Look around your gym. You probably see people rolling themselves over big rubber cylinders or small balls. They aren’t just amateur contortionists working out their stress; they’re also working out knots of tension in their muscles.
The process is called self-myofascial release. The idea is to roll your body over small, firm objects to relieve sore muscles and release tight fascia and other deep tissues. It can improve exercise-induced tenderness, stiffness from too much sitting, and even some kinds of chronic pain. So what are these devices, and which is the right one for your needs?
Massage Balls and Foam Rollers: A Brief History
Throughout history, people have been using massages to release tension and ease pain. There is evidence of this practice in the worlds oldest civilizations, including:
- Egyptian elites being kneaded by servants.
- Luxurious Ayurvedic massages developed in ancient India.
- Traditional East Asian medicine developing various techniques including Japanese Shiatsu massage.
Massages delivered by the hands feel great. However, this technique also has limitations. Fingers can grow tired, arms can get sore, and soft palms may not be able to give enough pressure. Finally, even a trained masseuse can only guess at and ask you where the pain and tightness are lurking deep in your body’s tissues.
One solution to this was the development of rigid massagers. These took the form of small balls and rods. Ancient peoples used tools made of jade, metal, or polished bone. In the modern era, we have the benefit of modern materials and construction techniques. This has spawned a whole industry of massage balls and foam rollers. Some are meant for professional use, but in this article we’ll be talking about the ones designed to be used on yourself.
What is a Massage Ball?
As the name would suggest, this is a small ball designed for massage use. It’s also commonly called a therapy ball. Massage balls are typically small enough to be easily grasped. Some are made of firm material like hard rubber or even metal. Others are of high tech foam, dense enough to hold some of its shape but with a small degree of give. You can even re-purpose sport balls like lacrosse or tennis balls that you have lying around. If you get sore wrestling them away from the dog, these balls can do a great job of soothing your strained muscles.
Massage balls are highly portable, especially if you pick one made of lighter material. This is a good choice for on-the-go people as they won’t take up more space or add unnecessary weight in your luggage.
Because of their shape, they concentrate the force at the top of the ball’s curve. That creates a kind of almost pinpoint pressure. For this reason, a massage ball often feels more intense than a roller. Experienced users consider this a plus.
Massage balls, which are more petite than foam rollers, let you zero in on the sore ‘trigger points.’ You can press exactly where you need it instead of diffusing the pressure across the general area.
Hard massage balls can be difficult for beginners to tolerate. If you’re experienced with Thai-style or deep tissue sports massage, you know that sometimes you need some pain to deal with deep tissue tension. Are you just starting out with a self-myofascial massage? It may not be a good idea to jump off the deep end and go straight for a small, rock-hard therapy ball.
If you have a healing injury, a massage ball may be too much pressure on the area. It could leave you bruised or hurt. Talk to your doctor or physical therapist first.
Therapy balls are good for pinpoint work like that stubborn knot at the back of your neck, but what if you need to address your sore quads? A roller is more time-efficient.
These balls are harder to control than a roller. They have a tendency to shoot off and take out coffee cups, roll behind furniture, etc.
Have pets? You’ll need to keep the ball somewhere out of reach, or it’s getting chewed on. Have kids? Explain that this ball isn’t for playing with, or it may get lost in the toy trunk.
What is a Foam Roller?
A foam roller is a cylinder of foam designed for myofascial release. These come in a variety of sizes. They’re typically 4 to 6 inches across and 12, 24, or 36 inches long. Despite the name, they may not be 100 percent foam.
This category covers a range of devices. You may come across hollow plastic tubes with a textured rubber coating, dense foam around a rigid core, and cylinders of foam with a wipe-clean simulated leather sleeve. This gives you a wide variety of textures and densities to work with.
Foam rollers are stable. They roll back and forth in one direction only. This means there are fewer variables, so they’re easier to control. The longer surface also makes you wobble less.
Some kinds of foam rollers are softer and more comfortable than therapy balls, making them more beginner-friendly
Foam rollers target long swaths of your body at once. This spreads the pressure out more, which can also lead to greater comfort.
By targeting a wider zone of your body, you can more efficiently address exercise-induced soreness that has hit an entire muscle group.
Foam rollers offer typically less pressure, less precision, and less control. You can drive yourself crazy trying to hit that one little tight spot with a broad foam roller.
They may not be especially heavy, but they are bulky and not so travel-friendly. If you fly often, you may be better off with a ball.
