Foam rolling. These days, it seems like everybody’s doing it. A growing body of research and bodywork pros—physical therapists, massage therapists, and personal trainers alike—extol the soft-tissue benefits of self-massage for improvements in muscular flexibility and reduction in stiffness and even pain. Gyms and PT centers are strewn with them, but how do you know what products are best for at-home use? To find out, we went shopping for you, whittling down hundreds of options to a top-selling selection of the most popular roller types, and enlisting a cadre of experts and their muscles for over 40 hours of kneading and compressing. The finding: AmazonBasics’ High-Density Round Foam Roller, 36″ delivers the goods, and proves you don’t have to spend a lot to get relief.
For self-myofascial release (SMR, aka massaging your own muscles) as well as for use in certain exercises, the AmazonBasics’ High-Density Round Foam Roller, 36″ does the job for less than $20. The cylinder has a slightly rough surface texture that keeps it from slipping against clothes or the floor, and the 36-inch size allows for techniques that smaller rollers don’t, like stretches that involve lying along its length. The only caveat is that sensitive people might find the very firm density—like any black roller—to be too intense.
A great roller that’s not our top pick because it’s fairly pricey, the OPTP Black Axis Firm Foam Roller is a firm-density EPP (expanded polypropylene) black foam roller, considered to be the gold standard for alleviating muscle tension and knots. It delivers as expected, with the company’s 30-year reputation for quality under its belt. Still, you’re paying a somewhat steep cost+shipping premium over our top pick from AmazonBasics.
When you’re new to rolling, it can, well, hurt. The Gaiam Restore Total Body Foam Roller, made of polyethylene foam, is less dense and therefore less intense on muscles than the EPP material of firm rollers. But it isn’t so soft that it immediately warps under weight, and its full 36-inch length makes it useful for all sorts of rolling and exercise purposes. However, simply due to the nature of the material—not to mention the fact that muscles will adapt and may need a firmer pressure—it’s unlikely to last as long as a standard black roller.
Sometimes a smooth foam roller simply cannot get into very tight fascial knots—it’s just the physics of the curved shape. Thanks to its variety of nubs and knobs, ProSource Sports Medicine Roller 24″x6″ lets you target adhesions with ease. And with its relatively longer length (it’s also available in a short 13-inch model), you can still cover fairly large areas, such as your glutes or upper back. It doesn’t roll as easily as smooth-surface rollers or those with more regular texture, but as a supplemental SMR product (which is what it should be), it’s great.
The rolling-pin-like Tiger Tail The Classic 18″ Muscle Roller Massage Stick is made of foam-covered plastic with comfy rubberized handles. Given its petite size, it’s great for travel and also for digging into smaller spots on the body, particularly the neck and calves. On the flip side, it’s not nearly as good at SMR for the larger muscle groups—you simply can’t get the same level of pressure or expansiveness as you can by lying on top of a large foam roller—so it’s best as a supplemental product.
I’m a personal trainer (NASM-CPT), a running coach twice over (USATF Level 1 and RRCA), and a lifelong sufferer of poor flexibility and muscle tension. Kidding aside, I’ve consistently foam rolled for four years and have used many different types and textures in my pursuit of the best self-myofascial release. I’m also a former editor at Good Housekeeping magazine, where I was the primary staff writer for the Good Housekeeping Institute, working closely with the scientists of the labs to test all manner of consumer products. (I also write the yoga mat and fitness tracker reviews for The Sweethome.)
To home in on the best foam rollers, I enlisted two expert testers: massage therapist Polina Savelieva, LMT, owner of Active Outlook Massage in Astoria, New York, who is also a certified personal trainer and USAT triathlon coach; and physical therapist Matthew Rector, PT, DPT, director of business development of H&D Physical Therapy in NYC, and certified in Applied Functional Science from the Gray Institute. I also interviewed Michael Fredericson, MD, professor of sports medicine at Stanford University and author of Foam Roller Techniques for Massage, Stretches and Improved Flexibility; Lindsay Lopez, owner of Form Pilates in New York City, for her take on rollers in exercise; and Jon Graff, director of marketing at exercise-equipment manufacturer SPRI, to learn more about the materials and manufacture of foam rollers.
