Foam Roller on the IT Band – Waste of Time?

Hi Jesse,

The tensor fascia latae and gluteus maximus muscles feed into the IT band.I wanted to get your opinion about using the foam roller on 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,

My Response

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 using a foam roller on the IT Band have been posted online with different opinions on the benefits of foam roller self massage therapy.

Foam Roller on The IT BandIn the first article, Stop foam rolling your IT Band, the author, Greg Lehman, is a bit critical of using the foam roller on the IT Band. He makes a good 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 the use of a foam roller on the IT Band and makes an excellent case of the benefits on foam roller massage therapy.

I agree with completely with Michael Boyle’s article. I find foam roller massage therapy to be hugely beneficial to healing, recovery, and injury prevention. I also agree a little bit with Greg Lehman about the futility of using a foam roller on the IT Band.

Here is my take:

Most people spend way to much time with a foam roller on the 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 is also incredibly strong. I’ve heard awesome anatomist and movement therapist, Kathy Dooley, say that if you connected the IT Band behind two trucks moving in opposite directions, it wouldn’t stretch or tear. If the power of two trucks won’t change this tissue, a foam roller on the IT Band probably won’t change it much either.

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 more than likely caused by dysfunction in the muslces 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 movement 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 using a foam roller on the IT Band

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.

Trigger point referral patterns down leg due to dysfunction in the hip muscles.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 using a foam roller, 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 occasionally use a foam roller on 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.

Something to note: If you are using a foam roller on your IT Band to treat a painful condition, but you get only temporary relief and the pain continues to come back, then the IT Band is not the problem. In this case, I highly recommend seeking the help of a highly skilled movement therapist who can assess movement dysfunction and develop a personalized exercise program specific to your needs.

On another note, when I perform deep tissue massage therapy on a client, I rarely focus any time directly on the IT Band for the same reasons listed above.

 

The Grid foam roller by Trigger Point Therapy - for self massage therapy
This is the foam roller I recommend most: The Grid by Trigger Point Therapy

 

Here are some articles with examples of how to perform foam roller therapy.

Foam Roller Massage Therapy For Beginners

Plantar Fasciitis Self Treatment for Fast Relief 

Sciatic Pain Tips for Low Back Pain Relief 

 

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Foam Roller Massage Therapy For Beginners

It is estimated that over 116 million Americans suffer from debilitating chronic pain each year, of which low back pain is the most common. According to The American Academy of Pain Medicine, “Back pain is the leading cause of disability in Americans under 45 years old.  More than 26 million Americans between the ages of 20-64 experience frequent back pain.” There is a proven and effective way to treat most forms of chronic pain — self-myofascial release using foam roller massage therapy.By performing self-myofascial release techniques using a foam roller or ball, you can reduce trigger points, decrease tissue tension, and break down scar tissue adhesions in injured myofascial tissue (muscle and fascia) formed by a combination of acute trauma, poor posture, repetitive movement, over-training, or inadequate sleep. The goal of self-myofascial release is to speed up the healing and recovery process, reduce pain, improve joint range of motion, balance the body, and prevent injury.How does self-myofascial release work?Fascia is a three-dimensional fibrous matrix interconnected throughout the body from the top of the head to the bottom of the feet.  Fascia surrounds muscles, bones, and joints providing the body structural integrity and strength. Dysfunctional fascia is a leading cause of chronic pain, reduced flexibility, and decreased athletic performance.Located within the muscle and tendon tissue are two sensory receptors called the muscle spindle and the golgi tendon organ.  These sensory receptors monitor muscular and tendon tension from the surrounding tissue and relates it to your nervous system. They are highly sensitive to changes in muscle tension and rate of change. Stimulation of the golgi tendon organ leads to a decrease in soft tissue tension.Placing pressure directly on tight or overly toned muscle tissue using deep tissue massage therapy or self-myofascial release techniques stimulates the golgi tendon organ to relax tension in the soft tissue.  Decreases in soft tissue tension will help break down scar tissue adhesions, increase joint mobility, reduce pain, and improve overall function.

BENEFITS OF Foam Roller Massage Therapy

  • correct muscle imbalances
  • increase joint range of motion
  • decrease muscle soreness and relieve joint stress
  • decrease tight or overly toned muscle tissue
  • increase extensibility of muscle and tendon tissue
  • increase performance
  • maintain normal functional muscular length

Self Foam Roller Release Instructions

Self-myfascial techniques are very simple to learn.  To perform self-myofascial release you will need a foam roller and a small ball (such as a golf ball, tennis ball, lacrosse ball, or softball).

