What is MELT? And how is it different from self-myofascial release?

What is MELT? And how is it different from self-myofascial release?

This is Part Two of a three part series based on my Interview with Sue Hitzmann, the founder of the MELT Method. In Part One, we discussed what fascia is and why it matters. Click here if you’d like to read that first.

What are the differences between MELT and the self-myofascial release techniques that are taught by NASM, for example?

Myofascial release or MFR is a technique to restore blood flow to muscles through compressive force.  The goal of self-myofascial release is to improve blood flow to tight or weak muscles to restore their function.

When people talk about myofascia, they’re still just talking about muscle.  Recently many educators have added the word myofascia or myofascial release when they talk about strength-based protocols. However,  it’s really the same thing. When you say myofascia, you’re talking about muscles – you are just adding the idea that muscles have continuity by adding the word fascia to it. Traditional MFR techniques are based on heavy, direct compression, to affect the muscle spindles so they react to the compression. 

The big problem with MFR is when you do it to yourself instead of having a qualified therapist doing it to you. Just because you roll on an area of your body that has sensitivity doesn’t mean it’s going to fix the problem. There isn’t a ton of really great research that has proven the efficacy of the blood flow changes through self-myofascial release.  In fact, there are certain research articles that have come out in the last four or five years that are dismissing the concept that it’s even happening or that it’s making any type of improvement over the long haul to restore muscle timing.  Although it may make a temporary change, it’s short lived. There’s actually the potential that you could damage the surrounding tissue and cause inflammation from your compression, if you don’t really know what or why you are doing what you are doing.  It can actually cause more interference in how muscles communicate through the myofascial meridians.  So, there’s a lot of controversy right now about myofascial release.

Sue Hitzmann demonstrating MELT on the Soft Roller

MELT on the other hand is a simple self-treatment technique to restore the fluid state of the connective tissue system.  My focus has always been on restoring the hydration and ultimately helping the extensibility of the connective tissue as a system, and the communication support that occurs through mechanoreceptors in the connective tissue proper.  So I’m talking about the entire connective tissue system from skin to bone as a grid that creates tensional support or what’s called tensegrity architecture.

What I have developed are models and techniques that bring an understanding and an awareness of what’s occurring in the connective tissue cells themselves.  Connective tissue cells called fibroblasts are reactive to tension and compression. They react in a positive way when you create light compression or gentle tensional pull in local regions of the body. For the tissue to react in a positive way, you have to ease compression in, so I’ve developed techniques I call Gliding, Shearing, Rinsing that allow the tissue time to respond and adapt to the self-treatment. There is an organized fashion that we use to directly treat these tissues in our body. It’s a very systematic approach. You don’t want overexcite the nervous system by self-inflicting pain with a pressure that is too heavy or deep.

In 2004, when I developed the soft roller, I had already been doing traditional myofascial release techniques but the manual therapy techniques I started learning in 1996 really shifted my understanding of how the body reacted to touch – even the lightest touch.  So none of the products at that time really allowed me to simulate the light touch I was doing on my clients. Working with Gil only solidified the idea that there was much more to learn about the body than what I had already set as my foundation in anatomy.

It was a big transition for me – I mean, after meeting Gil and looking at the body in an entirely different way I had to basically relearn how I viewed the body. I was kind of a little pissed off because of all the education I had behind me already never discussed connective tissue as much more than a packing material. I now had a new understanding of how connective tissue reacts to compression and tensional pull that actually was completely the opposite of many of the ideas that I worked with in neuromuscular therapy and myofascial release concepts.

So, that’s why I developed the soft roller.  So that I could get people to slow down a little bit and allow the tissue more time to adapt in its hydration.  I’ve learned that when you compress connective tissue in a more organized way, the fibroblasts react in a positive way. The tissue adapts quickly and the more consistently you do it, the longer it lasts.  Remember that fibroblasts produce all of the molecular components of the entire connective tissue matrix.  They produce the ground substance that keeps the connective tissue stable, the elastin and the collagen and the reticular fibers, and the integrity of the extra cellular matrix that creates that gel-like tissue that supports everything and gives everything it’s glide ability as well as its connection and space.

With MELT, I’m looking to restore the connective tissue’s hydration to eliminate chronic pain and chronic pre-pain signals that most of us don’t even know are going on in the body.

Self-myofascial release is traditionally activities that you would describe as rolling.  Are there any rolling type exercises in MELT?

