Diet & Nutrition

Foam Roller Buyers Guide

If you follow our Twitter account you may know that I hurt my back exercising the other morning. I wasn’t doing anything awesome, just my normal morning routine and just happened to pull a muscle. One of the benefits of getting older. After mentioning it on Twitter both Cynthia Thurlow and @LiftingSoulsFitness suggested foam rolling.

I’ll admit to you that I have never used a foam roller and had no idea how to choose one. So I did what I normally do when I don’t know something. I spent an embarrassing amount of time researching foam rollers. After all that research, I figured I would share what I have learned in case it can help you.

What Are Foam Rollers Used For

Officially foam rollers are for performing SMR or “self-administered myofascial release”. Or as a normal person would say, they are for doing deep tissue massage on your muscles using your own body weight. By targeting the knots and sore spots you can get a better range of motion and faster recovery.

I have been warned however that when first starting out it can be quite uncomfortable or even painful to use a foam roller. This is why it is recommended to start with a softer, smoother foam roller. Once you have grown accustomed you can move to a more intense option.

How To Choose The Correct Size

Foam rollers come in different sizes, both length, and diameter. Choosing the correct size is mostly about understanding the trade-offs. It is easier to target specific areas with the smaller rollers but you won’t be able to do some of the stretches without a larger roller. In general, you can use a larger foam roller for more than the smaller ones. In a perfect scenario, you would have access to multiple sizes.

tldr; If you don’t want to read this whole section just go with a 24-inch wide/6-inch diameter foam roller.

Choosing the Correct Diameter

Foam rollers come in many different thicknesses but the most common is 4 and 6-inch diameter. Depending on the manufacturer and style there are some small variations. Choose the correct height based on your expected use and how stable you are.

  • 6 Inch Foam Roller: This is the most common size and will work for pretty much any application. If you are only getting a single foam roller this would be my recommendation based on my reading.
  • 4 Inch Foam Roller: The 4-inch foam roller will give a deeper message and can reach areas that the larger foam rollers won’t. They are also easier to use and more stable because you are closer to the ground.
  • Half Round Foam Roller: These foam rollers are only half circles which makes them very stable when laid flat on the floor. They have the added feature that you can stand on them to stretch the arches of the feet. They are still usable in most of the same ways as round rollers.

Choosing the Correct Length

There are a whole lot of different sizes offered but the most common lengths can be broken down into 3 groups. There are some of the same trade offs between the different sizes as there were for diameter. In general you can use the longer lengths for more but it is easier to target specific areas with the shorter ones.

  • Short (12″): There are short foam rollers as small as 4 inches. The shorter rollers are able to target small muscle groups much more effectively. In addition, they are very easy to travel with and can be used in smaller areas.
  • Medium(24″): The medium length foam rollers are a good compromise between the versitility of the long rollers and the portablity of the short ones. You will still be able to work on all of the muscle groups without needing a large open space.
  • Long(36″): The longer foam rollers are the most versatile and stable. The best part is that they are long enough to be used along the full length of your back. The main drawback is that they require a lot of room and can be awkward to use on small muscles.

Density Matters

Foam rollers come in several different densities which indicates how much it will compress under your weight. A lighter density foam roller will compress more and may be a better choice for your first roller. As the density increases the pressure you will feel will increase. If you are stiff or sore this will also increase the pain you feel during use. The research I found showed little difference in effectiveness between different densities [source] so pick the one thats most comfortable.

Foam rollers are often colored based on their density but this isn’t guaranteed to be true. This means that you will need to be diligent when shopping to get the correct roller. All of the listings I saw on Amazon clearly mentioned the density so it shouldn’t be a problem finding the correct one.

Shapes of Foam Rollers

When I started my research I had no idea how many different kinds of foam rollers there were. I wont lie, I was a little intimidated by the wide range of styles. After doing some reading I was able to break it down into three basic types.

Basic Round Foam Roller

These are the kind of foam roller that I though of when I first started researching. If you have been in a gym recently you might have seen these around. Of all the different types of foam rollers, this one seems to be the most highly recommended for beginners. With one of these, you will be able to do everything you need to do with minimal discomfort.

Grid Foam Roller

These foam rollers have different designs that are intended to give a deeper message than the basic round foam rollers. There are a lot of different designs and you can tell how intense the message will be by looking at how deep and spread out the ridges, knobs, and grooves are.

Accupoint Foam Roller

Alright, most of these foam rollers look like medieval torture devices. As you can tell by looking at them these provide the deepest and most targeted pressure. I would absolutely not recommend these for a beginner.

Massage Balls and Sticks

In addition to the foam rollers, there are a lot of other products that are worth adding to your home gym. In particular, there are roller massage sticks and foam balls that can be used in similar ways as a foam roller. The foam ball, in particular, is excellent for targeting the arches of the feet and the lumbar area of the back.

To Vibrate or Not To Vibrate

I’ll be honest I couldn’t find much research on the effectiveness of vibrating foam rollers vs non-vibrating. The limited research I found the vibrating foam rollers appear to be better at reducing muscle soreness, range of motion, and recovery time [source][source].

I’m going to leave this one up to you to decide. Based on the research I found I might recommend the vibrating foam roller if you are having a lot of pain and stiffness. For me, the price difference was large enough that I decided to skip the vibrating foam rollers. I might change my mind in the future. If I do I’ll update this and let you know if it was money well spent.

This Is What I Purchased

I guess it wouldn’t be fair not to share with you what I finally decided to purchase after all this reading. I actually ended up buying both a foam roller and a foam ball set. Since my injury is in my lower back I wanted to be able to target that area specifically. I’ll be updating this post with my review after using them for a while.

Thanks For Reading

I really appreciate your time reading this guide. If you have any questions or suggestions please comment below and I’ll get back with you. If you found this guide helpful I would greatly appreciate a share on social media. Thank you.

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I am the technical person behind OthFit.com. I write a little bit but most of my work is behind the scenes. I am working to get back in shape and reclaim some of the agility and strength I've lost to age and injury.

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