In this article I will go over self massage therapy using a foam roller for beginners. This is a shorter session that should take between 30-45 minutes to complete. The goal of this session is to begin to unlock the hips and shoulders. After you have spent a few weeks and feel more comfortable with self-myofascial release therapy, there is an intermediate and advanced session that I teach.

Following the directions in the pictures below, place your body weight on the foam roller over taut bands of muscle tissue that need to be released. For the best results, begin near the center of the body and slowly work away from the center of the body.

Relax your body, breathe, and slowly roll through the length of the muscle. Your muscles will naturally tense up, especially when you hit a trigger point.  Ease into it and allow yourself to relax.

If you find a painful spot, stop and visualize the soft tissue as melting butter and the foam roller as a hot knife. Allow pressure into the tissue and within 30-60 seconds you will notice a significant reduction in pain. Once the pain reduces significantly (20-30%), move on to the next painful spot and repeat.

Spend between 3-5 minutes on each side. It is very important that you spend an equal amount of time on both sides and that you work through each of the areas listed to gain the most out of self-myofascial release.

Beginners Session Pictures
Arches

Using a golf ball to release the plantar fascia - self massage using a foam roller and ball
Use a small ball, such as a golf ball.
Adductors
Place foam roller lengthwise to your body. Bend your knee to 90 degrees with your inner thigh on the foam roller.
Place foam roller lengthwise to your body. Bend your knee to 90 degrees with your inner thigh on the foam roller.
Slowly massage out to the knee seeking out the most painful spots - Foam roller at inner thigh
Slowly massage out to the knee seeking out the most painful spots.

Tensor Fascia Latte

Place foam roller beneath the top of the hip bone. Lie with one hip on the roller. Opposite hip is off the foam roller.
Place foam roller beneath the top of the hip bone. Lie with one hip on the roller. Opposite hip is off the foam roller.
With foam roller on front of hip, massage from the hip bone to the top of the thigh. Slowly rotate your opposite hip up towards the ceiling.
Massage from the hip bone to the top of the thigh. Slowly rotate your opposite hip up towards the ceiling.
Gluteals
Sit on the foam roller. Turn your body to one side. Massage through the entire gluteal area from the crack of your butt to the outside of your hip, top of the pelvis to the top of the thigh.
Sit on the foam roller. Turn your body to one side. Massage through the entire gluteal area from the crack of your butt to the outside of your hip, top of the pelvis to the top of the thigh.
Teres Minor
Placing the foam roller at the armpit. Lie on your side with your arm overhead. Slowly massage from the top of the arm to below the shoulder blade. Do not massage in the armpit area.
Placing the foam roller at the armpit. Lie on your side with your arm overhead. Slowly massage from the top of the arm to below the shoulder blade. Do not massage in the armpit area.
Upper Back
Place foam roller at on upper back. Massage from the top of the shoulders to the bottom of the rib cage. Roll your body 10 degrees to massage the spinal erectors (muscles that run parallel to the spine).
Place foam roller at on upper back. Massage from the top of the shoulders to the bottom of the rib cage. Roll your body 10 degrees to massage the spinal erectors (muscles that run parallel to the spine).
With foam roller on upper back, changing arm position will expose different muscles around the shoulder blade.
With foam roller on upper back, changing arm position will expose different muscles around the shoulder blade.

Other areas you can roll out are the calves, IT band (outside of thigh), quads (front of thigh), chest, and shoulders.

The first couple of weeks of foam roller therapy will be painful. It is important to be diligent and commit to doing it every day for two weeks, because the payoff is well worth it. If you use the foam roller every day, within a couple of weeks you will begin to notice not only does the exercise not hurt as much, it will begin to feel good and you will be on the path to feeling great.  Over time the muscle and fascial tissues heal, improving flexibility, function, and performance providing chronic pain relief and injury prevention.

When to foam roll?

  • When you hurt
  • Before you exercise
  • After you exercise
  • In the morning
  • Before bed
  • While watching TV
  • Just about any time is a good time

Self massage therapy on a foam roller offers an effective, inexpensive, and convenient way to reduce muscle tension and reduce scar tissue adhesion. Self-myofascial release can help you get relief and recovery from chronic pain and injury, improve athletic and work performance, and help you reach your health and fitness goals.

The Grid foam roller from Trigger Point Therapy

This is the foam roller I recommend: The Grid by Trigger Point Therapy

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