There’s a love-hate relationship when it comes to foam rollers. They’re both the best and worst things to happen to your muscles before or after a workout. While they can be painful at times when used correctly (and occasionally, downright excruciating), foam rolling is still a simple, low-effort way to improve muscle recovery. Even light, everyday use of a foam roller can help keep your muscle soreness at bay.
But will rolling across just any foam instrument do the trick, or is there more to this effective yet intense practice? Before we stretch into the best foam rollers and massage devices available today, let’s go behind the curtain and see if this practice is worth the aches and energy.
BEST OVERALL FOAM ROLLERRollga Read More
BEST UPGRADE FOAM ROLLERLululemon Double Roller Read More
BEST BUDGET FOAM ROLLERFitness Gear 36-Inch Foam Roller Read More
BEST FOAM ROLLER FOR BEGINNERSTriggerPoint GRID 1.0 Foam Roller Read More
BEST AGGRESSIVE FOAM ROLLERRumbleRoller Firm Massage Roller Read More
The Benefits of Foam Rolling
The idea behind foam rolling, despite popular stereotypes, is not self-torture but rather self-myofascial release or SMR. This studied modality has been shown to help relieve muscle soreness and inflammation by breaking uptightness in your muscle fibers and promoting greater blood flow to the targeted area.
“Foam rolling is an application of force to the muscle. We naturally get knots, or ‘adhesions’ to the muscle, solely through movement,” says Charlee Atkins, CSCS, Master SoulCycle instructor and movement and mobility specialist. Essentially, this means the more you move, whether through cardio-based modalities like running or strength-centric workouts, the more your muscles can benefit from this added force, leaving you well and ready to take on more training sessions time and time again.
When Should You Foam Roll?
In theory, foam rolling can be an effective fitness tool whenever you decide to use it. In pre-workout scenarios, foam rolling can help loosen tight muscles and increase tissue elasticity, resulting in a better range of motion as you work through your day’s exercises and modalities. It can also be a low-effort way to activate slumbering muscles, much like how you’d use a massage gun to jumpstart these targeted areas.
While we are fans of pre-workout foam rolling, we believe the most effective way to use a foam rolling device is in post-workout scenarios. This can significantly enhance your recovery time by stimulating blood flow to targeted muscle groups and increasing oxygen levels to sore muscles. Is it the most welcome discipline, especially after a grueling strength training regimen? No. Is it worth the aches and time? In our opinion, yes.
What to Look for in a Foam Roller
One of the first things to consider when choosing a foam roller for your recovery regimens is the density of the foam or material. These recovery tools can vary in terms of firmness, which can have varying effects on your relief. Softer foam rollers may feel more pleasant across tired muscles but can ultimately lose their shape over extended use. Denser foam rollers, while more rigid, can be great for deeper penetration while also maintaining their shape for longer periods. Be sure to take your pain threshold and desired goals into consideration when thinking about which density is best for your practices.
Foam rollers can also differ by their exterior texture. Smooth rollers feature a basic design intended to provide a constant, even pressure across the targeted muscle group. This style can be great for large swatches like your thighs, quads and lower back. Textured rollers, on the other hand, mimic the hands of a professional masseuse, providing more precise penetration with each roll. These textures can vary in intensity, depending on how aggressive you want your therapy sessions to be. Additionally, for those on a budget, smooth foam rollers are typically cheaper than their ridged counterparts.
When it comes to a foam roller’s size, the main thing to consider is which muscle groups you plan to roll. Larger foam rollers can accommodate larger areas like the back, shoulders and lower body but may be difficult to maneuver when trying to hit smaller areas like the calves or arms. Shorter foam rollers can be more precise but might not provide the same coverage to when trying to roll out wider swatches. There’s also a matter of portability — smaller foam rollers are naturally more attuned to on-the-go relief.
In terms of foam roller diameter, most silhouettes fall between 5 and 6 inches. This provides enough height off the ground for efficient, controlled rolls. Some foam rollers can feature a tighter diameter closer to 3–4 inches, which can provide even deeper recovery, but there are far more options within that 5–6 range.
