This 10-Minute Self-Massage Routine Will Make You Feel Much Better
Becoming a homebody doesn’t have to hurt. Here’s how to soothe stiff, achy muscles in minutes a day.
If you’ve been trying to stretch the kinks out of your work-from-home body but are still feeling tight and achy, there’s something else you can try: self-myofascial release (SMFR).
Self-myofascial release, aka self-massage, is a physical therapy technique that involves applying pressure to muscles and fascia — the connective tissue that surrounds and supports every organ, blood vessel, bone, nerve, and muscle — using your hands or tools like therapy balls and foam rollers. Research shows SMFR can decrease pain and increase flexibility and range of motion.
Experts are still trying to figure out exactly how it works. It’s possible SMFR increases blood flow and circulation, breaks down scar tissue and muscle adhesions, and/or overrides pain signals. Whatever the reason, one thing is certain: It feels damn good.
“Self-massage is very relaxing,” says Jill Miller, C-IAYT, ERYT, co-founder of Tune Up Fitness Worldwide. “It increases a feeling of general well-being.” And the results are immediate. Best of all, you don’t need to be an anatomy expert to reap the benefits. “This is therapy that you can administer to yourself at no cost anytime you need it,” says Miller. Here’s how.
What you need
For the best results, you’ll want to use a yoga block (or stack of books) and a couple of therapy balls or a foam roller. If you don’t have either of the latter, a rolled-up yoga mat, rolling pin, tennis balls, or balled up socks wrapped in duct tape can make a good substitute. One thing to know: Harder isn’t necessarily better. In fact, it can be counterproductive if it causes your muscles to tense up instead of relax, Miller says. “It doesn’t have to hurt to work.”
For exercises (like the vagus nerve work below) that require a larger, softer ball, Miller recommends using a rolled-up towel or a round, slightly firm throw pillow.
Experts are still trying to figure out exactly how it works. Whatever the reason, one thing is certain: It feels damn good.
How to do it
To begin, position a ball against a body part that’s achy or near (but not on) a joint that’s giving you trouble. Without a clinical assessment, it’s best to avoid applying pressure directly to the joint because you could worsen the potential injury, says Miller. But rolling higher than, lower than, or next to an area that is inflamed or painful can be helpful. “The rolling acts like a suction force, drawing fluids away from the swollen area, which is helpful for healing as it decreases pain and sensitization in an injured area without ever directly touching it,” says Miller.
If your neck is tight, lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor, and place two therapy balls under the base of your skull and on top of a yoga block or stack of books. Spending hours hunched over your computer or phone forces your neck to support the forward position of your (relatively heavy) head, and lying in this position, with the therapy balls supporting that weight, can help release tension. After taking a few deep breaths, start slowly nodding your head up and down and then side to side. Next, look to the right and move your head in small circles, massaging the muscles behind your ears that can cause headaches when they’re tight. Look to the left and repeat. See below for the full routine.
If your shoulders are tight, the extensor muscles that run down the back of your neck and into your shoulders may be to blame; they lengthen and weaken when you spend too much time sitting with your head bent toward a computer screen. To target them, lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor and place one therapy ball on each trapezius muscle (the meaty space between your spine and shoulder joint). Tightening your core, lift your hips off the ground and slowly sweep your arms straight up and then behind your head. From here, shift your weight from side to side, extending your right arm away from your body and then your left. You can also do this standing against a wall with one ball. See below for both versions.
If your lower back is tight, sit on the ground with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor and place two therapy balls in the middle of your lower back on either side of your spine. With your forearms on the floor, slowly roll the balls up and down your back a few inches from your rib cage to your pelvis. Next, place the balls on either side of your waist above your left hip, and lay down so that the outside of your left thigh, your right foot, and both shoulders are flat against the floor, and your shoulders are flat on the ground. Take deep breaths, expanding your belly with each inhale so that your waist presses into the therapy balls. After a few reps, exhale and contract your core so that you do a mini side bend into the balls, and then inhale and lengthen. Repeat a few times, and then do the same sequence on your right side. See below for the full routine and modifications.
If your hips and glutes are tight, lie on the floor with the outside of your right thigh, your left foot, and both shoulders are flat against the floor. Place two therapy balls stacked one on top of the other on the outside of your glutes. Breathing deeply, slowly roll the balls toward the midline of your body and then back out. After a few reps, return to the starting position. Inhale, contract your glutes against the balls, and then exhale and release. Move the balls to a new spot on your glutes and repeat, working the entire glute muscle. Switch to your left side and repeat. See below for the full routine.
If your feet are tight, there can be lots of potential causes, including muscles and fascia that have grown lazy from only trodding over the same flat terrain of your home. “One of the gifts of using a therapy ball is that it can reshape and mobilize all those joints in your feet that are limited by not having forces push up into the bones,” says Miller. Stand up straight next to a wall or chair for support and place two therapy balls horizontally under the ball of your left foot. Pressing into the balls, roll them from toes to heel and back again. Repeat a few times, then switch feet. Next, place one ball under your right foot and roll it from side to side, slowly moving it from toes to heel and back again. Switch feet. See below for the full routine.
If your hands are tight, your fingers and wrists may be getting overworked from too much typing and texting. “It’s really important to clear those gutters on a regular basis,” says Miller. “I do hand massage every day.” Standing up, place a therapy ball under the spot where your right thumb meets your palm and the ball against a flat surface like a table. With your left hand over your right hand, take some deep breaths and press your hand into the ball and pivot it from side to side like you’re trying to juice an orange. Remove your left hand and roll the ball between your left thumb and pointer finger so that the fingers are pointing toward the table. Continue to breathe deeply and press into the ball. Lastly, place the ball under your right hand and roll the ball all around your palm, using your left hand on top of your right again for added pressure. Switch hands and repeat. See below for the full routine.
If you’re stressed, stimulate the vagus nerve, the longest, largest, and most complex cranial nerve. “It excites the parts of your body that are in charge of recovery, regeneration, replenishment, renewal, and restoration,” says Miller. One way to work the vagus nerve is to lie on your left side with a soft, volleyball-sized ball directly under your ribs, your head resting on a yoga block, and your right hand on the right side of your rib cage. Take a deep inhale so that you can feel your ribs expand into the ball. Holding your breath, contract the muscles within your rib cage, then exhale and release. Repeat a few times, and then switch sides. See below for the full routine.
If you aren’t sure what’s causing your pain or you just want to do some maintenance rolling, you can start anywhere. Pressing on normal, healthy muscle tissue shouldn’t hurt, so if you hit a spot that’s tender, you know you’ve found a good place to work, says physical therapist Kelly Starrett, DPT, the co-creator (along with Miller) of the DVD set Treat While You Train: Self-Treatment Strategies for Sustainability, Adaptation and Pain-Free Performance. From there you can either press into the ball and breathe — if you can’t take a full breath, you need to reduce the pressure — or you can combine the compression with breathwork and muscle contractions for added relaxation.
“Take a four-second inhale, contract the target muscle into the ball for four seconds, then exhale and relax for eight seconds,” says Starrett. “You’re creating isometric tension, and that’s a really good way to desensitize and restore motion and blood flow into painful or stiff tissue.” The long exhale tells your nervous system to relax.
Starrett likes to roll out for about 15 minutes each night before bed, but what works best for you may be different. SMFR can be great first thing in the morning, before and/or after a workout, or — especially during sheltering-in-place — sprinkled throughout the day.
“We are so spun out on fear, and our individual absorption of those fears can show up in bizarre symptoms,” says Miller. “The best way to combat that is to do self-care at multiple intervals throughout the day to stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system. I call it turning on your off switch.” We call it heaven.