Which is better: A Foam Roller or a Massage Gun?

Man using a foam roller to stretch

If you suffer from any kind of muscular pain, a reduced range of mobility or general tension or you feel soreness after a workout, you might consider massage as a suitable therapy. You are most probably aware that massage therapy has considerable benefits but the thing about this is that if you want regular therapy from a masseuse, it has to be pre-booked. This isn't the most convenient and can also prove to be expensive if you want a lot of sessions.

Being able to carry out a form of self-massage at home, the office or gym is highly attractive. To enable this, there are various tools available including massage guns and foam rollers. But which is better, if either? Is one of these tools better for any particular condition? How do you make a choice between rollers and massage guns? Here we look at the most pertinent question of massage gun vs roller to help you determine which is the right therapy tool for you.

Woman stretching out on a foam roller

What is a Foam Roller?

A foam roller is a cylindrical tube made from compressed foam and has a number of uses. Foam rollers are lightweight and are available in different sizes and different degrees of firmness.

Firmness is usually identified by the colour of the foam roller and the degree of foam density ranges from firm to soft which is the best for beginners.

The density, texture, size and shape of foam rollers affect how they are used and what they are best for, so it is useful to understand the concept and science to enable you to make the choice that will improve your health, physical fitness and mobility.

A foam roller is designed to be an aid to fitness and a therapeutic aid through self-myofascial release. Myofascial release is a complementary (or alternative, depending on your point of view) therapy used to increase flexibility, reduce muscle soreness and eliminate muscle knots and tension.

How Does Foam Rolling Work?

Using a foam roller affects neurological changes in muscle tissue. This happens because the rolling action stimulates nerve receptors, triggering a response for contracted muscles to relax. The action of foam rolling also increases blood flow to the area as well as improving lymph circulation.

 

 

What is a Massage Gun?

A massage gun is a handheld device designed to deliver a form of massage therapy that replicates a massage given by a trained masseur/masseuse.

It is an electrical device powered by a battery with the intensity of the massage controlled partly by the pressure of the machine head and partly by the amount of pressure applied by the user.

 

 

 

 

How Do Massage Guns Work?

A massage gun looks a bit like a power drill and in fact, that is what it does. It pounds the muscles using vibration. It delivers what is known as percussive therapy which is akin to a deep tissue massage as delivered by a hand massage.

Like with using a foam roller, the vibrating action of a massage gun is a form of myofascial release and the effects are neurological.

Foam Roller vs Massage Gun: The Fundamental Differences

Side by side, it is easy to compare these two devices.

A foam roller is a manual device but a massage gun is electrical.

Although both are portable, the massage gun is smaller.

A massage gun works by percussive therapy where a foam roller stimulates muscle movement

A foam roller is totally dependent on the pressure applied by the user, whereas a massage gun usually has a number of programs or settings that control intensity.

The foam roller is the cheaper cost option, especially when compared to a premier massage gun such as the Theragun.

Although both a massage gun and foam roller can be termed as recovery tools, the major difference is the point of delivery.

Key Differences of Using Foam Rollers and Massage Guns

A foam roller is designed to be used with movement. They can be used during various moves in a workout routine or you can undertake moves targeting specific areas of the body. There is little benefit from just foam rolling over parts of your body - it is the action of movement on/with the roller that produces the results and benefits for individual muscles or muscle groups.

This is an important factor when you are considering whether a roller or massage gun is what you need. If you have limited or inhibited mobility or a limited range of motion, exercises involving foam rolling may be beyond your capability.

There is no such limitation on using a massage gun. Using a massage gun is very easy and the average person is has a range of motion that enables them to reach most parts of their body to apply therapy to painful areas and sore muscles. for those hard to reach places, someone can easily use the gun for you.

Whether you use a foam roller or massage gun, it isn't just a tool to aid fitness, to improve performance or a recovery tool for after exercise or an injury.

Although the method of delivery is different, they both have the same aims and similar effects. We can examine the issue of foam roller vs massage gun from these two perspectives.

The Neurological Effects of Massage with a Roller or Massage Gun

Here's the science bit!

Neurological means having to do with the brain, spine and central nervous system. In the context of myofascial release, we're talking about muscles and the nerves in muscles that send signals to the brain.

Using a foam roller or massage gun affects the brain's ability to sense changes in soft tissue (which may be fascia, tendon or muscle). When there is laxity or tightness in a muscle, the action of massage, whether by roller or massage gun, stimulates receptors that send signals to the brain. The brain has already received pain signals because laxity or tightness especially, causes soreness. The new signals generated by the massage gun or foam roller enable the brain to send the appropriate relax or contract response to the affected muscle.

This exchange of signals is still a bit of a mystery but what is known is that the rolling or massage action improves blood and lymph circulation that enables the faster exchange of the neuro-messages and thereby, faster responses by the muscles to contract and relax as required.

These faster muscle responses help the damaged tissues to recover. Damage can mean inflammation, trauma or simple overuse - any or all of which can cause soreness and/or pain.

How/why does this happen?

As well as the increased rapidity of neuro signal exchange, the increased blood flow is a major factor.

If muscles are inactive for a long period, blood may pool in the muscles which can cause inflammation and soreness. Intense massage or stimulation (by rolling) removes these buildups, restoring more normal circulation.