Today’s foam rollers can also house a number of additional perks like percussive therapy modules, contoured designs and others. These can help bring added convenience to each session, but aren’t entirely necessary for a well-rounded routine. If you want some additional therapy added to each regimen, be on the lookout for these particular features. Be prepared, however, to pay a little more for these functions, as added tech can typically escalate the price when it comes to these relatively affordable recovery tools.
How to Use a Foam Roller
While using a foam roller can vary in terms of the muscles you plan to target, there are a few common instructions that can be worth your time during practice. First, it helps to have your muscles fully extended when rolling, so for areas like arms and legs, make sure you’re fully stretched out throughout the rolling process. Once you’ve identified your area, here are a few tips to an efficient rolling session:
- Begin at one head of the targeted muscle, providing enough pressure that promotes some discomfort without leaning into pain.
- Slowly roll your muscle across the foam roller, for roughly 4–5 passes, traveling the entirety of the muscle area with each roll.
- If you have a pinpoint ache or sore spot, stop and rest on that area for roughly 20–30 seconds, creating enough pressure where you feel it without causing too much pain.
- As you grow accustomed to foam rolling, feel free to experiment with different body positions and levels of pressure. The more experienced you become, the more worthwhile each session will be.
For a more thorough understanding of how to use your foam roller, along with precise instructions for varying muscle areas, be sure to read our helpful guide on how to use a foam roller.
How We Tested
We take our recovery very seriously and as such, have had plenty of experience with foam rolling over the years. Over multiple weeks, we utilized these top picks to keep our muscles at the ready for plenty of engaging exercise routines. We noted key features, including how comfortable each device felt across specific muscle groups, how convenient they were in addressing tired problem areas, how portable they were and other qualities. Bonus points were also awarded for versatility and overall looks because let’s face it, foam rolling’s already a tough sell, so it helps when the product looks more inviting than just a blank tube of EVA.
Rollga "The Everyday" Foam Roller
If you want pinpoint relief in a lightweight frame, look no further than this impressive “Everyday” roller from Rollga. We found the contoured design easily placed all the emphasis on the muscles rather than bone, especially when it came to back and lower body treatment. Plus, the lightweight, 18-inch frame is easy to maneuver as you roll from head to toe. While we’re still unsure of the heat-sealed EPP foam’s durability over extended use, at less than $45, we’d be happy with replacing this roller if it ever comes down to it.
Lululemon Double Roller
Two rollers for the price of one? Sign us up. The Double Roller features two varying textures designed to target different muscle groups — the softer exterior can help with arm and leg releases, while the firm interior features a more aggressive pattern for the back. Cleaning this EVA foam-based roller is a breeze, too; just a simple wipe down and you’re ready to go. Just be sure to keep all parts together when targeting arms and legs. The exterior shell has some rigidity to it, but not enough to support your body weight, so the insert is required to reap the most benefits.
Fitness Gear 36-Inch Foam Foam Roller
Simple and to the point, this 36-inch foam roller is a testament of quantity and quality. We were happy with the expanded coverage, allowing us to roll out our lower back and shoulders without much maneuvering, and appreciated the mildly dense foam construction. Also, the lack of texture creates an even pressure sensation during rolls, which can be a good starting point for novices. Some athletes have stated that overuse can lead to warpage over time, but at just $30, you’re not breaking the bank with this effective piece of recovery equipment.
TriggerPoint GRID 1.0 Foam Roller
You probably recognize this textured foam roller and for good reason. The TriggerPoint GRID 1.0 is a great introduction to foam rolling due to its lightweight frame, hollow construction for better shape retention and firm yet comfortable foam. This was the first foam roller we ever owned and we enjoyed how easy it was to target varying muscles without a lot of intense, unwelcome pressure. With that said, though, the shorter profile isn’t the best for back and shoulder releases, so you may want to consider longer options if these are your main sticking points.
Editor’s Note: If you’re enamored with the feel of the GRID 1.0 but desire a longer foam roller, consider the GRID 2.0, which features the same textured exterior at a taller 26-inch profile.
RumbleRoller Firm Massage Roller
Want your foam rolling to have a little more grit? Step up to the intense traction of the RumbleRoller Firm. This monster truck tire of a recovery tool features a denser foam than its predecessor while still keeping those easily-recognizable nubs across the rolling surface. We like the RumbleRoller Firm for those midweek rolls where staying fresh from day to day is an absolute must. With that said, however, it took some time to become accustomed to the more aggressive nature built into this roller. It’s best to ease into the RumbleRoller, and instead, get used to foam rolling with a less intense model first.
