When I was younger, I did not appreciate the value of stretching, warming up or massage therapy. Now I do. My muscles may remain tight for a day or more after a kendo practice. And with the tightness and aging, the natural ease in movements and explosiveness in strikes of yesteryear has diminished. To counter this, I have incorporated ways to relax and loosen the muscles while shortening the recovery time. This helps me maintain a level of ease, agility and speed in striking – not only for regular practices but also for competitions, gashuku and shinsa. I also feel more light, relaxed and confident in kamae – a feeling which can spill into my everyday life. I hope that this article may be of value and help to those facing similar issues. Please note the disclaimer below.*
Deep-Tissue Massage Therapy
So, what do I do? I use sports or deep-tissue massage therapy [DeBusk] [Wong] and a battery of other techniques covered elsewhere in “Ways to Relax Tight Shoulders”. By deep-tissue massage, I am referring to the sustained application of firm pressure to reach deep layers of muscle tissue and fascia (the connective tissue surrounding muscles). The claimed benefits are impressive.
[It can] assist the athlete in achieving his or her peak performance, prevent or reduce the risk of injury [and] help with injury recovery when needed [Cutler].
It can also help increase a person’s range of motion [Sutton], provide relief from painful trigger points [Hefferon] and heal the body [Bean75]. Indeed, it plays a growing role in the success of Olympic athletes [Cutler] and helped Dara Torres to become the oldest swimmer, at the age of 41, to win an Olympic medal [Weil].
If you already receive treatment from a sports massage therapist regularly or before and after each work-out, there’s probably no need to read any further. Otherwise, you may be in luck.
Deep-Tissue Self-Massage Therapy
This approach – without a therapist – can effectively loosen tight muscles in many areas such as the neck, shoulder, rotator cuff area, glutes, quadriceps and calf. It requires a ball (or other therapy device) and an open area on the floor or a wall. Due to an initial sensitivity of certain muscle areas, I started with a tennis ball (and foam roller) and later moved to the lacrosse ball for increased pressure. The lacrosse ball is not only firm but also small enough to transport in my bogu bag or gym bag easily.
Self-applied massage therapy uses body weight to apply pressure with a ball (or other device) on a target area. For example, one can lie down on the ground facing upwards and place the ball behind the shoulder blade area or glutes (or, stand and lean against a wall with the ball). This approach is passive in that body weight and gravity is used to do the work. The first step is to find the area of tightness and an appropriate body pose (which can be tricky) to set a desired level of pressure – not too much nor too little but to the point where I can feel some pain and relief. Once found, the next step is to relax the muscles in the area as much as possible, breathe and hold the position as long as desired. After a while, I usually experience a melting away or release of the tightness in the muscles around the ball area. This can feel wonderful and restorative.
Example Videos and Exercises
Here are some sample videos and exercises which describe the technique. Many more can be found by searching with keywords such as “lacrosse ball therapy [muscle area].”
- Upper back and shoulder area:
- Rotator cuff area:
- How To Reduce Rotator Cuff Muscle Tension Using a Lacrosse Ball (1:41 mins).
- CFJ Starrett Upper Body Maintenance.mov – Manchester Personal Trainer (9:20mins). Positions are shown starting at 3:04min, glutes at 8:46 min.
- How To Relieve Hip, Lower Back and Buttock Pain: Piriformis Myofascial Release Technique (4:58 mins). Positions shown starting at 1:19.
- Using a Lacrosse Ball for Tight Quads – Huntington Beach Sports Chiropractor Doctor (2:56 mins). Positions shown starting at 0:50.
- Calf muscles:
- Self Myofascial Release: Knot In Calves (4:29mins). Ball portion is from 1:48.
- I also use the seiza position with the shin of one or both legs on the ground (or on a chair) and insert either the tennis or lacrosse ball between the calf and hamstring.
- The amount of weight placed on the ball via my hamstring adjusts the pressure applied to the calf muscles.
- If seated on a chair, have the foot, whose leg has the ball, placed in mid-air and move the foot like a ballet dancer with the toes pushed away and then flexed back towards the shin. This helps reach different parts of the calf muscle area.
Some notes. As explained in the videos and by therapists, it is important to be gentle with oneself, not over-do things, breathe deeply, relax the muscles around the target area and drink as much water as needed afterwards. These techniques are quite related to trigger point therapy [Hefferon] and self myofascial release therapy [Pearlscott] [Sutton] [Keys] – though there are differences [Quora]. More details on the theory behind the release mechanism can be found in [Keys, PDF p. 9] [Sutton].
Many years ago, I witnessed massage therapy applied after a kendo practice at a local dojo at Nakano-Sakanoue near Shinjuku, Tokyo. After completing our individual bows to the sensei‘s and one another, a student knelt beside him and proceeded to knead the forearms of a renowned sensei 小沼宏至 Onuma Kōji (Hanshi 8th Dan). His forearm muscles looked quite strong and were probably painfully tight. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a therapist at the dojo to provide deep tissue massage relief before and after a practice?
[Bean75] Roy E. Bean, Helping Your Health with Pointed Pressure Therapy, Parker Publishing Co., 1975
[Keys] Patrick M. Keys, The Effects of Myofascial Release vs. Static Stretching on Hamstrings Range of Motion, Master’s Research Paper, Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Jan. 2014 (PDF, 22 pages).
* Disclaimer: the content herein is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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