Primal Rolls: Why Rolling Improves Athletic Performance

Primal rolls… a lot of our clients have encountered this deceptively difficult exercise. I imagine most of our clientele believe we program these solely for our own amusement as we watch them struggle to roll over on the floor.

While that’s not entirely true (it can still be amusing to watch sometimes) there are legitmate reasons to program primal rolls.

First, what is a primal roll?

Before I delve into the “why” we need to go over a few terms so we’re all up to speed.

The Core

You have an inner and an outer core.

Inner core: imagine a cylinder in your midsection with your pelvic floor as the bottom and your diaphragm at the top, the transverse abdominis is the front, and the lumbar multifidi constitute the back of the cylinder.

Functions: “Reactive” meaning it turns on without us thinking about it. It’s also involved in respiration (breathing), segmental spinal stabilization (keeping your spine from slipping around like a Jenga tower), and continence (not wetting your pants at inopportune moments.) The inner core supports the outer core and its most important function is that it must turn on and engage prior to the outer core muscles or abnormal muscle patterns (compensations) will result.

Outer core: erector spinae (muscles on either side of the spine), rectus abdominis, and the external obliques

Functions: posture stability, help produce movement (i.e crunches), resist external loads (maintaining a neutral spine during deadlifting or squatting), and attracting the opposite sex (it’s all ‘bout dem abz…).

Muscle Activation Sequence

According to this paper in the North American Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, movement dysfunction (compensation patterns or incorrect movements) is more often than not a problem with muscle sequencing and stabilization rather than weakness in a prime mover muscle; this means that the movement dysfunction is a neurological problem, not muscular strength problem.

When the inner core fails to fire properly- especially since one of it’s primary functions is to support the outer core- the body will increase the activation of the outer core muscles to compensate hence, those muscles are “on” all the time which can lead to trigger points, muscle fatigue, and “tightness” or restrictions in other muscle groups. It's all connected, folks!

Thus if we address muscle activation sequences then we can clean up movement dysfunctions and reduce the risk of injury due to those trigger points, fatigue, and restrictions.

It’s all About the Neck

Why do we, SAPT coaches, tell you to “pick up your head” first while performing a primal roll? Great question! Movements of the neck and head drive movement of the trunk. Neck flexion and extension will drive trunk flexion and extension. This is why we naturally want to look up when we’re at the bottom of a squat- it will help us drive upwards. Simply, where the head leads, the body follows.

By leading with your head/neck/eyes first, you’re ensuring that the nervous system is driving the movement which is the main point of rolling- to reset the neurological component of the inner/outer core coordination.

Types of Rolls

Supine (on your back) → prone (on your stomach) (upper lead)

Prone → supine (upper lead)

Supine → prone (lower lead)

Prone → supine (lower lead)

Ok, got it, but how does this relate to my sport/life?

Fair, it does seem a bit abstract doesn’t it? I’ll let the smarter-than-me authors from the paper speak for me:

The Relationship of Rolling to Rotation
Frequently, even highly functional patients demonstrate dysfunctional sequencing or poor coordination during active rotational movements that are part of their functional demands/tasks. Rolling patterns can easily illuminate rotational movement pattern dysfunction, especially when comparing between sides. It should be noted that the movement dysfunction is usually a problem with sequence and stabilization rather than a deficiency in strength of a prime mover. Theoretically, a person should be able to roll (rotate) equally easily to either the right or the left. Frequently athletes have a typical pattern or habitual “good side” for rotational activities. Consider the gymnast, thrower, or golfer; each of whom rotates to the same direction repeatedly, according to the demands of their sport. Examples include the twisting and spinning motions used during tumbling, the unidirectional rotation used during the throwing motion, and the same-side rotational motions that comprise the golf swing. In each of these examples, the athlete has a preferential side, and a pattern of rotation (e.g. always to the left in a right handed thrower or golfer) which is typical for the performance of their sport, and may have asymmetry in rolling to the opposite side.
The Relationship of Rolling to Other Movement Tasks
Although described in relationship to rotational tasks and movements, rolling is not only related to rotational tasks. The rolling patterns can function as a basic assessment of the ability to shift weight, cross midline, and coordinate movements of the extremities and the core. Abnormalities of the rolling patterns frequently expose proximal to distal and distal to proximal sequencing errors or proprioceptive inefficiency that may present during general motor tasks. Finally, many adults have lost the ability to capture the power or utilize the innate relationship of the head, neck, and shoulders to positively affect coordinated movements.

Got that? The ability to roll is in fact crucial to your performance of daily movements particularly shifting weight from side to side, activities that cross the midline and use both sides of the body at the same time (think running, sprinting, even walking), and coordinating your arms/legs with your core (which is every movement…).

Rolling also teaches disassociation between the upper and lower extremities. Why is that important? Think about a soccer kick: the upper and lower halves of the body must move independently to actually create the movement. If they didn't then you'd look like a Foosball player without a stick, not terribly useful in a game. 

Remember that whole "neurological coordination" thing? Nearly every athletic movement requires both sides of your body/brain to work together and if there are hiccups in those signals, well, you're performance is going to suffer. 

Rolling acts as a reset button for your nervous system and you become more efficient at organizing yourself from a athletic performance standpoint. 

Get Rollin'!

As silly as they seem (and you feel doing them), rolling patterns are useful for resetting aberrant muscle sequences that could be holding back your performance and potentially even be the source of injuries and/or pain.

P.S. If you really want to put on your nerd pants, then I recommend reading the full paper (linked above) as they dig deeper than I did here- it really is very interesting.