As mentioned in the very first sentence of the guide, this is for pretty much anyone. Foam rolling is a technique of self-myofascial release (SMR), or self-massage, to lengthen the fascia that covers the muscles, which, when restricted, can cause muscle tightness and adhesions (knots). In layman’s terms, a foam roller is the poor man’s masseuse. By targeting muscle groups and using both gravity (placing the muscle atop the roller) and friction (the rolling action), you can effectively break up and ease out tight tissue. It’s good for anyone who sits a lot (the fascia can tighten in response to being held sedentary for too long), anyone who moves a lot (the fascia can tighten when at rest after being used a lot), and anyone who likes to work out (the fascia can tighten in response to being overworked, and also may tighten in other places to compensate for muscles that are overworked).
Our experts agree that a smooth-surfaced, 6-inch-diameter, 36-inch-long roller is the best general tool for SMR, because it’s the most versatile for larger and smaller muscle groups alike, and can be used as a prop in your workouts. Though short rollers will do the trick for some areas of the body, only long rollers allow you to, for instance, lie comfortably along their length to gently roll your back muscles, or stretch the front of your body. And in most cases, you want the firmest material you can tolerate to go as deep as you can—some trainers I know use actual PVC pipe and skip the foam entirely! A bumpy, ridged, or otherwise textured roller can be good for targeting specific knots (known as trigger points) or for someone who prefers even deeper work. And a handheld option that fits in a gym bag is great for its portability as well as hitting smaller muscles (e.g., neck, ankles), or for partner work, if you’re lucky enough to have someone who’ll use the roller on you. But because you physically can’t produce as much pressure from pushing with your arms as you can from lying on top of a roller (ah, gravity!), the handheld tool is better as a supplemental tool and probably not the best as your primary one. Likewise, other implements, such as firm rubber balls or smaller rollers, are also available and are great for very specific purposes, but because of their specificity, we didn’t look at those for this test.
To choose the products we tested, I spent hours reading online descriptions and reviews, and editorial recommendations from the likes of Health, BestProducts.com, and Men’s Fitness. I also took into account companies’ reputations for quality. I then selected representative products from each of the three types: large smooth, large textured, and handheld (we eliminated the roller recommended in our Best Running Gear guide, the OPTP Pro, from this test because of price; cheaper foam rollers have gotten good enough that this premium roller no longer offers enough advantages to make it worth the price, though it is still an excellent roller that professionals will want to consider because of its studio-level durability.)
The final field of 13:
The physical therapist, the massage therapist, and I then spent at least an hour with each product, using it on ourselves, as well as discussing its merits and demerits with our colleagues. We rated each roller for:
We also reviewed each for its best attributes, any shortcomings, and overall usefulness, both individually and then finally compared as a group.
It turns out that our experts found what most laypeople already assume: There isn’t a ton of difference among the ubiquitous firm-density black foam rollers made of EPP (expanded polypropylene), at least in terms of their therapeutic benefits. What set the AmazonBasics High-Density Round Foam Roller, 36″ apart from others is two-fold: its bargain price and its slightly rough texture—sort of like those nonskid grips you’d affix to a tub—that helps keep it from sliding out from under you when you are rolling or using it for your exercise routine.
Because this roller isn’t made by a tried-and-true pro source—our massage therapist expressed surprise that Amazon even makes rollers now—we don’t know much about its long-term durability. But nothing about its construction or its nearly 1,000 Amazon user raves leads us to think it would be anything but long-lasting. The 36-inch version is the ideal length for the widest variety of uses, but it also comes in 18-inch and 12-inch sizes for portability (one good reason to stick with 36 inches is that it will support your entire spine if you’re using it parallel to your body.) The roller’s dark color works for a simpler reason: it doesn’t show dirt picked up off the floor (but you should still clean your roller after each use).
