I wanted to get your opinion about rolling out the IT band with a firm roller. My understanding is that you can certainly massage and gently stretch the IT band, but it is supposed to be taut because it helps to support the lateral leg muscles. People feel a difference between the IT band and the quad muscles. They assume they need to loosen this up. So maybe there are no adhesions, but what they are feeling is the normal tension of the tissue. I think it is ok to roll it out gently, but not to push it. What do you think?
Thanks for the email. This is a great question. I’ve had it in mind to address this question for a few weeks now.
In the past few weeks a couple of different articles on foam rolling have been posted online with different opinions on the benefits of foam roller therapy.
In the first article, Stop foam rolling your IT Band, the author, Greg Lehman, is a bit critical of foam rolling the IT Band. He makes the argument that there is very little benefit to rolling the IT band due to the fact that it is dense connective tissue with limited ability to be lengthened or change.
In the second article, Is Foam Rolling Bad for You?, Michael Boyle defends foam rolling and makes an excellent case of the benefits on foam roller therapy.
I agree with completely with Michael Boyle’s article. I find foam roller therapy to be hugely beneficial to healing, recovery, and injury prevention. I also agree a little bit with Greg Lehman about the futility of foam rolling the IT Band.
Here is my take:
Most people spend way to much time rolling their IT Band at the neglect of the other and more beneficial areas of their legs, hips, and shoulders.
The IT Band is white, tendinous fascial tissue, which means it receives less blood flow and has less ability to release compared to muscle tissue such as the glutes. The IT Band attaches directly to the gluteals and tensor fascia latae (TFL), the tension in the gluteals and TFL pull through the IT Band down to the knee and ankle. Most pain that is felt in the IT Band, outside of knee (runner’s knee), and ankle is actually located in the gluteals, TFL, and adductors. Adhesions do form in the IT Band, especially closer to the knee. However, in my experience as a therapist, I find the majority of adhesions which affect the IT Band are located in the dense tissue of the gluteals and TFL. Most people have minimal adhesions directly within the IT Band itself.
How this translates with foam rolling: When you roll the IT Band and neglect the adductors, glutes, and TFL, you will only get temporary relief, not lasting change. As soon as you stand up, the restrictions in the adductors, glutes and TFL will once again pull through the IT Band.
You will get greater change in the IT Band tissue, increases in range of motion of the hips, and reduction of pain and discomfort by breaking down adhesions in the TFL, gluteals, and adductors. This is especially helpful for people new to foam rolling, since rolling the IT Band can be very painful. If you spend a few minutes working through the gluteals and TFL first, when you roll on the IT Band it will be significantly less painful.
I believe that if you only roll out the IT Band and neglect other areas of your body, you could be asking for trouble. By loosening up just one side of the hips and knee, the opposing sides tighten to take up the slack. This could create imbalances in your movement patterns, as well as your body’s ability to stabilize the knee and hip joints. This is the big reason why I recommend to clients that they spend equal time addressing their entire body. The goal is to bring balance to the tissue, not to only work what feels good.
Personally, I do roll out the IT Band. It feels good and I can feel the benefit. But it is an area that I spend a minimal amount of time on. If I only have a short amount of time to roll, I roll the adductors, TFL, glutes, and calves. I won’t hit the IT Band at all.
On another note, when I perform deep tissue fascial therapy on a client, I tend to focus very little time directly on the IT Band for the same reasons listed above.
Here are some articles with examples of how to perform foam roller therapy.