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In the fitness world, the foam roller is a popular accessory to use during the stretching portion of a workout — it can help improve muscle length and joint motion, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE). And the benefits are not just limited to workouts, either: You can also use a foam roller to relieve muscle tension and soreness after hours of sitting during work or stress on the job.
But how exactly do foam rollers work and which one should you buy? We consulted personal trainers, physical therapists and chiropractors to discuss how to safely use and shop for a foam roller and highlighted their recommendations for some of the best foam rollers to buy now.
What is foam rolling, exactly?
Foam rolling is a type of treatment that helps speed up recovery from muscle soreness and tightness. They’re a popular tool for self-myofascial release, which is a deep-tissue massage that can help with breaking up myofascial adhesions, or trigger points, according to John Gallucci Jr., a physical therapist and CEO of JAG-ONE Physical Therapy. This technique is essentially a “cost-effective way to give yourself a deep tissue massage before or after a workout,” he noted.
Foam rollers have multiple benefits depending on when in your workout you decide to use them, according to Gallucci. Prior to a workout, they can break up adhesions, increase circulation and lengthen your muscles, warming them up for activity. After a workout, they can be used to get deeper into stretches or as a deeper tissue massager.
Whether you should use a foam roller before or after your workout depends on your goal, according to Allen Conrad, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and the owner of Montgomery County Chiropractic Center.
“If done before an exercise, it will help improve range of motion, elasticity and flexibility,” he said. “If done after your workout, the main goals are to decrease spasm and delayed onset muscle soreness, which will help you get back to working out faster.”
7 best foam rollers to shop this year
To help you determine the best foam roller for your needs, we talked to our experts about the different sizes, density levels and textures of foam rollers, who should use them and how to shop for them. We also highlight their recommendations for the best foam rollers to buy based on various use cases and experience levels.
Conrad recommended the LuxFit Foam Roller due to its durability. “Many foam rollers seem to wear down after using them a few times, but the Luxfit one is more durable for repeated use,” he said, adding that its density is "good for large muscle groups like the hamstrings and quadricep muscles." Its smooth surface also repels liquid for peace of mind while working out, according to the brand. It’s available to purchase in four lengths: 12 inches, 18 inches, 24 inches and 36 inches.
The TriggerPoint GRID roller is a good option for athletes, according to Conrad. The brand says it has a hollow center that makes it flexible enough to move with your body and a firm, contoured design that can withstand up to 500 pounds of pressure. Due to the firmness and ridges on the roller, Conrad doesn’t recommend it for beginners. This model comes in several sizes and in various colors like Pink, Mint and Orange.
This roller is longer, flatter and less dense than some other types of rollers, making it a great option if you’re new to foam rolling, according to Kristina Jennings, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and performance coach with the fitness training app Masters. She also noted that the softer texture can be good for people hoping to apply less pressure to affected areas. You can purchase this roller in 18-inch or 36-inch sizes.
“If you’re looking to add more pressure to the muscles, using a roller with edges and grooves can provide more intensity,” Jennings said. She recommended this one from Rollga, which features multiple grooves designed to provide a contoured fit to the body and make it easier to target trigger points, according to the brand. It’s made from professional-grade EPP foam, which the brand says can hold more than 2,000 pounds.
The Rumble Roller, also a recommendation from Jennings, is a firm textured roller with flexible bumps that continuously knead the affected areas of your body, according to the brand. The bumps are less than 2 inches apart, so multiple bumps can make contact with your body simultaneously and provide massaging pressure. The brand also boasts that the nonporous surface is latex-free, water-resistant and repels dirt.
This option from Tiger Tail features non-slip grip handles on either side that can help you guide the roller exactly where you’re targeting and “allow [it] to glide back and forth on the muscle with good stability and pressure,” said Conrad. Because of its firmer feel, this roller can be an effective option for soothing tight thighs, hamstrings and quadriceps, as well as pinpointing stubborn sore muscle areas and “getting rid of chronic muscle tightness,” he added. The Tiger Tail Massage Stick comes in three sizes: 11 inches, 18 inches and 22 inches.
If you’re looking for a more affordable foam roller, this one from Amazon Basics has a flat surface that can provide gentler pressure, making it “a good place to start for someone new to foam rolling,” according to Jennings. It comes in sizes ranging from 18 inches up to 36 inches — with the longer length, you can “work on larger body areas like the hamstrings and back of both of your legs,” said Conrad.
How to safely use a foam roller
To properly foam roll, place the sore body part on top of the roller and use your body weight to “slowly roll back and forth over the muscle or muscle group,” according to Gallucci.
Experts told us that anyone can benefit from using a foam roller, especially those with soreness, muscle stiffness or fatigue. However, people should avoid using one if they have a more serious injury, such as a muscle tear or fracture, since it can increase pain.
“Foam rolling can be uncomfortable, but [it] should never be extremely painful.”
John Gallucici Jr., Physical Therapist and President, JAG-ONE Physical Therapy
Gallucci also warned against rolling over bony areas: Bones are often mistaken for muscle adhesions, and continuously rolling over them can cause pain and inflammation. You should also avoid rolling the lower back, neck and joints since hyperextension of these areas “can cause further injury and inflammation to the tendons and ligaments,” he added.
If you’re new to foam rolling, select a roller that’s lighter and less intense, Jennings advised. Gallucci suggested taking breaks between sessions and gradually increasing the intensity and duration to avoid post-session pain or bruising.
“Remember: Foam rolling can be uncomfortable, but [it] should never be extremely painful,” he said.
When using a foam roller, Jennings suggested “breathing through the rolling motion” as it hits the affected body parts. You can also use a roller up against the wall for ease of use, she added.
If you’re unsure about whether a foam roller is right for you, you should consult your physical therapist, certified athletic trainer or physician.
What to look for when shopping for a foam roller
Foam rollers come in various sizes and densities, so choosing the one that’s right for you can be crucial to safe and effective sessions.
Size: When shopping for a foam roller, make sure you’re choosing the right size and shape for the body part you are targeting. According to Gallucci, a long roller can be used for many different body parts, like your back and legs, while shorter ones should be used when targeting smaller areas, such as the calves or arms.
Density: If you’re just starting out, experts recommended choosing a softer roller, which uses less pressure and gives your muscles a chance to adapt. Gradually, you can progress to a denser roller. The easiest way to test the density is to squeeze the roller, though “rollers are sometimes color coded with the lighter colors being softer and the darker colors being the hardest,” said Gallucci.
Texture: A beginner would likely benefit from a smooth roller with no texture in order to “provide for even pressure across the entire length of the roller,” Gallucci explained. Textured rollers that usually have ridges and knobs can create “a more targeted massage to break up adhesions in the muscle” and are better for more experienced rollers, he added.