the 3 S’s

By Dr. Mark Cheng

One of the things I hear people saying with some frequency when I talk about pre & post-workout restorative foam rolling is something to the effect that "Yeah, I got a foam roller because my trainer told me to use it, but it doesn't really do anything, and I don't notice any difference in how I feel." 

That means one of two things.... 1) You're foam rolling a perfectly healthy, elastic, resilient muscle that has absolutely no problems at all... OR  2) You're tensing the muscle that's in contact with the roller and you don't even know it. My money's on the latter of the two. 

According to rehab & performance experts like Functional Movement Screen inventor Gray Cook, PT, trigger points are your body's way of creating extra stability in a particular range of motion. That stability, however, takes the form of stiffness, and stiffness is pathological when it can't be turned on & off reflexively. In other words, if you have a healthy muscle, you should be able to relax it to the point where it's compressible like jello and then tense it where it's like iron. The problem arises for most of us when our muscles get stuck somewhere in the middle when we think they're relaxed. 

Imagine this... You've got an appointment with a deep tissue massage therapist who's known for great skill, but you tense your muscles during the entire massage & won't admit to it. In addition, you tell the massage therapist to hurry up so you can get on with doing something else. That doesn't exactly seem plausible, does it? But a similar sort of situation plays out with most people when they're doing trigger point work by themselves.

Think about foam rolling as a way of learning where your trigger points are. You'll never find them if you're too busy guarding them. So as you roll, it's crucial to take your time and  train your muscles to achieve deeper and deeper relaxation while on the roller. Finding a trigger point and the tenderness associated with it is momentarily unpleasant, but taking the time to work through it properly, methodically, and completely is hugely rewarding. You'll feel the difference when you get up and move, and everyone around you will see the difference in your performance.

When working on the quad rolling exercise that I covered in the first installment of the Rehab Prehab series, please keep the 3 S's (covered in this clip) in mind. Constantly checking yourself for unconscious guarding is like not stuffing yourself full with potato chips before you go to a top notch steak house. Training your body to recognize where it's been storing tension, especially in places that you might not have been aware of, is one of the first steps to productive, intelligent change. After a heavy squat day, lots of lunges, or even a long hike, the quad rolling can help move some of you out of pain, unlock some of the athleticism that's been lying dormant inside of you, and improve your post-workout recovery.

Watch this clip, study the 3 S concept in detail, and then apply it diligently. Your body will thank you for it!

Read part one and part three of this series!


Dr. Mark Cheng, L.Ac., Ph.D., Sr SFG Instructor, FMS faculty, TRX Sports Med, & Tai Cheng creator.

Dr. Cheng is a speaker/lecturer on optimum human performance & orthopedic medicine through the lenses of Pavel Tsatsouline's kettlebell training methods, FMS Functional Movement patterning, TRX Sports Medicine rehabilitative & strength training, traditional martial arts/combative systems, & Chinese manual medicine.

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