Home Equipment – 7: Foam Rollers

rolling thighs on a foam roller

Next up in our series on home workout equipment, at #7 are foam rollers. These aren't used directly for working out but are mostly used for self-massage, often after a workout although they can also be used on recovery days or even as part of a warmup.

Home gym indicating foam roller

Types

There are two basic types of foam rollers. The first is the original one which is typically made of high-density foam, hence the name. These are available in different lengths and diameters. Mine, shown below, are 18 inches long and 5 inches in diameter. This is pretty standard.

Foam roller

The other main type are hard plastic tubes surrounded by a layer of high density foam. Because of the hard plastic, these are harder than traditional foam rollers so less comfortable. They're also usually shorter: mine are 13 inches long by 5 inches in diameter. But like the solid foam rollers, they're available in different sizes.

Grid roller

There are plenty of other varieties out there. There are also versions with handles that are like rolling pins that are easier to use on certain areas (like the thighs). They're much thinner than the floor rollers. I have one of these, too (of course).

stick massage roller

People also use tennis balls, lacrosse balls, or dog-toy balls (which are in between the first two in terms of hardness) to target specific areas. These can be particularly useful in small spots like the shoulder region. Some people use them as a sort of self torture to break up knots or whatever. Hey, whatever makes them happy (and doesn't injure them).

two dog toy balls

Benefits

There's disagreement about the benefits of using foam rollers. In the early days of their use, things like "removing muscle knots," "improving tissue quality," and "releasing sliding surfaces" were commonly touted. Blah blah blah.

The term "myofascial release" is still often used with them. This refers to the muscles ("myo") and fascia (the connective tissue beneath the skin that surrounds the muscles) but evidence supporting the effectiveness of "treatment" is scant at best.

Other studies have shown actual benefits for improving Range of Motion (ROM) and reducing Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) although the evidence is not yet compelling.

One benefit most people agree on: it feels good. Maybe not whilst you're doing it (depending on how much force is used and where) but at least afterward. There is speculation this is due to a "neural response" rather than any actual change to the tissue. Think about getting whacked somewhere that hurts and then rubbing the injured area. Same idea.

It is, however, genuinely self-massage and so will at least promote blood flow. This can be an inferior but better-than-nothing alternative to a real massage from a good massage therapist.

How to Use

This is not a discussion of different movements to do with rollers, but a general guide on how to use them in your daily routine. Here are some good ways you can use them:

  • After warm-up
  • Between sets (short use for short-term benefit)
  • Part of cool-down (to help reduce DOMS)
  • Rest days (to maybe promote recovery, help with DOMS, and improve ROM)
  • As accessory on some exercises (limited use)

A bit of explanation on that last one. Some people use rollers for instability to make some exercises harder. (For example, pushups with your hands on one.) That's generally not a great idea. You might be able to use them like yoga blocks as long as they won't roll away on you. You can also use them to aid in positioning, such as holding one between your lower legs during reverse crunches.

Maybe someday I'll get around to doing a more in-depth post on how to use the rollers. Meanwhile, just know they're a good addition to your home equipment.

Be seeing you

-gary

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