These devices are more of a workout to use. You’ll be rolling your whole body back and forth over the roller, working hard for some pain relief. Compare that to using a therapy ball. There, you typically get it into place and lie still for 30 seconds, letting the pinpoint pressure work for you.
Balls vs Rollers
These self-massage devices both claim to relive painfully tight muscles and fascia deep in your tissues. They may also stimulate circulation, speeding the healing process of exercise-induced soreness. However, they go about this in slightly different ways. Let’s compare their features:
Materials and Manufacture
Therapy balls are smaller in volume, so they use less material. However, they need to be formed into a round shape. Cylinders are easier to manufacture shape. A solid foam cylinder is less likely to have manufacturing areas (like raised seams) than a solid foam ball.
Foam cylinders are typically High-Density Expanded Polypropylene foam, EVA foam over a solid core, hard rubber over a hollow plastic cylinder, or some combination of similar products. There is some difference in the hardness of the materials, but less so than with massage balls.
Therapy balls are made of a variety of materials including solid natural rubber, wool over rubber (tennis balls), EVA foam, stainless steel, plastic, various foams, etc. This gives you many options for choosing just the right firmness of ball for your use.
Both kinds of massagers can come with texturing such as raised nibs, flexible spikes, ripples, etc. For balls, these features are both less and more noticeable. On the one hand, you only come into contact with a small part of the ball during use. On the other hand, if this texture is rigid, all your body weight might be coming down onto one ‘spike’ that is not nearly as flexible as it claimed. Meanwhile, the broader surface of rollers can spread the pressure out in ways that balls can’t.
What size of device are you getting? This will affect your experience. Some massage balls can be twelve inches across, but most of them are small enough to fit into one hand. Rollers, however, come in a variety of lengths and diameters. Shorter rollers are slightly less stable and harder to get into place. Longer ones are more expensive and require more space to store.
A massager’s durability comes down to a combination of material used, its design, and how often you use it. A hard rubber massage ball may last you for years. Compare this to a cheap foam roller, which may fall apart in a few months of daily use. You can extend the life of your massage devices by using them on debris-free floors with good technique, so you aren’t putting excessive stress on the working surface. Also, keep them away from any pets that like to chew.
Let’s break down the costs of typical balls and rollers, according to popular online retailers.
Balls — These start at about $4 for a pack of tennis balls. Go up a bracket to $20 for textured balls of higher-tech materials. If you’re looking for all the electronic bells and whistles, expect to pay $50 to $150 for the highest in balls. The highest prices are associated with bigger names.
Foam Rollers — Price here varies depending on the length. You can get a basic 12-inch foam roller for about $10. For a longer or textured one, that rises to around $25. If you are interested in vibrating foam rollers, you’re looking at $64 on the low end and up to $200 for powerful, brand name products.
As you can see, foam rollers tend to be more expensive. These differences are more noticeable at the higher price bracket. However, if you focus on desired features and material instead of brand names, you can find good deals out there.
What Are They For?
In general, foam rollers are better at hitting the larger parts of your body. Picture things like stretching out your hamstrings or easing your sore back after a brutal set of deadlifts. Massage balls are better at closely targeting painful points such as those caused by lifestyle, posture, etc.
However, there is considerable overlap here. A massage ball can be used on your hamstrings. It just takes longer. Meanwhile, with patience and the right angle, you can target the crick in your neck with a foam roller.
More important than the kind of self-massager is your experience and willingness to learn proper technique. Your sore quads will stay painful if they get bruised in a clumsy, too-enthusiastic rolling session.
Vibration is a big trend in the myofascial massage world. You can get that feature in both balls and rollers, but it comes with a significantly higher price tag.
Heating and cooling properties are pretty much confined to balls that you can dunk in hot water or stick in the freezer.
Combination kits may feature multiple balls, a roller, a peanut-shaped double ball, and sometimes items like a rolling stick and stretching strap. These kits typically stick with basic designs and skip extra features like vibration.
The Final Word
Both of these massager devices have their place. Balls are portable and offer pinpoint pressure that digs into your knots. Rollers are easier to use and their broader pressure is better at stretching whole muscles. Hopefully, this article has given you a clear picture of which style of the massager is right for you. If you still aren’t sure, consider getting both. Throw a tennis ball into your bag when traveling, and keep a foam roller in your home gym. If you stick with less expensive models, you can enjoy the best of both worlds.