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Foam rollers are everywhere and the different material, colours, textures and grid patterns have gotten us all a little confused. After a lot of self TLC, massaging many backs and bums, consulting numerous fitness trainers, therapists, specialists and even waiting patiently for email replies from the various manufacturers, we went for the Trigger Point Grid as the best all-round multi-purpose foam roller.
Having said that we even found a good bargain in the similarly designed Protect My Body Grid Roller which is a Cardiff-based company. At close inspection, pushing and prodding the EVA foam on the Grid, it definitely seems a better quality product and the superior choice for those that foam roll on a daily basis without fail. Those whose foam rolling may be once or twice a week need suffice with the cheaper one.
For those preferring something a little softer we went for the OPTP Pro Roller.
We also looked at travel options and felt that the Addaday Massage Stick came out on top with its collection of ball-shaped ‘gears’ helping to add some firmness needed when applying manual pressure. An even more portable option would be the Trigger Point Ball.
We looked into the science behind the newer ultra-firm rollers, as well as the even more aggressive-looking Rumble Roller but found that while there might be a case for extra-firmness, nodules may not be helpful and can even be counter-productive. There may still however be a case for firmer rollers, in which case we went for the Trigger Point Grid X.
The Emergence of the foam roller
It was practitioners of the Feldenkrais Method (a traditional type of exercise therapy) that first started using them at the turn of the Millenium. 2004 saw foam rollers first mentioned in a fitness article by Eric Cressey and the first patent registered design was in the same year.
Now, no place can be called a gym without having a set of foam rollers. Surprisingly, there are still many (even gym-enthusiasts and runners) that have no clue regarding its use. Now, we have reached that stage when the choice is endless and not dominated by one company, Triggerpoint. We have also seen prices range from $5 to $200. So it’s important to delve into the nitty gritty and the actual materials used to make these self-administered massage tools.
Whilst testing, analysing and even speaking to both specialists and users alike, it has become clear that the choice of roller is either subject to preference (the firmness or ridges) or function (which muscle is the most problematic). There is also some confusion regarding what they do as well differences of opinion amongst the specialists themselves in this respect. Thus, a product review of this nature can only be credible if it addresses some of these nuances.
Adding to the equation is the appearance of more innovative tools like balls, hand rollers and even boomerangs (yes boomerangs) so we will cover some of this too to create the most comprehensive feature on the subject yet.
I have been in the fitness and sports retail industry for over 5 years and an avid fitness enthusiast for even longer. I have taken a keen interest in massage and SMR (self-myofascial release) for some time now and even been on various short courses covering the subject, coming across different techniques and explanations. I find myself self-massaging in public using some very unconventional methods. Sometimes I look like that bear on YouTube scratching his back on a big tree.
What we have found is that finding the best foam roller proves a lot more challenging than reviewing most other fitness products because of the differing needs of its user. For some, the back is a problem area but areas around the spine require something with a softer density. For others, in particular runners and cyclists, the lower extremities are more of an issue so perhaps a firmer foam works best.
Thus we set about finding the best foam roller that serves a variety of purposes; something not too firm but not too soft. We looked for a brand that specifically comes up with a design that tries to capture the best of both worlds.
So we came to the conclusion that the best roller, for all-round purposes, on the market is the Trigger Point Grid. Trigger Point’s signature product is made up of a PVC hollow core wrapped In softer EVA foam. This gives the perfect blend of soft and firm. The additional feature is their patented grid design to replicate the touch of a professional massage therapist.
After delving into the science behind how foam rollers work we have chosen not to give the popular Rumble Roller a significant endorsement. The rumble roller is a more recent arrival to the scene but as popular as the Trigger Point because of its unique make-up of nodules that are said to be softer than bone so that you have a surface capable of applying concentrated pressure without doing damage to the body.
We have found that such concentrated pressure may not be necessary and may be causing too much pain tolerance while the real function should be to facilitate a little more glide between muscles so that they can be lengthened and strengthened thereafter. Another drawback is that nodules do not facilitate a smooth role so there can be a sudden aggravation of pressure points and nerves in the body causing excessive involuntary contractions of the muscle which is the opposite of what you need.
This means that some of the less-known rollers that combine both grids and nodules are also excluded from our favourites, especially when it seems that they have combined different philosophies for monetary gain without delving into the science. Models of this description include the Karrimor Roller and the Master of Muscle Roller.
