Written by Nic Bartolotta
Physical Therapist & Chief Clinical Officer at Rolflex
A debate as old as time: muscle rollers sticks vs. foam rollers. Athletes, physical & massage therapists, and athletic trainers have gone back & forth on which one is better. The truth is, they’re both effective tools for muscle recovery, injury treatment, and mobility improvement. But they both have their limitations too, specifically around their functionality and practicality as a day-to-day treatment option.
We’re going to break down the specific differences between foam rollers and muscle roller sticks, how they work, and what they’re good for (and not so good for). They can be combined for effective treatment solutions, but there’s actually a third, more effective option, for advanced muscle recovery & myofascial release – we’ll explore that too.
What they do
Muscle roller sticks & foam rollers effectively serve the same purpose, just in a different manner. They both provide countless benefits and are suitable for casual gym goers, professional athletes, and everyone in between. Before physical activity, these massage tools are used to prime muscles & joints by stimulating blood flow and warming up cold muscles. After exercise, they’re effective at breaking down the damaged muscles, limiting fatigue, and jumpstarting recovery.
Even hours before & after intense workouts, both rollers and sticks can help improve physical performance. They reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and enable you to pinpoint muscle knots that cause pain and limit mobility. Arguably the most important function of foam rollers, specifically, is the role they play in self-myofascial release (SMR).
SMR is a self-massage technique that involves using a foam roller to target trigger points and break up muscle adhesions. It works by applying pressure to a particular area of a muscle (the trigger point) while simultaneously contracting the same muscle. This technique promotes blood flow to the area, breaks up scar tissue, and separates the muscle from the connective tissue (the myofascia). Ultimately, this results in less pain, increased mobility, and overall greater physical health.
Foam rollers are cylindrical self-massage tools used to reduce muscle soreness, improve flexibility, and even treat injuries. A person applies pressure to a specific muscle group by laying on the roller, using their body weight to massage the deep muscle tissue. They come in all colors and sizes, with varying densities, enabling you to vary the strength of the massage. Some people even use just a chopped piece of PVC pipe as a cheap alternative.
What are foam rollers good for? (the pros)
Foam rollers are most commonly used to massage lower body muscle groups. These areas include the quads, hamstrings, calves, adductors, hip flexors, shin, and even the IT band. But they can also be used to tend to pain & soreness in parts of the upper body like the biceps, triceps, and lats (latissimus dorsi).
Most foam rollers are 12-15” wide, which enables you to target larger muscle groups like the quads & hamstrings in one motion. They’re also available in varying densities, from soft to hard, which enable you to customize your massage even further. Generally speaking, most people start with soft rollers and progress to harder densities as they learn what works best for their body.
Compared to muscle roller sticks, it’s generally easier to perform SMR while laying on a foam roller. This is because your body weight easily keeps the roller in place while you focus on muscle contraction and myofascial release.
Most people use rollers to massage their muscles and relieve soreness. But these tools have other uses too. They can also be incorporated into core & stability exercises to strengthen muscles, as well as functional mobility exercises to increase your body’s range of motion, such as in thoracic extension.
What are foam rollers not good for? (the cons)
Foam rollers are a great alternative to expensive massages, but they’re not perfect by any means. The most common gripe that people have with foam rollers is their size – they’re impossible to travel with. So while their larger size makes them great for targeting entire muscle groups, it’s impossible to pack a 5” x 12” roller into a backpack or suitcase when heading to the gym or traveling.
They’re primarily used on the lower body, though they can be used for certain upper body parts. But even so, it’s difficult to foam roll your arms & shoulders effectively without contorting your body in an uncomfortable manner.
Similarly, some people find it awkward to support their body weight while rolling their lower body. This is especially true for those with upper body soreness or injuries, specifically in the shoulder, elbow, and wrist joints. It’s also not the best solution for older individuals who may have trouble getting down to and up from the floor.
Muscle roller sticks
Muscle roller sticks are long & cylindrical in shape, usually 16” - 18” long but just 2” - 3” tall. Generally, there are handles on both ends of the stick and the middle is filled with small “gears” or “wheels” made from plastic, rubber, or foam.
The primary difference between muscle roller sticks and foam rollers is the technique in which they’re used. Instead of laying on the floor with a roller, you grasp the handles on both ends of the stick and apply pressure by rolling the stick back & forth over the target area.
What are muscle roller sticks good for? (the pros)
The function is the same as a foam roller, but this design allows for more targeted pressure on specific areas of the body. This customization also gives you the flexibility to massage your muscles while standing or sitting, making it the better choice for those who don’t want to lay on the ground.
Many people use foam rollers for certain muscle groups and sticks for others; that’s totally fine. And if you can’t seem to apply the right amount of pressure with a foam roller, whether it’s too much or not enough, most people find it easier to control pressure with roller sticks.
In my experience, the reason why some prefer roller sticks is simply their size. It’s difficult to pack a roller into your carry-on or even a gym bag, unless that’s all you need to carry. But you can throw a roller stick in the side pocket of your backpack or the inside of your suitcase without taking up much space.
What are muscle roller sticks bad for? (the cons)
Again, these self-massage tools aren’t perfect. The rolling gears are typically made from a hard plastic, which can be painful, especially if you’re new to rolling. And though they’re size makes them great for targeting acute pain points, it’s the same reason why it takes longer to massage entire muscle groups.
Some people find it hard to keep it in place during SMR while engaging the muscle, which limits the effectiveness of the therapeutic treatment entirely. Another major drawback is that you can’t effectively use them to massage your arms. You need both hands to apply pressure and it’s impossible to grip both handles while treating your biceps, triceps, forearms, and shoulders.
So which one is better? Or is there a better self-massage therapy tool?
The last few years have given rise to a number of popular tools like massage guns, electric massagers, and even a simple lacrosse ball. And while these all offer their unique advantages, there’s an option that combines many of the best attributes from all of them.
Enter the Rolflex, a foam roller & muscle roller stick duo. We designed this tool to combine the SMR ability of foam rolling with the compact size of roller sticks. And just like both of those tools, it helps you warm up & cool down your muscles, treat & prevent injuries, shorten recovery times, and reduce soreness.
Made with varying densities and meant to mimic a massage therapist’s thumb, you can customize your treatment to your needs. Treat injuries like Runner’s knee, pulled muscles, and Plantar fasciitis with targeted trigger point therapy. You can sit or stand, making self-massage accessible to people of all ages & lifestyles.
But it’s not just for lower body recovery. It solves the drawback of both traditional rollers and sticks, which is that they’re ineffective at treating most upper body parts, specifically the arms. It’s a one-handed tool; just wrap around your arm and squeeze the handles to target biceps, triceps, and even sore forearms, something that's impossible with a muscle roller stick. It’s also popular among golfers, tennis players, technicians, and many others, who use it to treat epicondylitis, arthritic, and tendon inflammation.
Ultimately, your choice of tool for SMR and general muscle treatment will depend on your preferences. Do you want total control over pressure or to maximize the surface area that you can hit at once? Are you looking for the more portable, convenient option, or is functionality the most important factor? There's an argument to be made for both. There's also an argument to be made for Rolflex, the tool that combines the best of both.