Ball Versus Foam Roller: Which is Better for Muscle Recovery?
“Rolling out” has become incredibly common at any gym or physiotherapy clinic. Therapists, personal trainers, and coaches often recommend regular rolling to accompany exercise routines. And, whether they’re using foam rollers, tennis balls, or a variety of other rolling tools, people use them religiously!
So, how do you know which tool works best?
Is there a right and a wrong way to roll? Is there solid research on this?
Let’s Take a Look at the Research Behind Rolling
First off, the research on this topic is ongoing and currently not concrete. Here’s what we do know:
- Foam rollers and balls are used for self-myofascial release (SMR), a type of self-massage. Self-myofascial release is used to alleviate pain, tightness, and imbalances caused by dysfunction in the muscles, fascia, and neural systems [Clark & Lucett, 2011]. Essentially, it’s a way to self-massage those “trigger points” and “knots” that build up from activity and to get our tissues sliding and gliding properly [Clark & Lucett, 2011].
- SMR helps reduce pain and improve muscle recovery. By working through the sensory receptors in the skin and muscles, SMR helps to relax muscles that are holding contraction and helps to get fascia (think of fascia as the plastic wrap that covers each of our muscles) moving optimally. This helps to decrease pain, inflammation, spasm, and improve overall range of motion [Clark & Lucett, 2011; Clark & Lucett, 2012]. Evidence also suggests that rolling helps to reduce muscle soreness and improve muscle recovery after activity [Cheatham et al, 2015].
- Adding SMR to your regular routine can be beneficial. Although only short-term effects have been shown so far, making SMR part of your regular routine is a good idea [Cheatham et al, 2015].
Ball or Foam Roller; Which is Better?
When selecting the best tool for you, consider the area and type of tissue you’re targeting, as well as how sensitive the muscle is. For example, a foam roller may be better suited for the broad quadricep muscles in the thigh, but a tennis ball may be more effective for targeting the arch of the foot or the muscles between the shoulder blades. Similarly, a harder lacrosse or street hockey ball may be more effective between the shoulder blades if you’re rolling against a wall, rather than lying on the ground.
It may require some exploration – get creative and find what works best for you!
Guidelines for Rolling
Whichever tool you decide to use, there are some pointers to get you going.
For range of motion and flexibility goals, here’s what we recommend:
- Perform 2-5 sets of 30-90 seconds before or after exercise [Clark & Lucett, 2011].
- Perform 3 times weekly.
- To enhance the effects, add either a static or dynamic stretch after rolling [Cheatham et al, 2015].
For performance goals, this what is recommended:
- Same dosage as above.
- Use your roller or ball after activity, not before [Healy et al., 2014].
- Use small kneading or rolling motions over the most tender areas (these are your “trigger points”), and work with your breathing to relax as you go [MacDonald et al., 2014]. This will help you engage the parasympathetic (more commonly known as the “rest and relax”) side of the nervous system.
An alternate technique is to use what’s called isometric ramping: Find a trigger point and keep the ball or roller on this spot. As you inhale, contract the area that you are applying pressure to, trying to push the ball or roller away and out of the muscle. As you slowly exhale, soften, relax, and melt over the ball or roller, completely relaxing the entire area. This technique has the added benefit of re-educating and resetting the neural connection (the brain-muscle connection), so that the brain can recognize what a relaxed versus engaged state should be for that muscle.
Does Rolling Have to Hurt?
Rolling can certainly cause some discomfort, but it’s really important to recognize the difference between “good” pain (like a deep tissue massage) and “bad” pain that is caused by actual injury.
The rule of thumb is that any pain you experience should go away immediately after rolling and you should feel better rather than worse afterward [Cheatham et al., 2015; MacDonald et al., 2014].
As always, we recommend consulting a physiotherapist if you’re unsure about your technique or if rolling is right for you.
As physiotherapists we are highly trained healthcare professionals who help people prevent injury in addition to treating acute and chronic injuries. And we’d love to help!
Book an appointment with one of Innovation Physical Therapy’s experienced physiotherapists by calling one of our 6 clinics located throughout Edmonton and Sherwood Park including Riverbend, Meadowlark, Belvedere, Namao, Sherwood Park or our newest clinic in West Henday.
- Clark MA, Lucett SL. NASM Essentials of Corrective Exercise Training, Baltimore, MD:Lippincott Williams & Wilkins;2011.
- Clark MA, Lucett SL. NASM Essentials of Personal Fitness Training 4th ed. Baltimore, MD:Lippincott Williams & Wilkins;2012.
- Cheatham SW, Kolber MJ, Cain M, Lee M. The effects of self-myofascial release using a foam roller or roller massager on joint range of motion, muscle recovery and performance: A systematic review. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2015;10(6):827–838.
- Healey KC, Hatfield DL, Blanpied P, Dorfman LR. The effects of myofascial release with foam rolling on performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 2014; 28(1): 61-68.
- MacDonald GZ, Button DC, Drinkwater EJ, Behm DG. Foam rolling as a recovery tool after an intense bout of physical activity. The American college of Sports Medicine 2013; 46(1): 131-142.