I remember going to the chiropractor years ago and being astonished that she wanted me to use tennis balls to relieve tight muscles. Tennis balls, of all things! What was even more surprising to me was that the tennis balls really work.
In previous articles, I discussed why I don’t think you can say that tennis balls provide myofascial release. However, I do believe that tools like foam rollers, tennis balls, and lacrosse balls can provide muscular relief. Of the tools I’ve tried, the one that might be able to provide myofascial release (because of its grippy texture, which would allow the skin to slide over the muscles) is The Orb.
Like The Orb, tennis balls work best by gliding along the muscle you’re wanting to release. This means that, whenever possible, move your body along the top of the ball to move to a new spot. Yes, you can use your hand to move the ball, however you’re risking missing some good releases if you pick the ball up and move it. Also, like The Orb, tennis balls can be used singularly. However, they can also be used together, which I really enjoy.
Another difference from The Orb is that tennis ball density will change. This is very important because the newer or more live your tennis ball, the firmer it will feel. Older tennis balls, however, have a give or softness to them that can be very forgiving. If you are new to rolling, let me suggest that you start with the deadest tennis balls you can find.
The right amount of pain
When working on releasing tight spots in the body, the questions arises What is the right amount of pain?.
First, imagine that your tight spots are all a bunch of targets in your body. The true center of the tight spot or knot, is the bullseye. When releasing tension, it is best not to aim for the bullseye. Instead, aim for the surrounding rings. As those areas loosen up, the knot (your bullseye) will be more amenable to relaxation.
Now, to answer the question above. If your muscles feel like they can continue to relax when you breathe, you are in a good spot. When you feel your body tensing instead of relaxing, you are in a bad spot and you need to move the ball.
When I begin on the tennis balls, I feel like my muscle is a stiff board that sits on top of the ball. As I breathe and relax, the muscle softens and begins to drape around the ball. However, if I hit a very tight and sore spot, my muscle will not soften and relax. Instead of it changing from a board to a drape, it changes from a board to an iron beam.
If you come across a spot that tenses up, don’t try to work on it. Leave it alone, work the area around it, and come back to it tomorrow. Eventually, the area around the knot will have loosened up enough that you can work on relieving the tension.
Double tennis ball exercises
Some people place their tennis balls in a tube sock to help keep control of the balls. This will be especially beneficial when you roll your spine.
- Spine. While on your back, place each tennis ball so that it is at approximately the same spot on each side. The tennis balls should be away from your spine a little bit. Press into your hands and feet to help you glide across the tops of the tennis balls and move to the next spot. In the area from the neck to the bottom of the shoulder blades, you can do additional movement. If your neck is tight, you can keep your head facing the ceiling and bring your ear to your shoulder, or you can turn your head to one direction then the other. When the tennis balls get closer to your shoulder blades, you can reach your arms toward the ceiling and do Arm reaches, Arm scissors, and Scapular protraction and retraction.
- Glutes. Once the balls move down your spine and onto the back of your hips, you’re in your glutes. You can keep the balls moving in a linear pattern along your sacrum (tailbone). Also, you can use your hands to place the balls in approximately the same spots in different areas of the glutes. This way, you can get your piriformis. Once the tennis balls roll past your SITs bones, you can sit up and do your hamstrings.
- Hamstrings (back of your thigh). You can start the ball quite high up (near your SITs bones) and let it work down to just above the knee. NEVER ever try to work the back of your knee.
- Calves. You can work from just below the knee to the top of the heel.
Single tennis ball exercises
- Exercises 2-4 above can be done with one ball as well.
- Feet. This is a great way to access deep foot muscles. Make sure your tennis ball is on a grippy surface though, because they have a tendency to shoot out.
- Pectoralis minor/major (chest). Face the wall. Place the ball on the front of your body in the space diagonally up from your armpit. Roll on anything that is not bone. Don’t try to roll on your clavicle (collar bone) or sternum (breast bone).
I have a lot of exercises listed in my article for The Orb. If you can get the tennis ball to stay in place, you can do the other exercises, too. However, because of the relatively slick feeling of the tennis ball, I don’t think the other exercises would really work as well in this situation.
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What myofascial release tools are your favorites? Let us know in the comments below.
Here is a video to give you more information about how to use the tennis balls.