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Some athletes call them spherical torture devices. Others swear by this secret recovery weapon. With so many foam rollers on the market, how do you know which is the best foam roller for you? Or if foam rolling will benefit your recovery and performance at all? Before we dive into our foam roller reviews, here are some things you should keep in mind.
The Benefits of Foam Rolling
The makers of foam rollers and other self massage tools make some pretty hefty claims. Enough to make any massage therapist bristle, they claim that their products rid muscles of trigger points, treat chronic pain and break up the knots and kinks responsible for aching backs, necks and legs.
But does foam rolling work?
According to a 2014 study, subjects who used a foam roller for 20 minutes after performing heavy squats had a significant decrease in perceived post-exercise soreness than a control group.
They also had an improved passive and active range of motion, vertical jump height and muscle activation. Other studies have produced similar results, though the long term effects of rolling are still undetermined.
As a massage therapist, here’s my take.
Foam rollers can reduce trigger points and help work to elongate tissue. But, just like taking an aspirin to relieve a headache, the results are usually short term at best.
Our bodies are smarter than we realize. The body has a reason for tightening up your calf or causing your lower back to seize. And the reason usually isn’t that you didn’t foam roll enough.
A stiff area is usually bracing for a weak one. In order to meet the demands of your sprint sessions and epic rides, your body has to create tension to feel secure, so one movement doesn’t cause a systematic failure. It’s your body’s way of protecting itself against injury.
In other words, the more you roll those chronically tight calves, the more you decrease your body’s feeling of security and stability. So how does your body respond? By making those calves less mobile and even tighter!
Can you see how this vicious cycle works?
The big takeaway is that a foam roller is one tool. If used in conjunction with re-patterning muscle compensations and strengthening weak areas, it can be very effective.
But too many people bring a gun to a knife fight, thinking that rolling will resolve all their issues and give them a free pass to skip any manual therapy or to overtrain.
When is a foam roller appropriate?
My clients have had the best results with a foam roller:
- When it’s used in conjunction with regular bodywork, meaning a professional does the initial work and then teaches you how to maintain certain areas with a foam roller.
- On active recovery days to increase blood flow
- To promote sleep by lightly rolling before bed
- Before a workout as part of a dynamic warm up
Foam Rolling Tips
- Start slowly with long, broad strokes on major muscles, stopping to breath into the muscle as you sink into the roller.
- Some discomfort is okay, but avoid contracting and tightening up the muscle you’re trying to release. Going in slowly and without too much discomfort will allow the muscle and fascia (the tissue around the muscle) to naturally relax and for the inflammation to reduce.
- If you’re constantly rolling the same muscle and the foam roller hasn’t provided last relief, it probably won’t. Get yourself to a qualified professional for an assessment.
Now on to my picks for the best foam rollers:
The best foam roller for rolling newbies
Spend between 10 and 25 bucks (depending on size) and the Perform Better Elite Molded Foam Roller will get the job done.
It’s no frills, but in its simplicity is a well constructed, molded foam roller that holds up much better than the traditional white roller which starts out feeling like a concrete post and then slowly morphs into a mushy bolster.
Pros: Great value and you won’t have to replace it anytime soon. Holds up to heavy weight. Available in a variety of sizes (3’ long, 6” round and 1’ long, 6”round). Great for a general warmup or active recovery to promote blood flow and improve mobility.
Cons: Good for general soft tissue work and covers large surface area, but lacks any texture for breaking up specific adhesions or working into uneven areas.
Top roller for newbies looking to upgrade
If you’re looking for an equipment upgrade, spend a few more dollars and try the TriggerPoint GRID Foam Roller.
The black roller is the firmer of the two. It contains a rigid PVC core and a soft outer cover that has varying contours to produce a different textural feel.
Pros: The surface isn’t as hard as the Perform Better Elite Molded Foam Roller and it has some textural knobs to help break up tissue. The orange grid has been my go-to roller for five years and is still firm and durable. It’s easy to clean and for about 30 dollars, it’s a great value for the money.
Cons: Best for general soft tissue work like calves, quads, hamstrings, back and lats. Like a traditional roller, it doesn’t get into the nooks and crannies very well, so you’ll have a tough time releasing something like the piriformis.
Also, the sizes are a bit awkward. For me, the small was too small and I wanted more surface area when rolling my legs, but the large was unwieldy, demanding more floor space than my living room provided. And I didn’t see much purpose with the mini, except for travel.
For those seeking a deeper release or who don’t respond to anything except very deep tissue work, the Rumble Roller is the tool for you.
It resembles something you’d use to aerate your lawn and the company developed the tooth-like knobs to resemble a massage therapist’s thumbs, creating a kneading sensation that allows for deeper muscle penetration.
It’s available in two lengths, 12 and 6” long and 6 and 5” wide respectively. Their black modelis 36% firmer and denser than the blue roller, though most people don’t require that much pressure.
Pros: This roller’s knobs help break up tissue more effectively than the previous models and you can roll in multiple directions over the knobs. More specific places like the piriformis are more accessible with this type of roller. Use this if you have a lot of experience with foam rolling or deep tissue massage.
Cons: It doesn’t have much roll to it, so it’s better for more precise work than general muscle tension release or broad strokes. But if you apply it to tender tissue like the calves, shins and IT band, it will be excruciating. For most people, this roller is overkill and with something this deep, it’s easy to over release a muscle and cause more inflammation.
My overall recommendation for the best foam roller goes to…..
Trigger Point’s GRID. This foam roller does everything a foam roller should do. It’s plush enough for those who don’t have a history of much bodywork, yet firm enough for even regular massage goers to get some relief. For general use recovery and maintenance, it’s a useful tool to have in your arsenal.
Best of all, it doesn’t pretend to be what a foam roller is not: a set of professional hands. Yes, the Rumble Roller will get into hard-to reach places, but it still can’t break up most dense adhesions and you’ll more likely irritate the surrounding areas instead. For this work either enlist the help of a professional or try a lacrosse ball (or ideally employ both).
When buying a foam roller, or any self massage tool for that matter, you should choose equipment based on its ability to reinforce positive range of motion changes, not because the tool is the most painful.