Foam Rolling: What it is & How to Buy the Best Foam Roller for You

Foam rolling is the new and upcoming term in health and fitness. It seems that everyone is now doing it.

Although that’s what I thought… I was having a drink with a friend last summer and started talking about how foam rolling has now become an essential part of my day. To my surprise he had no idea what I talking about!

So apparently there still exists a couple of people who don’t know what foam rolling is. If you also don’t know what it is and have never given it a try, I can only say that you are indeed missing out!

This post will briefly cover why foam rolling is beneficial and what to look for when buying a foam roller. We’ll also look at some of the best foam rollers on the market.

What is Foam Rolling?

The most simple way to describe what foam rolling is, is to compare it to massage. It is a form of self-massage.

Rather than it being a massage where someone else’s hands are doing the work, in our case, it is we who are applying the movement and the foam roller is applying the pressure.

When you apply pressure onto the foam roller, the foam roller acts to loosen up the fascia of the muscles. The fascia is a thin layer of connective tissue that surrounds our muscles. This fascia can become tight through inactivity or after exercising and if not loosened out can cause the feeling of tightness in the body as well as many other problems.

Although foam rolling seems so simple, there are many benefits from massaging the fascia or performing myofascial release.

Benefits of Foam Rolling include:

  • Can prevent injuries
  • Reduces stiffness, soreness and pain
  • Increase flexibility and mobility
  • Speed up recovery after a workout
  • Improves health of the tissue by aiding in oxygen and blood flow
  • Relieves tightness and adhesions (knots)
  • Leaves you feeling amazing afterwards!

Whether you are currently working or not you’ll most likely find a foam roller beneficial. In my case, I lived a sedentary lifestyle for many years and I developed a lot of chronic tightness in my body. When I discovered foam rolling it provided a lot of relief and left me feeling better than I ever had before.

Foam rolling is a great alternative for people who like the idea of going out and getting a massage, but don’t like the other stuff that comes with it (such as the cost and someone you don’t know touching you!). Foam rolling, can be done at home everyday, and it’s quick and easy to do.

It is used extensively by physical and massage therapists, as well as personal trainers and athletes. Luckily for us you don’t need a medical degree to understand how to do it as it’s rather intuitive. Best of all, you can get started today.

Things to Look for in a Foam Roller

There are all kinds of different foam rollers. I’ll point out a few things to consider and i’ll keep it as simple as possible.

  • Density – The denser the foam roller the more relief you’ll get. Beginners will most likely want something that is dense but still has some softness to it. When I started foam rolling it was extremely uncomfortable and painful because I had so many knots. A standard foam roller with a medium density should be fine for starting out. However, the more your body gets used to rolling, the higher the density you’ll need.
  • Bumps/Ridges – You’ll notice some foam rollers have patterns and protrusions on their surfaces. These are designed to ‘dig’ into the knots more than a flat surface would in order to trigger a deeper tissue massage. For most of us these aren’t necessary and a flat surfaced foam roller will do. If need be we can always use massage balls to get a deeper massage if required.
  • Size – Foam rollers can come in different lengths. A longer foam roller is easier to stay on than a smaller one, however the standard size should suit most people. Another point to consider is that a smaller foam roller is easier to carry around than a longer one if you wish to take it with you when travelling.
  • Durability – Your foam roller will have to be strong and durable since it will have to support your full body weight for long periods of time. It should also be something that doesn’t break easily and will last you a long time.

In most cases you’re likely to go through a few different foam rollers in your lifetime as your needs change.

The Best Foam Rollers

This section covers the best foam rollers to choose from depending on your needs.

All Rounder – TriggerPoint GRID Foam Roller

TriggerPoint GRID Foam Roller with Free Online Instructional Videos, Original (13-inch), Black
  • Patented foam roller design offers a superior,...
  • Constructed from quality materials that won't...
  • Includes access to free online instructional video...

If I had to choose one foam roller that I had to use for the rest of my life, it would be this one.

This foam roller is an intermediate level foam roller in terms of density. It should be dense enough to release most muscles. It’s also extremely durable and is unlikely to break or become unusable in the future like many other rollers.

It’s made by a well respected company and I have to admit I do use most of their products as they are one of the best brands on the market.

Best Value – Amazon Basics

AmazonBasics High-Density Round Foam Roller | 36-inches, Black
  • High-density blue speckled foam roller with molded...
  • Ideal for balance, strengthening, flexibility, and...
  • Made from molded polypropylene to maintain...

