Tuesday 10th August, 2021

Do foam rollers actually work: you'll be very surprised

Foam roller exercises
In this article we look at whether foam rollers work, and how you can use them safely and effectively
What foam rollers are supposed to do

Foam rollers have become a popular way to have practically unlimited self massage. They are inexpensive and can easily be carried to places such as your gym. Proponents say that they may not be as effective as having a professional therapist perform the therapy, but they allow practically unlimited massage for practically no cost. This is an excellent objective, but how safe and effective is self massage performed by foam rollers?

What foam rollers actually do

The reality is that foam rollers don't live up to their marketing claims. Clinical trial results are only minimal and inconsistant, and nothing like the results of professionally applied massage. Further, in real world usage with no supervision they would be even less effective, and in Chiropractic practice for 27 years we've seen a lot of people hurt themselves with one.

However, if you do have a foam roller there are still some benefits to be had so we'll:

  • discuss the trial results so you know exactly what to expect and the best ways to use them,
  • discuss how to minimise your risks, and
  • some better alternatives.


What are foam rollers
The benefits of foam rollers
Effectiveness of foam rollers compared with professional therapists
Table: summary of clinical trials of foam roller usage

What are foam rollers

Foam rollers and other similar tools such as balls are tools used to exert pressure on muscles to emulate the therapy given by a manual therapist. This is done so that the massage can be self applied.

The benefits of foam rollers

The benefits of foam rolling include reducing pain, increasing flexibility and speeding recovery after a workout. However, even with supervised usage in clinical trials these benefits are only marginal. The benefits of unsupervised usage would be even less.

Clinical trials
In clinical trials patients are carefully chosen and well supervised

The clinical trial trial results of foam rollers

We've summarised the actual clinical trial results for foam roller usage in the table below. Many produced a reduction in pain and tenderness, but this was often temporary. Other trials found little or no benefit. One trial found that using foam rollers produced a lengthening (relaxing) of muscles), but commented that this was less than that achieved using conventional stretching.

Foam roller usage unsupervised
In the real world people are unsupervised and use foam rollers on conditions they shouldn't

Foam rollers in the real world

Clinical trials give the best results under ideal circumstances. The patients are selected for suitability then given appropriate instructions and supervision. In the real world people use foam rollers without instructions or supervision, and sometimes on conditions where foam rolling is not appropriate. Therefore in normal usage you would expect poorer results and greater risks.


In clinical trials everyone with an injury or another condition making foam roller massage techniques inappropriate or unsafe would be excluded. In the real world people use foam rollers on conditions they shouldn’t, and do harm.

Good pain vs bad pain

Professional therapists sometimes refer to the pain caused by pressure techniques as “good pain”. These professionals have the skill and knowledge to determine whether the pain is beneficial or harmful. It is so easy for users of foam rollers without this knowledge to think pain is desirable and either press to hard, or press upon something they shouldn’t.

A scientist's assessment of the risks of foam rolling

To quote one scientific review of the clinical trials of foam roller usage.
"During Foam-rolling exercises, all the underlying tissue is mechanically stressed, potentially leading to damage, receptors, vessels, or bones. This concern especially rises in users with diseases, for example diabetes, varices or oseteoporosis" (1)

“Breaking up adhesions”

We see claims by proponents of foam rolling claiming that it helps break up adhesions. I cannot overstate how bad this is. This claim is totally false, and it encourages people to apply potentially damaging pressure.

Effectiveness of foam rollers compared with professional therapists

Foam roller vs professional therapist

Foam rolling is said to be a substitute for professionally applied massage. However, in our article on post exercise recovery we have:

  1. a table summarising the clinical trial results for massage, and
  2. a table summarising the clinical trial results for foam rolling.

The clinical trial results show that the benefits of foam rolling are no where near comparable with those achieved by professionally applied massage. The reasons for this are as follows.

  • They won’t have the skill or knowledge
  • It can be difficult to get into the needed positions and apply the correct pressure
  • Most importantly, when consulting a professional therapist you are usually lying relaxed on a table. However, when using a foam roller the muscles being massaged are often tightened just to get into the appropriate position. Massage won’t relax muscles if you are trying to tighten them at the same time.

Summary of clinical trial results for foam roller usage

The following table summarises the findings of the 11 clinical trials of foam rolling we were able to find

NOTE: You may need to scroll the table below left/right for more information


Type of study

Results and comments


Review of 75 studies and other scientific papers

Poor and conflicting evidence of any benefits, plus concern about the potential risks


Review of studies

Rolling improves flexibility, but these gains decline rapidly after rolling. Effects are not better than standard stretching


Tested tenderness of iliotibial band (ITB) after foam rolling

Foam rolling reduced tenderness


Tested foam rollers for sports recovery

Reduced post exercise soreness and increased blood flow


Review of 21 studies of foam rolling

Quote: Overall, it was determined that the effects of foam rolling on performance and recovery are rather minor and partly negligible, but can be relevant in some cases (e.g., to increase sprint performance and flexibility or to reduce muscle pain sensation). Evidence seems to justify the widespread use of foam rolling as a warm-up activity rather than a recovery tool.


Tested both foam roller and vibrating roller on calf muscle flexibility

Both showed improvement


Tested vibrating and non vibrating rollers for flexibility, pain and tenderness

Vibration rollers gave better results


Tested the effect of foam rollers on hamstring flexibility

Foam rollers produced no improvement


Review of 15 studies of foam rolling

Could not conclude any optimal program


Tested effects of foam rollers on knee range of movement

The massage was painful, but increased range of movement


Review of 9 studies of foam rolling

If used before or after exercise it can reduce soreness

Dr Graeme's comments


The objective of the use of foam rollers is to be able to provide convenient and practically unlimited massage therapy, especially before and after exercise. There are better alternatives, but if you use them we want you to be safe and get the most benefit. We'll give you some advice to help you do that. Keep in mind that this is general information only. We ask that you get specific advice from a professional familiar with your specific needs.

