Education: University of Washington, Bastyr University
Expertise: Physical Therapy, Orthopedics, Fitness
Alex Stone is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (NSCA). He currently practices orthopedics in Bellevue, Washington, and manages an online health coaching business via social media (@dr.alexstone). He is passionate about health science education and general health/wellness optimization.
A foam roller is essentially a log-like workout device that’s made out of foam or plastic. It comes in different densities, lengths, and surface textures. Its purpose? To administer self-myofascial release, which is a fancy term for self-massage.
Self-massage is an effective method for releasing muscle tightness, especially after strenuous exercise. It is for this reason that foam rollers were previously the reserve of professional athletes and physical therapists.
Today, it is recognized as one of the most affordable ways to release trigger points and perform deep-tissue massage.
It is Important to Know Which Foam Roller to Choose
Softer foam rollers tend to be white or lighter in color, while harder (high-density) rollers tend to come in black or darker colors.
Why does density matter? Because everyone has to start somewhere. If you’ve never done this before, you’re better off starting with a roller on the softer side. Once you get better, then you can switch to medium, then hard density rollers gradually.
High density rollers are overall a good investment because they last longer.
The next consideration is length. Foam rollers come in all shapes and sizes.
The longest roller available is 36 inches. This is the perfect length because it covers the length of most people’s back.
Just under this is the 24-inch roller, which is great for massaging calf and arm muscles.
If you’re short on workout space or in need of something you can carry around easily, go for 4-12-inch rollers, which are the shortest available.
Surface texture matters a lot too. Some foam rollers are smooth.
I recommend this for newbies and anyone who is just getting into foam rolling (also referred to as rolling it out).
Others have knobs and ridges on the surface.
Smooth rollers exert an even pressure across their length. Textured rollers, on the other hand, feel more similar to a deep tissue massage or trigger point release.
The knobs and ridges on the surface deliver a more intense targeted pressure that’s more effective at working muscle knots.
However, textured rollers are slightly more expensive.
Furthermore, beginners should start with the basic smooth surface because the pressure from a textured roller may be too intense.
What Does Foam Rolling Do
There are many foam roller benefits1 that make this an essential piece of equipment for everyday use, whether you’re a fitness fanatic or just suffer from the occasional muscle aches and pains.
Let’s discuss them one by one:
Key Foam Roller Benefits
1. Prevents Injury and Promotes Muscle Recovery
Self-myofascial release (commonly referred to as SMFR)2 is popular among professional athletes because it has an immediate direct impact on muscles. It helps reduce muscle tension and improves circulation, which, in turn, promotes muscle recovery and reduces the risk of sustaining injuries.
2. Enhances Flexibility and Mobility
An unprecedented benefit of having muscles that are in tip-top shape is that they become more flexible, and this improves your mobility.
When you take care of the underlying fascia, you release some existing muscle tension.
This way, your muscles are able to move better, and your range of motion increases drastically.
3. Disperses Muscle Adhesions and Scar Tissue
Tight muscles and fascia are known to be behind more than a few problems. Foam rolling is effective because it applies targeted pressure to muscle knots and trigger points, and this helps release them3.
This is why foam rolling is effective for treating problems like IT band syndrome4, which is common in runners. It might not be as accurate as the right massage gun for IT bands, but it is a cheap alternative and many people opt for a roller.
It is an established fact that stretches before or after a workout help to reduce muscle soreness5. Well, the same can be said about foam rolling.
Foam rolling helps micro tears in muscle heal faster, which is what causes muscle soreness after strenuous activity. A few minutes of foam rolling is enough to keep muscle soreness at bay.
The roller can be used to both warm up and cool down.
5. Good Form of Exercise
Not only is your foam roller a great tool for relieving muscle tension and improving recovery, but it can also be used for a variety of exercises.
Because of the round, supportive design of most foam rollers, they can be used to perform stretching and strengthening exercises that you wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.