There are some rolling or compression techniques, but very little compared to all of the other curriculum. MELT is a neuro-fascial technique. I’m less focused on changing the muscle as the benefit and more concerned with improving the balance and regulation of the nervous system. MELT Rebalancing techniques quiet the stress reflex by addressing the three regulators in our nervous system.  We roll very little on the soft roller, but when we do, instead of ironing yourself like a shirt, or pressing on an area that inflicts pain, we compress the tissue in very organized ways to induce the fluid adaptation in the connective tissue cells.

You know people love to roll their IT bands, right?  They ooh and ahh and make painful looking faces as they do it. They just roll back and forth and back and forth and then they find this one spot that’s so painful they hold their breath and they sit on it and wait.  Then they roll back and forth again.  I know people believe it’s helping, but self-inflicting pain to get out of pain just seems like a stupid idea. Quite honestly, you can disorganize the fluid nature of connective tissue, cause inflammation, irritate nerve beds, and damage cells doing things like this.

If you want to get out of pain, you want to quiet the stress reflex and eliminate stuck stress. You don’t want to increase the stress levels of your body to get out of pain. It just doesn’t work that way.

So what we do with MELT is treat local regions of connective tissue in very organized ways with the techniques called Gliding, Shearing, and Rinsing to yield the global fluid exchange.  I also have the hand and foot treatment where we use small balls to stimulate all of the different types of the mechanoreceptors in the connective tissue and yields a fluid exchange and a neurological reaction from your hands and your feet, where most of the proprioreceptors and the mechanoreceptors are, and yield that signal through the entire body. I call this signal, the aspects of the nervous system that support, protect, and stabilize you automatically, the body’s Autopilot.  One way the Autopilot keeps you stable is sustaining a good neurological connection to your center of gravity, which is in your pelvis.

It’s like our nervous system is always trying to acquire a GPS signal, a signal to the center of gravity by using the proprioceptors in your joints to locate where your body is in space. When the connective tissue is dehydrated, it alters this signal through the connective tissue matrix, through the sensory nerves and it looses it’s connection to the primary proprioceptors in your joints. Your joints are like satellites that need to sustain communication between the ground and your pelvis and surrounding joints. When the connective tissue is dehydrated, it alters the signal through the connective tissue matrix, and your GPS signal through the sensory nerves isn’t accurate.

The majority of your sensory nerves are embedded in the connective tissue.  That’s something I don’t think people know.  There are 10 times the amount of sensory nerve endings embedded in the connective tissue than there are in the muscles.  There’s more sensory receptors in the connective tissue than any other tissue in your body.  The only tissues that are rich with this many nerve endings are your organs.

I’ve noticed that you’re using a new terminology for MELT.  You’re calling it Hands- Off Bodywork®.  What is the rationale for calling it that?  Do you feel that this method is less about exercise and more similar to massage?

MELT is not an exercise technique.  I’m a manual therapist and hands-on bodyworker.  With MELT, instead of giving people exercise as homework, I started to develop techniques that would simulate and create the results I do with my hands on my clients.  I started by using different shaped, sized, textured balls and rollers and PVC piping and rocks and kitchen utensils, basically anything I could think to try using.  I was just trying anything that I could on my own body to try to yield the same results that I’m looking for with my clients.  One day I decompressed my own neck and I thought, holy crap, I think I just figured it out.  It just kind of went from there.

When I registered the trademark of Hands-Off Bodywork®, it was to distinguish this as a therapeutic modality. It creates similar benefits and results of my hands-on therapeutic techniques, but it certainly costs a lot less and is accessible to more people.  The concept of Hands-Off Bodywork® is to teach people how to become their own manual therapist.  They’re learning how to manipulate their body through the use of the soft body roller and the hand and foot treatment balls and yielding the same results. If you don’t have a therapist or you want to sustain the work that they do longer, MELT is a great add-on technique to any therapy or exercise program you do.

I know you had training in a lot of fields.  Would you describe your bodywork as fitting into any specific types of categories that you practice as a practitioner or is it really work over the years?

Well, I’ve been trained in many different modalities. My background was in neuromuscular therapy at the onset,  but I’ve spent a dozen years studying craniosacral therapy, visceral manipulation, and other light touch techniques.

I have a unique gift, I guess, and I found my calling to use it. I have always been able to sense vibrations or what I call stuck stress in a body. For years I had asked many practitioners, doctors, and movement specialists, “When you touch your client, can you feel a vibration under the skin?I always felt like I was asking everybody “Are you my mother?”.  Finally someone said “Yes I do. Maybe you’re feeling a cranial rhythm.” I had the belief that what I was feeling was the sensory nervous system and the vibration within nerves.

