Let’s face it – working out can leave muscles feeling sore, especially if you haven’t worked out for a long time. This is also true for those who have increased the intensity of their exercise.

Fortunately, there are tools that can help lessen muscle soreness, inflammation, and muscle tightness. The most common tools nowadays are massage guns and foam rollers.

The goal of massage guns and foam rollers is to make fascia more flexible. By doing this, it can improve mobility and release the tension on the muscles.

Both foam rollers and massage guns are SMR or a myofascial release technique to relieve tight muscles, muscle pain, to help muscles recover after a workout, muscle relaxation, and as a treatment for delayed onset muscle soreness.

Both treatment modalities based their principle on myofascial release and the mechanical pressure exerted by both tools on nerve receptors in the muscles are believed to help lessen the pain in the muscle, connective tissue, and other soft tissues.

By applying pressure on different parts of the body, it can contribute to increased blood flow, thus can help regulate blood pressure.

When To Use Self Myofascial Release Tools

  • For relieving muscle pain after a workout
  • For muscle recovery
  • Physical therapy
  • For increasing blood flow
  • As a sports massage therapy
  • Aid recovery after a tough workout
  • As a pre-workout warm-up

It seems like both tools are useful in relieving pain and knots in the muscle but the question is, which one is better? While the foam rollers and massage guns have the same objective, the two differ in both the manner of targeting the affected area and at the same time the size of the targeted area. Other differences would be the price, portability, and the manner of using them.

Foam Roller Vs Massage Gun

Massage Gun Foam Roller
Functionality
  • Effectively relieves muscle soreness, tight knots, and muscle tension.
  • Effectively reduce inflammation, sore muscle, and improves performance and flexibility.
Treatment Modality
  • More intense
  • Gentler treatment
Ease of Use
  • Easy to use
  • May take some getting used to
Target Areas
  • Best for hard to reach body parts and small areas
  • Great for massaging larger areas of the body
Price
  • More expensive
  • More budget-friendly
Portability
  • Can be carried and used anytime and anywhere
  • Bulkier, bigger, and hard to carry all the time. Cannot be used anywhere

Foam Roller

As the name suggests, it’s a cylindrical tube that is covered with compressed foam. The foam is soft and smooth. However, there are also foam rollers that are textured and solid. The latest version is the vibrating foam roller.

Foam rollers vary in length and hardness. Softer rollers are ideal for those who are new to using this tool and for those who have sensitive trigger points. Harder rollers are suitable for users who have higher pain tolerance and have trigger points that are harder to access. More dense foam rollers are also recommended for those who have been using them for quite some time.

Most people use it after their workout to prevent their muscles from getting sore and avoid further muscle injury. However, those who are working on a desk for 8 hours a day may also find this a helpful tool to engage the muscle and improve blood flow.

How A Foam Roller Works

Foam rollers work by manually rolling it and using mostly on the user’s body weight. First, you place the foam roller on an even surface. Then you sit and place your leg over the foam roller. Lean back and forth and let it work on your muscle. Be sure to target the sore parts of your legs for a few minutes. Afterwards, do the same on the other leg.

Aside from legs, it can also be used on other parts of the body such as hamstrings, sides of the thighs, calves, hip flexors, lats, upper back, neck, and shoulders. It may seem awkward at first, especially when finding the right position. You may need to try different poses to massage the right areas of your body. As you use it more often, you will find it more comfortable to massage those tired and sore muscles.

When new to using foam rollers, it’s recommended to start with light pressure and increase the pressure as you get used to it. To adjust the pressure, use your body weight to either increase or decrease it. You can start with 10 seconds first on tender areas and gradually increase it to 30 seconds or more. Don’t forget to drink lots of water after using a foam roller to aid in recovery.

Benefits Of Foam Rollers

1. Improve Performance And Flexibility

According to research, a small study1 was made among young athletes who incorporated static stretching and foam rolling after their workout. They saw an improvement in their range of motion2. This is compared to those who only did either foam rolling or static stretching.

