Massage guns and foam rollers are both feel-good methods of performing self-massage and myofascial release, helping to prevent and relieve muscle soreness, break up adhesions and knots, and release stress-busting hormones while increasing relaxation.
But knowing when and how to choose each method depends on your needs and activities. To find out how massage guns and foam rollers compare and what the benefits of each are, we spoke to Sandra Gail Frayna, a sports physical therapist with Hudson PT, and Johnny Alexander, a sports chiropractor and owner of Warrior NYC.
Meet the Expert
When to Use a Foam Roller
Listening to what your body is telling you is a good start to knowing when to use a foam roller. Anytime you feel a break is needed, getting out your foam roller can provide some much-needed relief.
"The best time to use your foam roller is always when your body craves it most! For some, this is first thing in the morning, when they wake up feeling stiff and sore head-to-toe. For others, it happens around the end of that third Zoom call of the day. Get up and get moving. Foam rollers are a great way to gently increase circulation to tight muscles," says Alexander.
When it comes to supporting your workout performance and recovery, using a foam roller before or after a training session has benefits.
"Foam rolling can be great for pre-workouts to increase range of motion and potentially prevent injury but can also be great for post-workout recovery. When using a foam roller, your body releases tension and relaxes, which helps stimulate blood flow and speed up recovery, cutting down recovery time," says Frayna.
When to Use a Massage Gun
Massage guns are also an anytime-you'd-like tool, but there are some key times and reasons to use them.
"Massage guns are best used over larger muscle groups such as the glutes, hamstrings, and the lower back area. They can be used as part of a dynamic warm-up before beginning more vigorous exercise. While massage guns won't replace the hands-on work done by manual therapists, they can be useful when you don’t have access to a chiropractor, physical therapist, or masseuse," advises Alexander.
Also, massage guns can target specific areas of need, according to Frayna. "Massage guns are used more for hyper-targeted pain points, soreness, and recovery. Because there are different levels of speed and intensity, you can pick and choose which exact muscle you want to work on when using the massage gun. Like foam rollers, the goal is to reduce inflammation and tension while speeding up recovery," she says.
Foam Roller vs. Massage Gun
According to Alexander, you should avoid using either a foam roller or massage gun if you have a history of serious illness, fracture, or injuries. "Those with chronic inflammation should avoid using the massage gun too close to the spine or arthritic joints. As with any type of exercise, it is important to introduce movements gradually to see how your body will adapt," advises Alexander. If you are all-clear, then using them interchangeably as you see fit is perfectly fine.
Whether you choose a massage gun or foam roller depends on your personal needs. "If there is one area you are really trying to target, a massage gun could be better than a foam roller, as you can place it directly onto the area instead of on a wider part of the body," explains Frayna.
If you choose a foam roller, Frayna recommends going slowly and breaking up the muscles into groups, giving each section a nice release. Go over each muscle group a few times for the best results. Since massage guns are super targeted, you can become even more sore if you don’t treat the area correctly. Avoid running it over bones, and limit to 10- to 15-second passes over a single location until you get used to the sensations.
"Whether you are using a foam roller or a massage gun, that can’t be your only recovery tactic. Both should be followed up by movement and dynamic stretches to keep that enhanced mobility," recommends Frayna.
The Final Takeaway
Whether you need a mid-workday break to relieve stress and tension, or you want to prevent or treat the muscle soreness that comes with workouts, foam rollers and massage guns are both excellent choices. If you have specific areas of tension that require deeper pressure, a massage gun may be the best option. For general self-massage and myofascial release, it's hard to beat a foam roller.
Make sure to use them properly and avoid areas of inflammation or injury. Discuss using either device with your doctor if you have any preexisting conditions or are concerned about whether either one is right for you. Also, if you begin to have pain when using either of these devices, stop and talk to a physical therapist, chiropractor, or massage therapist.