A Guide To Choosing the Best Foam Roller
Foam roller’s have continued to gain wide acceptance as more and more trainers help their clients understand all the benefits of using a foam roller.
5'5 or 13' or 26'
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12' or 31'
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12' or 18' or 32'
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I originally began to use a foam roller while I was training for a marathon. A close friend of mine who works with elite athletes recommended it after I complained of hip tightness. What I found is that it’s a little bit like any other healthy habit, you’re not going to love it at first but eventually you won’t be able to go a day without it. Don’t quote me on this, but I think the phrase “it hurts so good” was originally used to describe a relationship with a roller.
Since then, I've been using a foam roller during all of my training. I recently ran the BMO Marathon in Vancouver British Columbia and I can't express just how vital the Trigger Point Foam Roller was post-run. Anytime you run 5, 10 or 25 miles, stretching your muscles out with the best foam rollers is going to help your body the next day.
Now depending on your pain tolerance and how tight your muscles are you’re going to need a different roller. And while some experts recommend ditching a foam roller and going straight for the PVC pipe I caution against that. Again it depends on the type of muscles you'll be using your foam roller on. Throughout this site, we have a variety guides on foam rollers for back pain and lower body pain like shin splints.
Why You Shouldn't Start With The Most Intense Foam Roller?
You’re not going to make rolling out your muscles a habit. If you’re new to this, a PVC pipe is going to hurt. Sure, all foam rollers will be uncomfortable particularly when you first start. A PVC pipe won’t be uncomfortable, it will hurt. There is no easing into it, and as a result you won’t pause to let those trigger points dissipate, you’ll use it less frequently and for a shorter periods of time.
Both EVA rollers and high density foam rollers are very cheap and you may find that you actually enjoy the slight discomfort that these products inflict.
The Benefits of Using a Foam Roller
When my friend recommended I start using a foam roller the first thing I wanted to know is why.
What is a foam roller going to do for me? Like many, I'm the type of person who will be more motivated to do something if I know the why.
He broke it down into two categories for me:
- Warming up
Before any intense exercise you should always warm up. It doesn’t matter if you’re going into a yoga class, running a marathon or weight lifting. A foam roller has become a vital part of my warm up. Kneading your muscles with a roller will help improve blood flow to prime your muscles for whatever you’re about to do. This in turn helps to reduce injuries.
Using a foam roller should be added to any athletes stretching routine. No matter if it's before a game, a workout, or a marathon, it's important to get those muscles warmed up so they are ready to perform.
Deep tissue massages have long been known to be beneficial after working out. While self myofascial release isn’t as effective as myofascial release (foam rolling versus deep tissue massage), rolling does imitate a deep tissue massage for a fraction of the cost.
Self myofascial release improves blood flow which brings oxygen and nutrients to your muscles which in turn improves recovery time.
Types of Foam Rollers- What Makes the Best Foam Roller?
As Foam Roller’s continue to flourish as a legitimate warm up and recovery tool the number of variations continues to grow. There are two generic types of foam rollers, an EVE high density foam roller and an EVA foam roller.
EVA rollers are very soft and will flatten in within a year of solid use. Where as an EVE roller is much firmer and will last several years of abuse. Usually a roller made out of EVA is white where as the high density ones will generally be black.
That said, of course it’s possible to make an EVA foam roller black. The easiest way to tell is to look at the texture. A high density foam roller will have small pellets where as an EVA will be smooth. Sometimes EVE rollers are referred to as molded this is primarily a marketing tactic. Taken from Perform Better’s website:
“Molded Foam Rollers do not contain cells making them last three times longer than traditional, celled, white foam rollers.”
After digging around I found this particular phrase comes up time and time again. You’ll notice it makes no reference to high density foam rollers.
The Best Foam Roller Brands
There are three brands, which have managed to separate their product as unique, which of course has brought plenty of imitators. The Grid Foam Roller, Rumble Roller and Travel Foam Roller.
