Ball Versus Foam Roller: Which is Better for Muscle Recovery?

“Rolling out” has become 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 various 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,  the research on this topic is ongoing and is 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 alleviates pain, tightness, and imbalances caused by dysfunction in the muscles, fascia, and neural systems. 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 correctly.

SMR helps reduce pain and improve muscle recovery. By working through the sensory receptors in the skin and muscles, SMR helps to relax muscles holding contraction and helps to get fascia (think of fascia as the plastic wrap that covers each of our muscles) moving optimally. SMR helps decrease pain, inflammation, and spasms and improve the overall range of motion. Evidence also suggests that rolling helps to reduce muscle soreness and improve muscle recovery after activity.

Adding SMR to your routine can be beneficial. Although only short-term effects have been shown so far, making SMR part of your routine is a good idea.

foam roller log
man rolling forearms with lacrosse balls

Ball or Foam Roller; Which is Better?

When selecting the best tool for you, consider the area and type of tissue you’re targeting and 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 foot’s arch 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 a range of motion and flexibility goals, here’s what we recommend:

  • Perform 2-5 sets of 30-90 seconds before or after the exercise
  • Perform three times weekly.
  • Add a static or dynamic stretch after rolling to enhance the effects.

For performance goals, this is what is recommended:

  • Exact dosage as above.
  • Use your roller or ball after the activity, not before

General recommendations:

Use small kneading or rolling motions over the most tender areas (these are your “trigger points”), and work with your breathing to relax. These motions 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 isometric ramping: Find a trigger point and keep the ball or roller on this spot. As you inhale, contract the area to which you are applying pressure, 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 imperative to recognize the difference between “good” pain (like a deep tissue massage) and “bad” pain that is caused by the 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. 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 and treat acute and chronic injuries. And we’d love to help!

Please book an appointment with one of Innovation Physical Therapy’s experienced physiotherapists by calling one of our five clinics in Edmonton, including RiverbendBelvedereNamao, or our newest clinic in Southgate Centre.

If you have any further questions about muscle recovery or any other issues, contact Innovation Physical Therapy today. We’re here to help you, “Love Getting Better!”