Your wallet will be happy with the answer...

By Gabrielle Kassel
June 15, 2020
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Pattadis Walarput/EyeEm/Getty Images/Trigger Point/Theragun

Instagram vs. TikTok. Nikki Minaj vs. Cardi B. Lube vs. arousal oil. The old vs. new battle runs deep, but there's one your muscles have a stake in—foam rollers vs. percussive therapy guns.

While you can probably fit both in your gym bag (shoutout to travel-sized rollers), when it comes to your body (and your $$$), you don't want to cut any corners. That's why we consulted the research and two physical therapists to find out which tool is better for your body (and your bank account).

The Basics of Myofascial Release

To understand the point of foam rolling and massage guns, you need to understand myofascial release. It's worth noting that research on the topic as a whole is still pretty limited, so the short of it is that we still don't really know exactly how these things benefit your body. But experts have thoughts.

Myofascial release is the broad term given to physical therapy methodologies that work to make fascia more pliable (and therefore release tension and allow you to improve your mobility), explains Wickham. As you might have guessed, foam rolling and percussive therapy (aka using a massage gun) are both considered myofascial release.

But what is fascia? "You can think of fascia as layers and layers of cling wrap that encompass all of the muscles, ligaments, tendons, and joints in the body," explains physical therapist Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., founder of Movement Vault, a digital movement education platform. Ever noticed a thin layer of white gooky stuff on a raw slab of chicken breast? That's fascia.

Fascia can become tight or inflamed thanks to lifestyle factors like poor posture, dehydration, injury, stress, and lack of movement, explains Wickham. Sometimes, this tightness or inflammation is enough to cause pain in and of itself (for example, in plantar fasciitis.) Also, "if the fascia is tight or un-pliable, your ability to move is going to be limited," he says, thus, limiting your mobility—aka the ability to move your joint with control through a range of motion. (Related: What's More Important: Flexibility or Mobility?)

"You need sound mobility from head to toe in order to move well," explains Wickham. "If you have poor mobility in one part of your body, another part of your body will compensate. Shabby hamstring mobility? Your lower back will compensate. Long term, this can lead to lower back pain and increased risk of lower back injury." (Got tight hamstrings? Do your back a favor and try these stretches.)

And this is all where foam rolling and massage guns come into play.

The Benefits of Foam Rolling

"The old school of thought was that the pressure foam rolling puts on the fascia makes it more malleable," says Wickham. Basically, that it "smushes" out the knots. In fact, one 2015 review published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy found that in the short term, foam rolling does release some of this tightness, evidenced by an increased range of motion.

However, a more recent 2019 review on the topic published in the journal Sports Medicine concluded that calling a foam roller a"myofascial release tool" is misleading. "It takes thousands of pounds of force to actually break down fascia and muscle tissue," explains Wickham. "That means to break up the fascia in your quad, you'd literally need to drive over them with a truck." (It shouldn't need to be said, but don't do that.)

The real benefit of foam rolling comes down to neurological changes in the muscles, according to Erwin Seguia, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., a board-certified specialist in sports physical therapy and founder of match fit performance. "When you foam roll, nerve receptors get stimulated, which your body interprets as a message to relax," further explains Wickham. Basically, the pressure from the roller speaks to the nerve receptors in the area being rolled, the nerve receptors speak to the brain, and the brain tells your body to chill the hell out. (Some research credits this to the release of oxytocin, the 'love and comfort hormone,' which is also released when you get a massage, have sex, or even just hug someone.)

Once your body chills out, you can then access a larger range of motion. Become strong in that range of motion, and you'll boost your mobility. However, "these changes from the foam roller are short-lived," says Wickham. You need to follow up your foam rolling session with movement and active stretches in order to make any long-lasting changes, he says. (Ex: these mobility warm-up moves.)

It's worth mentioning that the reason foam rolling is usually uncomfortable at best (and painful at worst) is that you're not just compressing any nerve receptors in the muscle when you roll; you're compressing pain receptors, too, according to a 2019 review published in one 2019 review published in the journal Frontiers In Physiology, which found that foam rolling reduced the perception of pain in the targetted muscles.

Another place the foam roller shines: Your warm-up routine. According to that same 2019 review, foam-rolling pre-workout can cut down on muscle recovery time and improve sprint performance. Wickham says this has to do with the fact that the roller increases blood flow to the targeted muscles. This boosted blood flow sends more nutrients and oxygen to the muscles, which helps reduce inflammation, he explains. While some inflammation is an important part of muscle growth, too much inflammation can lead to delayed onset muscle soreness, DOMS, he says. (Learn more: How to Use Post-Workout Inflammation to Your Advantage)

The Benefits of Massage Guns

To put it simply, massage guns oscillate at different speeds against your muscles. To use it, you simply aim it at your skin and let it "massage" (or pulsate against) the muscle beneath. Meaning, unlike a foam roller, which requires that you rock your whole damn bod up and down its length, the only thing that moves when you're using a massage gun is your hand. Easy.

It sounds high-tech, but the jury's still out on whether or not percussive guns actually have any effect on your body that's different in any way from foam rolling. Wickham's take? "Like foam rollers, massage guns may trigger neurological changes in the muscle. And they can increase blood flow to the area, which supports recovery and may reduce inflammation," he says.

Beyond ease of use, where massage guns beat out foam rollers is in how pin-pointed the stimulation is. Thanks to differently shaped head-pieces, these guns can hyper-target specific problem areas—similar to how someone's hand could find and push against a tight spot in a deep tissue massage. (See: The Benefits of Getting a Sports Massage)

While the first massage gun is thought to have been invented in 2008, massage guns didn't really hit the market until Theragun released their first product in 2016. So, as of yet, there isn't much research specifically on the guns themselves to validate (or invalidate) many of their purported benefits. However, one 2014 study published in the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research did find that vibration therapy (which percussive guns qualify as) is an effective way to combat DOMS.

And anecdotally, Wickham says athletes have reported that it relieves muscle tension. Though, it's worth mentioning that Seguia says he's also had athletes report pain and more muscle tension after using massage guns.

So Which Is Better: Foam Roller or Massage Gun?

There's no clear winner. But if you're undecided between the foam roller and the massage gun, the first thing to consider is your price range. "The foam roller is the much cheaper option," says Seguia. Like, much much cheaper. A quality foam roller will only cost you $10 to $20 bucks, while a massage gun will usually cost you closer to $250. (That said, there has been a recent influx of more affordable massage guns on the market.)

"If you're willing to drop the dough on the massage gun, go for it," he says. Though he adds, "I'm not convinced there's that significant a difference between the net benefits of a gun, compared to a roller." (And, it's worth noting, if you want a tool for targeted massage, you can buy this editor-approved recovery tool for just $6.)

Also, consider which device you'll actually use consistently. For either to be effective, it needs to be used at least three times a week, for 5 to 10 minutes (total, for your whole body) at a time, says Wickham. Neither does any good for your body collecting dust.

The bottom line: "Foam rollers and massage guns are a great piece of the puzzle, but they're just one piece," says Wickham. Rolling or massage-gunning alone won’t squash post-workout recovery time or drastically improve mobility, but these tools combined with the right movement, adequate sleep, proper nutrition, just might. (Related: Don't Believe These Widespread Mobility Myths)

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