woman using a foam roller
Fitness

How To Choose A Foam Roller (Made Easy!)

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One of the biggest questions about foam rolling (other than which exercises are the best?) is how to choose which foam roller to buy!

You’d think it would be easy, but there are so many choices leaving you with analysis paralysis. 

Don’t worry. This article will guide you through everything you need to consider to confidently decide which foam roller is best for your needs!

Disclaimer: Always seek proper instruction before initiating an exercise program. Not everything is great for everyone! Consult with your qualified health care practitioners for an exercise program tailored to your needs. Stay healthy and injury-free! Read the full disclaimer.

WHAT DOES FOAM ROLLING DO?

First of all, what does foam rolling do? A foam roller is a tool to give yourself a cheap massage to improve pain, tightness, and increase overall mobility.

Your body weight is used to apply pressure and slowly roll over an area to mobilize tissue.

But it doesn’t stop there. Foam rollers can also be used for self joint mobility exercises and as a stability prop for core and Pilates exercises. And stability exercises with a foam roller can get pretty challenging!

HOW DOES FOAM ROLLING WORK?

You’ve probably seen many at the gym using foam rollers, and you might have asked yourself if there’s any value or is this just another trendy fitness craze. 

Rejoice. There are some science-backed benefits. 

Here’s the TL;DR from the research:

  • Foam rollers are often used as part of a warm-up and in recovery. Cheatham et al. concluded that foam rolling may be useful for enhancing joint ROM for both pre and post-exercise.
  • No adverse effects on performance have been found when foam rolling as part of a warm-up.
  • The benefits of foam rolling may be more significant when combined with a consistent static stretching program post-activity.
  • There’s mixed evidence to suggest that foam rolling after high-intensity exercise might help decrease perceived next-day soreness. 

If you want to know more about how foam rollers work, check out What Is Foam Rolling? (Is It Worth The Hype?) 

But for now, let’s get into how to choose a foam roller!

woman using a foam roller for stability exercises
image source: depositphotos.com

HOW TO CHOOSE A FOAM ROLLER

To help you choose which foam roller is best for you, let’s consider a few key things. 

INTENDED USE OF THE FOAM ROLLER

This may sound like a silly question – duh! Foam rolling! – but the answer can help you figure out which type to get. 

What’s your main goal?

WHAT FOAM ROLLER SIZE SHOULD YOU GET?

You’ve probably ascertained from your quick Google search that foam rollers come in all shapes and sizes, and what’s the difference?

Let me explain. 

12 TO 18-INCH ROUND FOAM ROLLERS

These sizes are more compact and ideal for traveling or small spaces. You can accomplish most massage and mobility exercises with this size roller. 

You will not be able to use this roller for exercises that require lying on the roller along the length of your spine.

woman on a yoga mat using a foam roller as a visual aid for how to choose a foam roller.
Copyright Maura Blackstone

The Trigger Point Grid is one of my favorite compact foam rollers. I’ve had it for several years, and it still looks and performs as good as new. 

It’s small enough to tuck away in the corner and can be used for travel. It has a hollow inside that you can stuff socks or other small items inside while packing!

Also check out the ProSource Fit 12-inch foam roller.

36-INCH ROUND FOAM ROLLERS

This size is the original kid on the block and will accommodate anything you need from massage to core exercises, making it the best all-around option for beginners. 

Check out the OPTP Axis foam roller and OPTP Pro Roller.

With a 36-inch foam roller, you’ll be able to lie on the full length of your spine, opening up options for additional shoulder mobility and core exercises. Any size less than this will not work. 

shoulder mobility on a foam roller to demonstrate different size foam rollers for how to choose a foam roller.
Copyright Maura Blackstone

HALF ROUND FOAM ROLLERS

You’ve probably seen these and wonder what the heck they’re for? Half-round foam rollers are precisely that, a foam roller cut in half at the diameter, so one side is now flat. 

Half-round foam rollers are useful for:

  • Calf stretching and ankle mobility exercises
  • Core stability exercises
  • Self mobility in a less aggressive range of motion

FOAM ROLLER DENSITIES/MATERIALS

How much pressure do you want?

Descriptions are usually listed as soft, medium, and firm densities. 

Soft density rollers will be less aggressive, so if you find foam rolling painful, a less dense roller may be for you. Depending on the material, soft density foam rollers tend to break down more quickly and need to be replaced more often. 