This foam roller by Amazon really is uhh.. ‘basic.’ It’s a simple moulded polypropylene roller with a slightly grippy surface which is good to avoid slipping. At 36 inches it’s also quite long which makes it easy to stay on.

It isn’t as high quality as some of the other foam rollers on this list, however it is good value for money. Although it is quite dense, people who have rolled before may want something more firm. If you want to experiment with foam rolling this could be a good starter option.

Best for Newbies – Gaiam Restore

Gaiam Restore 36-Inch Foam Roller w/ DVD
  • Relieve Stress & Muscle Tightness
  • Increase Circulation
  • Great for developing core stabilization, self...

Gaiam’s foam roller is much softer than most foam rollers and is a good option if you only want to perform light myofascial release. Some people will be happy to remain at this kind of density, however if you are looking to relieve even the smallest triggerpoints, you will most likely need to move onto something more dense in the future.

Quality, Soft/Medium Density – OPTP Pro-Roller

OPTP PFR36B Pro-Roller Standard Density Foam Roller, Blue
  • Built to outperform and outlast store model foam...
  • Constructed of closed-cell, heat-molded EVA foam
  • Standard density provides efficient yet...

This is much like the Gaiam roller in terms of density but a bit pricier. If you’ve decided that you do want a softer roller and are happy to pay a little more for greater durability, then this may be a better option than the roller by Gaiam.

The OPTP is a good quality roller from a well known company.

Intense Deep Tissue – Rumble Roller

RumbleRoller - Half Size 12 Inches - Blue - Original - Textured Muscle Foam Roller - Relieve Sore...

The Rumble Roller has extra bumps and ridges to dig deep into sore and tight muscles. This kind of roller will provide much more relief than flat surfaced rollers, however the experience will be much more intense (at least in the beginning).

It is available in different lengths (12, 22 and 31 inches) and also has two options of density, Original and Extra Firm. Beginners may want to stay away from this model until they have loosened up most muscles. If you are interested in this roller you can read our full Rumble Roller review.

Pro Level/Something Extra – NextRoller Vibrating Foam Roller

NextRoller 3-Speed Vibrating Foam Roller - High Intensity Vibration for Recovery, Mobility,...

The next stage up from having a foam roller with very deep ridges, is to add on vibration functionality. The NextRoller has three speeds of vibration, low, medium and high and is charged by plugging it into an electrical socket.

The added vibration seeks to bring even more muscle relief over a traditional roller. This foam roller is best for someone who has been foam rolling for a while.

For Travel – Handheld TriggerPoint Performance Roller

TriggerPoint Performance GRID STK Handheld Foam Roller, 21 Inch, Regular Density
  • Portable, handheld massage roller incorporating...
  • Targets both large muscle groups and pinpoints...
  • AcuGRIP handles provide targeted relief that...

A regular sized foam roller isn’t always easy to carry around or pack into your suitcase. In this case you may want to consider a portable handheld roller. To use one you would hold onto either ends of the stick and the middle part acts as the roller.

I do own the one above and it works very well. The one thing against these kinds of rollers, is that they are only of real use on the bottom half of the body, such as the calves and hamstrings. This may be a good option for runners.

How to Use Your Foam Roller

The great thing about foam rollers is just how versatile they are. This video shows a full body foam rolling routine you can do to increase flexibility.

When you first start rolling you’ll hit many points which feel extremely tender. The idea is to hold the position and to embrace the discomfort until you feel the pain subside. If the pain doesn’t subside, then hold on for at least 30 seconds. It may be the case that you’re extremely tight in that area and will have to focus on releasing that area for the next couple of days.

I’ve had many battles with tender spots and gritted my teeth through the pain. I have never regretted these battles either as the relief afterwards was a wonderful feeling!

Foam Rollers and Other Myofascial Release Tools

It may take a few goes before you find the right foam roller. The first foam roller you buy may feel too hard for you, however over time you’ll discover that it’s in fact too soft!

The basic idea for finding the right foam roller is to get a good quality foam roller that suits your basic needs and then supplement your additional needs (deeper trigger points) with massage balls and other myofascial release tools that are specialised for deeper release.

If you’ve never foam rolled; start now! It will be uncomfortable in the beginning, and after long sessions of rolling you’ll feel pretty sore, however over time this soreness will disappear and you’ll start to feel the benefits.

Foam rolling is one of those things that once you start it’s unlikely you’ll ever stop.

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