Muscle Flossing Is the Next Recovery Technique to Add to Your Arsenal
Sure, it's become really popular to foam roll post-sweat sesh, but what if there was a recovery method that targeted trigger points, sped up recovery, and alleviated sore, hardworking muscles better (and faster!) than your trusty roller? Welp, according to functional movement specialist Mitchell Fischer, certified trainer and USA Weightlifting Coach with Gold's Gym, there is: muscle flossing.
Never heard of it? Most athletes haven't. Here's what the heck muscle flossing is, how it's used, and the benefits of the practice.
What Is Muscle Flossing?
Popular amongst CrossFit athletes and bodybuilders but otherwise under the radar, muscle flossing uses a tool called muscle floss (sometimes called Voodoo floss) that looks like a resistance band on steroids. (For a visual, check out Rogue's Voodoo Floss Bands or WOD Floss's Compression Bands, both of which are available for under thirty bucks). Usually made of latex rubber, the tool (which unlike resistance bands is not a loop) gets wrapped tightly around (and around) a specific joint or group of muscles, almost like an Ace bandage. Once it's on, the user performs certain exercises to move that joint around. The theory is that, by compressing the area, you're helping to improve mobility, decrease pain, and speed up recovery.
How to Use Muscle Floss
This isn't something to DIY on the first try. Experts agree that a physical therapist or strength and conditioning coach should apply the floss at least the first few times you use it. Otherwise, you could be doing yourself more harm than good (more on the potential risks below).
You can wrap the floss around your elbows, shoulders, knees, ankles, biceps, triceps, quads/hamstrings, and calves. Any other area—neck, face/head, and anything part of your torso including your chest, spine, lower back, and abdomen—you're going to want to avoid, says physical therapist Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., founder of Movement Vault, a mobility and movement company for athletes like CrossFitters. "I also don't typically recommend the groin area because there are some nerves in that area you could damage if you wrap the tool too tightly." (To that point, here are 4 Facts About Your Clitoris You Probably Don't Know LOL).
Start by figuring out what areas of the body you're going to floss by taking inventory of what's sore or tight. Once you've found your target, start from the top-down, leave a loose end (about 5 inches) and wrap that baby around, securing the end in place. "As you wrap, overlap the bands by at least half of its width as you cover the area you want to mobilize," says Fischer. "Then, tuck the remaining band into the last layer of wrap."
The goal is for the band to be on tight enough to compress, but not so tightly that circulation gets cut off. A good rule of thumb is that the band should get about 50 percent larger than its original size. "But the more often you floss, the more mobile you'll become and you may have to increase tension to penetrate deeper into the tissue," says Fischer.
Once you're wrapped? Move! "Set a timer for 30 seconds to 2 minutes (depending on your tolerance to the tightness) and move the joint through its full range of motion," says Fischer. Then unwrap the band and move the joint. See how it feels, and assess if you need to repeat or move to a new area.
Need an example? "If you feel tightness in your right shoulder, you'd wrap that area and then move that your arm side-to-side, up and down, and in circles in order to attack the tightness from all angles," says Wickam. (The 'all angles' piece of this is important because that's what makes it arguably more effective than a foam roller.)
Very important PSA: "The floss might feel uncomfortable, but should NOT be painful," says Fischer. If at any point the band feels too tight, it probably is. "The potential danger of flossing is either wrapping it to tight or leaving the bands on for too long and therefore restricting blood flow to the point of causing pain or a part of the body to lose feeling," he explains. "So, if you start to feel tingling, pain, or a throbbing soreness, stop using it immediately. And if the feeling doesn't dissipate within five minutes, call your healthcare provider.
Uses and Benefits of Muscle Flossing
Ok, but is muscle flossing really worth the effort? Admittedly, "there's not a lot of research that confirms that or how muscle flossing works, but the thought is that it through compression it offers myofascial release and boosted recovery," says Erwin Seguia, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., Founder of match fit performance. Here's the deal.
1. Boosted Mobility
If you own a foam roller or Theragun, chances are, you've heard of myofascial release—a technique that involves applying pressure to an area in order to break up all the gunk (scar tissue, adhesions, knots) in the fascia beneath it. (See more: What is Fascia and Why Does It Even Matter?)
Muscle flossing is a form of myofascial release because you're physically compressing the fascia via pressure. "As you move the muscles around the compressed area, the adhesions and restrictions get broken down and dissipate," explains Wickham. (FYI: 'muscle flossing' is named for this exact benefit. "You're getting rid of all the gook between the muscle and fascia, the way you would get rid of plaque between two teeth," he explains). The benefit? "The ability to move more and with less pain."
2. Faster Recovery
Another benefit of muscle flossing happens right after the floss comes off. "When the floss is on, you're restricting blood flow to the area," says Wickham, "But then when you take the floss off, all the blood flow rushes to the joint and muscle, flooding it with the nutrients and oxygen it needs to recover."
It may sound counterintuitive (since the blood flow is restricted at first), but the idea is that when you're done flossing, taking it off ultimately creates an environment there are more recovery agents than there would be had the floss not been used at all, he explains.
3. Extra Time
In a minute-over-minute comparison, flossing offers more benefit than foam rolling. "Flossing and foam rolling both work to release tension in the fascia that surrounds our muscle tissues," explains Fischer. "But flossing makes the process much more efficient by releasing a whole set of tissues, as opposed to one localized muscle at a time." Simply put, flossing is a faster way to relieve knots and trigger points, improve recovery, and get back an extra few minutes a day? Sold.
Should You Be Using Muscle Floss or Voodoo Floss?
"If you're using it consistently, it can definitely help," says Seguia. But (!) if you're not optimizing your recovery in other ways, he says it's pretty silly to purchase muscle floss. "I like to say that muscle flossing is the bonus two percent in a recovery plan because, sure, it has benefits but it needs to be accompanied by other important recovery strategies like stress management, good nutrition, and a solid sleep schedule." (Related: Why Sleep In The Most Important Thing For A Fitter, Healthier Body).
That said, if you're already optimizing your recovery in other ways, "it's a great addition to your recovery and mobility and recovery toolbox," says Wickham. It could replace your other myofascial release methods if you use it every day, says Fischer. "I like to say: Flossing every day keeps the doctor away!"
As long as you don't have any preexisting heart or blood clot conditions and are in-tune with your body's pain threshold, Wickham says there's really no harm in trying muscle flossing. Just make sure to have an expert wrap the floss the first few times you use it.
More than anything, Wickham and Seguia encourage anyone with mobility issues and tightness to make sure that whatever method you're using for boosted mobility—be it muscle floss, foam roller, lacrosse ball, Theragun, etc.—you use it regularly. "For pain reduction, injury prevention, and boosted mobility, consistency is key," says Wickham. "Even five minutes a day is enough to see a difference if you're currently doing nothing."