NODULES AREN’T NECESSARY AND MAY EVEN BE HARMFUL BUT GRIDS REALLY HELP
We shall go into more detail during this review as well as some other options, including the more portable tools like hand rollers and balls.
The merits of each individual foam roller does however come down to how they actually work. Trouble is, even specialists disagree as to how they work whilst still acknowledging that they are beneficial tools in enhancing one’s mobility. Thus, you’ll find that the design of each brand falls in line with specific opinions circulating within the professional world.
How do foam rollers work
1. Increasing blood circulation: this is one of the most obvious benefits; we know what happens when the nurse takes a blood sample and they struggle to expose the vein; they will apply compression to enhance the circulation. Foam rolling applies pressure to the muscles which enhances circulation. What would be the benefit of that? Well blood is the medium by which oxygen and essential nutrients are delivered to the tissue so muscles can be kept a lot healthier through applying such compression.
2. Breaking up adhesions: adhesions are sticky areas between tissue. Text books illustrate lovely diagrams where muscles, tendons, bones and joints are clearly defined. The reality is more like what you see when you buy a raw chicken with different bits of tissue stuck to each other and the muscle is stuck to the bone. Hence, foam rolling will help release these adhesions and separate muscles from each other, muscles from bone. All this allows a better glide-and-slide of tissue across each other.
It must be said that there isn’t a huge amount of research proving this explanation. In fact, a lot of the support for foam rolling is anecdotal; ‘We do it because we know it’s working somehow.’ However, this particular theory is consistent with the ideas of Dr Ida Rolf, creator of the manual therapy programme known as Structural Integration. One of her most coveted students is Thomas Myers, author of the well-known book Anatomy Trains. He has a number of articles, publications and even You Tube videos where he demonstrates his techniques, identifying separation lines between muscles then manually trying to separate them from each other. Thus, a foam roller can do this job while ridges and nodules can introduce those sharper pressure points to separate the connective tissue (also known as fascia).
The consistency of this theory with the practice of foam rolling is why the technique is given it’s ‘unofficially official name’, SELF-MYOFASCIAL RELEASE, or SMR. It must be noted that there are prominent sceptics of even this theory.
3. Wakes up the nervous system: another plausible explanation. If you roll the body against something firm enough you are activating several interfaces between the ground and the brain. This makes foam rolling a nice way to warm-up before an activity. It must be said though that this process of proprioceptive stimulation is activated more effectively via a dynamic warm-up but having a quick roll over a softer foam roller can be a great precursor.
4. Water extrusion. A theory I first came across during one of my courses in managing back pain. The theory is research-based but again some have had doubts over it. It’s a simple model to understand though. The application of pressure on the muscles pushes water out the cells and then it flows back in, facilitating more glide-and-slide between the fibres.
5. Tricking the brain with ‘fake’ pain signals; an explanation you don’t expect to read about but which is probably the most plausible explanation according to the elite professionals. Imagine a soldier that loses his arm in battle but the intensity of the situation at the time distracts from the actual pain. The idea (known as DNIC, Diffuse Noxious inhibitory Control) here is to distract the body and make it think that the pain is somewhere or something else. This then creates the opportunity for the previous soreness or pain to subside or even stretch a little more.
Remember, the inability to stretch beyond a certain range is primarily because the body supposedly cannot tolerate such excessive length. This is where personal preference comes into play when choosing the firmness of a foam roller. For some, a regular EVA density has become too soft so they move onto something firmer (like EPP, Expanded Polyprolene) and may even move onto a rolling pin or steel bar.
There are numerous ideas surrounding why and how foam rollers work and we are only covering them briefly in order to explain how it should influence the choice of tool. Naturally there are also myths and it is not for us to debunk them all here. However, two in particular come to mind due to their relationship with foam rolling.
MYTH: Trigger points and knots: do they exist?
Probably not. There is no real science to prove it. Most likely they are tiny areas of tightly contracted muscle. Again, huge discussions and hot debates occur amongst professionals but the author of one of the most popular ebooks on trigger points, Paul Ingraham, has also written a huge article casting doubt over them on the same website painscience.com. Either way, even if they are nothing more than little spasms, foam-rolling (or Self-Manual-Therapy) will still help, but it is probably due to the previous explanations. Therefore, a ‘trigger-point’ is a symptom among many others (like tight muscles) for which such therapy can be beneficial.