There’s really not much negative to be said about this roller, other than the fact that for some people it may be too firm, at least as an entry-level roller. To those people: scroll down.
OPTP (Orthopedic Physical Therapy Products) has been an industry leader for providing quality products for use in professional settings for over 30 years. The Black Axis Firm Foam Roller lives up to those high expectations, delivering reliable compression for large and medium muscle groups alike. However, one thing emerged in our testing: Those firm black EPP (expanded polypropylene) rollers really aren’t all that different from each other, at least when it comes to at-home use. Pro products are typically held to higher standards of durability, as they’ll often be used all day long, every day, in gym or PT settings; Jon Graff, marketing director of SPRI, another well-respected provider or professional-grade fitness and therapeutic products, confirms that its pro-level products are internally tested for those sorts of high-volume environments. That said, for home use and for value, you will likely be just as happy with the quality of our less expensive top pick from AmazonBasics. (Note: The sticker price for the OPTP product is just a few dollars more, but its shipping costs $10 compared with free shipping with Amazon Prime.)
In a word, foam rolling hurts. Or at least, it can be pretty darn uncomfortable, especially for a novice or anyone recovering from an injury. If this describes you, the firm black EPP rollers are simply too intense, and—as with anything—if it’s seriously unpleasant to use, you’re just not going to do it. Enter the Gaiam Restore Total Body Foam Roller, made of polyethylene foam, which unlike EPP is frothed with air (rather than compressed) to provide a softer texture. This type of foam, however, is also likely to compress and warp with long-term use because the air is eventually pressed out. The Gaiam roller is not too soft (it’s described as “semi-firm” on the company’s website), meaning it’ll have a bit more longevity both in your routine—before you’re ready to upgrade to a firmer model—and, most likely, in life. The full 36-inch length also gives it more versatility than shorter rollers for large-muscle-group work (e.g., midback) and provides support for the tailbone and a neutral spine position.
Adhesions—aka trigger points, or what are known in real life as “knots”—happen when the stressed-out fascia clumps or adheres together. These tight spots often need sustained pressure to help break them up, then friction (rolling) to smooth them out. The ProSource Sports Medicine Roller 24″×6″, has both raised nubs and flatter smoother sections to offer the best-of-both-worlds treatment. It’s a lot more intense than a smooth round roller and it doesn’t roll as smoothly as the fully round rollers or other textured rollers such as the TriggerPoint Grid 2.0. But if intensity is your overall aim, ProSource hits the spot. It’s also available in a shorter 13-inch length, which is less expensive but not as versatile as the 24-incher, which is why we recommend the latter.
Many brands of the 6-inch-diameter rollers—including our overall pick—come in shorter lengths, typically 12 and 18 inches, that are somewhat easier to travel with. But if you don’t want your roller to take up significant real estate in your gym bag or suitcase, look to a handheld roller. The Tiger Tail 18″ (The Classic) is our pick for a smooth-surface portable roller. Its small diameter allows for more targeted trigger-point work, yet the 18-inch length is generous for most parts of the body (save the upper back). Because it’s harder to access some muscles (like the upper back) with a handheld and you won’t get nearly as much pressure as you can from an on-the-floor model, this is really best to supplement your SMR routine.
Now that you have this thing at home, what the heck do you do with it? SMR isn’t complicated, if you understand a few key concepts. There are two main techniques you can use: 1) rolling back and forth, which creates friction and a rolling-pin-like ironing-out of the fascia, and 2) holding still on a tight spot, for trigger-point targeting to “melt” away knots. The other basic concept to understand: When you hold yourself atop the roller, the more gravity you can create on a muscle, the more intense the work. This generally means looking at your body’s points of contact with the floor—the closer your hands or feet are to the roller, the more you can hold yourself up and the less intense the pressure of the muscle on the roller. The fewer and further apart the points of contact, the greater the pressure on the muscle you’re rolling.