This is especially true for full-sized (36-inch) rollers because they can support your back above the floor and challenge your balance.
6. Cheaper than Deep Tissue Massages
SMFR is essentially another term for a self-administered deep-tissue massage. Buying a foam roller gives you unlimited access to this type of muscle therapy.
In the long run, you will have spent less but benefited just as much from SMFR, so it is a very good value for the money.
The only better value would be a massage gun, but those often cost above $200. That said, there are some cheap options available, and you can even get a decent one below $50. Check out our best budget massage gun picks for more information.
How Often Should You Foam Roll?
To reap the maximum benefits of foam rolling, you should roll out at least once every day. Foam rolling should only take a few minutes per muscle group, so it can be done before or after work, after a workout, or even during a midday break.
Our advice to beginners
Foam rolling can be very painful at first. Some say it’s excruciating even. But the good news is, it gets better with time, which is another reason why you should do it regularly.
Also, don’t use your full body weight on the roller until you get used to it.
Vibrating Foam Rollers & Why They’re Better
Regular foam rollers are good at breaking up muscle tension and reducing tension. However, vibrating rollers, which are becoming increasingly popular, are better.
Combining the powerful myofascial properties of a foam roller with the jackhammer-like vibrating effect creates a more effective, targeted muscle therapy. These small vibrations target trouble spots harder, releasing knots faster and bringing a host of benefits along.
Vibrating foam rollers improve circulation too. What’s more, they work faster to release and relax muscles, combat soreness and pain, and improve range of motion.
Furthermore, you can tweak the vibration speed of the roller to suit your needs. Faster vibrations are better for breaking up muscle adhesions, while vibrations at lower speeds are better for relaxing muscles.
So, if you’re thinking of getting your first foam roller, consider getting one that vibrates. As you’d probably expect, they’re more expensive than the manual ones. However, they will give you much more freedom over how you want to train your muscles.
Foam rollers are inexpensive and highly effective tools for delivering deep-tissue massages.
Professional athletes and physiotherapists swear by its therapeutic properties, and foam roller benefits to the muscle and fascia can be instant.
Whether you’re a high-performance athlete who works out frequently or a desk jockey who doesn’t get out enough, a foam roller can be the perfect tool to help condition your muscles.
It will keep you flexible, mobile, and more relaxed, but best of all, it will only take a few minutes of your time every day.
Until next time, take care!
Wiewelhove T, Döweling A, Schneider C, et al. A Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Foam Rolling on Performance and Recovery. Front Physiol. 2019;10:376. doi:10.3389/fphys.2019.00376
Beardsley C, Škarabot J. Effects of self-myofascial release: A systematic review. J Bodyw Mov Ther. 2015;19(4):747-758. doi:10.1016/j.jbmt.2015.08.007
Deflorin C, Hohenauer E, Stoop R, van D, Clijsen R, Taeymans J. Physical Management of Scar Tissue: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. J Altern Complement Med. 2020;26(10):854-865. doi:10.1089/acm.2020.0109
Baker RL, Fredericson M. Iliotibial Band Syndrome in Runners. Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Clinics of North America. Published online February 2016:53-77. doi:10.1016/j.pmr.2015.08.001
Herbert R, de N, Kamper S. Stretching to prevent or reduce muscle soreness after exercise. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2011;(7):CD004577. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD004577.pub3
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Post Update History
Here's a quick rundown of all the tweaks and edits we've made to this article to keep it accurate and up-to-date!
October 14, 2023 Updated with our in-house photos. (Author: Greg)
Hey, I'm Greg, co-founder of MassageGunAdvice.com, with three years of experience in testing over 50 different massage guns. As an avid marathon runner interested in sports tech, I ensure our product reviews are accurate. My responsibility is to verify device specifications and maintain review consistency, simplifying product comparisons for our readers. With a web and graphic design background, I snap the photos and videos you see and keep our site looking sharp.
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