Living.Fit 36-Inch Foam Roller
Textured rollers can provide a unique sensation to tired muscles, and we really enjoy the buttoned pattern of this silhouette from Living.Fit. The lightweight 36-inch frame is easy to maneuver while still providing enough area to relieve larger muscle groups. Plus, the high-density EVA foam is rigid enough for durability’s sake while also providing a level of softness that makes this great for beginners, too. While some athletes have noted a unique new smell that comes from the EVA design, this funk does begin to dissipate over time, leading to less distracted, more relieving sessions the more you use it.
Hyperice Vyper Go
Vibration therapy is a popular recovery modality, most often showcased in massage guns. That doesn’t mean your foam rolling sessions can’t shake things up, too. We really enjoyed the compact design of the Vyper Go, as the contoured shape fit perfectly across our thighs, calves and feet for enhanced myofascial release. Plus, the Vyper Go can be paired with Hyperice’s companion app for guided recovery sessions that don’t require any toggling or fussing. This smaller, TSA-approved roller is on the shorter side, however, which may limit how many muscle groups you can target. For example, we found it somewhat difficult to truly unlock our lower back and shoulder areas across its more compact frame.
Brazyn Performance Morph Collapsible Foam Roller
Foam rollers can be great, effective fitness tools, but their cylindrical shapes aren’t the most portable. This foam roller from Brazyn Performance takes the traditional model and literally reshapes the landscape with a collapsible frame that fits easily in a gym bag or luggage. We admire the innovative profile and quite frankly have yet to travel without it, but the Morph is not without its flaws. For one, the Morph features a softer foam than other rollers on this list, which might feel too plush for some enthusiasts. Also, the corrugated foam panels that allow for compact storage can feel awkward across the skin, especially if your shirt gets hung up in-between panels.
Tiger Tail Original 18-Inch Massage Stick
Sometimes you just need a quick reprieve instead of getting down on the ground and diving into a full rolling session. This is where massage sticks can be a great option, and there’s none better than the Original Tiger Tail. We liked the comfortable, ergonomic grips at each end, allowing us to fine-tune the pressure placed across our calves, thighs, neck and more. We used this rolling pin-like accessory mostly after a long run or hike, and thoroughly enjoyed the on-the-spot treatment. Like a traditional rolling pin, though, the Tiger Tail is best used with two hands. You can target single-hand areas, but it requires some awkward propping and adjustments, which take some practice to master.
Therabody Wave Solo
Massage balls can be fantastic for smaller areas like the feet for relieving any muscle tension, and the Wave Solo brings all of today’s tech breakthroughs to this small, handheld silhouette. About the size of a baseball, this roller features a wave-textured exterior for exceptional traction and three customizable vibration frequencies for an added zest of relief. The Wave Solo can also be paired with the Therabody app for guided sessions. Be mindful, though, of the flat face where the button toggles reside. This gives the exterior a lip and might not roll as seamlessly as a traditional lacrosse ball.
Massage balls are great for pinpointing particular knots and aches, but they aren’t the easiest to navigate in the upper body. Oftentimes, you need to sandwich the ball between you and a wall, and pressure needs to be maintained, which can be a bit of a burden. This mountable Vertiball takes those headaches away, and we found the smooth, dense roller to be a blessing across our shoulder blades and scapula. Plus, the suction does give this device a firm footing, provided you mount it to a flat surface. We tested the Vertiball on some textured walls in our abode and found it lacked the contact needed for that lockdown placement.
Roll Recovery R8 Plus
For tight IT bands, quads and hamstrings, this clamp-like device can provide excellent relief without the need for a comfortable floor to roll on. The R8 Plus also features a unique dial adjustment that allows you to change the pressure placed on your extremities depending on how deep the ache is. We also appreciate the compact, travel-ready silhouette of this roller, but don’t expect this to replace your trusted foam tube. Because of the oblong, clamp-like profile, the R8 Plus is not the best for lower back or neck aches. It may be best to pair this tool to one of your more robust foam rollers for a more well-rounded regimen.