Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Self-Massage With Balls

This post has absolutely nothing to do with Woody Allen's famous quote.

It has absolutely everything to do with speeding up the recovery process; decreasing reliance on (expensive) massage therapy sessions; and increasing quality, frequency, and absorption of intense training sessions.  This last part is especially important as the frequency with which an athlete can complete high-quality, high-intensity training sessions - as linked to their absorption of these sessions - is the main determination of how fast/strong the athlete can become.

Example: You complete a track session on Day 1.  Day 2 is an easy run day.  Day 3 is supposed to be a moderate effort tempo run, however, your body is not recovered enough from Day 1 to complete the tempo run, which is pushed to Day 4, in turn pushing the Day 4 easy run to Day 5, which was supposed to be a no run day.  Day 6 is now the no run day instead of the long run day, which gets done on Day 7, instead of the day-after-the-long-run very easy jog that prefaces the Day 8 (1) track workout.  Day 8 (1) is the day-after-the-long-run very easy jog instead of the Day 1 track workout and the long run has taken such a toll that Day 2 also becomes an easy jog so the track workout is now on Day 3....and if you extrapolate this example, the inability to absorb and recover is actually costing the athlete high-quality, high-intensity training sessions they would have completed otherwise (barring non-recovery conflicts).

These types of intense workouts force the body to break, literally but at a micro-level, and re-form - if time and circumstances allow!!! SEE BELOW - into a stronger and faster version of the athlete.  These types of workouts create the potential to gain fitness.

BUT building the potential to gain fitness is not the same as gaining fitness.  You actually gain the fitness during periods of rest, when your body and muscles and tendons and ligaments and energy pathways rebuild to the best of their ability.  This ability is helped along by 1) rest, 2) nutrition/food, and 3) supportive recovery technique: compression, massage, ice baths, and...self-massage.

See how central to training and getting faster recovery - and self-massage, as a recovery technique - is?  It literally bookends, occurs before and after, the entire process.

But as often as self-message is mentioned as a worthwhile recovery technique, how to massage oneself is never described.  Well, here's how.


The most commonly used tool is the foam roller, although the shape and density of the typical foam roller makes it useful only to a point.  Because the roller is wide and flat, it can only apply blanket pressure across the surface of a body part; it can not dig into a muscle and apply isolated pressure to deeply located knots.  At some point, the blanket pressure provides less relief because it simply cannot reach any deeper.

My foam roller apparently moonlights as a chameleon

For cost, space, and time efficiency, I use four balls as three tools:

Two of the tennis balls are taped together using packing (or strapping) tape to make something akin to a barbell.  The golf ball and single tennis ball are used singly.

Other balls that can be used as effective tools are squash or racquet balls, baseballs, or smaller (meaning, lighter) medicine balls.  Each person will have their personal preference, based on size and density.


Spot Treatment: Once the tool is on top of a knot, let it sit there for a count of 10 to 20.  Breathe deeply throughout to counter-act the body's natural reaction of tensing up in the face of pain.  Tensing up is counter-productive - just like contracting (shortening) a muscle to get into a better position to stretch (lengthen) a muscle is counter-productive - as the tool's job in the "spot treatment" is literally be the obstacle around which the muscle must relax; tensing up does not allow for relaxing.  So...BREATHE!!!

Rolling: Basically moving one body's to allow the tool to move from place to another.  Rolling can be done in three motions: 1) along the muscle, 2) across the muscle, 3) circular (think "wax on, wax off").  The speed with which a roll is completed is controlled by anchor points - body parts touching the ground: hands, elbows, knees, heels, toes, head, shoulders, hips...


Here is my complete routine, which I demonstrate with balls, but can easily be completed with any tool.  It takes me 30-60 minutes depending on how many knots I find and thorough I want to be. The more often I do the routine, the less knots I have so the less time it takes me to complete it; a nicely reinforcing cycle.  When the going gets nitty and gritty, I try to complete the entire routine once a day, as many days as possible.  Basically the routine was perfected to do in front of TV before going to bed.

The Plantar Fascia (PF), Flexor Hallucis Longus (FHL) muscle, and Arch (Bottom of the Feet)

Best control and pressure is achieved while standing, with the tool under one foot and the other foot planted for support.

1) Start at the back of the foot and roll the tool circularly under the heel pad, especially around the usually neglected edges.  Slowly progress in the circular motion forward so the tool eventually moves toward the toes.

2) The flexor hallucis longus (FLH) runs down the inside of your lower leg, through your ankle, along your arch, and connects to bone just behind the base on your big toe.  This muscle is responsible for all the flexing of your big toe and some of the plantar flexion (pointing your toes...aka PUSHING OFF FROM THE GROUND WITH EVERY RUNNING STEP) of your ankle.  Give it some love.

