Improve Tracking

Roll Muscles to Free Movement

By Art Riggs
[Q & Art]

Dear Art,

Some of my yoga and athletic clients have asked if I can improve “tracking” muscles and joints in my massage sessions. Could you please clarify this term and offer some techniques to use? 

—Tracking Tracy


Dear Tracking, 

The majority of strokes we perform move parallel to muscle fiber direction to relax and elongate short and tight tissue, improving comfort, movement, and posture. This is of tremendous benefit, but these strokes don’t straighten muscles that are twisted or pulled out of alignment, so the muscles don’t “track” in the direction they are intended to contract. This creates strain and excess wear and tear on large joints, such as elbows, hips, knees, and shoulders. 

Visualize the soleus and gastrocnemius muscles, the contraction of which plantarflexes the foot and provides the power for propulsion of the body through space. Take a moment to rotate (roll from left to right) your calf around the long axis of the tibia/fibula from side to side to end range of movement. Most everyone will find a bias to more easily rotate these muscles either laterally or medially, as well as a feeling of being stuck in certain areas. (I call this “hunting for where the Velcro is catching.”) 

Now, imagine how this rotational bias may manifest itself when jumping, running, or walking thousands of steps each day. This torsion can cause unequal strain on the Achilles tendon and ankles, and prevent efficient transmission of muscle force, leading to Achilles tendinitis, plantar fasciitis, and significant strain through the knees and hips. 

We often see athletes using high-tech tape (like Kinesio Tape or PerformTex) over joints to pull muscles into alignment so joints move properly. The great news is that we, as therapists, can focus our intention to not just lengthening muscles, but realigning them into a more efficient and freely moving position. 

All that is needed is to grab a muscle compartment and roll the entire muscle from side to side to free it from restrictions with adjacent or deeper muscles. Often, large muscle groups such as the calves, gluteals, hamstrings, quadriceps, and triceps actually feel stuck deep down at the level of the bones, so we must picture rolling these muscles completely to their end range of restriction, then waiting patiently for the adhesions to melt and relax, thus creating better alignment and joint tracking.

It is crucial to understand that you are not jostling muscles back and forth quickly; it may take more than a minute for the muscle to release and soften while you wait at end range of the rolling. This is very different from effective cross-fiber friction techniques that roll over the muscle rather than rolling the entire muscle. Although I often speak of stretching muscles to effect a release and lengthening, it may sometimes be advantageous to position the body so that the muscle is a bit shorter and relaxed so you have more freedom to grab and roll the muscle around the bone.

Let’s look briefly at a few of the (almost limitless) possibilities that easily demonstrate this technique.

Rolling the Iliotibial Band/Quadriceps Around the Femur

This can be done in prone, supine, or a side-lying position and is extremely beneficial for proper hip and knee tracking. First, determine if the muscles and fascia have bias to rotate either laterally or medially around the femur to determine which direction to release. Keeping your hands soft and applying force with your body weight, simply grab as much tissue as possible and deliberately rotate around the bone (rather than rotating the bone) to end range, and then apply steady pressure until you feel the tissue release (Image 1). The key is steady pressure rather than using too much effort and trying to force things. This could be equally effective with the adductors or hamstrings.

Mobilizing the Deltoid and Upper Trapezius 

So many forces in our lives put us into a forward-slumped shoulder position. Most often the whole deltoid complex is rotated forward around the shoulder joint, causing negative effects on posture and glenohumeral function. 

 My students love the technique of grabbing the entire deltoid complex and rotating it around the joint in a posterior direction, again patiently waiting for a release. You may also take advantage of active motion by having your client slowly move the humerus into internal or external rotation as you hold the tissue stationary (Image 2).

Not all trapezius tension is due to short muscles. While you are at it, why not use a soft fist to gently mobilize the upper trapezius posteriorly (Image 3)? 

Freeing the Calf 

The side-lying position affords the best mechanical advantage using one or two soft fists (Image 4), but flexing the knee in supine position will also offer a stroke that really feels good and allows for gripping the whole calf (Image 5). 

I hope these options give you some clarity and strategies for rolling muscles and that it proves helpful in your practice. I find that clients love the feeling, and they often say that they haven’t experienced the sensation before and describe the work as “molding clay.”