OBVIOUSLY THIS MEANS THAT THE TRIGGER POINT BRAND HAS BEEN NAMED ON A DUBIOUS PREMISE BUT WE CAN FORGIVE THEM FOR THIS AS THEY ARE PIONEERS IN THIS FIELD AND PRODUCE GREAT PRODUCTS.
MYTH: The it band: does it ‘get tight’ and can you actually foam roll it?
You have fitness enthusiasts, then you have fitness enthusiasts that foam roll. 90% of them will make claims like ‘my IT band is so tight’ or ‘I need to foam roll my IT band’. Again, these are statements founded on dubious, half-baked science.
We are talking of course about this tough band of connective tissue running down the side of the thigh to which many muscles are attached. This band is not muscle and hence does not have any tensile properties, meaning it cannot stretch or get tight (according to most professionals). What might be getting tight though are the small muscles above and below it, namely the vastus lateralis and the tensor fasciae latae (TFL). Hence, these would be the two muscles that we should focus on rolling. See this video by a great mobility specialist, Brent Brookbush
This is a review not a training article so for the best foam rolling techniques the Brookbush Institute videos provide the best collection around.
The other theory, that is more consistent with the science than the common narrative, goes back to what we covered regarding adhesions; it is quite possible that there is a lot of stick between the IT band and the surrounding muscle so foam rolling should be done behind and in front of it. This being the area of Rolfing and Thomas Myers, there are videos of him applying massage techniques in these areas, where he is even specific about which side to focus on depending on one’s pelvic tilt. I could not find this video on the web so you would have to purchase his popular book, Anatomy Trains with the accompanying DVD.
I hope we are now a little clearer on these nuances. Definitely a lot more clued up, but here is a useful article providing credible knowledge on the subject with links to further reading at the end
At least we are now a little reassured within ourselves that foam-rolling is definitely not a waste of time.
Things to consider when choosing your foam roller
Price (and material).
We’re putting these two together as there is obviously a direct correlation between them. In all, 3 types of foam exist in foam rollers.
- Polyethylene (PE) This will also have derivatives like Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE) or even Expanded Polyethylene (EPE). This is the softer and cheaper material used. It will usually compress more over time. A more premium PE material with cross-linked construction can also be found and we shall be recommending one such model in this review.
- Ethylene Vinyl Acetate (EVA) Better in quality then PE. It is more durable and keeps its shape better. Generally, EVA foam rollers are more pricey than PE ones.
- Expanded polypropylene (EPP). This is a lot firmer than EVA and a lot of more modern foam rollers are made of this material. The worry about these is that it could be falling in line with the dubious narrative that ‘If it ain’t painful it ain’t working’.
The problem we have is that unlike ingredients on food packets foam rollers do not often include the name of the material used on the packaging. I found myself having to email the companies directly. It is usually the bigger companies that are more willing to shout from the rooftops about their materials because they will be using the best grade of PE or EVA.
The standard length of a foam roller is 13 inches. On balance, most people foam roll the lower extremity and unilaterally (one leg at a time). Those that like to foam roll bilaterally will opt for a double-size one but we feel that this method is only good for enhancing circulation, in which case, a smoother roller works better like the OPTP model (reviewed later).
The diameter will generally be around 6 inches but some with very tight kyphotic spines may need a roller with a smaller diameter for the growingly popular thoracic extension exercise. It is usually only cheaper PE rollers that come in this size, often from a Physio clinic’s website like CanDo®.
We can now begin reviewing the different rollers based on specific function and in light of the science.
The Best Foam Rollers according to Function
For the gentler approach and great for circulation and warm-ups
Made from the supposedly lower grade PE material, this is actually made up of a more premium, cross-linked, form which also makes it closed-cell and more hygienic. As covered earlier, softer and smoother rollers will enhance circulation and stimulate the nervous system without the pain experienced through denser or textured materials. Many therapists will recommend this profile of tool (maybe even this particular model) due to the nerve-related conditions of their clientele.
This roller only seems to be available in the longer 36 inch and retails at $36. Due to the function of this softer model the longer roller actually works best. Enhanced compression and stimulation does not require much firmness and these are functions that need to be fulfilled quickly by being able to roll both legs and the whole back at the same time.