2. Reduce Inflammation and Sore Muscle

Foam rolling after exercising can significantly reduce inflammation and pain relief from sore muscles. Based on one study, a group of males who used foam rollers for 20 minutes after exercising had reduced DOMS or delayed-onset muscle soreness. This is in combination with foam rolling after 24 and 48 hours after their workout. The study also reported that participants had performed better physical exercises compared to those who did not use a foam roller.

3. Relieve Back Muscle Tension

Foam rolling can also help relieve tension especially when suffering from lower back pain. People who sit for hours can suffer from lower back pain due to poor blood flow and lack of physical activity. To properly use a foam roller for lower back pain, position the foam roller vertically so it is in line with the spine. Roll the foam roller slowly from side to side for a couple of minutes. This is more effective than using it horizontally, as it can cause back strain.

4. Target Large Sore Muscle Groups

Typically, larger muscle groups are targeted when foam rolling. Compared to massage guns, where it can only target smaller areas. The advantage of targeting larger areas is it can save you time and energy in relieving pain.

5. Beneficial For Both Pre- and Post-workout

While most people use a foam roller after a workout, it can also be beneficial before working out. It promotes better warmup and aid in decreasing muscle density. Many athletes use a foam roller before and after their workout.

6. Relaxing

Foam rollers users find it relaxing while using a foam roller. It helps break up the tightness in the muscles, thus leaving them calmer and less tense.

7. Affordable

When it comes to the price tag, foam rollers are more affordable than massage guns or other self-myofascial release treatment modalities. Those who are looking for a cheaper tool for their workout recovery will find foam rollers a great option.

Drawbacks Of Foam Rollers

1. Cannot Provide Intense Massage Treatment

If you are looking for an intensive massage treatment, a foam roller may not be able to provide it. Foam rollers rely on body weight and they don’t have different levels of intensity settings like most massage guns offer. The only way you can adjust the pressure is by shifting your body weight.

2. Hard To Use on Smaller Body Areas

Another disadvantage of a foam roller is it is hard to use on smaller body areas such as the arms, neck, and shoulders. Due to its size, it cannot provide deep massage on smaller areas like a massage gun can offer.

3. Can be Challenging To Use

When using foam rollers, it is your body that should adjust to the tool and not the other way around. You need to perform different poses or positions in order to use them effectively. This can be difficult for most people and can be uncomfortable finding the right position considering that your body is already suffering from pain. However, when done the right way, it can provide instant relief from muscle inflammation and pain.

Massage Gun

Massage guns are portable handheld recovery tools that are also known as vibration therapy, percussive therapy, deep massage therapy, and powered percussion massage therapy. A massage gun may look like a power drill that is wireless. Most of the time, it uses a rechargeable battery and has interchangeable attachments to be used depending on the intended treatment area.

Massage guns derived benefits from two types of therapy – massage and vibration therapy. Massage wherein a muscle group is manipulated and kneaded by another individual and vibration therapy requires a vibrating device to be used on said muscle groups. Combine the two and you get the benefits of both therapies in one device.

How A Massage Gun Works

To use a massage gun, simply turn it on and you will notice that the head will start to pulsate. Move it along the muscle tissue where you feel sore or tight. Linger on areas where you feel pain, tightness, and are more sensitive. Adjust the setting on your percussive massage gun to add more pressure on areas that are knotty. You can also change the head of the massage gun depending on the part of your body you want to massage.

It is recommended to at least stay in one spot for at least 15 seconds or move the massage gun along an area for at least 2 minutes. When using a massage gun, avoid areas where you have injuries and bony parts. You should not use it on your head or face as well. It’s best to use massage guns on the neck, thighs, calves, buttocks, shoulders, back, and hips.

When massaging the neck, hold the massage gun on the spot where you feel tightness for about 10 seconds. Then move your neck slowly up and down and back and forth. Watch out for any numbness or tingling sensation when doing this technique. If you develop a headache and experience any numbness, discontinue massaging that area.

Benefits Of Massage Guns

1. Release Lactic Acid

Extreme exercises can decrease the oxygen level in the body and carbohydrate breaks down for energy and forms lactic acid. Lactic acid develops in the bloodstream quicker than it can burn up. That is why you tend to feel tired or have muscle tightness. Using a massage gun can help in releasing lactic acid and toxins around your muscles and tissues. It can alleviate muscle soreness due to lactic acid build-up3 after intense workouts.