When I met Gil, and I saw that superficial fascia, I said, “Do you think what I’m feeling is the fluid vibration in the connective tissue? ”  And he said, “What does it feel like?”  And I said, “It’s kind of like a fluid river, kind of like running and so a lot of people sort of traverse it.  It doesn’t stay in a cohesive cylindrical kind of motion.  Kind of moving around.”  And he said, “Yeah, you’re probably feeling the fluid aspects of the connective tissue.

So I got a little more bold in what I was doing, which I believed was helping the flow stay more cohesive and consistent. My first objective was to restore the fluid movement of the whole connective tissue matrix.  Then I would go in and do more direct techniques.  I would treat their liver for immobilization, or I would work on the pituitary gland. I’d decompress their cervical vertebrae,  or I would release the inner compartments of their abductors.  I would get more specific doing NMT, cranial, or visceral work. That was when I started seeing all of these profound results in clients.  I started wondering if I could teach people these homework techniques in a group environment and I started teaching it as a class. At first, nobody understood what the hell I was talking about.  It’s taken years to develop this technique that informs people about their bodies in a very unique way.  I’ve had to develop my own language to explain what this system is and what it’s able to do it in a very simplified way.

My technique of MELT is to gets people to assess if their Autopilot, or nervous system, is able to efficiently find their center of gravity or not.  If your Autopilot can’t find the center of gravity efficiently, oftentimes  stress has accumulated so much in your connective tissue and in your nervous system that you can’t regulate natural balance.  The regulators get thrown off.  If there’s too much stress and not enough repair occurring, it tips the scale and now you’re just accumulating stress in the body.

The key techniques taught in MELT are reconnect, rebalance, rehydrate and release. Reconnect is a way to assess your body, its current alignment and the state of your body prior to doing the treatment. Rebalancing techniques quiet the stress reflex and get the regulators back into balance.  They get the communication and the connection back to the Autopilot.  Then we do Rehydration techniques. Some are compression techniques, somewhat similar to myofascial release, but in a much more organized, light touch way.  Others are lengthening techniques because connective tissue also relates to tensional pulling.  If you pull on connective tissue and then let it go, it also creates a change in the fluid and fibers and creates excitation to the fibroblasts to yield a fluid exchange. Finally, I teach people how to Release the primary spaces of their body, like their neck, their low back, their joints in their hands and their feet, to yield better mobilization of these vital joints that keep us active and healthy and related to the alignment of our joints. 

So these concepts are very different from just rolling on your tissue to improve blood flow or releasing tight knots in muscles. I don’t know if I believe that stuff works as well as people think it will.

So as a Trainer and a Pilates Instructor, I’d love to turn the conversation back towards the fitness industry. How do you think this fits into a changed model of fitness?  And what do you recommend to people who are practicing self-myofascial release techniques?

To answer the question of how this fits in with fitness, there are two things to remember:

  1. It’s the dirty little secret of fitness is that all the fitness professionals are injured.  They all have chronic stress issues.  They all have chronic pain.  I mean, like that’s the biggest lie of the industry and I learned that the hard way when I was in my early and mid 20’s and my body started to go into that pain cycle.  That’s actually what got me out of fitness and being the Crunch Boot Camp girl to going into connective tissue and the world of manual therapy.
  2. MELT is an absolute add-on-program to get people into a place where their bodies are more prepared to do anything, whether it’s Yoga, Pilates, or Weight Training. It would be better if our nervous system knew where our natural center of gravity was before we apply all of these other techniques because the more your body is able to acquire the signal from head to toe of where the joints are at in space, the better performance you can achieve.

For people who are entering fitness for the first time, MELT is a great starting place to really help them know right away if their body is having some trouble.  It helps them connect to their intuitive sense, where they think, gosh, you know, I don’t think my body’s quite ready to be taking that kickboxing class.  MELT is also is for the seasoned Yogi, Pilates Instructor, or participant who has been doing things for a long time. You hear about this all the time …  someone who’s been doing Yoga forever all of a sudden tears their hamstring doing the same down dog that they’ve been doing for years.  Why did they strain the tissue today?  It’s because the connective tissue and the nervous system were not prepared to go any further because the communication was not precise, because the body, for whatever reason, didn’t have that good GPS signal from the pelvis to the rest of the joints.

