The massage balls, often known as “spikey balls” are popular within the fitness industry, and they are also used as a versatile piece of pilates equipment. They have many benefits including increased body awareness and proprioception, muscle release, muscle recovery, and mental relief, as well as just being a fun addition to your workout! Let’s discuss how they work in each of these benefits:
Body awareness & proprioception
The sensation of the massage balls pressing into the skin stimulates the mechanoreceptors (receptors in the skin that respond to different touch sensations). This creates a sense of greater body awareness. The balls can also be used underneath the feet during the pilates exercises eg during any double table top exercise as a marker to locate the ball as the foot returns to the mat or during one leg stretch type exercises as you roll the ball away from you on the leg extension aspect. This creates awareness and control through precise movement patterns, providing more efficient body mechanics too.
The massage balls relieve tension within the myofascial system (the muscle itself as well as the myofascia and tissue that surrounds it), therefore promoting better movement throughout the soft tissue structures. This enhanced mobility will improve joint motion too as there is less tension on the joints. This releasing of the soft tissue structures aids with improving circulation and blood flow, where this may be impaired with tight structures previously. Better circulation allows the nutrients and oxygen to flow freely and reduces the muscle aches that are experienced with tight muscles. Having the massage ball target those hard to reach areas, or deeper areas of tightness can assist with your stretching, as the muscles are manually released first before you actively stretch them. This can provide better stretching and better flexibility.
When an area becomes locally tightened a trigger point may be formed and these can become very painful as the area is deprived of adequate blood flow, oxygen, and the painful areas become clustered together. By concentrating the massage ball on the trigger points you will relieve this tension and reduce the pain. Trigger points can also lead to subsequent symptoms such as headaches as the muscular tension escalates and is localised to one region, therefore massaging the upper trapezius and suboccipital muscles (muscles around the upper shoulders and neck) can lengthen these muscles and reduce cervicogenic tension and headaches.
Maximise muscle recovery
The above benefits of myofascial and trigger point release, and subsequent improved stretching will all aid with maximising muscle recovery. By looking after your muscles and reducing the build up of tension, you will be able to continue training with less aches and pains. This self-care practise will also aim to minimise injury risk by encouraging the normal function of your muscles and preventing tension that leads to inefficient and inappropriate muscle patterns.
Whole body approach
Rolling the massage balls under the soles of your feet along the plantar fascia generates great whole body benefits. The plantar fascia often get tight here with increased walking or weight bearing activities. This can also put strain throughout the whole posterior aspect of your body as the connective tissue is all linked together in what is called your posterior sling. The plantar fascia must be mobile to accommodate the numerous small bones in your feet that need to articulate with every step you take, and this is then related to the mobility of your ankles, knees, hips and spine. Therefore, releasing the soles of your feet can help lengthen and mobilise the entire body!
The relaxation of your muscles from easing the tightness and tension accompanied by the increase blood flow this creates can also help with lowering your blood pressure and decreasing your production of stress hormones. This promotes an overall relaxation response and a sense of mental relaxation.