It seems like everywhere you turn these days, another professional athlete or casual exerciser is espousing the benefits of the foam roller. It’s one of the more accessible recovery tools out there in an overflowing market of high-tech, pricey gadgets that allegedly help you heal from a workout quicker and come back stronger and better. It also has some promising potential benefits, which is why physical therapists and sports medicine doctors often recommend it to their patients.
The thing is, there are so many options. And we’re not just talking colors and sizes. You can buy foam rollers of various shapes, densities, and surface textures. You can even buy ones that vibrate.
Having options is always a good thing, but in some cases, too many options can just be overwhelming. Foam rolling is basically just a form of self-massage that you do with a foam tube on your living room floor. It’s not supposed to be complicated.
So to help make things a little simpler for you, I asked experts about how to choose the right foam roller for your specific needs. Here are their top tips for shopping for your first foam roller.
First, consider density.
“If you’re new to foam rolling, start with something gentler,” Elizabeth Barachi, M.D., sports medicine doctor at NYU Langone Health, tells SELF. If you’re not used to putting pressure on and rolling out tight muscles and tissues, you’ll likely be really sensitive at first. “You’ve got to build up a tolerance for it,” says David Reavy, P.T., a board-certified clinical specialist in orthopedic physical therapy and founder of React Physical Therapy in Chicago. Like anything else, you have to slowly introduce your body to foam rolling so that it can get used to the new sensation.
The easiest way to do this is to choose a roller that’s low-density, meaning it’s a little softer and has some give. Most rollers that are solid tubes of foam, like this one from OPTP, are going to be softer and less dense. Rollers that are hollow and made of plastic with a foam layer on top, like this one from TriggerPoint, are going to be harder and more dense. Generally, the harder and denser a roller is, the deeper it can get into your sore spots, Reavy says.
Remember: Harder isn’t always better.
To gauge if the density is right for you, think about your pain as you roll on a scale from 1-10. “If you’re at a 5 or more when you’re foam rolling, it’s too much,” says Laura Miranda, D.P.T., M.S.P.T., C.S.C.S., a New York City-based trainer and creator of the Pursuit training program. “Harder isn’t always better.” That’s because part of what foam rolling is doing is releasing tension and helping the targeted area relax and loosen. If you’re in too much pain, Miranda explains, you’ll likely tense up more and do the opposite of what you’re trying to achieve.
Also, if you’re bruising, you’re probably going too hard. Besides not looking so savory, going overboard can potentially make your current condition worse, says Barachi. “It is possible to overdo it,” she says. If you hammer hard on a particular spot, it’s possible to work it so much that you end up breaking down the tissue and creating scar tissue. “That’s not a permanent problem, but it can exacerbate an existing issue—if you already have tightness and work on a spot for too long, you can really cause it to take a lot longer to get better,” Barachi says.
Once you get some experience rolling, you may find different densities are better for different body parts, says Miranda. For example, your glutes may be more tender and painful than your quads or calves. But if you’re just starting out, and especially if you’re super tight or have significant mobility issues in specific areas, it’s best to stick with a lower density roller. You can always put more pressure into it when you reach the areas that can tolerate it—it’s harder to dial back on pressure when the tool is really dense.
Then, look at the surface texture.
Nobs, ridges, notches, and spikes. You can find foam rollers with these and more surface textures. But what’s the point of these variations? They add more pressure points and can help you get at muscles from different angles, says Miranda. A smooth roller provides a large, flat surface on which to roll, and the pressure from the roller will be distributed among a few different neighboring muscles. But a ridgy or spiky roller will target more specific spots with greater intensity.
This can be a good thing if you’re trying to reach muscles that are deeper, like those in the hips and around the scapula. “Theoretically, knobs can get into some muscle groups better,” says Barachi. Think about trying to massage a spot with your whole palm, explains Miranda. You can’t get too specific or contoured. But if you dig into that same spot with just your thumb, you can really apply intense, direct pressure. Generally, when a device is smaller, it’s much easier to get it into a specific crevice.
Think about where you’ll be using it.
If you travel a lot, it might be worth having a compact roller that you can take with you, says Reavy. You can buy this nifty collapsible foam roller, or just one that’s really short and can fit in luggage, like this 4-inch roller.
One note on length, though: A shorter roller requires more stability and body awareness to use. “Depending on what you’re rolling, it can require a bit of upper-body strength,” says Miranda. “You have to be really targeted with your rolling technique.”
If you’re just buying a roller to keep at home, stick with a longer one—12-18 inches the standard you’ll see in gyms—so that you can move around as you roll without worrying about slipping off.
What about those cool vibrating rollers?
The idea behind vibrating foam rollers and other electronic massage devices is that the vibrations may help alter our perception of pain, says Reavy. It’s based on a medical idea known as the gate control theory, which basically suggests that providing non-painful stimulation to a spot that hurts potentially helps temporarily block pain signals (or “close the gates”) traveling to your brain.
The thing is, there has yet to be quality research done on these devices, so experts can’t say whether there’s actual proof that they work any better than regular old rollers. Barachi says that while there’s no solid evidence in favor of vibrating foam rollers, “if it feels good, then go ahead.”
One caveat, though, is that it’s even more important to listen to your body when you’re using a more intense device that may inhibit your perception of pain. It can be easier to go overboard. That doesn’t mean you can’t use them, but you should just be more mindful and dial back if things start to feel too intense. Forcing your muscles into submission is a good way to end up with more pain or bruising—the opposite of why you’re bothering to foam roll in the first place.
Finally, for certain spots, consider rolling with a ball instead.
“A ball is the same concept as spikes on rollers,” says Miranda. “Sometimes a ball is actually better.” A spiky roller can be “more like an aggressive punch in the muscle,” whereas a “ball can provide a more gentle release of that muscle,” she says. A ball can also just be easier to maneuver—it’s so small and targeted that you can just place it under the exact spot you’re trying to release. Lacrosse balls, like these ones from Champion Sports, make really great targeted self-massage devices for hard-to-reach areas by the shoulder blades and hips.
However, Miranda adds that a lacrosse ball may be too intense for some people to start with—“I personally can’t tolerate it on my own glutes,” she says—so you might want to start with a tennis ball, which is less dense. You can also try a small foam ball, like these from U.S. Toy. “It’s the same idea, but not so dense and it can get into areas that are not accessible by a big, long foam roller,” Miranda says. (Massage balls come in tons of different densities and textures, so you’ve got lots of options here, too.)
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