A GREAT OPTION FOR MMA GYMS AND GROUND FIGHTERS WHO NEED A QUICK METHOD, DURING WARM-UP, FOR FIRING UP THE NERVOUS SYSTEM IN A LESS INTENSE MANNER. GYMS WILL LIKE IT BECAUSE THE MORE PREMIUM MATERIAL IN THIS MODEL MAKES IT MORE DURABLE AS BACTERIA WON’T PERMEATE THROUGH AND EAT IT FROM THE INSIDE. HENCE, IT WILL BE IDEAL FOR MULTIPLE, DAILY USE.
Add a little texture – the Trigger Point grid
Easily the best selling single model of foam roller, renowned worldwide. In terms of design, function, durability and efficacy, it is hard to beat. Just some question marks regarding price. In this review we are also looking at consistency with the science and it ticks this box perfectly. No one can deny the benefits of massage and the grid design brilliantly mimics the limbs, fingers and pressure points exerted by the therapists. Not only in terms of shape but also in terms of density; the EVA material used is of superb quality. Try pressing the foam and it compresses easily but bounces back just as quickly, meaning that consistent compression is applied.
A base level of firmness is provided by the inner PVC pipe. The grid will always take some beating in my opinion as it has established itself already as the leading brand and there is little sign of it ever being dethroned. Rivals will look towards outscoring it by trying something very different. This is what would have led to new designs and constructions like the nodules we find on the Rumble Roller. However, the spec of the grid is much more consistent with the science where the grooves provide that extra bit of friction to help break up muscle and fascia adhesions.
A roller too smooth may not be effective enough. At the same the roller isn’t of a nature that is so firm it creates intense pain. The idea that it can only be working if it is painful is a fallacy. However, because foam rolling has also been said to work because it creates fake pain signals it is understandable if users have reached a stage where they require more firmness. Hence you have the Trigger Point Grid X for this.
The price of the standard 13 inch roller varies seasonally between $25 to $35 dollars. In the UK it can be about £40 although recently I have seen it as low as £28. Expect to pay more for the 26 inch version but for me the functional use of this foam roller is more for adhesion-breaking, so unilateral work works best.
Fancy the same thing at half the price?
I went to a local UK budget store and came across a roller that looked exactly like a trigger point but cost half its price. The product didn’t even have a label but I came across it on the Internet. It’s from a company called Protect My Body and pretty much copies the trigger point grid. The EVA is a little more inferior in quality as you see the foam does not bounce back so quickly but if you only use it once or twice a week it will definitely do the job. Protect My Body is based in Cardiff, UK, and this product retails with them at £20 sterling.
A bit more firmness – EPP rollers
A new material that provides that extra bit of firmness. EPP (or Expanded Polypropylene) can be said to be made of tiny polystyrene balls. It is a very durable foam with closed-cell construction so not porous and therefore it is hygienic. Still has a little give so able to replicate the feel of a firmer ‘deep-tissue’ massage. Some well-know EPP foam rollers include the Foam Cobra Roller from Vivomed, priced at $14 for a standard size, or the ProSource Extra Firm High Density roller priced at $13.99 (for the standard size of 18 inches).
The Rumble Roller – functionally designed or painful gimmick?
Great choice of material using injection molded EVA, making it ‘softer than bone’. This tool is very recognizable due to the way it is made up with big nodules throughout. A solid centre (rather than hollow) to help it maintain some inner firmness. However, for me the nodules create 3 main problems:
3 Problems with the Rumble Roller
- Nodules do not allow for a smooth roll and if anyone remembers getting a massage the motion of the therapist is always smooth.
- The next problem is down to the misunderstood science behind foam rolling; the notion that ‘It only works if it hurts’ and the very aesthetic look and name suggests that this is the cadillac of all rollers that will hit those ‘Trigger-points’. We’ve discovered that trigger points may not even exist so again nodules seem unnecessary.
- With nodules there’s a fear that as they dig into the tissue it will cause involuntary contractions of the muscles. Again, think of your massage therapist that tells you ‘relax and breathe’. This may not be possible with the rumble roller
Hope this clears things up. I really wanted to include this in this ‘Best of’ list but I just couldn’t find the justification to endorse it based on the science. This also means that any roller that tries to incorporate nodules and grids in one design is not worth the expense. This includes the Karrimor foam roller, and the Master of Muscle foam roller.
In recent years there is a growing popularity in travel options for foam rollers. This is very important for those that travel abroad to compete in competitions. Initially, people would take massage balls with them which, by default, is a great option for hitting those smaller muscles like the piriformis and the small muscles in between the vertebrae.