FHL massage

Your Arch, like mine, will probably get jealous and demand some attention as well.  Massage the FHL and Arch by rolling linearly, anterior to posterior (front to back), along each of these structures.

Arch massage

3) I highly recommend some linear rolls from one side of the foot to the other, just behind the toes' second knuckles.

Foot is moving left-to-right-to-left

The Gluteus Maximus, Medius, and Minimus; Piriformis; Obturator Externus; Quadratus Femoris; Hamstring; and a ton of other little things (Butt and Back of the Thigh)

NOTE: When taking pictures of someone sitting on a ball, the ball proves difficult to capture.  We did our best.

1) Start with circular rolling and when a knot is located, stop when "it feels good because it feels bad" (the reality of this statement becomes quickly apparent) and do a spot treatment on it. 

As you roll circularly, internally and externally rotate from the hip of the leg on the side of the glute you are working, to contract and lengthen all of the muscles involved in rotation of the hip.  Many knots hide deep inside the joint, and are only felt when the knotted muscle is in a certain position.

External rotation from the hip

External rotation from the hip

As your arms support behind you, bend at the elbows and rock back so that the tool can focus on the gluteal muscles as they connect to the pelvis and run into the low back.

To do only linear rolls on the glutes - and balance yourself better - simply use the barbell tool.

2) To work the obturator externus, quardatus femoris, and upper hamstrings, start at the hamstrings' attachment point to the lower glute, using the single ball tool.

Placing the single ball tool in the natural groove that exists between lower glutes and upper hamstrings, rock your hips left and right, taking the tool from the lateral-most point to the medial-most point.

Lateral-most point

Medial-most point

3) Anchor yourself on both hands, opposite foot, and heel of working leg, and from that natural groove, complete linear rolls down the hamstrings toward the back of the knee.  The buttocks should be off the ground - this is imperative - and the abdominals will have to contract to make the "rocking" motion.

These linear rolls can also be completed with the barbell tool, for a larger surface area and better balance, but it does not make the anchor points any different.

Hamstrings with the barbell tool

From this position, it is also possible to work the posterior edge of the IT band by rotating the leg externally from the hip, and continuing to roll linearly from the hip to the knee.

Spot treatments are entirely possible to work the hamstrings.  Simply stop the rolls, count to 10 or 20, and breathe!

The Achilles Tendon, and Soleus and Gastrocnemius Muscles (Calves and Back of the Lower Legs)

NOTE: During all Achilles and calf moves, laying the other leg across the working leg increases weight, thus pressure, and thus effectiveness.  However, it makes balance and control via anchor points more challenging.

1) Start with the barbell tool immediately above the ankle, doing linear rolls up to mid-calf.  Anchor points are hands, planted foot, and tool, with the buttocks off the ground.

2) Rotate the lower leg internally and externally, completing linear rolls with the leg in each position to reach the sides of the Achilles, and the soleus muscle.

External rotation

Internal rotation

3) Switch to the single tennis ball tool to get deeper into the gastrocnemius, which is relatively small compared to the foam roller and barbell tool.

Start with a spot treatment just at the bottom of the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles and the top of the Achilles, as this juncture is incredibly over-worked and under-appreciated.

Achilles, gastroc, soleus juncture

4) Complete circular rolling that spans from the peroneus longus on the outside of the leg...

Peroneus longus on the lateral side of the gastroc

...to the most medial part of the gastrocnemius, internally rotating your leg from the hip is necessary to get proper placement and pressure on basically the most "inside" portion of your leg.

Most medial portion of your gastroc

5) The gastrocnemius muscle has two heads, which run parallel to each other, one medial and one lateral.  Rolling the single tennis ball tool between them will not only separate these two muscles, but also provide a massage that for some is truly revelationary.

Bottom of gastroc

Top of gastroc

Side view of top of gastroc

6) Rolling out the medial posterior lower leg can be very beneficial for athletes suffering from shin splits, which originates as an over-working of the posterior tibial tendon.  Use the single ball tool and roll linearly from the bone that sticks out on the inside of your ankle (lateral malleolus) up the leg, just posterior to the shin bone, toward the knee.

Bottom of the posterior tibial tendon roll

Top of the posterior tibial tendon roll

The IT-Band, Pectineous, Adductors Longus and Brevis, Tensor Fasciae Latae (TFL), Obturator Internus, and Inguinal and Conjoint Tendons (Outside and Upper Part of the Front of the Thigh, including Hip Flexor group)

Treat these many structures with the barbell tool.  The single ball tool or anything smaller provides considerable pin-point pressure, but makes balance much more challenging.  To treat the most dire knots I have used a golf ball on my IT bands and in addition to releasing the knot, bruised considerably.

