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After an intense workout or a day with a lot of physical work, muscle and tissue soreness is bound to follow. Therefore, it is a good idea to give your muscles and tissues a good massage for self-myofascial release or SMR. If you don’t, you could feel stiff the next day and unable to exercise again until you’ve fully recovered. Since having to always depend on someone else for a massage is not practically feasible, you could get a foam roller instead and give yourself a massage. This accessory is among a group of exercise recovery tools that are becoming very popular. However, there are a variety of foam rollers on the market and they are of different densities and textures. Therefore, this foam roller guide will show you how to choose the right foam roller for your needs.
Table of Contents
- 1 What are Foam Rollers for?
- 2 Foam Roller Benefits
- 3 Foam Roller Basics
- 4 Features to Consider When Picking a Foam Roller
- 5 Flat Half-Size Rollers
- 6 Massaging Rollers
- 7 Vibrating Foam Rollers
- 8 Foam Rolling Tips and FAQs
What are Foam Rollers for?
Using a foam roller to help you give yourself an excellent myofascial release would be a good idea. Foam rollers have gained a lot of attention in recent years as tools of recovery that target sore muscles and trigger points efficiently. They can be just as good as a foot massager and are much more practically feasible than other options like going for physiotherapy or professional massages. Foam rollers are made for massaging and relaxing your muscles and can prove to be great tools to use before or after a workout.
They work by using a person’s body weight as they sit or lay on the roller and move back and forth slowly. They can be soft or firm, smooth or textured, and the comfort level you need depends on how experienced you are in using one and what area of the body you target.
Foam Roller Benefits
According to Harvard Health, a foam roller helps relax tight muscles and reduces soreness, and increases flexibility and range of motion. If you foam roll before stretching, your stretching exercises are enhanced and you’ll benefit from them more.
After you finish exercising, a foam roller will aid in faster recovery.
Foam Roller Basics
Are you a foam roller beginner or advanced user?
When researching how to choose a foam roller for your needs, the first consideration goes to whether you’re a beginner, intermediate, or advanced user.
Smooth rollers would work best for beginners. If you want an introduction to rolling, choosing a smooth-surface roller is a great option. The smooth surface helps in maintaining an even pressure across the length of the massage area. A smooth-surface roller is ideal for beginners as it is not as intense as a textured roller and won’t cause pain and bruising as you get used to it. The idea here is that you should have increased blood circulation that brings more oxygen to those sore areas after your workout. A smooth roller is also usually less expensive than the other types of foam rollers.
For an advanced user, a textured one would be the best choice to target those knots in the muscles, which are myofascial trigger points. The textured foam rollers vary depending on their desired density. They have various ridges, knobs, and bumps that provide a deeper massage and can target specific areas to help soothe the muscles. A general feature of textured rollers is that the higher the ridges and more defined the points, the more intense the massage will be. However, the texture patterns can vary from brand to brand.
Where will you use it?
You can choose to use your exercise recovery tool at home or while traveling, based on its size and shape.
Shorter length rollers can be used if you are looking for a more easy-to-carry and portable roller. A travel-size roller can be carried anywhere, whether it’s to the gym/pilates studio or even on a business trip so that you can work out and then foam roll in your hotel room.
The standard full-size rollers, the ones with a larger diameter, or with bigger ridges and bumps can be used at home. They make great gifts for fitness and yoga enthusiasts too!
Features to Consider When Picking a Foam Roller
Foam Roller Density
It is essential to get the density of the foam roller you are using right. One that is too soft might provide inadequate pressure, whereas one that is too hard might cause bruises and trauma, which may, in turn, lead to pain. To know if you’ve got the density right while rolling, a small to moderate amount of pain from the pressure exerted is OK. You shouldn’t have black and blue bruising the next day. Pain that’s more severe and leaves you with bruising means that you need a softer roller.
