Large or small, smooth or spiky, massage balls are a wonderful tool you can use at home to release tension, unravel knots, improve mobility and enhance athletic performance. Whether you’re sedentary, super active or suffer from plantar fasciitis, you’ll soon see the benefits! To get you started, physiotherapist Naiha Sahota has answered all your questions, from how to use a massage ball, to the five main areas you might like to target.
Why Use a Massage Ball
Massage balls are great at targeting specific areas of the body that require release and are incredibly beneficial at increasing range of movement as well as eliminating pain. The physiological theories behind the benefits of a massage ball include an increase in blood flow and endorphin release which promotes healing as well as the gate control theory – whereby painful messages can be blocked from the central nervous system by using a non-painful stimulus. (It is therefore important when using a massage ball not to push to a point of intense pain or where you are grimacing, as the point is to relax and relieve the tension in the muscle!)
How to Choose a Massage Ball
When choosing a massage ball, the main consideration will be your ability to control and position the ball on the area that requires release. Therefore, you must consider the size of the ball in relation to the size of the muscle group and your body shape. The heavier or firmer the ball, the easier it will be to control and localise over the specific point requiring release.
Whether you opt for a smooth or spiky massage ball depends on comfort as well as grip. Some people may find the spiky ball can be better at staying in the one position to apply firmer pressure; however, if you are quite tender and tight a smoother or softer ball can feel more manageable.
How to Position Your Massage Ball
In terms of positioning, you can use a massage ball on the floor, a chair or against a wall – again the important part is that you need to be able to relax into it. If there is a trigger point, you want to sustain the pressure on the one spot until you feel the tension release and then you can also turn this into a myofascial release by moving the body part into a stretch. Otherwise, you can roll the ball along the length of the muscle belly and in particular the attachment points.
5 Areas to Use a Massage Ball
NECK, TRAPS & UPPER BACK
Using a spiky or smooth ball in this area is great for anyone with neck and shoulder tightness which is commonly exacerbated by stress or lack of sleep. It’s especially ideal for office workers or also anyone who suffers from cervicogenic headaches.
How to: Lying on your back, hold the ball on the tender point and take deep breaths into your upper chest. When moving down the neck to the upper back, you can also add a stretch by turning the neck to whichever side feels more of stretch as this will target different muscles. If this feels too deep you can do the same, but up against a wall or rolling along the muscle.
Self-massage of the feet is great for anyone with plantar fasciitis, where the main symptom is usually heel pain that is worse in the mornings. Releasing the feet is also beneficial for runners or anyone performing plyometric activity since the calves and feet can get loaded up.
How to: When standing, roll the ball along the inner, middle or outer edge of the foot, depending on where you feel the tension. You can also hold the ball on the one position – if too intense you can perform this seated so there is less body weight on the spiky ball.
Glute release exercises are highly effective for people with more sedentary jobs, as sitting for long periods causes decreased activity and therefore increased tightness. They’re also beneficial to the active population as flexibility increases performance of a muscle group significantly. Anyone with low back pain or knee pain with also greatly benefit, as releasing through the hip will release a lot of the tension in those areas as well.
How to: While seated on the floor, use your feet and arms to roll your glutes across the massage ball. You can also hold in the one position or do this while seated on a chair if it’s too strenuous. Another good position to roll across the ball can be standing against the wall.
Anyone with an office-based job where they sit for long periods, especially in a slumped position, can experience tightness in these muscle groups. Tightness is also common in the athletic population, in individuals performing overhead activities – e.g. shoulder press at the gym, throwing a ball – will benefit from the increase in range of motion. Rotator cuff pathology is also another very common condition that requires a lot of release work as well as progressive exercises.
How to: While lying on your side on the floor, place the ball along the edge of your shoulder blade/just under your arm pit. Deep breaths will help to release as your rib cage expands and relaxes. Plus you can also position the elbow at a 90 degree angle and rotate from side to side. If too intense, do the same against the wall.
Hamstring release with a massage ball is especially effective for anyone that sits for long periods as having the knees bent directly causes hamstring shortening. Again, the athletic population will benefit as well as the hamstrings are a main muscle group working in all sports. Using a ball here is especially beneficial if you’ve had a hamstring strain or low back pain, as the hamstrings insert into the pelvis which can contribute to lumbopelvic stiffness.
How to: Seated on table or chair, start with the ball close to your sitting bone (the attachment site) and hold, then progressively work down the back of the thigh. You can also extend and bend the knee to add a stretch while keeping the ball in one position.
Tip for Using a Massage Ball
Don’t forget the aim is to relieve, so using a massage ball shouldn’t produce intense pain. You also want to relax into the ball and hold or roll until you can physically feel a release which could take up to a couple of minutes. In terms of adding a myofascial release, you can perform the stretch component up to 20 x times until you feel the release of the muscle.
And if you’re not sure if you’re doing it right? Book a physiotherapy appointment – we’ll be only too happy to help.