In the world of recovery equipment, few tools have as many uses as a foam roller. Foam rolling, also known as self-myofascial release (SMR), is not only great for muscle rehab during rest days, but it also serves as a great warm-up before a workout.
"SMR helps with muscle tightness and tension relief, which can ultimately allow your muscles to fire properly," explains Luke Lombardo, a National Sports Academy of Medicine (NASM)-certified personal trainer and fitness consultant based in Los Angeles, California. "It may help increase joint range of motion, too."
"I have seen people improve mobility drastically and recover faster due to foam rolling," says Noam Tamir, a certified sports and conditioning specialist (CSCS) and owner and fitness coach at TS Fitness in New York City. "I would recommend doing it at least once per day. You can do it pre-workout, which I think is most important to minimize the chance of injury and prepare your body for exercise, or post-workout for recovery — or just for recovery in general."
The 7 Best Foam Rollers
Lombardo and Tamir shared some of their favorite foam rollers, as well as tips for what to look for before you buy, below.
1. Best Overall: TriggerPoint GRID Foam Roller
Depending on the muscle you're targeting and how tender it is, you can choose which part of this multi-density roller you want to use. The softer sections may feel better on the most sensitive parts of your body, while the firmer areas work best on looser muscles.
"I like the density and grooves of this one to really get into the muscles," Tamir says. "Different directions of the grooves are good for going across muscle fibers to help with improved mobility and release of tension."
This 13-inch foam roller is also small and light enough for travel. And — bonus! — it comes with free instructional videos, so you can learn how to properly use it on different muscle groups.
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $34.99
2. Best for an Extra-Firm Massage: LuxFit Foam Roller
If you're looking for a longer roller for your upper back and legs, consider this 36-inch option in red, orange or blue. Thanks to its extra-firm density, no matter how much you use it, you don't have to worry about the foam losing its shape. It's also great for targeting meatier muscles and areas where you could use a little more pressure.
Available in four different sizes — 36, 24, 18 and 12 inches — it's ideal for targeting the upper back and shoulders, and can be used for a variety of mobility exercises. "I personally prefer a longer roller," Lombardo says. "I find them to be easier to work with, less restrictive and more stable."
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $23.65
3. Best for Sensitive Muscles: OPTP PRO-Roller Soft Density Foam Roller
If you're looking for a softer foam roller that will offer a gentle massage on super-tight muscles, this is the one for you. "It's also a good option for people new to foam rollers and those who bruise easily," Lombardo says.
The closed-cell design of this roller also makes it easier to clean.
Plus, because of its variety of sizes and durability, it can be used to do strength exercises, such as ab roll-outs, push-ups, hamstring curls and glute bridges.
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $35.95
4. Best for a Deeper Massage: RumbleRoller
The protruding lugs on this foam roller can help you get deep into muscle tissues, which may work a little better for someone who is more experienced with SMR, Lombardo says. The textured nodules are firm but flexible, and mimic the thumbs of a massage therapist, increasing blood flow to tired muscles for a faster recovery.
This roller particularly works wonders on the calves, for example, which tend to be tight because you use them constantly for everyday movements like walking up stairs and squatting down to pick up heavy bags, not to mention workouts like hiking, running and weight lifting.
"This would also be great to be used on the feet," Tamir says. However, he adds, this roller might be too intense for beginners.
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $49.95
5. Best for Vibration: Hyperice Vibrating Foam Roller
This foam roller offers three different vibration levels, so you can easily adjust how intense you want the massage to be. If you're new to vibrating foam rollers, it might take some time to get used to them and learn how to keep the roller from bouncing away, but once you're more comfortable, you may never go back to using a regular one.
"They create more blood flow," Tamir says. "The vibrations use the 'gate control theory' that non-painful input closes the nerve 'gates' from painful input, which prevents you from feeling painful sensations, so you can go in deeper with a roller without experiencing as much pain."
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $199
6. Best Handheld Massage Stick: SKLZ Massage Bar
Slip your hands into the grips on either end of this massage stick and control the amount of pressure you apply to your muscles by pushing harder or lighter. The roller glides smoothly against your skin and won't pull or pinch, making it a great tool to massage your own legs.
"Being able to control the amount of pressure is great when you're doing soft tissue work," Tamir says. "You can also have someone else use it on you to hit muscles that are hard to reach with a foam roller, like your upper traps."
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $29.99
7. Best for Travel: Brazyn Morph Bravo Collapsible Foam Roller
If you've neglected SMR when you've been on the road in the past because it's tough to fit a foam roller in your bag, here's your solution: a collapsible foam roller.
"We end up being very sedentary during the process of travel, and we sometimes don't exercise as much when away, which creates a buildup of tension," Tamir says. By packing this foam roller, you won't have any excuses.
When intact, the grooves of this roller will hit deep into the muscles where you need it. It can support up to 350 pounds, and to take it apart, just push the disks on the sides to collapse it down flat.
"It's perfect for athletes, fitness enthusiasts and trainers to use with clients when they travel, especially during the current fitness situation in the world when people don't want to share public equipment," Tamir says.
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $68
What to Know Before You Buy a Foam Roller
No matter which type of foam roller you decide to invest in, there are two main factors to consider to find the right one for you.
Consider the amount of space you have in your home or the room in which you're going to use the foam roller. "If you don't have too much space, you may want to consider a shorter roller, and maybe not one that vibrates," Tamir says. "It needs to work in the space that you have."
You should also think about size is appropriate for rolling out your entire body. If you're petite, a smaller foam roller is sufficient, but if you have a wide back, for example, a longer roller will work better for you.
The more you exercise, the more tension and mobility restrictions you're likely to have, so you might need a denser roller to target and loosen up those tight knots. "Consider your muscle density, too," Tamir says. "The more active you are, the denser your muscle tissue is, and therefore, the denser the foam roller may need to be."
If you're new to foam rolling, you might want a less dense and softer roller because it won't be as intense on your muscles (read: less painful). A soft roller is also smart for anyone who bruises easily, Lombardo says, provided that the foam roller is still firm enough to apply pressure for SMR.
"It also depends on how much discomfort you can take," Tamir says. Sometimes foam rolling tight muscles can be a little painful, and everyone's pain threshold is different. "You just don't want it to be super painful, otherwise you won't end up using it," he adds.