You might have come across this familiar scene at the gym or on TV: someone rolling on the floor with what resembles a giant hair curler.

Something like this:

 

The giant hair curler is, in fact, a foam roller. It’s a cylindrical self-massage tool with spikes that fitness enthusiasts have sworn by since the ‘70s.

Despite the availability of modern recovery tools like massage guns, you’d often still catch fitness folk rolling their backs and calves away, with their faces contorted in pain — and satisfaction. 

But why? What does foam rolling do that other devices don’t or can’t? 

Read on to find out.

 

The history behind foam rollers

Moshe Feldenkrais created the foam roller.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Let’s quickly go through a little history for some context first. 

The foam roller was created in the 1970s by Ukrainian-Israeli engineer and physicist Moshé Feldenkrais. He also founded the Feldenkrais Method, a system of physical exercise that aims to reduce pain and improve mobility through the awareness of one’s own body.

Fast forward to the 1980s, a student of his named Sean Gallagher began to use the foam roller as a self-massage (or self-myofascial) tool, which then paved the way for its popularity until today. 

In fact, the foam roller is still unwavering in its popularity that it was voted the 14th most popular tool in the worldwide fitness industry in 2019.

 

The science behind foam rolling

A young woman using a foam roller.

Photo from Freepik

If you’ve ever wondered what does foam rolling do, here’s a scientific breakdown:

The friction generated between the tissue and the foam roller causes warming of the fascia. This increase in temperature causes the tissue to become more fluid-like.

What it means: warming of the fascia means that you’ll experience less joint pain after your workout since your tissue is less stiff and tense.

At a cellular and physiological level, it alleviates arterial stiffness and improves vascular endothelial function.

What it means: it improves blood flow, which helps you recover faster.

It can also correct muscular imbalances, alleviate muscle soreness, relieve joint stress, improve neuromuscular efficiency, and increase range of motion.

What it means: you’ll be able to bounce back and make full use of your muscles once more because all that foam rolling has ironed out all those “knots”.

 

The reality of foam rolling

To be completely honest, foam rolling does hurt quite a bit. Hence, the number of Google searches on “why does foam rolling hurt” and the pained looks on the faces of people who use it to counter delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)

In true “no pain, no gain” fashion, foam rollers require you to fight the pain with pain. Just imagine rolling your sore body all over a jagged tube — it’s got to hurt!

This is one of the biggest reasons why foam rollers have been dubbed the following:

A screenshot from a Reddit thread on what does foam rolling do that makes it hurt.

Photo from a Reddit thread on foam rollers

How does foam rolling compare with other recovery methods?

Watch the video below for an in-depth look at how a massage gun like the Hydragun compares to a foam roller and lacrosse ball:

 

Right off the bat, it can be seen (and said) that while foam rolling does offer a number of DOMS-alleviating benefits, it’s not really the best option out of all.

  • Foam rollers have a reputation for being painful, bulky and hard to work with, so don’t be surprised if you come across many different tutorials and guides on how to foam roll hamstrings, for example.
  • Lacrosse balls, on the other hand, are super convenient as they are small in size but that can also be its downfall — it cannot effectively target large muscle areas as well as a foam roller or a massage gun.
  • Stretching, the classic way of alleviating pain, is always welcome though we know we’re not the only ones who will agree that stretching can only do so much, especially when we know what we need is a good old deep tissue massage.
  • Then comes the massage gun, a newer technology that has been stealing hearts and providing muscle relief in more recent times. They are easy to use, quick, painless, portable and highly-customizable, which makes them the top pick by Olympic athletes, fitness enthusiasts and influencers alike.

So, foam roller vs massage gun: which is better?

A comparison between foam rollers and a massage gun like the Hydragun.

Both foam rollers and branded massage guns like the Hydragun offer the same benefits.

They both target muscles and fascia to relieve pain and soreness, relax the muscles, improve blood flow, decrease tightness as well as increase flexibility and range of motion.

So how do they both differ?

Foam rollers rely heavily on body weight and manual rolling, whereas massage guns utilize percussion massage therapy to deliver a deep tissue massage on any area of the body. 

The manner in which both of these devices are used also differs. Foam rollers require space for one to lie down and position the body against the foam roller. 

Massage guns, on the other hand, require less space. All it takes is a three-second push of a button and it’ll start massaging away. 

A man using the Hydragun on his calves.

So, to answer the title of this article (what does foam rolling do that a massage gun can’t): aside from saving cost, nothing else. 

They both offer the same benefits yet massage guns surpass foam rollers when it comes to overall convenience and satisfaction

Granted, massage guns do cost more, but it’s well worth the investment. It’ll save you time, trouble, and literally lots of pain.

Consider the massage gun to be the combination of a foam roller, lacrosse ball, stretch, and deep tissue massage. All in one package.

 

Massage gun: the one recovery tool to rule them all

Based on this article, you may have gathered that a massage gun would be a good investment no matter what stage of fitness you’re in, as it is a convenient, portable way to counter pain and sore muscles

However, bear in mind that not all massage guns are created equal. Some may be loud, heavy and limited in their speed and power settings. 

The Hydragun, for example, is the quietest gun on the market, weighs only 1.04kg, and comes with 6-speed settings and 7 attachment heads for a personalized massage experience.

Just remember to do your research before you purchase one. You’ll then be on your way to an easier, more effective recovery routine.

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