Rollers that are low density will suit beginners. Soft density rollers have more cushioning to them and therefore provide more “give”. They produce gentler massage on muscles, which is the best option for users with sensitive muscles or for those who prefer a less intensive massage.
Rollers of standard density will have a medium firmness. They provide a balance between an intense massage with a moderate cushion. Although intermediate users will love them, some beginners may find that they can tolerate medium-density rollers pretty well. Medium density also works well for core strengthening exercises performed during yoga or pilates.
Firm rollers are rollers that are high density and are more suitable for intermediate to advanced users. These rollers provide a deeper and more intense massage. They’re used mainly used by athletes and highly active individuals who often experience really tight muscles and need intense massages to facilitate SMR.
You will notice that foam rollers are color-coded to help identify their firmess. White or pastel colored rollers are soft, medium ones are red, blue, or green, and hard ones are black.
Surface Texture: With Protrusions or Smooth
To choose the texture of the roller you must know the areas that need to be worked on and whether you have a high tolerance level for intense targeted pressure.
Smooth rollers have a basic design that provide even pressure across the entire length surface of the chosen muscle or muscle group. A smooth roller is a very good choice for beginners as they are just getting into rolling and the pressure is not as intense as with a textured roller. Smooth rollers are also less expensive than textured rollers.
Textured rollers have ridges and knobs on them which are meant to give targeted massage to your muscles with greater intensity. These can be a good choice if you’re trying to reach muscles that are deeper, like those in hips. They’re also better at breaking up knots in muscles.
Open cell foam:
This type of foam is fine for providing you with a good foam rolling massage, however, it is not high quality and will break down fast with prolonged use. They’re inexpensive, so they’re very easy to find. If you’re a beginner who doesn’t want to spend too much on this tool before progressing to a firmer roller, then this type of construction is adequate. However, you should upgrade to a more quality closed-cell foam roller once you become used to rolling.
Many soft or beginner foam rollers are made of EPE, as it is low density and semi-rigid. EPE rollers are the least durable closed-cell foam rollers, so don’t plan on being able to use one for many years. However, if you’re looking for an inexpensive yet easy-to-clean option to use for physiotherapy after surgery or just for short-term use before moving on to intermediate or advanced foam rolling, then these are a very good option.
If you don’t want to spend too much on this tool but still want a high-quality roller of medium to firm density, then EPP foam is the one for you. It is closed-cell foam that strikes a balance between affordability and durability.
EVA foam rollers are also closed-cell but are of the highest quality and durability. They’re great for all kinds of users from beginner to advanced and can be used for soft to firm cushioning and smooth to textured surfaces. These rollers are built to withstand the type of repeated, heavy use often found in gyms and Pilates studios where many people may use them throughout the day.
Keep in mind that you can have high density rollers with soft cushioning when it’s constructed with EVA foam. The same can’t be said of other types of foam where high density will result in harder rollers.
Foam Roller Sizes
Foam roller diameter:
The majority of these devices available are traditional full-size rollers. However, they still do exist in different shapes and sizes. They usually come in diameters of 6, 4, and 3 inches. Each of these variants has its own use and can be used according to your requirement, which will be further discussed in detail further down. However, a smaller diameter roller brings you lower to the floor so that you’re more stable, which is essential for older users, those who are recovering from illness and need physical therapy, and for those who are generally a bit unsteady. It’s also easier to control your movements when you’re on a small diameter roller.
Foam roller length:
The length of rollers also varies. The most common sizes available are 18, 24, and 36 inches.
Rollers that are 36 inches long are typically full-sized rollers with a diameter of 6 inches and have various uses. They can be used for massaging larger muscles like the quadriceps and hamstrings, and also a whole group of muscles. This is the best size foam roller for back muscles. They’re also good for physical therapy and strengthening your core during Pilates and yoga exercises. You’ll find that your core strength and balance will slowly improve over time.
Slightly shorter rollers that are 24 inches in length are more suitable for smaller muscles found in the arms and calves.
