Fitness

When To Use A Foam Roller Vs. A Massage Gun

Breaking down the differences.

The difference between foam rolling and massage guns for your recovery practice.
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If you’ve ever seen someone rolling around on a foam roller at the gym or heard your friend talk about pummeling their sore muscles with a massage gun, then you might wonder what sets the two recovery tools apart. You know, beyond the fact one is a cylinder you roll over and the other involves percussive therapy technology.

For a quick rundown, foam rollers are traditionally made of high-density foam that you use to “roll out” longer muscle groups, like your quads, glutes, or hamstrings, says Matt Scarfo, a NASM-certified personal trainer. “The foam roller relies on body weight to break up adhesions deeper in the muscle,” he tells Bustle. Compare that to a massage gun, which is an electric handheld device with a motor that applies rapid vibrating impact to a smaller, more targeted area of your body. “Athletes and physical therapists use these to break up muscle adhesions between the fibers and help them glide over one another more freely,” Scarfo explains.

At first glance, it may seem obvious that the two tools are different. But they actually do have a lot in common. Both can be used to relieve tight and sore muscles, both loosen muscles before and after a workout, and both help combat everyday soreness. According to Dr. Kelly Starrett, a physical therapist and founder of The Ready State, pretty much everyone has “problem areas,” aka old injuries or parts of the body that could use a quick massage — and both foam rollers and massage guns can do the job. Here’s what to know about foam rollers vs. massage guns and how to pick between the two.

What Does A Foam Roller Do?

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According to Thea Hughes, a Brooklyn-based strength training coach and founder of digital workout platform Max Effort Training, foam rollers are essentially tools for at-home massage therapy. “A foam roller enables you to self-administer soft-tissue work — aka self-myofascial release or self-massage — by using your body weight to apply pressure via the roller in long sweeping motions,” she tells Bustle. That pressure increases blood circulation and therefore oxygen flow into your muscles for a speedier recovery.

Of course, to use a foam roller, you quite literally roll your body over the foam tube, which requires some finagling to hit all the areas you’re looking to massage. That’s why foam rolling is considered a form of active stretching, as well as a form of trigger-point therapy, which helps decrease muscle density and reduces the pain that comes from knots that form in your muscles, Hughes says. Not only do rollers press into your muscles — either lightly or heavily, depending on how hard you roll — but some versions also have three-dimensional nubs all over them to up the massage intensity factor.

Foam rolling can prep your muscles before a workout since the rolling action helps lengthen and loosen them up, Hughes explains. It can also come in handy after you exercise to “undo” any muscle knots or help prevent soreness.

When To Use A Foam Roller

Hughes recommends foam rolling for five to 10 minutes before hitting the gym as a way to improve your flexibility and wake up your muscles. “Foam rolling is great prior to a workout to decrease muscle density and to cue the central nervous system,” she says. It’s a way to do an active stretch, which helps prep your body for movement by encouraging tissue length and activating your proprioception (your mind-body connection), Hughes explains.

You might consider foam rolling if you’re an athlete or if you work out a lot and want to remain flexible, mobile, and pain-free. But even if you don’t exercise regularly, you may find it particularly relaxing to use a foam roller in the evening to release tight muscles before bed, or in the morning to loosen up tension before taking on the day. “If something is not feeling good, a quick session can really help make moving feel better,” says Starrett.

What Does A Massage Gun Do?

Photographer, Basak Gurbuz Derman/Moment/Getty Images

Because a massage gun is a percussive therapy, it tends to be a lot more intense than a foam roller, and as such can take some getting used to. But one of the perks is that the intensity helps increase blood flow to the area being massaged. “Increasing blood flow can help to decrease delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMs) by reducing lactate concentrations, making a massage gun a great choice after coming out of a hard workout, either as a cool down or eight to 24 hours after,” Hughes says. This vibration-based massage also works to increase your range of motion to unwind any tension or knots within your muscles.

Massage guns also have a small, rubbery tip that gives you a lot more control and precision than a big foam roller. “Massage guns are great at releasing muscles in hard-to-reach areas, like the hip flexors,” Scarfo says.

When To Use A Massage Gun

Unlike the foam roller, which requires you to get down on the ground and roll around, a massage gun can be easily self-administered right at your desk or while you’re sitting on the couch, Hughes says. Hold the tip against a specific point of pain to increase blood flow and loosen the muscle, and that’s all it takes to feel the effects.

You might also want to give one a try if you’re constantly struggling with a limited range of motion due to pain or soreness in a muscle. According to Hughes, the massage gun can get to the heart of the hotspot to help the muscles release and relax. So this tool is perfect for post-workout recovery, specific pain issues, folks who have limited mobility, or for those who aren’t the most flexible and maybe don’t want to get down on the floor, Hughes adds.

According to Starrett, you can also use massage guns before a workout, just like foam rollers. “Percussion can be a really great way to bring awareness to an area, reduce stiffness in a movement, or make something feel better prior to training,” he says.

Bottom Line

While both tools help loosen tight muscles, improve mobility, and relieve soreness, there’s plenty that sets them apart. For starters, foam rolling is active while a massage gun is more passive — aka you can use it while watching Netflix.

Foam rollers are also more accessible price-wise. You can snag a roller for less than 20 bucks, while massage guns tend to cost a couple hundred dollars. One reason to splurge may be the fact it’s easier to do percussive therapy on the go. Hughes points out that massage guns are often smaller than rollers, and thus a little more portable. The massage gun’s small tip also allows you to really “get in there” and melt away hyper-specific pain points, she adds.

“Ultimately both tools promote blood flow, increase your proprioception or mind-body connection, and reduce pain by relieving tight muscles or a build-up of lactic acid,” Hughes says. Which one you choose may come down to your specific fitness, budget, and the type of massage you’re looking for. Either way, though, you won’t lose.

Studies referenced:

Imtiyaz, S. (2014). To Compare the Effect of Vibration Therapy and Massage in Prevention of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). J Clin Diagn Res. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3939523/

Konrad, A. 2020. The Acute Effects of a Percussive Massage Treatment with a Hypervolt Device on Plantar Flexor Muscles' Range of Motion and Performance. Journal of sports science & medicine.

Wilke, J. 2018. Immediate effects of self-myofascial release on latent trigger point sensitivity: a randomized, placebo-controlled trial. Biol Sport. doi: 10.5114/biolsport.2018.78055.

Sources:

Dr. Kelly Starrett, physical therapist and founder of The Ready State

Matt Scarfo, NASM-certified CPT-OPT, CES, PES, FNS

Thea Hughes, strength training coach and founder of Max Effort Training