For anybody who’s looking to engage in a healthy, active lifestyle, we should know more about the system that supports, protects and stabilizes us because we cannot be efficiently mobile if we’re inefficiently stable. You can’t just stand on a Bosu, stretch, or practice Pilates and think that you’re going to become more stable and efficient in your movement.  If anything, what you do is become better at compensating.  So now what you have is a stronger, more dysfunctional system that’s actually getting further out of natural balance where the nervous system really goes so awry pain occurs.  You bend over to pick up a pencil and you blow your back out.  You think that’s an acute trauma, but you just picked up a pencil.  You didn’t get hit by a bus.  Why did your back go out?

Myofascial release techniques and general exercise do not address the cohesive matrix of the connective tissue as a system.  MELT treats the system to improve its function to support us before we move.  I feel like for anybody looking to improve their fitness level or to advance themselves in any type of exercise activity, being in a good place to begin with is just smart.

Do I recommend not doing myofascial release?  No. Cassidy Phillips has this great program called Trigger Point Therapy, and Jill Miller has Yoga Tune Up, where she uses Yoga Tune Up® Therapy Balls (grippy pliable rubber balls that have yield and softness to them) to release the muscles around these areas where muscles tend to get locked.  I would tell anybody what would be great is if you just did a little bit of MELT and then you did myofascial release. I guarantee your myofascial effort would last longer and make much better changes overall.  Your body would use that new information and use those changes for a longer period of time.

One of the reasons I went to a soft roller wasn’t just because we were getting people who were eliminating pain.  People started coming back saying, “You know, Sue, I’m sleeping better.”  Others saying, “I have Parkinson’s and I’m not shaking as much,” or people with MS who suddenly feel more balanced and stable.  It’s because we’re helping their nervous system create better regulation by using the soft rollers.  

I think myofascial release techniques have a time and a place.  I think that they are great things to do for athletes.  To help those regions of their body that they overuse and abuse, like their calves or their quadriceps, to create that shift in the deeper regions of myofascia to open the compartments where the blood flow declines and causes also neurological discrepancies or imbalances.

I think myofascial release techniques have a time and a place.  I think that they are great things to do for athletes.

Those are very deep, very specific techniques.  I always feel like if you’re going to experience myofascial release, you should really experience it with a hands-on body worker.  A skilled, heavy pressured, hands-on body worker who knows what they’re doing and knows where to work in your body to make global changes.  I don’t think the general public has enough intelligence or understanding about what’s going on under their skin to be taking a tennis ball into their stomach or rolling a golf ball on their foot because just like with Yoga or Pilates, you can hurt yourself sticking objects into the soft spaces of your body.

You’d be hard pressed to hurt yourself with MELT.  I’ve never actually had someone say MELTing physically injured their body.  The only thing we get are those people who will say, “You know, I think I was stepping on the balls too hard.”  And I say, “Did it hurt you while you were doing it?”  And they say, “Oh, yeah.”  And I say, “Well then you’re stepping too hard.” The MELT Method is NOT about inflicting pain but getting out of it. No part of MELT should hurt you, not during, not after. If you MELT properly, there is actually no pain that you instigate in your body. 

Now you might find when you do the compression techniques, there may be some sensitive areas because when you Glide and Shear you will find areas of dehydration. Even when you do find an area of restriction or dehydration, we teach people to meet barriers, instead of blasting through them, breaking them or destroying them.  Meeting a barrier is like going out on a blind date.  It’s like making a new relationship.  You can’t make a relationship in one date.  It’s a succession of dates.  You get to know that person more and more.  You become more comfortable, more relaxed when you’re around them.  And then, and then it’s a good relationship.  If you allow a relationship to develop in your body, that same thing will happen.

People ask me, “Does it hurt you when you MELT?  And I say, “Never.”  It doesn’t hurt because I do it all the time and I also have a really good relationship with my body.  I really care for myself.  Unfortunately, we’re not taught how to care for ourselves.  We’re taught, especially as women, that we need to go find a man to care for us and men need to find a Mommy to care for them. I don’t think that we have any idea of how to care for ourselves. We haven’t a clue in the American society. That’s another thing that I bring to the table is really teaching people how to care for their bodies in a better way so they can carry on a good relationship with themselves and also then develop great relationships with other people.

What kind of time do you spend MELTing on a regular basis?  Is it one of those things where you continue to experience gains and changes as you continue to do it over time?  Is there a certain amount of time where you sort of reorganize your body and then it really stays in place?

I always think that anybody who’s looking for permanent change in their body doing something once or twice and then never again has got the entire idea of living well wrong, because every day is different.  Just like there’s temperature changes from day to day and the fact that you’ve gotta eat food every day and drink water every day.  Change is part of living.  There is nothing static except death. If you want something to be permanent, die, and then that’s it, right?

