Massage balls and foam rollers have been used extensively in sports and physiotherapy to aid recovery. But how effectively do they actually work? And which is best for me? Read below to find out more!
What is a foam roller?
A foam roller is a tube with/without divots or spikes on the outside. People would move their body back and forth over the roller on different muscle groups to help increase blood flow to the area. Blood flow is so important as this is what brings nutrients, or building blocks after exercise, as well as getting rid of waste products from the muscle. It is a fantastic tool to be used IN CONJUNCTION with stretches to get the best effects, as that increased blood flow helps to warm the muscle and improve elasticity. The best places to use a foam roller are:
- Quads (front of the thigh)
- Hamstring (back of the thigh)
- Calf (lower leg)
- Lower back
What is a massage ball?
A massage ball is a tennis ball sized object that comes in a variety of strengths, depending on the area of the body, or the pressure wanted from the user. As with foam rollers they can be smooth or they can be spikey, depending on the user preference. They provide the same physiological changes as the foam roller, however due to their size they can also offer trigger point release (a technique used to relax tight muscles). The other benefit to a massage ball is that it is much more portable if you do travel a lot. The best places to use a massage ball are:
- Pecs (chest)
- Arch of the foot
- Upper back and shoulders
- Gluts (back of the pelvis)
Spikey or smooth?
With both foam rollers and massage balls they can come in a variety of styles including having a smooth surface, or a grid/spikey surface. A recent research study completed in 2020 concluded that foam rolling did help recovery after activity, however the surface type did not make a difference to their study. Therefore it is purely down to personal preference. For some people, the smooth surface is more comfortable, for others the grid like pattern or spikes feels more therapeutic and 'massage-like'.
To vibrate or not to vibrate?
A couple of years ago there was a huge demand for vibrating foam rollers and were being sold at quite costly prices. But do they actually make a difference to your outcome?
Well in terms of research the jury is out on this one. In some research studies completed in 2019/2020 there was a clinically significant improvement in hamstring flexibility using a vibrating foam roller compared to non-vibrating foam roller. However in multiple other studies in the same period found no difference between the two products at all. Therefore, again like with the spikey or smooth surfaces it will be personal preference if you should get a vibrating foam roller or the classic.
So which one is best for you?
We have looked at all the options: between foam roller and massage ball, between spikey and smooth, and between vibrating and not vibrating. From having worked with all of these products this is how I have found the best uses for them:
If you complete exercise that uses your legs a lot such as football, runner, cyclist, weights in the gym.
If you are performing at a low level, completing sport that uses your upper body such as combat sports or swimming, or are pregnant.
If you find massage uncomfortable or have a 'low pain threshold' then a smooth ball is for you.
If you like a firm massage, you can tolerate the sensation of trigger point release (pressing firmly on a tight muscle) then a spikey or grid like surface may suit you.
If you are treating yourself to a gift that is a little different, made of higher quality materials and has more features on then this is the option for you.
If you are needing a foam roller on a day to day basis, you have a limited budget and you don't feel you need the added features, a classic foam roller will be just fine.
I hope this article has given you some insight into why you need a foam roller/massage ball, and how to select the best one for you. Which do you prefer? Comment down below!