The shortest rollers with a length of 18 or 12 inches are more portable rollers. They can be used for traveling. In addition to being portable, these rollers are used for targeting specific muscles, like calves or glutes, instead of a whole area of the body.
Hollow Vs Solid Foam Roller
The solid core foam rollers tend to be softer and contour to the body to address superficial muscles, whereas, hollow core foam rollers that are made of a hollow cylinder of hard plastic and covered by foam are more rigid and address the deeper muscle tissue.
You can choose either of these rollers depending on your comfort level and physical needs. For gentler massages, solid foam rollers can be used, and for intense massages, hollow ones can be used. Some solid core rollers come with a textured surface to give you the best of both worlds.
Foam Roller Weight Limit
These devides usually come with a maximum tested weight limit. Most often, the weight limit is 300 – 500 lbs. People that weigh more than this will need to consider this before buying one.
Flat Half-Size Rollers
These rollers usually come in a typical size of 36 inches in length and 3 inches in height and they’re cut in half lengthwise so that they’re round on one side and flat on another. Flat half-size rollers are good for any rolling exercise where the user would like to feel more stable while exercising or massaging. It can be used with either side up, depending on what you need it for.
Also called, massager sticks or stick rollers, these look a bit like rolling pins. These rollers are great for more precise muscle targeting. The sticks that are more flexible are great for back massage rolling.
Vibrating Foam Rollers
Vibrating rollers take foam rolling to the next level by using vibrating technology to minimize pain while providing deep tissue massage. The vibrating blocks pain receptors, so they’re great for people who are generally sensitive to pressure. Vibration therapy by itself also reduces the risk of injury. They can be more relaxing to use, but while some manufacturers claim that they’re more effective in providing self-myofascial release, there is no actual evidence that they’re better than foam rollers.
The disadvantage with vibrating rollers is that it’s easy to go overboard with them because they’re not as painful to use. The advantage is that you need to spend very little time using one in order to get relief.
Another difference between a foam roller vs vibrating foam roller is that a vibrating roller is more expensive. However, for some people, it may be worth getting one in the long run.
Foam Rolling Tips and FAQs
You can foam roll everyday and maybe even once before your workout and once after as long as you feel it benefits you and you’re not experiencing any severe pain or bruising from rolling. In general, the more often you roll, the more comfortable it gets and the faster your recovery from exercise will be. So you should aim for rolling at least 3 to 4 times a week.
You should ease up if the rolling itself causes pain, lesions, or bruises on any area of the body. Over-rolling can also exacerbate injuries.
To prevent over-rolling, limit each muscle group to 30 to 90 seconds of rolling, then resting and stretching for 30 seconds, then repeating this twice more. The total rolling time per muscle group shouldn’t be more then 5 seconds.
It is best to foam roll before and after every workout. Pre-workout rolling helps relax tight muscles, improve blood circulation to the muscles, flexibility, and range of motion. Post-workout rolling also enhances recovery.
Avoid going too hard on SMR. You should foam roll slowly and in a controlled manner (the roller should move under you inch by inch) in order to avoid injuries or the over-application of pressure on the muscles. While rolling, if you some across a spot that causes a lot of pain, pause there for several seconds while you feel that muscle slowly relaxing. Once the pain subsides, start rolling slowly again.
You can use a percussive massager instead of a foam roller. A vibrating roller quickly increases blood flow to your muscles after a workout. This is the best substitute for a foam roller if you can’t use the foam roller due to any injury or pain.
If you don’t have a tool that’s made for self-myofascial release, you can also use a tennis ball, rolling pin, water bottle, or PVC pipe.
As long as you don’t have an injury on the part of the body that you’re foam rolling, a bumpy roller can be a very good tool for SMR. It is particularly useful for the glutes, quads, and lower back.
Instead of washing your foam roller, you should use a damp cloth with mildly soapy water to wipe it down and then let it air dry. You can also use sanitary wipes or spray if you’re foam rolling in a gym or studio.