Are you looking for something different to help your clients advance in their personal training goals? Consider adding foam rollers to your training equipment. Foam rollers are ideal for personal training because they are relatively easy to use, versatile, inexpensive and portable. Stabilization, proprioception, balance, flexibility and neuromuscular re-education are areas where the rollers are best suited to help clients. The earliest use of the rollers appears to have come from Feldenkrais practitioners. Their applications for the rollers were then adapted for the rehabilitation and fitness industries.
Basic Feldenkrais Principles
Training using the Feldenkrais method is different from traditional weight training techniques. Personal trainers must follow these basic principles to successfully use the roller without risking injury to their clients. This summary is designed to introduce the reader to some basic Feldenkrais principles to ensure the correct use of the rollers.
- The exercise should be easy enough for the participant to feel successful but difficult enough to be interesting. If the exercise is too simple, the client will not be mentally focused. If it is too difficult, the client will become frustrated and may substitute motions that are not as biomechanically effective.
- Relax the non-essential muscles. Clients often focus on getting the job done versus doing it well. Clenching one’s teeth during a difficult lift and contracting the quadriceps when performing hamstring curls are examples of using excessive energy to accomplish a task. By relaxing the non-essential muscles, the body will naturally be more biomechanically effective.
- Maintain a relaxed, diaphragmatic breathing pattern. This ensures that the client is following the first two principles listed and that the abdominals are actively engaged in stabilizing the torso. The oblique muscles must stabilize the rib cage to properly engage the diaphragm for breathing.
- The unconscious brain is better equipped to handle complex tasks than the conscious brain. The task of eating an apple illustrates this principle. The conscious brain helps one pick up the apple, take a bite, chew it and swallow. The unconscious brain then controls the more complex tasks of digesting the apple and breaking it down for the body to use as energy.
For this technique of neuromuscular re-education, clients must be encouraged to sense what feels best to them, rather than to rely on detailed instructions from their personal trainer. For example, the instruction to “Lift your arm up over your head” encourages the conscious brain to place the arm in a specific position. Instructions such as “Lift your arm up as far as it feels comfortable” encourages clients to use their unconscious brain to determine the range of motion (ROM) that is best for them.
Choosing the Right Roller
The roller comes in several shapes and sizes: there is the rolled up blanket, the half roller with the flat side down, the half roller with the flat side up and then the full roller. The most commonly used size is six inches in diameter and three to four feet in length. The four-foot length supports taller clients from the pelvis to the head when they lie supine on the roller. The half roller is the six-inch roller split in half lengthwise. The personal trainer will need to work with each client to find the right combination for each exercise. If the client complains of being uncomfortable while working on the full roller, try the half roller, the rolled up blanket or padding the roller with towels where the client’s body doesn’t rest on the roller.
Intensity can also be controlled by selecting the proper surface. A rolled up blanket on a bed has minimal motion compared to a full roller on a wood floor. The firmer the surface, the faster the roller moves and the more quickly the client must react to the changes. When the roller is moving too fast for the client to control the motion, you can change the roller or put it on a softer surface such as carpeting or an exercise mat.
There are other ways to vary the intensity of the exercise in addition to choosing the type of roller or surface. Increasing the points of contact or widening the base of support by placing the hands and feet away from the roller will make the exercise easier (see Figure 1 above).
Decreasing the points of contact or decreasing the base of support by placing the hands and feet close to the roller makes the exercise more difficult (see Figure 2). Using two short rollers versus one long roller or using a large exercise ball in addition to the roller will further increase the level of skill needed to perform the exercise correctly (see Figure 3).
Explain the basic Feldenkrais principles to your client. Make sure they understand the importance of exercising at a speed and ROM where they feel no strain, no pain and where they are mindfully controlling their movements.
The client will sit at one end of the roller and lie back with the roller supporting her pelvis, spine and head. The feet and hands are first placed in a wide position to increase the base of support (see Figure 4). The personal trainer will adjust the roller as necessary if the client complains of any discomfort. As the paraspinal muscles relax, the client should reposition to allow more space between her head and pelvis.
