How Foam Rollers Work
Foam rolling has become really popular, but most people who do it can't tell you exactly how it works because it's a little complicated. We've asked some experts, and we're going to nerd out a little bit and get into the science of how foam rolling works and tell you everything you need to know to get the most out of it.
The most common theory about who foam rolling works is myofascial release. "Myo" means muscle, and "fascia" is the connective tissue in and around muscles. Fascia is described by some as a net that holds muscles in place. If you've prepared chicken before, you've seen a mostly clear layer of tissue that covers the meat; that's fascia. Fascia surrounds individual muscle fibers, as well as bundles of muscle fibers, and exists around the entire muscle (as well as organs, blood vessels, bones, and nerve fibers). It gives muscles their shape as well as helps with muscle function.
Fascia is supposed to be smooth, slippery, and flexible. It's designed to stretch when you move. But if the fascia tightens up, it can limit mobility and cause pain. Fascia has nerves and can be as sensitive as skin. Myofascial release is any technique that returns fascia to its flexible state. This could include massage, heat, stretching, acupuncture, and foam rolling. Some myofascial release may combine stretching, massage, and movement, such as Thai massage, yoga, as well as physical therapy.
Fascia can become tight and bunch up (which is called an adhesion) from a muscle that has too little movement, repetitive movement, or a trauma such as an injury or surgery. These adhesions can become worse over time and create knots in the muscles, also called trigger points.
Foam rolling may also warm up muscles and fascia due to the friction. This can be increased by a newer addition to foam rollers, heat.
Another theory on how foam rolling helps is that as nerve receptors are stimulated by the action, foam rolling may "wake up" the muscles and reduce pain signals.
Research on the Benefits of Foam Rolling
There hasn't been a lot of research into the benefits of foam rolling. The International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy (IJSPT) did a systematic review (which synthesizes all relevant studies on a topic) of self-myofascial release (SMR) with a foam roller. The review looked at 14 articles that met their criteria for inclusion.
Their review concluded that:
- Foam rolling may be effective at enhancing joint range of motion (ROM) as well as pre and post-exercise muscle performance.
- Short bouts of foam rolling don't appear to affect muscle performance.
- Foam rolling may decrease delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
- There's no consensus on the optimal SMR program.
A United Kingdom study found that after foam rolling, it took less effort for a muscle to produce an amount of force, which means that foam rolling may increase strength and performance and delay the onset of fatigue.
What Areas Shouldn't Be Foam Rolled?
Almost any muscle can be foam rolled, although some are difficult to access. The most common are the glutes, quads, hamstrings, lats, middle and upper back. It's possible to foam roll the chest, shoulders, inner thighs, muscles along the shins, triceps, and neck.
Dan Giordano, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., co-founder of Bespoke Treatments Physical Therapy, explains in an interview with SELF that foam rolling the lower back may cause lower back muscles to spasm. Doug Perkins, a physical therapist and strength and conditioning specialist, explains that if you're experiencing low back pain, the problem is often caused by your glutes, hips, or hamstrings and that rolling out these areas can reduce or get rid of your pain.
The other no-no is joints, tendons, and ligaments. You need to stay on your muscles. One of the most popular areas that people foam roll is the IT band (the iliotibial tract that runs down your outer thigh). It's a band of connective tissue, and foam rolling it won't necessarily release the same way as a muscle will. Giordano says it's a waste of time and probably not getting to the root of the problem. Foam rolling the hip as well as hip stabilization exercises will take pressure off the IT band.
When Should You Foam Roll and For How Long?
Foam rolling can be done before a workout, after a workout, or between workouts. For a professional athlete, foam rolling three times per day may be helpful. For the weekend warrior, three times a week may be appropriate, or when needed. It all depends on your situation: how much and often you get sore from your workouts, your range of motion, and your muscle pain. There's no one rule for everyone.
It's possible to overdo it by causing trauma to the muscles. There's no universal agreement on the optimum amount of time, but many experts recommend a range of 30 to 90 seconds per muscle group and up to 3 times.
Advice on How to Foam Roll
- Start slow. If you're a beginner, don't start with the spikiest, hardest foam roller. Textured rollers penetrate more than flat rollers, so a flat roller on the softer side may be a better start, especially if you have a lot of adhesions and pressure points. You can graduate to more intense rollers over time.
- Roll slowly. Take your time, and feel free to linger in any areas where you feel tight. A slower speed will be more effective in getting an area to relax.
- Control the pressure. If it hurts too much, you can put less of your body weight on the roller if you're on the floor. You can also put the roller on a wall and lean against it. If you want more pressure, use a roller that has texture. To get the most pressure, use a lacrosse or massage ball.
- Stretch and include movement in your routine. Foam rolling can help a lot but stretching and adding more movement to your routine will also help.
- Expect discomfort. You shouldn't have excruciating pain when foam rolling, but it's really common to be uncomfortable. The good news is that you won't be achieving all of your goals in one session of foam rolling. Take your time and expect to see benefits in weeks and months. Consistency is more important than intensity.
Types of Foam Rollers and Massage Balls
Foam rollers are normally available in 1', 2', or 3' lengths. With a 3' roller, you can do everything you would normally do but can also lie on it lengthwise to allow your shoulders to drop to the floor. The shorter foam rollers are easier to travel with.
