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Dear Dr. Kacy: Do I Still Need To Foam Roll if I Have a Massage Gun?

Yes, you do.

Okay, before you all start calling me a grumpy curmudgeon, let me explain. I know, sitting on the couch and massage gunning your problems away while watching “Love is Blind” sounds so much better than rolling around on the floor with a styrofoam cylinder. You could even, in theory, be eating a sandwich at the same time, as you only need one hand to operate your new-age massage device. But hear me out. Different methods of self-massage have slightly different effects on the tissue, and we are able to access different layers of muscle by using multiple modalities. I’ve scoured the internet prior to jumping up on this soap box, and let me be clear that there are no studies directly comparing the efficacy of massage guns vs. foam rollers vs. lacrosse/trigger point balls. I’m simply going to state my case by explaining what we know about these different recovery tools, in the hopes that I can convert you into a curmudgeon, too.

First, we need to understand the overall goal of massage, soft tissue manipulation, and myofascial release, and to do so we also need to understand the anatomy involved (Don’t worry, I’ll make it quick). Each muscle group is made up of multiple muscle fibers, each of which is surrounded by a connective tissue called fascia. Fascia is sort of like Saran wrap in that it tightly covers not only each muscle fiber, but also groups of muscle fibers and the entire muscle group. Furthermore, neighboring muscle groups are connected via fascia so that they can work together to produce movement. Let’s take the quadriceps muscle as an example. The quadriceps is made up of four individual muscles, as indicated by its very clever name. The vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, rectus femoris, and vastus intermedius are all individual muscles that have slightly different functions yet form the quadriceps muscle group as a whole. Each of these four muscle groups are made up groups of muscle fibers called motor units. Each motor unit is controlled by a motor neuron, which is a component of the nervous system and thus is controlled by the spinal cord and brain. This nerdy and complex orchestra works together to straighten the knee and control knee motion along with the other muscles of the thigh.

Next, we need to understand the difference between different self-massage modalities:

Massage gun (Hypervolt, Theragun, etc.): These devices utilize a rapidly vibrating head to impart repetitive force to the muscle tissue and surrounding fascia. These vibrations stimulate the muscle and neurological reflex mechanisms within the muscle to help improve range of motion and muscle function.

Foam Roller: You know it, you love it, the classic self massage tool. This allows you to use a combination of your body weight and the firmness of the roller to affect the muscle and fascia. The combination of movement and pressure helps with fascial mobility and blood flow.

Lacrosse ball: This works through a very similar mechanism as a foam roller, although the surface area is much smaller, allowing for more specific and deeper muscle work. This is primarily used for smaller and deeper muscles, which is its main advantage over the other tools.

I usually advise my athletes to use a combination of all three, if they have made the investment in a massage gun. Otherwise, utilizing a foam roller for bigger muscle groups and fascial mobilization and a tennis or lacrosse ball for smaller and deeper muscles is just fine. I also highly recommend using the lacrosse ball for specific areas, where the athlete may be able to feel a “knot” or tight area in the muscle. This is perfect for when a trigger point is actively causing pain or muscle dysfunction.

I think of all soft tissue work, whether accomplished by a practitioner or external tool, as a way of muscle maintenance and a recovery tool. It is extremely important to be consistent with muscle work to reap the benefits of injury prevention and maintenance of mobility. I tell people to think of it like brushing your teeth– if you didn’t brush your teeth for three days, well, things would get pretty gross. A similar build up of waste products can happen in the muscles if we don’t care for them properly.

So grab your massage gun and foam roller and turn on an episode of Friends. Your muscles will thank you!

Keep going, you got this!

Kacy Seynders, PT, DPT


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