SMR – What it is, Why you need it, and How it works

Hey guys! Today we will be kicking off part one of a three part series on self-myofascial release (SMR from here on). Part one will cover what self-myofascial release is, a background on the tissues of the body that are involved, and the mechanism behind how it works.

This series will not cover every aspect of self-myofascial release, nor do I intend it to. The major focus will be on foam rolling and the release of trigger points. If you have detailed questions, comment or shoot me an email.

Put simply, self-myofascial release covers a variety of techniques and tools you can perform yourself in order to reduce trigger points and release tension in fascia.

Fascia? What the heck is that?

What is fascia

Fascia is a ubiquitous tough connective tissue that spreads throughout entire body in a 3D web. It surrounds every muscle, bone, nerve, blood vessel, and organ all the way to the cellular level; providing stability, support, and cushioning to the tissues of the body. This interconnection of different regions of the body is important to consider when you think about how your fascia affects your function.


Now that you mention it, how does fascia affect function?

The fascial system tightens as a protective response to trauma, losing pliability and becoming restricted. This restriction is a result of the ground substance solidifying, collagen becoming fibrous and dense, and elastin losing its resiliency. “Trauma” can be either an acute injury or chronic micro-trauma. Acute injuries are something most people are aware of; pulling a hamstring while sprinting or breaking your wrist showing everyone how cool you are for picking up skateboarding at 40. Chronic micro-trauma refers to any low-grade, repeat stress on your tissues, and it can be good or bad. An example of good micro trauma is the muscle damage you accumulate from lifting weights. An example of bad micro trauma is unnatural stress to your lower back from consistent bad posture and poor movement.

Remember how I said everything is connected by fascia? Tightening of the fascia in one region may restrict your range of motion (ROM) and alter your biomechanics. Fascial restrictions can create abnormal strain patterns that can crowd, or pull, your bones out of proper alignment, resulting in the compression of joints that produces pain and/or dysfunction. Nerves, veins, and arteries can also become entrapped in these restrictions, causing additional pain, numbness, or loss of blood flow. Shortening of the muscular component of the fascia can limit its functional length – reducing strength and the ability to accelerate and decelerate your body or an external weight, such as a barbell.

It’s getting serious in here.

Theory of myofascial release

The theory of myofascial release involves three major players: muscle spindles, golgi tendon organs (GTO), and ground substance.


Muscle spindles and GTO

Muscle spindles and GTOs are nervous system receptors located in muscle tissue that cause your muscles to contract or relax to protect you from injury.

Muscle spindles lie parallel to your muscle fibers and respond to a change in the length of your muscles, such as when you’re stretching, and the rate of length change. When activated, the muscle reacts by causing a protective contraction and shortening the muscle (known as the myotatic/stretch reflex).

GTOs lie in series to your tendon and respond to changes in tension and rate of tension change, such as when you’re lifting a heavy weight. When activated, above a certain threshold, the muscle reacts by relaxing and removing the tension from its tendon.

Foam rolling activates both of these receptors. In general, your brain takes input from the muscle spindles over the GTOs, otherwise you’d be floppy like a wet noodle every time you tensed your muscles. The goal of foam rolling is to trigger a phenomenon known as autogenic inhibition – named “autogenic” because the contracting muscle is inhibited by its own receptors.


Ground substance

The ground substance is an amorphous, gel-like substance that surrounds cells in connective tissue and makes up the bulk of the extracellular matrix. The ground substance, and therefore connective tissue, is colloidal in nature and its morphological (phase) state is determined by energy input and temperature. A colloid is a suspension of particles in another substance, which is fundamentally different from a solution. Salt dissolved in water is a solution, if you can see the different elements, that’s a colloid.

Anyone remember this stuff?

What is this nonsense I was talking about with phase states? I know you guys didn’t pay attention in chemistry so I’ll keep it simple. As you put more energy into the ground substance, through either pressure or heat, it becomes less thick and viscous and more “gooey” and pliable. Think about a pack of fruit snacks – they get hard if you put them in the refrigerator and very soft and stretchy when out in the sun. The ground substance functions the same way but is significantly less delicious.


Why does this matter?

SMR causes a temporary increase in ROM with no loss of performance – peak force and rate of force production. This is in contrast to static stretching (stretch and hold) which can negatively impact these variables by up to 9%, making you temporarily slower and weaker, even 60 minutes after you’re done stretching.

As if that’s not enough to make you start rolling right now, when foam rolling, you aren’t JUST rolling out fascia. The muscles, skin, and nerves are affected too. In the case of skin and muscle tissue, you’re essentially squeezing fluid out of the cells and then allowing it to rush back in, flushing out metabolic waste products and bringing new nutrient rich fluid to your cells. Yay recovery!


Part 1 Summary

  • What is fascia
    • Ubiquitous CT that innervates and connects the entire body
    • Trauma can cause the fascia to tighten, impacting performance and causing pain
  • How SMR works
    • Muscle Spindles and GTO
      • Muscle spindles cause reactive shortening of muscle due to a change in length
      • GTOs cause reactive lengthening due to a change in tension
      • Autogenic inhibition of muscle spindles by golgi tendon organs is the goal (see above)
    • Ground Substance
      • Decreased viscosity of ground substance via energy input


Well, there you go! I hope this article clears up some of the confusing information floating around about SMR/foam rolling and how to use it, and that you all feel a bit smarter. Part 2 will cover how to implement SMR in your training to treat the negative symptoms of fascial and trigger point restrictions and increase performance.

This article is intended to be an introduction to the fascial system and how it may impact your function. Information on the various layers of the fascial system, fascial slings, and their impact on movement is outside the scope of this article. If you want to know more, comment below or send me an email.



  • Clark, MS, PT, PES, CSCS, M. & Russell, ATC, NASM-PES, CSCS, A: Self Myofascial Release Techniques. Perform Better; 2015
  • N/A, (2008).Myofascial release: An evidence-based treatment concept, Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies,1016(10), 385 – 386
  • Barnes MPT, M , (1997).The Basic Science of Myofascial Release: Morphologic change in connective tissue. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies,4(1),231 – 238
  • MacDonald, Penney, Mullaley, Cuconato, Drake, Behm, Button, G , (2013).An Acute Bout of Self-Myofascial Release Increases Range of Motion Without a Subsequent Decrease in Muscle Activation or Force. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research,3(27),,812 – 821


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