2. Portability

One good thing about owning a massage gun is its portability. You can take it just about anywhere. You can use it during warm-ups or after working out. It’s a very convenient tool you can carry around anytime, anywhere to relieve muscle soreness.

3. Instant Relief For Targeted Muscle Groups

Since massage guns are handheld, they can give instant relief to any targeted area. You can use it on your calves, quads, hands, feet, or any tight muscle in your body.

4. Rehabilitation

Massage guns can be a great tool in the standard injury rehabilitation process. They can help in faster healing and recovery of muscle atrophy as a result of trauma or disease. Since massage guns can enhance blood circulation into the muscles and tissues, the affected areas will no longer be rigid and will definitely heal quicker.

5. Stimulates The Muscles And Nervous System

Our nervous system activates and controls muscle activity and maintains our body’s equilibrium. Using a massage gun can stimulate the nervous system that will in effect enhance the blood flow to areas of the body that are lacking oxygen. Thus, making your muscles relax while enhancing mobility.

6. Breaks Down Scar Tissue

Massage guns can help in breaking up scar tissues by deeply massaging the damaged muscle fibres and tissues. Breaking down the scar tissues will help in alleviating pain and muscle constriction. Massage guns can be effectively used in sports injuries and after scar tissue surgery.

7. Improves Blood and Lymphatic Flow

People who do not have an active lifestyle may not be stimulating enough blood and lymphatic circulation. The lymph is very important because it removes toxins and wastes from the tissues and the circulation is controlled by muscle contraction. Massage guns can help them with that. Using a massage gun provides deep tissue massage that will help in increasing blood flow and lymphatic flow.

8. Wellness Benefits

Aside from alleviating pain and decreasing muscle soreness, massage guns have a lot of wellness benefits4. Some of these are improved sleep, enhanced immunity, and increased flexibility and mobility. Massage guns are also very beneficial in relieving anxiety, depression, digestive problems, and insomnia.

9. Ease Of Use

Unlike a foam roller, a massage gun is so much easier to use. You don’t need to find a big space with an even surface to use it. In addition to that, you don’t need to perform awkward poses to use it. You simply direct it to the target muscles and adjust the level of intensity and that’s it.

Drawbacks Of Massage Guns

1. Can Be Too Intense For Some People

Some people may find a massage gun too intense, particularly those who are sensitive to massage. Most of the time, massage guns do not have an option for a gentle setting. It is considered one of the more aggressive myofascial treatments in the market.

2. Inability To Cover Larger Areas Of The Body

Unlike a foam roller that can work on larger parts of the body, a massage gun cannot do it. It can only work on smaller areas of the body one at a time.

3. Pricier than a Foam Roller

Compared to foam rollers or other workout recovery treatment tools, massage guns are more expensive. If you are looking for an affordable way to relieve muscle tension, then this might not be an option.

Final Thoughts

When it comes to foam roller vs massage gun, I am more in favour of massage guns. I like that they are handy and easy to use. I have tried using foam rollers before and honestly it took me a while before I got the hang of it. It was difficult to find the right position to perform the massage at first.

However, after a few tries, using it became easier. I do use both foam rollers and massage guns depending on the areas I need help with. For a more directed treatment, I use a massage gun and for larger areas on my upper body and those that are a bit hard to reach using a massage gun, I use a foam roller.

I would suggest to those who are looking for a gentler treatment modality that is more affordable to go for a foam roller. Those who want a more directed deep massage treatment modality would benefit more from massage guns.

Whichever SMR workout recovery tool you prefer, make sure to check with your physical therapist or massage therapist first especially if you have injuries. It is also best to combine these tools with other methods such as performing warmups and cool downs after every workout.


Sources:

1. Peacock CA, et al. (2014). An acute bout of self-myofascial release in the form of foam rolling improves performance testing.

2. Jane Chertoff. Healthline. What Are The Benefits Of Foam Rolling

3. Top 10 Benefits of a Massage Gun

4. Mercey Livingstone. How to use it for pain, sleep, stress and workout recovery

Emma Pyke
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