The best foam rollers are the recovery aid of choice for athletes and regular gym-goers alike, thanks to a growing range of studies that show foam rolling can have multiple benefits for your sporting performance,
In fact, they’re so popular for wiggling out knots and releasing muscle tension, there’s now a mind-boggling variety of rollers to choose from. And that can make finding the right one for you an overwhelming task. The good news is that we’ve shimmied our workout-weary limbs over a whole host of models to bring you our top pick of the best foam rollers around.
And if you’re interested in taking your recovery and restoration even further, check out our buyer’s guides to the best massage guns, the best massagers, the best massage chairs and the best foot massagers available today. You can thank us later!
Best foam rollers to buy in 2021
Whether you’re new to rolling or well acquainted with the practice, you can’t go wrong with this affordable design. Comprised of a hollow and highly sturdy PVC tube surrounded by a 20mm layer of textured foam, you get the best of both worlds in terms of durability and effectiveness.
Why? Because the PVC tube can bear up to 300lbs, it never loses its form over time, while the outer layer – made from odourless and environmentally friendly EVA foam - is springy but firm, with a high rebound ability, so it always stays in shape.
The injection moulded foam has a ‘fingers and palms’ texture to mimic the sensation of a sports massage, but you might have to play around with over different parts of the body to feel the full benefit.
The length means you can chuck it in a backpack for trips to the gym, but it’s still long enough to hit key muscles like hamstrings, glutes, calves, IT band, lats and shoulders. The foam might be a bit firm for beginners or more sensitive areas like the hip flexors, but regular rollers will enjoy the knobbly bits that really get into trouble zones.
The Power Plate Roller is designed to take classic foam rolling to a whole new level, thanks to its various vibrations modes that quickly relax sore muscles, promote blood flow, and release fascia so you recover from workouts faster.
There are four vibration modes to try: Level 1 delivers 2,000 vibrations a minute; Level 2 delivers 2,700; Level 3 provides 3,700; while Level 4 offers a Rhythmic Pulse oscillation mode at 2,000-2,700 (the maximum power setting must be for maniacs, but the pulsation mode is lovely on knots).
On the plus side, it really works. It is especially effective at quickly and deeply warming-up muscles pre-workout and delivering muscle relaxation and pain relief to large muscle groups afterwards.
It’s also very small, which makes it highly portable, but on the flip side, it’s so small that using on your back can be tricky. It’s also extremely firm, probably too firm for anyone new to rolling. But if your body is already accustomed to the practice, you’ll love it (there’s a reason why it has so many five-star reviews).
The main drawback is that it is ridiculously noisy, and the vibrations will sound throughout your house in the same way as a pneumatic drill. But if you live on your own, or have understanding neighbours, it’s a price worth paying.
If you don’t mind paying a bit extra for great quality, this roller is perfect for beginners, older exercises and anyone with physical restrictions. First off, the wide diameter and extra-long length displaces your bodyweight over a greater area, and the dimpled texture is extra grippy in motion so you feel supremely stable.
Due to its size and firmness, it’s ideal for working on larger muscle groups like the back, hamstrings and quads without too much effort, and makes for a great relaxation tool. Placed along the spine, you can lie on it very comfortably to open up the chest, abdominal area and hips - in a similar way to lying on a bolster in yoga class – and it even doubles as effective stability and core training aid.
One downside is that the size makes it really hard to hit smaller areas – you have to really push down and put some effort in - so if you want to apply pressure to a specific spots or work on areas like your triceps, this isn’t the roller for you.
That said, a shorter, less expensive version is available and it works really well. Made from dense, non-toxic, closed cell EVA foam, it holds its form well over time and the texture gives a great massaging effect which makes it deeply relaxing to use.
Made from open cell foam, this is great example of a classically smooth foam roller. It serves beginners and regular rollers well thanks to its medium firmness, but hardcore rolling enthusiasts will probably prefer a textured, firmer model.
Due to its softer structure, it can compress a bit over time but it is more durable than cheaper versions on the market. Unfortunately, the smooth texture also means it can slide a little bit on laminate flooring and mats. It’s an ideal length for hitting all larger muscle groups including various areas of the back, and it rolls away tension and loosens stiff muscles in a gentle way.
Best of all, it comes with a handy 15-minute instructional DVD presented by fitness instructor James D’Silva (this can sometimes come in the form of access to an online video depending on your retailer), that will take you through a variety of key exercises so you can learn how to massage trigger points for maximum use.
Overall, it’s a simpler but effective design that should last you a couple of years before it needs replacing.
How to choose the best foam roller for you
When it comes to buying a foam roller, there’s a lot to take into consideration. Some rollers are short while others are extra-long; some are soft and springy, and some are as hard as nails; many are smooth while others have interesting knobbly bits and even spikes (yikes!); and a few newer models can vibrate or heat up to boot!
If you exercise regularly, you’ll never regret buying a foam roller because they do an amazing job of improving your flexibility and mobility and can genuinely help to rehabilitate injuries. On top of that, they’re useful during warm-ups for loosening tight spots, increasing circulation, and getting your muscles nice and pliable before training, which helps you avoid injury. But before you splash the cash on an all-singing-and-dancing model, you should ask yourself what you want to achieve with your roller and how much time you’re prepared to spend on foam rolling in the first place.
Be warned that vibrating rollers can be extremely noisy to use - especially on hard floors, and even over the carpet with a yoga mat on top - so buying one might be a waste of money if you can’t use it for fear of disturbing other members of your household or the neighbours. Also, think about whether you’ll want to travel with it and how much space you have for storage because some rollers can be up to a metre long and fairly chunky.
Are bumpy or smooth rollers better?
If you’re new to foam rolling or a recreational exerciser wanting to experience the muscle-relaxing delights of rolling, a smooth model will do a perfectly fine job. Because, as anyone who has ever jumped straight into massaging their IT band with a knobbly roller (having never used a smooth roller before) can attest, it will hurt like hell. And let’s be clear, the idea that foam rolling should cause you pain to be effective is a myth. You should feel some discomfort, but you shouldn’t be crying out in agony.
Another common myth is that knobbly rollers are better because they hurt more. Instead, they simply provide different levels of intensity (smoother ones are gentler while spiky ones can be really intense). You’ll find there’s a variety of patterns out there, from textured surfaces that are designed to mimic the feeling of fingertips and the palms of the hands, to those with firmer edges and deep grooves that promote shearing (a massage method that uses sheer force to increase blood flow and increase connective tissue pliability).
Sounds impressive, but many seasoned runners and gym devotees never feel the need to roll their hamstrings and IT bands with anything other than a soft, smooth foam roller, because that gives them the best results - and doesn’t aggravate sensitive areas like the knees
How hard should a foam roller be?
If you’re ever taken an interest in powerlifting, you might have seen old videos of powerlifters using a PVC pipe as a homemade foam roller. Don’t do it. You wouldn’t try rolling your body over concrete, and the same logic applies here, unless you’re into medieval torture devices.
That said, you shouldn’t feel nothing at all, and very firm rollers can better at activating deep tissue sometimes. Often, it really depends on the area of the body you want to work, and some models are better for getting into hard-to-reach-spots, such as the thoracic spine. Trial and error, and playing around with various types of rollers, might be a necessary evil if your budget will stretch to it.
Also, bear in mind that there is a difference between ‘cheap’ and ‘soft’ in the foam roller world. Just because it’s soft, that doesn’t mean it’s worse or won’t do a good job. Cheaper foam rollers, on the other hand, tend to lose their shape and sink in the middle. You can still use it, but you might struggle to hit your shoulders, spine and traps if it’s collapsed and malformed.