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Athletic development specialists dedicated to the art and science of excellence in movement

An Athlete's Guide to Ghetto Massage Tools

Consult an urban dictionary and you’ll note the unofficial definition of "Ghetto Massage" refers to “tough-guy” methods to extract money from an unwilling victim (i.e., He was reluctant to give me his rolex at first, but a little ghetto massage soon convinced him).  Think the bully who takes your lunch money.  Probably not the most politically correct term for a blog, but we’ll just roll with it since it gets the point across…

Having the unlimited services a skilled manual therapist is a benefit limited mostly to professional athletes.  However, even in the pro sports world, the athletes still must make appointments to see the therapist or wait in line with others on the team.  Enter the world of “ghetto” massage implements, which are a necessity if you utilize self-massage techniques for  movement preparation and recovery. 

To some, this blog might seem like an elementary review.  Originally I hadn’t even considered the value of writing such a blog, but with new athletes entering the stable at the beginning of the new year, perhaps it is time for a review of what tools are available and how best to utilize them. 

FULL GHETTO

*Softball

  • Good for deeper areas likes the psoas, quads, and hamstrings.  Just as a therapist will use a finger or an elbow for different body parts, the softball has different applications than lacrosse balls and golf balls.  I know one clinician who uses something he calls the “softball test” for his patients.  He assigns them to get a softball from a sporting goods store for home use in between sessions.  If they won’t make the effort to pay the $2.00 at Play-it-Again Sports for something cheap like a softball, it’s unlikely they will do all the little things needed to take care of themselves outside the clinic. 

*Tennis ball

  • Smaller and more focused than the softball but (ironically) not as firm as the softball.  Tennis balls are effective for virtually every common soft tissue restriction.  Use duct tape or gorilla tape to create tennis ball peanut, which is mostly used for thoracic spine mobility.

*Golf ball

  • Perhaps the firmest of this bunch.  Difficult to reach fleshier areas, but can be useful for less fleshy areas like the plantar fascia.  However, don’t fall into the trap of automatically assuming “harder is better” when using the golf ball on the bottom of the feet.   Remember that the plantar fascia contains multiple layers and the troublesome layer may be the most superficial.  Go too hard and you end up addressing the deeper tissues that might not be causing any problems.

*Lacrosse ball

  • Similar size to a tennis ball, but has the ability to go firmer.  If you live in the mid-Atlantic, you probably see lacrosse balls bouncing down the street every day, but when I first looked for a softball in Arizona I actually had to make a few trips to finally locate one.   The lacrosse ball is a good medium between the tennis ball and baseball.   

*Baseball

  • One step up in firmness from the lacrosse ball.  Having a baseball, lacrosse ball, and tennis ball gives you three options of similar circumference, each with different firmness. 

*PVC Pipe

  • Aka, The ghetto foam roller.  Nothing says ghetto massage like shopping for massage tools at Lowe’s or home depot.  As the moniker would imply, the PVC pipe can substitute many of the same functions as the roller, such as thoracic spine, TFL/IT Band, quads, and calves.  Since PVC pipes weren’t designed for massage comfort, these may be too firm if you are extra tender in those areas.

*Rolling pin

  • Aka, The ghetto Stick (see below for description of The Stick).  The rolling pin can perform many similar functions to The Stick, such as massaging the calves and thighs.  Biggest deficiency with the rolling pin is that it is too wide for targeted work, though many swear by it for IT band relief. 

Partial ghetto

Partial ghetto tools were actually designed for self-massage, unlike the full ghetto tools which merely have dual uses in places like plumbing and the kitchen.  These partial ghetto tools are all cheaper than the hourly rate for a real manual therapist, which prevents these tools from reaching non-ghetto status.  They are a step upward in price compared to full ghetto tools and are sometimes more effective depending on the specific needs of the task.

*Foam rollers

  • Foam rollers comes in varying degrees of stiffness and design.  At one extreme you have soft rollers, while at the other extreme you have extremely firm rollers.  Rollers come in varying sizes, from one to three feet long, which offers different portability options.  You can also get rollers in a semi-circle rather than full circle.  Recently, specialized foam rollers (that usually aren’t foam) have emerged onto the market.  These rollers usually have various ridges and other perturbations.  Some people like them because they hurt more, but that’s generally not the reason for the design.  I think of these as combining the best of what the roller has to offer with the targeted design of a ball.  These are VERY crude versions specialized techniques that a therapist would perform but without near the same level of precision.    

*Spikey Ball

  • One of my favorites, designed by pioneering golf physiotherapist Ramsay McMaster, who sadly passed away recently at too young an age.  There are other balls that have the spikey design, but in my opinion, nothing matches the quality of the Spikey ball.    

*Sticks: The Stick, Tiger Tail, Muscletrac

  • The Stick is the most popular of this category, but others such as the Tiger Tail and Muscletrac have emerged lately.  These are especially effective on the calves and thighs, but with a partner can be used on the back as well. 

*Other balls: Posture Ball, Miracle Ball

  • These are the partial ghetto analog to tennis balls, softballs, and baseballs.   You can find varying sizes and firmness among these offerings if the ghetto tools don’t get the job done.  

*Trigger Point Performance Therapy

  • The TP kit has a nearly cult-like following in triathlon.  Relatively pricey, but many athletes swear by it despite the lack of scientific evidence.  They also make specialized foam rollers.  If there is any problem with the kit, it’s that many athletes remain on a perpetual cycle of attacking the same trigger points without considering causes of why trigger points exist.  That’s a whole ‘nuther discussion for another day, but something to be considered if you constantly attack the same “hot spots”!

Non-ghetto

*Real therapist

  • Nothing compares to set of human hands.  We can also include specialized implements like scraping tools that trained human hands can utilize.  However, the biggest drawbacks are cost and convenience.  Always have a good set of hands available and make regular appointments, but know that real therapists are not available 24/7 as the ghetto and partial ghetto tools are.

*Vibration machine

  • Some dismiss vibration training as a hoax, while others cite evidence to support the efficacy of full body vibration training to enhance recovery, regeneration, and proprioreception.  I don’t have enough personal experience to take either side, but know that Vibration decidedly falls into the non-ghetto category of manual therapy based on its cost into the tens of thousands of dollars.

CONCLUSION

Having a toolbox of full ghetto and/or partial ghetto massage tools is one of the most valuable investments an athlete can make into longevity and performance.  The fewer days we miss, the more we improve.  You can build a serviceable toolbox of full ghetto tools for under $10.  No excuses for not being prepared at that price!   

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