The Differences Between Foam Rollers, Massage Sticks and Massage Balls

Equipment to help massage your body comes in all shapes and sizes. Learn which one is right for you.

Looking for a new way to either get warmed up for an activity or cool down after a workout? Rolling your muscles, which means to essentially massage your muscles, can be a new addition to your workout routine. However, before you browse for the perfect massage assistant, it’s important to understand the advantages of each.

Britny Fowler, a personal trainer, showcased three different types of rollers with Pro Tips. What exactly is the difference between a foam roller, a massage stick and a massage ball? Fowler notes that each piece of equipment focuses on a different area of your body.

Follow along with these foam roller tips and find the right piece of massage equipment for you. Pro Tips also has your guide to what to look for in a foam roller.

WHAT IS A FOAM ROLLER?

A foam roller has a cylinder design, but length can vary. “The foam roller is designed to be used with bodyweight compression,” Fowler says. To foam roll effectively, you should place yourself on the ground to roll. Different areas you can foam roll include your calves, quadriceps and glutes.

WHAT IS A MASSAGE STICK?

Want to avoid breaking out a gym mat and getting on the ground? Then a massage stick might be right for you. If you have trouble getting on the floor, a massage stick can help you reach those tender areas. “Since the stick is held with both hands, it is ideally suited to address the muscles of the lower body,” Fowler says.

The massage stick will have a roller section in the middle, while the two ends feature handles for gripping.

WHAT IS A MASSAGE BALL?

Massage balls, just like foam rollers, come in different sizes. However, the shape will remain the same. Massage balls are circular. Larger massage balls can look similar to the size of a soccer ball. Meanwhile, smaller massage balls can be comparable to a tennis ball or racquetball.

When using a massage ball, you’re going to hold it with your hands or use it for bodyweight compression. “Being smaller than a traditional foam roller, the massage ball can work deeper, reaching muscles that regular foam rollers can’t reach,” Fowler says.

HOW TO USE EACH ROLLER

While each roller can work different areas of your body, your foam-rolling technique will remain the same. When using any type of roller, Fowler suggests using a three-step model.

  1. Roll the muscle slowly and hold for 30 seconds on any tender spots.
  2. Roll up and down on the selected muscle.
  3. Shift your body either side to side or by rotating around the muscle. According to Fowler, this movement can help to “move the tissue against the muscle fibers.”

Rolling your muscles can be a great way to warm up for physical activity or start the recovery process during your cooldown. Remember these three steps and find the right roller for you to help reach those irritated spots.

Are you a runner? No matter what level runner you are, check out Fowler’s tips about pre- and post-run foam rolling.