I like the quality of OPTP foam rollers, and they come in soft, medium, and firm densities. This line’s soft rollers are more durable than some of the generic soft foam rollers because they’re constructed from a closed-cell EVA foam. 

I’ve used OPTP rollers in the clinic, and they last well with everyday use.

FOAM ROLLER TEXTURE

Do you want a flat surface that rolls smoothly, or are you looking for a textured massage experience? 

Textured foam rollers can work deeper into some tissues but may not be tolerated well by everyone. 

If you’re looking for a foam roller for stability work, stick with a flat surface. 

woman using a foam roller on her back
image source: depositphotos.com

DO VIBRATION FOAM ROLLERS WORK?

Just when you thought foam rollers couldn’t possibly get more complicated, enter vibration therapy

Is this necessary? Or is this just another way to sucker you into expensive fitness tech? Let’s take a look.

What makes vibration therapy better?

There is some evidence that vibration can decrease pain (via the gate control theory), modulating pain sensations sent back down from the central nervous system based on sensations put in. 

A simple example of the gate control theory is rubbing your elbow right after accidentally smashing it into a door frame. Ouch. 

Romero-Moraleda et al. looked at the short-term effects of pain perception and passive hip ROM after using vibration foam rolling to the quads. 

The study found a significant improvement in pain perception and passive range of motion in hip extension following vibration to the quads. 

While this may be more of a temporary fix, it may make foam rolling more tolerable for some and provide some temporary relief. 

So if you find foam rolling an overall uncomfortable experience, a vibration foam roller might be for you.

Check out the Trigger Point Grid Vibe Plus and the Sidekick Fuse

Technically, the Sidekick Fuse isn’t a foam roller, but if you’re interested in vibration therapy, it needs to be on the list. It’s convenient size and shape helps contour better than a straight foam roller.  

OTHER SOFT TISSUE TOOLS

Foam rollers can be pretty bulky, so when you’re trying to work into specific areas, here are some other soft-tissue release tools to help work deeper into hard to reach areas.

MYOFASCIAL RELEASE BALLS

Great places to use these are the sole of the foot, the deeper into the glutes, trigger points in the back and shoulders, as well as the suboccipitals at the base of the skull. 

Because they’re small, myofascial release balls are also great for travel. 

THE STICK

Popular with runners, The Stick is a handheld roller commonly used for the larger muscle groups, such as the calves, hamstrings, and quads. 

You control the speed and pressure as you roll the device over the target area. 

SIDEKICK TOOL

Sidekick is taking workout recovery to another level. Have you heard of muscle scraping and IASTM (Instrument Assisted Soft Tissue Mobilization)?

Muscle scraping is a technique based on gua sha, an ancient Chinese therapy to improve circulation and promote healing. 

IASTM (Instrument Assisted Soft Tissue Mobilization) is somewhat of a modern take on gua sha using various shaped tools for musculoskeletal conditions to improve soft tissue mobility. 

You can read more about the similarities and differences between gua sha and IASTM here. 

I’ve used many different types of tools, including various brands of expensive clinical-grade tools. I think Sidekick is a high-quality, affordable option. 

Sidekick has several tools that are easy to use on yourself after those intense workouts. They also provide easy to follow videos for each body part to be sure you’re using your tool correctly. 

WHICH FOAM ROLLER IS BEST?

There are plenty of great foam roller options out there. By now, you have a better idea of how to choose a foam roller based on what features are important to you. 

You can’t go wrong with a basic foam roller to start. You might even end up with a collection!

Let me know which foam rollers are your favorite! Be sure to check out the Foam Roller Exercise Library to learn good technique!

You might also like:

References

Cheatham SW, Lee M, Cain M, Baker R. The efficacy of instrument assisted soft tissue mobilization: a systematic review. J Can Chiropr Assoc. 2016;60(3):200-211.

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. Published 2019 Apr 9. doi:10.3389/fphys.2019.00376

Cheatham SW, Kolber MJ, Cain M, Lee M. THE EFFECTS OF SELF-MYOFASCIAL RELEASE USING A FOAM ROLL OR ROLLER MASSAGER ON JOINT RANGE OF MOTION, MUSCLE RECOVERY, AND PERFORMANCE: A SYSTEMATIC REVIEW. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2015;10(6):827-838.

Macgregor, L.J., Fairweather, M.M., Bennett, R.M. et al. The Effect of Foam Rolling for Three Consecutive Days on Muscular Efficiency and Range of Motion. Sports Med – Open 4, 26 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40798-018-0141-4

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