After a tough workout, there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to follow: soreness. But if you don’t want to walk around like a stick figure, it’s important to make time for self-myofascial release, which is a way for people of all fitness abilities to pinpoint areas of muscle dysfunction and treat them by applying direct pressure, says Michael Camperlengo, master of physical therapy at Professional Physical Therapy. Besides feeling less sore—and therefore ready for your next workout—there are other major benefits to it, including improved muscular balance (so one muscle isn't stronger than its partner), better range of motion (flexibility FTW), and less risk of injury. Plus, you’re basically giving your muscles a free massage—and free is always good for the 'ole wallet.
So what’s the most common way to practice self-myofascial release? Using a trusty foam roller. While most people have at least heard of a foam roller, not everyone knows how to use one, or even what kind to buy, because some are harder, others more textured, and some even have vibration technology built inside them (fancy, we know). To help you decide, we asked Camperlengo to explain the differences between each kind and how to progress to more intense (and more muscle-relaxing) rollers when you're up for it. Ready? Let’s roll.
Foam Rolling 101
When should I use a foam roller?
This one’s easy—if you work out, you should be using a foam roller. Even if it’s only a few days a week, says Camperlengo. “All active people are advised to foam roll,” he says. “That way you can relieve tight muscles faster and loosen up trigger points (a.k.a. knots).” It provides a large surface area for you to work on large muscle groups, so it’s the holy grail for your hamstrings, quads, calves, and back.
Why are foam rollers good for you?
Let us count the ways. Not only do you get the health benefits mentioned above, but “once you’re familiar with the practice and techniques of foam rolling, the results are quite significant,” says Camperlengo. “All of a sudden you’ll have the ability to self-manage your recovery, and that’s sustainable long-term for preventing injury and improving athleticism.” Plus, basic foam rollers aren’t all that expensive, they don’t take up a ton of space, and there are even travel-size versions available so you can take it with you on the road. In our minds, that’s a win-win-win.
Some of these foam rollers look intense—how do I know if I can handle it?
“Ultimately, which roller you decide to use is based on your ability to tolerate pain,” says Camperlengo. “If you’re sore, it won’t be detrimental for you to use a firm or deep-tissue roller, but it will be slightly painful. [What] happens when you hit a trigger point can be uncomfortable, but it’s just an acquired taste—the more you do it, the less noticeable it will be.”
How do I progress to a harder foam roller?
Basically, you want to work on increasing your pain tolerance, and the name of that game is baby steps. So let’s say you want to progress to a firm roller. After a few weeks of regularly using a soft foam roller, Camperlengo suggests rolling on the soft roller for 10 minutes and then spending 3 to 5 minutes on a firm one. As you become more comfortable with the pain level, increase the amount of time you spend on the firm one and decrease the time on the soft roller.
How do I know I’m ready for a harder foam roller?
If you feel like the one you’re currently using isn’t really doing it for you—and you’re still walking around with sore, tight muscles—that's a sign that you may be ready for more. And don’t forget, your pain tolerance plays a role. So if you think you’re able to handle a firmer roller than can 'dig in' or provide more direct contact, he says it’s fine to give it a try. You can always scale it back if the pain is too intense.
Your Foam Roller Guide
Now that you’ve got the basics down, it’s time to find the best fit for you. Foam rollers come in various densities and shapes, so it’s easy to get confused. Below is a list of the different kinds of rollers you might come across and how each one helps take your recovery to the next level.
A soft foam roller is perfect for beginners and can be used by almost anyone since it’s the most gentle of them all, Camperlengo says. This option is great for those who are just getting used to foam rolling or those who are looking for a more rejuvenating (and less excruciating) recovery session. If you're a total first-timer, this one from Spri is a solid option. Camperlengo says it’s soft and has the most give.
This one’s for the athlete who has super-tight muscles that need a little extra love or for anyone who’s experiencing DOMS—a.k.a. delayed onset muscle soreness (what happens when it's been two or three days since your last workout and you’re still sore AF.) It’s more dense than a soft roller, which Camperlengo says is more effective at relieving tight muscles and trigger points. A firm roller (like this one from SKLZ) “aligns muscle tissue and breaks up the beginnings of adhesions or muscle strains,” he explains. “It can also help with lymphatic drainage—which carries waste away from the tissues—and decreases inflammation.”
Only use this style if you’re experienced with foam rolling and are ready for plenty of hurt-so-good pain. It provides little-to-no give, and the textured surface targets knots and kinks. “You should aim for a 7 out of 10 on the pain scale—any more than that is too much,” he says. (Side note: Reaching this level of pain during rolling is OK, but you should feel back to normal within 30 minutes—foam rolling should never create lasting pain or irritation, he says.) Look for a roller like this one from TriggerPoint with a literal grid pattern design.
An even more advanced level than a grid roller, “this roller should only be used on a healthy athlete, as it is extra firm, and the bumps built into the roller provide more focused trigger point relief and reportedly stimulate deeper layers of muscle," says Camperlengo. It's great to use after one of your more hardcore sweat sessions, and while it’ll definitely hurt in the moment (an 8 out of 10 on the pain scale), Camperlengo says the roller works to increase the flexibility in your soft tissue and provide long-lasting pain relief. In other words, the temporary pain is worth it. If you’re up for it, he suggests trying the RumbleRoller.
Consider this the ultimate player in the foam-rolling game. A vibrating foam roller takes the effectiveness of a deep-tissue foam roller and ups the ante with vibration technology. The goal is to minimize how much pain you actually feel (kind of like how those vibrating massage chairs feel good, not painful) while relaxing tight muscles, so you can spend less time and effort on those tender-to-the-touch areas and net better results. This version is much pricier than your standard roller, but worth it if you're serious about relief.