BJJ, Fascia, Stretching and Foam Rollers

BJJ, Fascia, Stretching and Foam Rollers

Nowadays foam rollers are extremely popular. In order to get rid of specific tensions in the body, become more flexible and mobile, many BJJ practitioners foam roll before and after training. But what does actually happen with our bodies or with those areas we foam roll?

Additionally, I usually bruise very easily whilst sparring, especially when I haven’t been sparring for a while due to sickness or an injury. During my Yoga teacher training I did not properly train BJJ for almost 5 weeks. When I returned home and stepped on the mats I already mentally prepared myself for the many bruises to come. However, something changed in my body as after many rounds of sparring there were no bruises to be seen. How could this have happened?

Before we dive into these two questions, I would like to pay attention to, as trigger point and massage specialist Cat Matlock terms it, the 4 limitations of our range of movement. We will focus on the last 2 limitations (fascia and muscle tissue) but have to understand all 4 in order to comprehend how the body works.

1. Posture
Our posture is the way we stand, sit and carry ourselves throughout our busy daily lives. When we meet a friend on the street and chat for a bit do we tend to stand more on one leg and lean a bit to that side or do we stand straight? When we sit do we sit up right or do we slouch, compressing our discs in our spine? Our posture determines which side is stronger/weaker, more mobile/immobile and flexible/inflexible.

2. Bone structure
Every person’s bone structure is different: the shapes vary and the way they fit together. For instance, the way our hip joints are shaped determines whether we can put our legs next to our ears without too much effort or whether will never be able to get that leg up no matter how long we stretch and practice.

The reason for this can be found in the depth of the hip socket and the shape of the femoral head. When the socket is deep, the leg (femur) will be blocked at some point when it tries to move high up, when the socket is not so deep, the leg is much freer in its movement. It is the difference between being able to put your knees on the ground whilst sitting in a butterfly position or not – regardless of how hard you try.

The way our bones are shaped is part of our structure. We cannot change our skeleton. What we can change, however, are our soft tissues (muscles and fascia).

3. Muscle tissue contracts and remembers
We have all heard the discussions amongst BJJ instructors whether we should drill to use our muscle memory or whether that is a waste of time and we are better off using concepts to improve our BJJ (see Alex’s article). Simply put, our muscles respond to the demands we put on them. This means that whatever we repeatedly do (whether that is a specific way of sitting, standing or moving) becomes memorized.

In order to be able to move your body in a specific way, like shrimping, you need to contract your muscles. Sometimes we hyper contract our muscles to such an extent (closed guard) that even after the initial contraction has been released, some tension stays. This focal point of tension in a muscle may lead to a trigger point. As we all know trigger points hurt and may become chronic. To make matters worse, often these trigger points trigger painful experiences elsewhere in the body, thus making it hard for us to recognize where the root of the problem stems from. For example, we often feel pain in our lower backs, which can be caused by certain trigger points located in your legs and hip area. Quoting Cat Matlock when talking about the pain we feel and where the pain is located: “it doesn’t always even make sense.”

Foam rolling is often used to remove trigger points in the muscles and it is believed to stretch the muscles. However, what you are stretching and massaging are your fascia.

4. Fascia
Fascia (Latin: “band”) is a band or sheet of connective tissue that is primarily made of collagen that surrounds, attaches and stabilizes muscles and other internal structures.

Ligaments and tendons are also made of collagen but have different functions: ligaments connect bone to bone and tendons connect muscle to bone. The nature of fascia is to connect and to bind.

This connective function is amazing as it links, for instance, the arches of our feet to our tongue! My anatomy teacher Adam Divine taught us a funny exercise to feel this connection: stand straight with your feet slightly apart (bare foot). Look towards the sky, open your mouth and stick your tongue out towards the sky and back in. Repeat this tongue movement and you will feel the arches of your feet lifting!

A funny exercise aside, the second function of fascia is to bind. When we close our guard around somebody, we tend to squeeze and contract our adductor muscles (muscles that bring, in this case, our legs towards the midline of our body). When we do this often enough and don’t open our hips and legs into the opposite direction, our fascia starts to bind, almost merging various muscles together. As a consequence, these muscles become short, rigid and tight. When we foam roll or use a foam ball we break down the fascial (collagen) fibers that created the bind. In so doing, our fascia, surrounding these adductor muscles, lengthen again, become more fluid and straighten out the trigger points by letting go of these focal tension points in the muscles.

Interestingly enough, even though the trigger points are in the adductor muscles we usually don’t feel the pain there. The pain is primarily felt when we move in the opposite direction, which is in this instance in our abductor muscles (muscles that bring your legs and hips away from the midline). We feel the pain in our outer hips or legs because our adductor muscles don’t want to be lengthened. Usually we then start massaging and rolling our outer hips and legs even though the problem causing the pain isn’t located there.

Returning to my own story of having no blue spots: yoga has a similar effect on your fascia as foam rolling. Actually, the type of yoga you practice alters the fascia structure in different ways. I practice dynamic Ashtanga and alignment focused Iyengar Yoga which results in more resilient, fluid and spring like fascia that is able to withstand compressive forces and distributes these forces throughout the fascial network instead of focusing on one place which would normally create a blue spot. Yoga styles that are less dynamic and focus more on remaining in a specific posture for a longer amount of time creates even more fluid like but less spring like. We all know what Bruce Lee once said: “be like water my friend.”

In short, foam rolls and balls, as well as Yoga make the fascia flexible and fluid again, resulting in a body that is less prone to injury and support a greater range of movement that is beneficial to every BJJ practitioner.

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