1) Start with the barbell tool just below the bony protuberance on the side of your hip, or iliac crest.  Take more and more of your upper body weight on your hands, thus shifting your upper body and dragging your legs over and across the barbell.  Proceed slowly.  IT bands are FULL of knots so I recommend doing one pass as roll (sometimes mere inches), spot treatment, roll (more mere inches), spot treatment, roll...  and then do complete linear rolls after the major knots have been worked on.

Starting position to work IT bands

To increase pressure during work on the IT bands, simply lay your top leg along the bottom one.  Also, the IT band attachment point near the knee is likely to be very sensitive, in an over-worked way, so pause at the bottom of the rolls or do a spot treatment here.

Lower IT band attachment

2) The Gluteus Medius and Minimus wrap around the sides of the buttocks, while the Tensor Fasciae Latae (TFL) connects the IT band to the underside of the iliac crest.  The oblique abdominals responsible for torso stability and twisting attach from above the crest.  With all of the very important structures coming together in one spot, continue the linear rolls up the side of the buttock and carefully easing pressure as you pass over the bony iliac crest, roll the lower side of the torso.

Rolling the lower torso, above the iliac crest

3) Place your top hand and foot (in the picture below, the right of both) solidly on the ground and from being balanced on the barbell tool on your side, bring the front of your body parallel to the ground to begin work on the front of the hip and leg.

Rolling over to work the front of the hip

A closer look at the position of the barbell tool to work the front of the hip.  The non-working leg is bent at the knee, with the foot planted to take weight and control the linear rolls.

Closer look at rolling the front of the hip

Before positioning your body entirely parallel to the ground, it is possible to work the anterior edge of the IT band.  Simply roll down from the hip area; the anchors are both elbows and the non-working knee and foot.

Working the anterior edge of the IT band

4) After you have brought your body parallel to the ground, start rolling linearly along the very front of the hip: the hip flexor group, comprised of many small structures including the adductors brevis and longus, pectineus, upper sartorius, and obturator internus.

The anchor points are both elbows and of the non-work leg, either the knee and foot or just the foot.  [I am up on my hands to make it easier to photograph.]

From these pictures on down, the way to initiate and control linear rolls is from the hands or elbows, simulate dragging your body along the ground as if your legs are paralyzed, and then push back from the hands or elbows.

Working the hip flexor group

5) I rarely work the quadriceps muscles (called vastus muscles) outright from the front, as I find that working the structures around them alleviate most of their pain.  However, the best way to reach them is to roll from the hip flexor group straight down toward the knee, coming up off of your elbows or staying on your hands as you do so.

Rolling out the quadriceps

6) For the next steps, first an exercise in locating the structures to be worked.  Checking (any remaining) squeamish-ness at the door might be necessary.  First, place your hand on the inside of your thigh.  Second, run it all the way up to the exact meeting point between thigh and crotch, immediately to the side of your genitals.  Beneath the flesh etc, there are several very distinct, bridge-cable feeling (both in thickness and tensity) structures, including the inguinal ligament, the obturator internus, and the conjoint tendon.  They connect all sorts of things in your abdomen/crotch to all sorts of things in your thighs, and understandably are over-worked.

So...from rolling the hip flexor group, keep the tool moving medially, until literally the tool feels like it's in your crotch, next to your genitals.  Find the spot that is most (relatively) comfortable for you.  The anchors remain the elbows and the non-working knee and foot.  The working knee and foot will likely also touch the ground.  I am up on my hands for the sake of being able to see the tool.

Rolling the inguinal ligament, conjoint tendon, obturator internus...

Side view of rolling the inguinal ligament, conjoint tendon, obturator internus...

From this position, the linear rolls are completed toward the knee, as medially as possible.  The rolls are best controlled with the non-working knee.  You will notice in the picture two above that my non-working knee is bent, at the top of the roll, while here it is straight, at the bottom of the roll, because bending and straightening my leg is creating the back-and-forth motion of the roll.

The Vastus Medialis and Sartorius (Lower Part of the Inside of the Thigh)

Here is the beginning position to work the inside of the thigh.  The tool of choice is under my bent (right) knee. 

Starting position to work the inside of the thigh

1) Here's the tool placement.  The location to start the tool is at the attachment point of the vastus medialis and sartorius muscles just on the inside of the knee joint, immediately next to the bone.

From there, you can complete almost any type of roll: circular, linear along (from knee to hip), or linear across.  You can see from the pictures that the anchor point to control any of these movements is the working foot, with help from the working hip.

Rolling linearly along
Rolling further linearly along

Bottom of linear roll across

2) A spot treatment recommendation is at the line between the vastus medialis and sartorius.  A good look at the alignment of these muscles is here.

Spot treatment of the line between vastus medialis and sartorius

3) To address the inside of the lower thigh with the barbell tool, lay as pictured and then roll such that your knee would come through the camera as it takes this picture.

