Foam rollers get a bad rap. They’re both the best and the worst thing 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 a simple, low effort way to improve muscle recovery — and even light use of a foam roller every day can help keep your muscle soreness at bay.
Studies show that both athletes and non-athletes can increase their flexibility and enhance recovery through the use of foam rollers, or self-myofascial release (SMFR). And logically, the more time you spend cooling down and foam rolling the better your body will perform during your next activity — whether that’s at the gym, on race day, or on the trail. Another study published in the International Journal of Exercise Science shows that when you pair SMFR with dynamic stretching or other recovery and warm up tools, the potential is there to increase performance.
In practice, “foam rolling is an application of force to the muscle. We naturally get knots (or ‘adhesions’ to the muscle) solely through movement,” said Charlee Atkins, CSCS, Master SoulCycle instructor, and movement and mobility specialist. Which is why the more you move, the more you’re likely to benefit from foam rolling.
The 5 Best Foam Rollers to Buy Now
Best Budget-Friendly Foam Roller: Champion Sports Lacrosse Ball
Okay, so it isn’t strictly speaking a foam roller, but it’s perfect for those that aren’t looking for a huge commitment. A lacrosse ball is the easiest way to ease into rolling. Roll your feet back and forth at any time during the day to get into your arch and loosen tension. You might be surprised how much this can help with muscle soreness in the rest of your body. Lacrosse balls can also help hit trigger points on your body — think those really tender areas around your shoulders, back or pecs after chest day.
Best Basic Foam Roller: ProSource High Density Foam Roller
You can’t go wrong with this basic foam roller. The smooth high-density foam of the ProSource is commonplace at the gym for its ease of use. With no bumps or patterns, the amount of pressure is consistent with each roll. This particular version comes in three sizes. While you can use any size for your entire muscular system, the longer one is helpful for any spinal mobility or rehab.
Best Travel-Friendly Foam Roller: Brazyn Morph Collapsible Foam Roller
The already extremely popular collapsible foam roller made its debut on Shark Tank, and is best for that find themselves frequently taking their workout on the road. It weighs in at 1.6-pounds, yet supports up to 350 pounds and collapses down small enough that it won’t take up a ton of space in your suitcase.
Best Vibrating Foam Roller: TriggerPoint GRID Vibe
TriggerPoint’s Grid Vibe kicks it up a notch with the addition of a powerful vibrating motor. While you do have to charge this roller, you don’t have to worry about it running out of juice if you haven’t used it in a while. In testing, the battery lasted for multiple sessions. The vibrating motor effectively adds a deep tissue massage to your standard foam roller.
Best Foam Roller for Athletes: TheraGun G2Pro
The G2Pro is a special tool for vibration therapy, frequently used by CrossFit champions, that comes with an adjustable arm and 4 interchangeable heads so you can get at practically any muscle. The 45-minute battery life and extra battery pack mean that you can go for a full session before needing to recharge. It’s designed to help with muscle fatigue, tightness and to allow you to get at deeper knots. The price tag is steep for a recovery tool, but after using it, it’s hard to go back to a regular old foam roller.
How To Use Your New Foam Roller
Confused about what to do with your new foam roller? Try one (or all) of these moves from Kyle Stull, senior educator at Trigger Point, who is a Master Instructor for the National Academy of Sports Medicine.
1Lower Leg Sit on a flat surface with both legs outstretched. Supporting yourself on the hands, which should be next to the hip with fingertips out, place one leg on the roller, with the roller just above the ankle. Hold yourself off the ground and roll slowly (one inch per second) up to just below the calf and back down, four times. Set your hips back on the ground and then, with the roller just below the calf, roll your leg slowly from side to side in a spanning motion, also four times. Repeat the cycle on the part of your lower leg from just below the calf to just below the knee. Repeat the cycle with your other leg.
2 Upper Leg Like the lower leg, you’ll roll the upper leg in two separate zones: just above the kneecap to the center thigh, and from the center thigh to just below the hip. Lay face down, supporting yourself on your forearms (hands spread out) with one leg on the ground and the other on the roller at the top of the kneecap. Roll slowly to the center thigh and back four times. With the roller at mid-thigh, bend your leg at the knee to 90 degrees four times. Repeat the cycle on the upper part of the leg and then on the other leg.
3 Glutes and Hip Sit down on the roller with it positioned under the center of the hip on one side; on that same side, the leg and arm should be outstretched for support (on the other side, the leg can be bent with the foot flat on the ground the hand resting on the knee). Roll down a few inches (such that roller is moving toward your back) and back, four times. Back in the starting position, shift (in a dragging motion) your hips back and forth laterally across the roller four times. Now, position the roller below the hip again and slowly lower yourself so you’re flat on the ground, positioning the opposite leg up and over (as if you were stretching your lower back), such that your hips are stacked. Perform a spanning motion, moving the opposite leg back to up to 90 degrees and then across your body again. Repeat four times.
4 Thoracic Spine. To work the thoracic spine, lie in your back and position the foam roller at the bottom of the rib cage. Put your hands behind your head to support it. Lift your hips off the ground and roll forward on the roller until it’s at your shoulder blades, then back, repeating four times. With the roller at the bottom of the shoulder blades and your hips back on the ground, slowly bend your torso to the left and the right four times, creating a dragging motion across the muscles. Repeat the entire cycle, rolling from the bottom of the shoulder blades to the top of the shoulders.
5 Lats/Side Torso Lay on your side with hips, knees and feet stacked up on top of each other, with the hips and knees slightly bent. Outstretch the arm you’re rolling on the ground with your palm facing up; with the other arm, reach across your body and grip the roller. Roll up and down on the part of the lat muscle below the shoulder blade four times. Now take the arm your working and reach out in directly in front of your body. Then swing it slowly out until it’s in line with your body and bring it back to the starting position, repeating four times. Do this same cycle, but with the foam roller positioned on the upper part of the lat near your armpit.