“What device is more effective at helping to smooth out fascia—a soft ball, a hard foam roller or a soft foam roller with bumps on it?”

Tricks of the Trade:

This is a great question and one I get all the time. Different parts of the body respond to different degrees of pressure and firmness. Similarly, individuals respond in different ways to the firmness of the self-myofascial-release (SMR) tool they use. No matter whom you are working with, though, it is always a good idea to start them out with a soft ball (e.g., a tennis ball) so they can relax and ease into the new sensations of performing self-massage. As clients feel more confident with the techniques, you can introduce them to a harder ball, such as a baseball, lacrosse ball, trigger point ball or ball with bumps on it. As you advance to harder balls, be cautious, especially around the joints, spine, rib cage and shoulder girdle, where there isn’t a layer of muscle and/or fat to protect the bones.

As clients progress, they will become their own experts in the balls they require to get the desired effect. However, it is always a good idea to remind your clients that they are not trying to “beat” the pain out of themselves. Remind them that their dysfunction didn’t get there overnight and won’t go away overnight. As with any good exercise program, gradual progression is the key.

No matter what type of device you recommend, there is one rule of thumb I like to go by for self-massage: make sure the tools you recommend are easy for clients to obtain. Adhering to any exercise program on a regular basis is difficult enough. Therefore, it is imperative that you not limit the likelihood that they will do their homework by suggesting they purchase equipment they cannot readily acquire. My favorite balls for performing SMR work are golf balls, tennis balls and baseballs (or cricket balls in places where baseball is not as popular).

Justin Price, MA
Creator of The BioMechanics Method
San Diego, California

All three balls are effective for SMR techniques. The tool you are using should not cause “pain”— and it is important to recognize that pain is a subjective term.

For some clients, a soft foam ball may offer enough compression to elicit the response desired. Other clients may need something very rigid, such as a golf ball. The density of the tool is personal to the user. The spiky points on some SMR pieces are an attraction for some people and a detraction for others. I try to offer great variety in balls, rollers and various SMR-type pieces to provide something for everyone.

Other variables to consider are the size of the area being targeted and the most efficient way to reach that area. For example, I prefer to use a smaller ball (golf ball) for rolling the arches in my feet and a tennis ball or lacrosse ball for getting into my upper back. Using a foam roller for hamstrings and erectors is a great idea, and a larger myo-ball is very useful for reaching the piriformis.

The size and density of the tools chosen for SMR are important variables. Tools should be versatile enough to give you the most value for your investment.

Don Bahneman, MS, CSCS
ACE-Certified Personal Trainer
Well Equipped LLC
Boca Raton, Florida

As a certified personal trainer and certified massage/bodywork therapist I often get this question from trainers. I have two responses:

1. As a trainer, you must first of all ask yourself, “Do I have the proper training to safely perform myofascial therapy techniques?” Bodywork techniques, like exercise, can be used to produce amazing results in the hands of a qualified technician, but they can injure people when used by an untrained individual. To assure the best results for your client, make sure you have adequate training in the tools and techniques you would like to use.

2. Consider your client! All three of these options (soft ball, hard foam roller and soft foam roller with bumps) will help you achieve success; the most important influencing factor is your client’s personality. Some clients will perceive a soft ball or soft foam roller as ineffective because they find it too soft and don’t believe it provides the depth they desire. On the flip side, other clients will experience the harder devices as “painful” or less relaxing. By taking the time to know your client, you will be able to select the best option for that individual.

I have used each device effectively, but my clients tend to get the most benefit from a hard foam roller. It has produced the best results in the fewest number of sessions, and with a lighter touch, it can mimic soft devices when necessary. The hard foam roller allows me to modify pressure to achieve much greater depth in my work. This flexibility has allowed me to use this roller in a multitude of situations and achieve great and lasting results in them all.

Troy Huggett, MS
Owner, Troy Huggett’s Fitness Pros
Battle Creek, Michigan

Every person is different, and the right tool for the job depends on the area you want to smooth out.

  • A soft ball is best for smoothing out the “trigger point” (the point where you feel the hard lump). Lie on the area (if possible) or press into the trigger point with the ball. Fascia will respond to slow, sustained pressure over time, and as this happens, the structure will change and tissues will lengthen.
  • If a larger area like the iliotibial band is affected, the hard foam roller is a better tool to use. It will work more effectively to soften the tissue and get more length. With a hard roller, however, people usually need to start gently and for short amounts of time; in due course they can progress to longer periods of at least 3 minutes.
  • The purpose of the soft foam roller with bumps or nubs is to increase circulation to an area, typically to the muscle.

The choice really boils down to what clients can handle at the time. Then they can progress with the tools until the fascia is smooth, and they are back to moving and feeling better.

Holly Kouvo
Owner, Fitting Fitness In™
Boxborough, Massachusetts

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October 2012

© 2012 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

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