Rolling the inner thigh with the barbell tool

The Erector Spinae and Latissimus Dorsi (Neck and Back)

The barbell tool was created to work on the back.  I have co-opted its use for other parts of the body, but my spine claims majority ownership.

1) Place the barbell tool at the base of the spine, with the balls which make it up located on either side of the vertebrae.  The anchor points are both elbows, buttocks, and both heels.  To work the erector spinae simply start to roll, stopping whenever you want to do a spot treatment.

Starting position

As you roll further down, your vertebrae will probably snap, crackle, and pop, and your anchor points will definitely slowly change as your buttocks lift off the ground and your shoulders touch down.


I usually do a spot treatment right between my shoulder blades.  Oh, repetitive stroke/stress syndrome, how I have found your Achilles heel.

Spot treatment between the shoulder blades

2) To do your neck, place your hands on the floor above your head, taking the weight of your upper body off of your spine and onto your fingers.  The rolls are controlled by pushing with your hands and then your feet and then your hands.  For those readers who do yoga or gymnastics, the position is basically the prep-position for a bridge, before you actually push up into it.

Rolling the neck

3) To address your lattissimus dorsi (lats), lay on your side, as pictured, with the barbell tool just below the bottom edge of your scapula (shoulder blade).  This work is not possible to do with a single ball tool, or well, you are welcome to try.

Bottom of the lat linear roll

The roll is not long; stop just past the top of your armpit.

Top of the lat linear roll

4) Spot treatments are possible in the shoulder and lattissimus dorsi area.  Just a note of warning, however, is that a major nerve runs down your side just posterior to the armpit.  Doing a spot treatment on it will literally take your breath away in an extraordinarily painful way, and the pain will never go away, no matter how long you sit on it, because it is a NERVE.

Spot treatment on the shoulder blade



Self-massage with balls is best done in clothing without excess material, at least in the case of rolling the back.  The balls tend to get wrapped up in the cloth, requiring constant untangling and ruining any benefit of rolling.

Self-massage with balls is best done on a harder surface with some friction.  Carpet or a non-slip exercise mat are best; anything polished is worst.  If the floor is too slippery, the balls roll on the floor and not the skin.

Balance on a single tennis ball while rolling and controlling the speed of the roll with only anchor points is definitely an acquired skill.  Be aware that initial attempts may end with your tennis ball shooting across the room with considerable pace.

Do whatever necessary, including rearranging anchor points, to ensure that the muscle you are currently massaging is not contracted.

Often the first pass over an unhappy muscle feels "good because it feels bad," if not downright PAINFUL.  This extreme reaction can be part surprise and part reactive tensing.  If an area is particularly bad, make a pass, working semi-deep, then switch sides or areas and come back to the unhappy area.   Most likely it will have calmed down and be open to deeper work on a second pass. 

Questions and Credits:

I tried to be as comprehensive and succinct as possible.  Which means that I said too much for some and not enough for others.  Please do not hesitate to post questions in the comments (I included numbers to help pin-point confusion) and I will respond to them as in-depth and as many times as necessary to make sure you can do this routine too.

Ma Support Staff and I spent a long time working on these pictures, and I spent a long time working on the post.  I ask that you not reproduce or copy any of the material in this post (printing to take to the gym or something is fine) and instead, direct people to this post and web address.  Thanks! - KEB


Carl Fudge said...

Thank you for this encyclopedia of self-massage!

Kelzie said...

Hey Carl! You're welcome. Although it will be rendered "Volume 1" in just a few minutes...

twosox said...

Good ideas. I've also use a tennis ball in a long sock (dress sock, tube sock) against a wall, so you're not using your entire weight on a single spot. You can control the pressure with your lean into the wall, and the position of the ball with your hand holding the end of the sock.

You can also do a sort of "active release therapy" in this way, since you have your arms free to move as they are not supporting your weight.

sathyam shonkho said...

People are experiencing the benefits of a massage chair. People are very much health conscious nowadays they want overall fitness and I feel, it can be achieved through massage chair. Many Therapy Association claimed that the massage is not only a way of takeover your body from disease, it's also a way of taking care to your health. A Massage chair offer many benefits and people have understood that, massage is not just for their relaxation, it serves them for several injuries and heals a parson's unhealthy physical or mental condition like low blood circulation, anxiety, depression, flexibility problems and stiffness or sore, which made it an effective alternative treatment for several health problems. You can think massage chair as a tool of your health box.

SoloRolo Tool said...

I like your blog and techniques you have used with the ball in order to get freedom from pain , but it is very difficult to do with that person who is already in severe back pain , but now people would not have to do all these things because we are offering Self Massage Tools at very economical price.,

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