The Trigger Point Grid Foam Roller is offered in three sizes: the Grid is 13” long, the Grid 2.0 is 26” long and the Grid Mini is 5.5” long. The grid differentiates it self by making use of a PVC pipe wrapped in EVA foam. Normally, I would recommend staying away from an EVA foam roller because it’s too soft but with PVC pipe it’s plenty firm. It also features several contours, which provide variety to the foam rolling experience. The contours aren’t a must have but they are a nice feature.
Trigger Point - Key Takeaways
- Durable and well constructed
- Multiple contours
- The Grid and the Grid 2.0 are terrific products
- The Grid Mini is too small.
As the title says, you will end up black and blue. The rumble roller features a set of spike like rubber prongs. This foam roller is a little too aggressive for my needs and as opposed to kneading the muscle and fascia it stabs at them. It comes in two sizes the standard Rumble Roller which is 31” long and the compact version is 12”.
It also is available in two densities, blue and black. The blue version is somewhat tolerable, the black version is 36% denser than the blue rumble roller and is downright painful. I wouldn’t recommend either of these products unless you an extremely high pain tolerance and you’ve been using a foam roller for a long period of time.
Rumble Roller - Key Takeaways
- Durable and well constructed
- Overall, the shape is not the most practical
- Extremely firm
- Great for hips and other areas that are difficult to reach with a standard roller
The travel foam roller is pretty self-explanatory. It’s a compact roller, which is perfect for taking on the road with you. The Travel Roller measures at 13” X 4” and is quite firm. I can comfortably say, it’s the best travel foam roller, often times I’ll use it at my local gym when the Grid 2.0 isn’t available.
Another feature I like is it comes equipped with three lacrosse style balls inside which are another essential item for self-myofascial release. I personally like to use them for the bottom of my feet and just behind my shoulder blade. The balls are designed to fit within the travel roller. You will also find a mobility band stored inside the Travel Roller. The design is rather clever as the balls and the band fit inside the foam roller and the foam roller slips into a shell which has a draw string attached.
The only draw back to this set is the price.
Travel Foam Roller - Key Takeaways
- The number one choice for a portable foam roller and self-myofascial release set
- Firm and durable
- Perfect for travel
If you're looking for a cheaper alternative to some of the more expensive models on the market a standard high density foam roller is a great place to start. Personally, mine wore out after about 8 months of continuous use but if you're not sure how often you're going to use your foam roller there is no reason to shell out $40 - $60 on a long term foam roller.
If you end up becoming a foam roller addict you'll quickly find yourself replacing a high density roller. You can pick up one of these for about ten bucks. A pretty good option if you're just starting off with foam rolling!
The stealth align is still relatively new and while it isn’t very practical for most applications people experiencing back pain might find it to be well worth the purchase. It is possible to use the stealth align for basically every exercise that you could use a foam roller for. However, it’s always a bit more awkward.
The core feature on this roller is the center channel running down the middle. Unlike conventional foam rollers where you have to cross your arms and angle your back to one side the Stealth Align’s “wings” allow you to be square as you roll back and forth.
This is why the Stealth Align is probably the best foam roller for lower and upper back pain. It keeps your spine in a neutral position while rolling. I also find the shape and the raised contours to be extremely effective for your back.
The one other muscle I really like to use the Stealth on is my calf. I find my calf fits perfectly into the center channel and allows me to target my calf much more effectively.
Stealth Align - Key Takeaways
- Ideal for back foam rolling
- Ideal for calves
- A little bit awkward when using it for the rest of your body
- Well constructed
What's the Best Foam Roller For You?
Ultimately, it depend on your needs as to what makes the best foam roller for you. As a marathoner and an experienced foam roller user, I prefer a much harder foam roller option such as the Rumble Roller Black and Blue while someone less experienced will often prefer (and should prefer) a softer option that is easier to use.
One tip I generally like to share is to try the foam rollers at your local gym or fitness studio before making a purchase. That way you'll get a good sense of the type of foam roller which is the best for you and you can try out a few. My gym for example has both the Trigger Point and the High Density Foam Roller and I found out originally that I preferred the Trigger Point ribbed style foam roller compared to the much simpler density foam roller.