The safer and more effective usage of foam rollers

Restrict the usage to healthy uninjured muscles

It is relatively safe using foam rollers on healthy uninjured muscles. Examples would be massage as either preparation or recovery after a workout. Do not use on any injured muscles or if there is a pain syndrome unless specifically instructed to do so by a properly qualified professional.

Use stroking techniques rather than pressure techniques

Professional therapists use two basic types of techniques

  1. (painful) pressure techniques such as acupressure, myofascial release and trigger point therapies
  2. stroking (squeezing) techniques where they rub along the muscle like they were squeezing out an old sponge.

Stick to the stroking (squeezing) techniques. They are much safer.

Using a foam roller in an awkward position
Using a foam roller in an awkward position

Avoid awkward positions

Avoid using foam rollers in awkward positions. It is hard to control the pressure and you can easily hurt yourself. These also sometimes require the muscles you are massaging to be tight, which of course works against what you are trying to achieve.

The alternative to foam rollers

Increasing flexibility

Foam rolling can increase flexibility. However trial 2 in the table above found that this was no better than the much safer standard stretching exercises.

Post exercise soreness and recovery

Clinical trials show that using vibration massage is far more effective than using foam rollers, and this can easily be self applied using a proper vibration massager (not a massage gun). For comparison as discussed in our article on ways to reduce post exercise soreness and speed recovery vibration massage gave very similar results to professional massage, whereas the results for foam rolling were far inferior.

Self massage allows the benefits of quality massage at home for little cost
How to use vibration massage

Using vibration massage is extra-ordinarily easy. We ask you to check our our instructions for the fine points and precautions, but basically all you need to do is place the vibration massager on the muscle over the trigger point and let the vibrations penetrate for 30-60 seconds. This can easily be repeated every day.

How to choose a massager

For how to choose an quality massager that will do a great job and that you will be extremely happy with please see our article How to choose a massager, or you can go straight and check out our economical, easy to use professional standard machines: the General Purpose Massager or our Ultimate Quad Head Massager.

Fitness professional giving advice
To help fitness professionals experience the benefits of quality therapy we'll provide practitioner guides plus the practitioner rates we give practitioners such as Chiros, Osteos and Physios

Fitness and exercise professionals

There is a lot of well meaning but too often poor advice and marginal therapies (eg. foam rollers and massage guns) aimed at those who exercise or play sports. We’d like professionals in these fields to have the opportunity to instead try and use practitioner grade therapy using genuine professional grade vibration massagers with a long list of scientifically demonstrated benefits. Please check out our practitioner page to access our practitioner guides and most importantly the special practitioner rates we give qualifies practitioners such as Chiropractors, Osteopaths and Physiotherapists.


  1. Freiwald J, Baumgart C, Kühnemann M, Hoppe MW. Foam-Rolling in Sport und Therapy- Potential benefits and risks. Sport Orthop Traumatol. 2016;32(3):267–75.
  2. DeBruyne DM, Dewhurst MM, Fischer KM, Wojtanowski MS, Durall C. Self-mobilization using a foam roller versus a roller massager: Which is more effective for increasing hamstrings flexibility? J Sport Rehabil. 2017;26(1):94–100.
  3. Vaughan B, McLaughlin P. Immediate changes in pressure pain threshold in the Iliotibial band using a myofascial (foam) roller. Int J Ther Rehabil. 2014;21(12):569–74.
  4. Adamczyk JG, Gryko K, Boguszewski D. Does the type of foam roller influence the recovery rate, thermal response and DOMS prevention? PLoS One
  5. Weiwlhove T. A Meta-Analysis of the effects of foam rolling on perforrmance and recovery. Front Physiol. 2019;10:376.
  6. de Benito AM, Valldecabres R, Ceca D, Richards J, Igual JB, Pablos A. Effect of vibration vs non-vibration foam rolling techniques on flexibility, dynamic balance and perceived joint stability after fatigue. PeerJ. 2019;2019(11):1–17.
  7. Romero-Moraleda B, González-García J, Cuéllar-Rayo Á, Balsalobre-Fernández C, Muñoz-García D, Morencos E. Effects of Vibration and Non-Vibration Foam Rolling on Recovery after Exercise with Induced Muscle Damage. J Sports Sci Med 2019;18(1):172–80.
  8. Miller JK, Rockey AM. Foam Rollers Show No Increase in the Flexibility of the Hamstring Muscle Group. UW-LJournal Undergrad Res . 2006;1–4.
  9. Cheatham SW, Kolber MJ, Cain M, Lee M. The Effects of Self-Myofascial Release Using a Foam Roll or Roller Massager on Joint Range of Motion, Muscle Recovery, and Performance: a Systematic Review.. Vol. 10, International journal of sports physical therapy. 2015. p. 827–38.
  10. Bradbury-Squires DJ, Noftall JC, Sullivan KM, Behm DG, Power KE, Button DC. Roller-massager application to the quadriceps and knee-joint range of motion and neuromuscular efficiency during a lunge. J Athl Train. 2015;50(2):133–40.
  11. Schroeder AN, Best TM. Is self myofascial release an effective preexercise and recovery strategy? A literature review. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2015;14(3):200–8.

We are continually adding more information on research and uses. Subscribe below to have us email them to you "hot off the press".

Dr Graeme

About Dr Graeme

Several years ago Dr Graeme, a Chiropractor practicing in Victoria, Australia was looking for a serious hand held massager his patients could use at home to get the extra quality massage they needed. The ones he found in the shops and on-line for home use looked nice but were not serious, and... read more