An example: When rolling out your hamstrings (backs of the thighs), you can put both legs on top at once, which is less intense because the pressure is distributed into two legs. You can also slide the roller over so just one leg is on it, and use the other foot on the floor (knee bent) to support some of your weight; this becomes more intense, because you’re hitting just one leg. Or you can do one leg and hold your free foot off the floor entirely (getting more intense), or even cross that free leg on top of the worked-on leg to add more weight and pressure (most intense).
A typical method to ensure you hit all the major muscle groups is to go from the bottom up: Start with calves, then hamstrings, then glutes (sitting on top the roller with one ankle crossed over knee to get one cheek at a time), then flip over to get quads, then do the sides of hips to get the tensor fasciae latae (TFL)/iliotibial band (ITB), then lie across the roller at midback to get the shoulders. It’s generally not recommended to roll across the lower back, because it could potentially exacerbate any disc issues. Instead, rotate the roller so it’s running down the length of your back, and rock side to side to roll one side at a time, taking care not to roll over the spine itself.
We’ve also gathered a few other foam roller tutorials. Here’s a good total-body guide to using a foam roller, from a Southern California-based physical therapist. And for runners, the Guardian recently published an excellent tutorial listing six specific foam-roller stretches.
The somewhat spongy appearance of SPRI’s EVA Full Foam Roller 36″ might make you think it’s a big softie, but don’t be fooled: Its medium-density foam is a bit firmer than the Gaiam Restore’s polyethylene foam but with more give than any of the black EPP rollers. In other words, it’s a fine pick if you’re looking for something in the middle and don’t mind spending a bit more.
There were no real complaints from our experts about the attractive TriggerPoint Grid 2.0, a longer version of the well known TriggerPoint Grid. It rolls nicely and provides a firm density and good self-myofascial release, though no one could really feel much of a difference from its ridged foam-covered PVC over a regular foam roller. And though it’s 26 inches long (the original Grid is 13 inches), that’s still 10 inches shorter than most full-size rollers. It’s also much pricier.
Our experts also had generally nice things to say about the well-made Sklz Barrel Roller. Our PT in particular enjoyed the memory-foam-like feel of its outer surface. The only shortcoming is its length; at only 15 inches, it’s too short for hitting larger areas like the midback (even on our petite-framed massage therapist) or rolling both legs at a time.
The Pro-Tec Roller Massager is similar to the Tiger Tail, but its foam covering is segmented, with the ability to slide the segments together or keep them apart. Unfortunately, our pros found them largely ineffective in terms of changing the depth of the massage the roller provides—and given that it’s a handheld with the obvious limiting factor of arm strength, it doesn’t bring much new to the table.
With its aggressive-looking studs, the RumbleRoller Full-Size Original can look awesome or awful, depending on your deep-tissue needs. Either way, our experts cautioned this isn’t the roller for those new to SMR—and indeed, it’s better for sustained trigger-point work over rolling.
If Goldilocks were to complain that the RumbleRoller was too hard, the OPTP Star Roller Soft would be too soft. The fin-like ridges compressed down, bending and deforming under even the lean body weight of our massage therapist, yet got in the way of a smooth rolling action. Our PT liked it better, but conceded it shouldn’t be the primary roller for anyone.
The handheld Solfit Body Muscle Roller has rows of firm spikes that look like they’d get deep into muscles. Unfortunately, the plastic handles bow under the pressure needed for that to happen. With a lighter touch, it feels nice but isn’t terribly effective for SMR, and the roller itself is only 6 inches long.
Store your large roller upright, somewhere not in direct sunlight (some foams may degrade from UV light). Don’t wear clothing with zippers or buttons that may gouge the surface when you’re rolling. After use, rub the roller with a damp sponge or antibacterial wipes, and give it a bath with a cloth dipped in soapy water and a good cloth rinse every once in awhile. (Don’t soak, though, as some foams may absorb water and take forever to dry.)
(Photos by Michael Hession.)
Originally published: January 5, 2017