When most people pull out a foam roller, the first thing they do is lie on their side and start rolling up and down the outside of their thigh — their IT band. Pain and plenty of cringing is usually (Read: always) involved. But that means it’s working, right?
Nope. As I’m quick to tell my personal training clients who are eager to hop on the foam roller and get to work, “foam rolling is for your muscles, not your connective tissues.” See, the iliotibial band (aka IT band) is anything but a pliable, contracting muscle. It’s actually a tough, fibrous tissue that runs from your hip to your knee, helping to keep your lower body in alignment and moving properly.
DEBUNKING THE MYTH OF FOAM ROLLING YOUR IT BAND
Most exercisers roll out their IT band in an attempt to “relax” a “tight” IT band or otherwise deal with IT band syndrome — typically diagnosed by pain felt on the outside of the knee, where the band attaches to bone.
But here’s the thing, when you roll out your IT band, you don’t actually “relax” it. After all, it doesn’t contract, so it can’t really relax out of any hypothetical over-contraction. However, with enough regular rolling, you can most certainly irritate and inflame the tissue, explains Meghan Callaway, CPT, a Canada-based strength coach.
Potentially, you could also work the tissue enough to elongate it. For instance, a 2017 study published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy suggests the IT band might be able to lengthen up to 2.75% with stretching. (Note, however, that the study looked at stretching rather than foam rolling.)
Before you get excited about lengthening your IT band, don’t. Lengthening the tissue may actually reduce its ability to keep your lower body working as it should and, most important, keep your body safe.
“When you fire the muscles in your hip, they pull on the IT band, which helps to move and control the knee,” explains Janet Hamilton, CSCS, an exercise physiologist at Running Strong in Atlanta. “You want the IT band to be nice and tight, so that when your hip does something, the knee goes: ‘Yes, sir!’ and responds as it should. If it’s loose, that won’t happen, and that’s where you can get into poor biomechanics and performance as well as an increase in injury risk.”
HERE’S HOW TO REALLY FIX IT
“The IT band is often unjustly blamed for many injuries and issues,” says Callaway, explaining that, most of the time, it’s the muscles surrounding the IT band, rather than the IT band itself, that is actually tight. “These muscles include the large gluteal muscle group and the tensor fasciae latae [both in the hips]. If these muscles tighten up, and this can be due to many different reasons, they will pull on the IT band, making it seem like it is tight,” she says.
A common reason is weakness and muscle imbalances. “For instance, if your hips are weak, when you walk, run or shift your weight from leg to leg, your pelvis may drop down farther than it should, which causes the muscles to tug on the IT band,” Hamilton says. “Or if your lateral hip [side butt]muscles are weak, the femur is going to rotate in too far with each step, further pulling on the IT band and causing a feeling of tightness.”
Hence, if you experience IT band pain, it’s best to address any potential muscle imbalances. Hamilton recommends paying special attention to weak glutes (and glute meds, in particular), calves and hamstrings. Focus on strengthening the muscles with exercises such as hip abductions, side planks with lateral leg raises, deadlifts, hamstring curls and eccentric calf raises. Also make sure to strengthen your core with planks, since the core is connected to the glutes and hamstrings, and can contribute to tightness in those muscles.
If you’re set on foam rolling something, stick to rolling your muscles — like your glutes, quads, hamstrings and calves. You’ll be better off for it.