During a workout or other exercise, metabolites (waste products) like netoxin and other substances like lactic acid build up. The increased circulation helps to remove metabolites as well as feeding the muscle with nutrients that aid muscle recovery.

Benefits of Myofascial Release

Myofascial release can benefit athletes and anyone who works out regularly but can also help people with poor posture, people who sit at their job all day and people who experience joint problems or any sort of muscle pain. Myofascial release therapy is a major ally of recovery for people who are recovering from injury or a musculoskeletal operation, as well as people who suffer chronic back pain and conditions like arthritis.

There are 5 key benefits of myofascial release as invoked by using a massage gun or foam roller:

  • alleviate soreness and deliver pain relief– possible for all main muscle groups
  • reduce muscle and tissue inflammation due to use or trauma
  • aid in muscle repair and recovery
  • help injury prevention and reduce the risk of injury recurrence
  • aid increased mobility

Let's look at these in more detail to look at the effectiveness of foam rollers and massage guns.

Reduced Soreness and Pain

Sore muscles are usually associated with exercise which is why the therapeutic benefits of massage are well-touted for athletes. However, anyone can suffer muscle soreness and pain after a workout. A percussive massage after working out, running/jogging, cycling or any other form of exercise can ease muscle tension, relax any built-up knots, and make recovery faster.

For post-workout percussive therapy, you need a massage gun. One of the major benefits of a massage gun is that it is self-administered and you can perform a vibrating massage whenever your muscles are painful.

This is important for the overall health and fitness of athletes. Knowing you are able to hasten recovery with a massage gun can reduce any tension you might have about pushing your body too hard and not having sufficient recovery time built into your training programme.

Reduced Inflammation

Both a foam roller and massage gun can help to reduce inflammation.

Using a foam roller after a workout can alleviate knots and trigger points which if left be after warm down will become inflamed and sore. The repair and recovery process is then extended. This could mean that the next time you push your body, your muscles are still sore, your range of motion might be compromised and you are at greater risk of injuries occurring.

Massage guns will have the same effect on delayed onset muscle soreness through inflammation but the difference vs foam roller is you don't have to continue to move to achieve the benefit. Also, using a massage gun, it is easier to apply different levels of intense therapy depending on the level of soreness or how hard you pushed your muscles.

Choosing a foam roller or massage gun to reduce inflammation is a matter of whether you want to prolong your workout or not.

Enhanced Muscle Repair and Recovery

Muscle pain, delayed onset muscle soreness, the buildup of lactic acid, tension, body stress and injuries all require the body's repair and recovery processes to kick in. Foam rollers and massage guns can initiate these processes more quickly and also accelerate them.

We've already learned how increased lymphatic and blood flow helps soft tissue, fascia and muscles to recover.

Intense massage therapy provided by massage guns can target a specific muscle or muscle group, reaching deep tissue to stimulate recovery, reduce stress and release muscle tension

Exercises with foam rolling can also target a specific muscle or work a targeted muscle group. Using it after a workout can help to remove and reduce those horrible knots that can form after intense exercise. It is not deep relief that can be provided by massage but the alleviation and prevention of knots by rolling reduces the risk of inflammation, enabling muscles to recover more quickly.

Prevention of Injuries and Recurrence

Injuries affect an athlete's performance, affect anyone's physical ability to exercise or have an impact on everyday movement. Massage guns and foam rollers can play an important role in risk mitigation and recurrence.

If you are going to do any form of exercise, it is important to warm up. Not warming up properly can damage muscles, affect performance, make the workout more painful sooner and also, increase the risk of injuries occurring during the workout.

Foam rolling can be used as part of a warm-up routine before a workout and a massage gun can provide the stimulation needed to prepare your muscles for physical activity.

Both can also be used post-workout. Muscles that have been warmed-down have less propensity to become tense and taut. Toxins are released and removed, blood doesn't pool causing inflammation and healthy muscles recover faster.

Increased Mobility

This is the benefit of massage gun and foam rolling that has the most wide-ranging impact in terms of the number/type of people it can help. Massage guns and foam rolling are not all about pain relief and sore muscles.

Increased mobility is a benefit to many who suffer from all sorts of conditions that affect their ease of movement, not just those who are concerned about their body weight or athletic performance.

The stimulation of muscle groups through improved blood flow can make movement easier for various conditions and by improving mobility and range of motion, general health and well-being can be improved too.

It isn't always just about muscles. Conditions like arthritis, chronic back pain, stress and tension can be assisted by rolling or self-massage. If physical movement is painful, targeted relief on muscles, soft tissue and fascia can be a powerful aid to the body and mind feeling better.

So, which is best?

Foam Roller vs Massage Gun - You Choose!

You have to decide which is best for your body and which benefits of massage or rolling you want to experience.

Some people suggest having both a foam roller and a massage gun because they are both effective tools to aid muscle recovery. These people (usually trainers and physiotherapists) suggest alternating them each time you do a workout - foam rolling after one session, using a massage gun after the next.

It depends on whether you are looking to

  • reduce risk of injuries
  • improve muscle recovery
  • improve range of motion
  • improve mobility
  • alleviate muscle pain
  • improve muscle growth through better elasticity in soft tissues and fascia
  • reduce body weight and look more toned

 

Once decided you can easily make a purchase of your chosen tool online. There are plenty of retailers offering foam rollers from their website and if you are looking for high quality, affordable massage guns, check out the Healsage website.


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