The trainer should direct the client through the exercises without detailed demonstration to decrease the client’s use of the conscious brain for following concrete instructions. For example, ask the client to raise one arm away from the floor and to go as far as comfortable (see Figure 5). Some clients will lift their arm a few inches while others will reach over their head and touch the floor behind them. Watch what the rest of the body does as the arm is lifted. There will usually be noticeable muscle activity to help the client balance on the roller. The amount of activity needed to balance will decrease as the client progresses. Ask the client to put that arm back down on the floor and to use the opposite arm. As she alternates arms, notice the gradual increase in ROM and the ease with which she moves. Facilitate these gains by using questions to enhance the progression. Do you tend to stop breathing at a certain point of the movement? Is there a way to shift your weight and make it easier to balance? Can you feel how moving your arm moves your spine?
The client should return to the beginning position between each exercise to ensure each exercise starts with the spine in a neutral position. Ask the client to lift one leg while keeping both arms on the ground. If she drops her leg back to the ground suddenly, encourage her to try gently placing the foot back down on the floor. In any of the roller exercises, it is common for one side to feel easier than the other. In most cases, the client uses more effort and energy on the difficult side. Doing a few slow repetitions on the easy side will help her determine which muscles she uses, which muscles she doesn't use and where she shifts her weight. Ask her to repeat the exercise on the other side while trying to mirror the ease of movement she had on the first side. Typically, this involves shifting more body weight to the roller and decreasing the use of non-essential muscles.
After five to 10 minutes in this first session, instruct the client to lean to one side to roll off the roller and then to roll back so she is lying on the floor (see Figure 6). The trainer will move the roller out of the way so that the client is supine on the floor. Have her notice how much contact the entire spine has with the floor. Ask her to focus on the depth and ease of her breathing. Most clients will experience relaxed breathing with more of their spine in contact with the floor. If there is no noticeable change, this may be because one of the basic Feldenkrais principles was not followed.
The roller facilitates kinesthetic learning by acting as a magnifying glass for the movements used during the exercise. Subtle shifts in weight cause the roller to move. Because the spine is in contact with the roller, the client becomes more kinesthetically aware of the changes in the spine and the weight shifts necessary to complete the exercises. The supine exercises usually relax the erector spinae muscles so the smaller spinal muscles located closer to the spine (primarily the multifidi) can control the movements. Habitual movement patterns from things such as stress or past injuries can result in constant contractions of the erector spinae muscles. This can cause the deeper spinal muscles, especially the multifidi, to atrophy. A vicious cycle is set up where the erector spinae must compensate for decreased use of these postural muscles. This phenomenon often leads to complaints of stiffness, muscle spasms and decreased balance. Using the roller to support the erector spinae muscles against gravity helps relax these muscles. This allows us to train the deeper multifidi muscles for improved spinal stabilization, balance and flexibility.
Spinal stabilization exercises are designed to train the abdominal and spinal muscles to co-contract to stabilize the spine. In the fitness industry, these are typically exercises where the spine is statically held in a neutral position while the arms or legs move, such as with standing shoulder raises or squats. These exercises should be differentiated from abdominal crunches or spinal extension where the abdominal and spinal muscles are used as primary movers and not stabilizers.
In stabilization exercises, the abdominal muscles, including the rectus abdominis and the obliques, help stabilize the anterior portion of the spine. One theory also states that the obliques and other related muscles can exert a pull on the thoracolumbar fascia, which is located across the lower back. By pulling this fascia taut, muscles located on the front of the body can act as stabilizers for posterior portions of the lumbar spine.
The erector spinae are responsible for both extension of the spine and spinal stabilization. The erector spinae are primarily Type II fast twitch or phasic muscles designed for fast, powerful movements involving large segments of the spine. Because the erector spinae are typically used in the sitting and standing positions to support the body in an upright position, we often overuse these muscles for spinal stabilization.
The muscles located underneath the erector spinae and closer to the spine, including the multifidi, are Type I slow twitch or tonic muscles, which are better suited for finely tuned movements using smaller segments of the spine. These types of movements are necessary for biomechanically effective spinal stabilization, balance and flexibility. Because of the predominance of Type I muscle fibers and their line of pull, the primary function of the multifidi muscles is spinal stabilization. Because the supine roller exercises help relax the erector spinae, the multifidi can then become more actively engaged in spinal stabilization exercises.
In Part 1, we discussed the basic Feldenkrais principles and how to choose the right combination of roller and surface. We explained how to introduce your client to the roller and to use it to relax the erector spinae and activate the multifidi. We summarized why spinal stabilization exercises on the roller are more effective when the erector spinae are relaxed. In Part 2, we will discuss the use of the roller for improved proprioception and neuromuscular re-education. We will give more examples of exercises in the supine position and appropriate uses of the roller for neuromuscular re-education.
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