Rollers are normally 5" or 6" in diameter, though 3" and 4" are available as well. The larger the diameter, the less the roller will penetrate, and the easier the massage will be.
Texture and Density
A newer addition to foam roller and balls is the addition of heat and vibration. Vibrating foam rollers and balls often have varying intensity levels as well as a timer, so if you want to do 60 seconds per body part, the roller will turn off when you need to switch.
Heat and Vibration
High-density foam rollers are going to give a more intense experience. Medium to low density will be easier for beginners and sensitive people.
Textured foam rollers penetrate deeper into the muscles, giving a more intense experience as well. The larger the bumps on the roller, the more intense.
Massage balls will penetrate into muscles more than a foam roller. If you're looking for a really deep massage, massage balls are the next level. And the same rule applies to massage balls - the smaller the ball, the more intense the experience.
Massage balls can be textured as well, but the protrusions on a ball won't be as large as on a foam roller, but they don't need to be. Some coaches will recommend leaning on a ball against the wall if lying on the floor is too much.
Massage balls are one of the best ways to massage your feet. You can easily control the pressure with how much weight you put on your foot.
If you want to try a massage ball without buying one, a tennis ball will be less intense, a softball a little more, and a baseball or lacrosse ball will be very intense.
Acumobility Ball & the Peanut
The acumobility ball is a half ball with a base so it doesn't move. This is a different experience because the ball won't move, which will help you pinpoint a pressure point. You will normally move continuously on a massage ball, which may cause you to lose the spot that you're working on. This is the most intense experience of all the self-massage tools.
The peanut is also known as a double lacrosse ball. These are less common, usually found in physical therapy clinics, yoga studios, or in the homes of people who are serious about self-massage. These are great for massaging the muscles along the spine as the gap between the balls won't put any pressure on your vertebrae.
Foam Rolling on the Go
As a person who has dealt with occasional severe low back pain, I learned to travel with some self-massage tools.
Best Foam Rollers and Massage Balls
This foam roller has three different surfaces to vary the intensity of the massage without switching foam rollers. The widest sections are the least intense, the thinner sections that look like fingers are more intense, and the squares are the most intense.
- Available in 12", 18", or 36"
- Solid-core EVA foam will last longer than standard rollers
- User weight limit of 325 lbs
- 1-year manufacturer's warranty
Lifepro specializes in sports recovery and wellness and has excellent customer service. The Surger is the best foam roller that we tested among many solid options.
- Four vibration speeds can intensify your foam rolling experience (or you can leave it off and use it as a normal foam roller). It has the most powerful battery of any vibrating foam roller at 10,400 mAh.
- Easy-to-use timer with 60, 90, and 120-second options
- 11.5" length and 5.5" diameter
- 100% money-back guarantee
- Lifetime warranty
- Quick charge and battery lasts for 2-4 hours per charge
- Includes carrying case and charger
Best Soft Foam Roller
This is the best choice for beginners and those who are more sensitive or can't tolerate a more intense foam roller. It can also be used for exercises such as crunches, yoga, or pilates.
- Available in 18" and 36" lengths; both are 6" in diameter
- Also available in a half-round
- Comes in blue or pink
- Easy to clean with a mild detergent
Best Flat Base Mobility Ball
This ball is a completely unique product in that it has all of the benefits of a massage ball, but it won't move. The ball doesn't stick to a wall or floor but will grip the surface so you can find a trigger point and not lose it because the ball moves. There are many massages that you can do with it, and even more if you have two (such as placing them on the floor next to each other about three inches apart so you can massage the muscles along your spine). It's great for any area that you want to self-massage and can do other areas that many massage balls can't do well, such as the neck and the feet.
The blue ball is level 2, which is denser and gives a harder massage similar to or even more intense than a lacrosse ball. Level 1, which is orange, gives less pressure, between a tennis ball and lacrosse ball.
The ball is very well-made and will last for a long time.
Best Peanut/Double Lacrosse Ball
These are designed to massage the muscles along the spine without touching the spine but can be placed on the floor so you can lie or step on them, or for less pressure, you can lean on them against a wall or while driving. They can be used on most muscle groups.
- They are sold as a combination that includes the peanut ball, lacrosse ball, and hand exercise ball (good for massaging hands, calves, and shoulders). If you're looking for only a peanut, check out 5BILLION Peanut Massage Ball.
- The peanut is 13.25 oz, the lacrosse ball is 5.36 oz, and the handball is 1.93 oz
- They are made with a high-quality rubber that doesn't have a strong chemical smell.
- They come with a travel bag
Best Textured Foam Roller
If you're looking for a more intense massage experience, you'll want the penetration that larger bumps can give. The bumps are supposed to mimic a finger or thumb.
- Designed to dig a little deeper than a non-textured foam roller, this model will give a sensation similar to a thumb or elbow to help relax tight muscles and get rid of scar tissue.
- This model (gray) is 26" x 5" x 5", the larger length allows you to roll out larger muscle groups such as your back. Also available in 13" x 5" x 5", which is more portable.
- Weighs 4.5 lbs
- Has a plastic hollow core with a cover of PU foam that's latex-free, waterproof, and easy to clean
- 1-year warranty
Best Textured Massage Ball for Feet and Hands
If you have hand or foot pain, the best way to massage it is with a textured massage ball. You can easily control the pressure with how much weight you put on the ball.
- 2" diameter
- 0.12 lbs
- Very durable and easy to clean