Everything else is about the adaptability and every day you endure stress. So what MELT is here to do is to get that stress accumulation to decrease because if we just accumulate stress, we bring it in our bodies and we keep it there. We don’t de-stress the aspects of the nervous system and the connective tissue that need the de-stressing.

I MELT everyday for at least 10 minutes before I do any activity or right after and also MELT a couple of days in every week for half an hour to an hour. But you can MELT three times a week for 10 minutes and yield amazing results in the connective tissue.  The learning curve is what takes the most time. But once you know how to MELT, it’s simple, easy, and you will  want to do it everyday simply because it makes you feel good.

I’d love to hear about YOUR experiences with MELT and self-myofascial release. In the comments below, let me know:

Have you tried MELT or a system of self-myofascial release?

How has it impacted how you feel in your daily life?

If you’ve MELTed AND done self-myofascial release, which has yielded better results for you? Do you continue to practice both techniques?

How often do you practice the techniques that you use?

Thanks for reading and contributing to the conversation.

Want to know more about MELT and how it can help you with your fitness and even weight loss? Read Part Three of this series.

About Sue Hitzmann
Sue Hitzmann, MS, CST, NMT, is a nationally recognized somatic-movement educator and manual therapist who got her start in the fitness industry as a group exercise instructor in 1988 before beginning her manual therapy practice in 1996. In Sue’s private practice, she utilizes her manual therapy skills and extensive education and research background in anatomy and physiology to help determine a path to somatic healing for her clients. She works with dysfunctions such as joint pain, TMJ, organ issues, migraines, incontinence, and other difficult issues that are most often undertreated, overmedicated and infrequently remedied. For over two decades, Sue has been bringing her education, experience, and insight back to the health and fitness arena. She is a leading figure in the fitness industry, serving as a presenter for national organizations such as IDEA, ECA, and PMA, as well as an accredited continuing education provider for ACE, AFAA, NASM, and NCBTMB. Drawing on cutting-edge, neurofascial science and proven manual therapy practices, Sue created the MELT Method®. This groundbreaking self-treatment program utilizes Hands-off Bodywork™ techniques to support the health, fitness, and quality of life of any person, at any age or activity level. Sue’s primary goal is to empower people to take charge of their aging process through self-care and healthy living. Sue’s book, The MELT Method: A Breakthrough Self-Treatment System to Combat Chronic Pain, Erase Aging Signs, and Feel Fantastic in Just 10 Minutes a Day!, will be released by Harper Collins in January 2013.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Jill Miller’s Yoga Tune-Up does not use tennis balls, but instead uses Yoga Tune Up® Therapy Balls which are grippy pliable rubber balls that have yield and softness to them. Like MELT, Jill’s work emphasizes the use of softer implements to benefit a variety of fascial layers. This is different than Cassidy Phillips’ Trigger Point Therapy, which uses implements/balls that are extremely hard and are targeted towards athletes.

One Response to What is MELT? And how is it different from self-myofascial release?

  1. I recently took 2 classes from Sue in Seattle where I had the pleasure of being introduced to a method of self-care that is in-keeping with what I do as a personal trainer and a health coach. I aim to help people feel better after each session, and stronger with each birthday.
    I was especially excited to learn that the connective tissue can be restructured, as the muscles can be, with proper use and stimulation. What fantastic news for someone who already loves birthdays! I feel fortunate to have taken the classes as one of my goals of the entire workshop was to learn about myofascial release so I could use it with my clients. I am so glad that I waited to be introduced to the melt techniques before trying the hard foam rollers on anyone.!
    I have bought the whole bundle, am reading the book and have watched the videos. There is lots of information but I am trying it on all of the areas of the body and loving it. I have been doing different maps for maybe 3 weeks consistently. I noticed subtle changes in how my hips felt and how I was able to move across our property with less restriction after maybe ten days. The last week and 1/2 I have noticed that my skin is glowing- very weird but it is smoother to touch and slightly radiant. Especially my face. It has felt amazing since I first started my work with the roller and the balls. I love it, look forward to it, and now this added benefit! I hope it lasts. I have never had a massage, or any chronic pain so am not using it for anything other than to keep feeling better and to continue doing what I like to do.
    I would love to become certified as a melt instructor. I believe this is the perfect compliment to my practice and a wonderful tool to maximize positive results with my clients.

    Thanks for sharing!

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