The Trigger Point Ball has always been my favourite. The company seem very hush-hush about the material used on this as well as the quadballer and footballer. In essence it is a fabric designed to be soft like a humans but does not compress from repeated use.
Anyhow, it was hand rollers that subsequently made an appearance and all the leading brands came out with one. I really like the Addaday Massage Stick for this. With hand rollers it is difficult to get the required amount of compression but the trademark ‘gears’ (shaped like balls) on this tool get over that problem with a textured finish that replicates the finger and elbows of a massage therapist. Another one of their products is called the ‘boomerang’ which places the gears on a softer fabric, allowing you to use this on the back and shoulders.
In recent years we saw the arrival of actual foam rollers that can be flattened and packed away. The Rove portable foam roller is still a kickstarter project and features a high quality EVA foam rolling surface laid on a foldable (and durable) fibre filled nylon body. A mixture of titanium hinge pins and carbon locking pins hold all the segments together. A work of art and will definitely be popular with travelling folk. Due to ship late spring 2017, you can pre-order yours for $89.
Adding to your travel options is the Trigger Point Grid Mini but I believe this is way too small to serve enough functionality. Quite frankly, you’re better off with the ball.
The future: vibrating foam rollers
First things first; time will tell if this will make it big on the market. What we can confirm is that the idea and potential benefits are plausible and consistent with the science; the use of vibration in rehabilitation is widely practised in clinics and even gyms (think power plates). In fact, more studies have been carried out into the use of vibration to help improve performance, mobility and gait. Thus, combining the two concepts of vibration and massage can potentially deliver phenomenal results. The biggest hurdle will be price; having said that they can cost as little as $60 and go up to $180. The biggest name to look out for in this area (and yes at that higher price point) is the HyperIce Viper. It has 3 different speed settings and is fully rechargeable, giving 2 hours full use. It’s a tough market out there and these brands have their work cut out to convince us that the added element of vibration is that ground-breaking, it is worth the extra £100. Then again, no one would have thought that foam rolling could become so ubiquitous worldwide 15 years ago.
And the winners are
All-rounder: Trigger Point Grid
Bargain: Protect Your Body Grid
Nice and Gentle: OPTP
Firm and Rugged: Cobra Roller, Vivomed
All-Singing-All-Dancing: HyperIce Viper
The fighters choice – trigger point grid X combined with a cheap PE roller
Of course, fighters obviously train hard. Hence, there is a lot of soreness to address. Flexibility is key, so mobility work is absolutely essential. When it is that important and it has to be incorporated into a full comprehensive routine a long-lasting durable roller is needed. It still needs to have grooves to help melt away adhesions, and now we know that rolling works by creating fake pain signals, some extra firmness can be beneficial too. Therefore, I would go for the Trigger Point Grid X. Having said that, a fighter may benefit from having a softer PE roller which you can pick up at most Physio clinics or budget stores. This would be good for some nice nervous stimulation before training for groundwork. Obviously, the best option for this function (if you wanted to treat yourself) would be the OPTP pro-roller.
The Final Word
Our research and investigation showed that choosing a foam roller (like many other fitness products) very much depends on the function you require it for. Those needing to enhance blood circulation or just waking up the nervous system may get on well enough with a softer foam roller. Having said that, the material on softer foam rollers may not be of great quality. The OPTP Pro Roller is the best choice in this category with its cross-linked foam structure providing more durability.
Added firmness and a little texture is the best solution to your foam roller, to help break-up any adhesion between the connective tissue so that you can restore the length in the muscles and keep yourself injury-free. The Trigger Point Grid has these qualities and uses the best quality EVA with a density that allows the material to compress and spring back. This then allows it to act like a massage therapist’s hands. The inner ABS pipe will not collapse under bodyweight force and the rolling technique maintains a level of smoothness to make your practice effective.
We went into the science behind why and how foam rolling works and concluded that inflicting pain isn’t the objective. Hence, some of the ‘uglier’ looking rollers like the Rumble Roller contradict the purpose of self-administered massage. Nodules do not recreate the touch of a therapist and do not make for smooth rolling.
We understand however, that some people like a little more firmness. Hence, the Trigger Point Grid X and the Cobra Roller from Vivomed are good options in this respect.
As for the future then look out for the travel-friendly Rove Roller as well as the vibrating Hyperice Viper.
Now you know that rolling doesn’t have to be so painful so hopefully I can wish you some,