How To Use A Foam Roller For Back Pain: Foam Roll or Massage?

When I first found out how to use a foam roller for back pain, someone referred to the foam roller as the “poor man’s massage.”

“I’m poor,” I remember thinking at the time, “so this is perfect!”

Just like massage, proper foam rolling:


– Increases your flexibility

– Increases your pain tolerance

– Decreases DOMS (Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness)

– Reduces muscle stiffness


The foam roller replaced my massage, until I learned about recovery.

Our goal for every training session is to get the most out of your body that we can. If you aren’t recovering between exercise sessions, your next session will in fact suck. And if your sessions are lacking intensity, your results will become lackluster.


The best recovery tool is good soft tissue work from a trained professional. And why is this better than using a foam roller? Here are 5 reasons why:


  1. Relaxation – Manipulation of the sympathetic (fight or flight) and the parasympathetic (rest and digest) systems is key here. The stronger the parasympathetic response, the stronger the sympathetic response the next time you train will be. We want to have a strong fight or flight during exercise to perform better, but if we get stuck up there, that’s when the signal isn’t as strong the next bout. When you are put into a relaxing environment that is dark, has relaxing music, and the soft voice of a massage therapist, the parasympathetic response will be greater than that of a foam roller.
  2. Duration of session – Typical foam rolling sessions last between 5-20 minutes. The typical massage lasts about 45-90 minutes. In the case of soft tissue work, MORE IS BETTER! This is more time getting “knots” out (which I’ll explain later) AND more time in the parasympathetic state.
  3. Directional tension and change of fascial structure – This is probably the biggest edge massage has over the foam roller. When you have a great massage therapist, they understand the importance of directional tension (instead of just compressing the tissue). They can work more in a 3D manner, thus changing the structure of the fascia, thus creatine more long lasting effects for stiffness, range of motion, and muscle soreness.
  4. Specificity of muscles treated – Massage therapists can find exactly which muscle is stuck “on” or adhered. The specificity creates a more efficient AND effective session.


But, is there a time and place for the foam roller as well? Yes.


  1. Price – I don’t really have to go into much detail here, but the typical foam roll costs between $5 and $60 (which can be used more than once) and a massage therapist costs between $50-$150 per session.
  2. Convenience – Commute time, time in session, and difficulty of getting back to a sympathetic state (if you have to go back to work) can make massages very inconvenient. This is probably the biggest reason I don’t get massages as regularly as I should.
  3. Application into strength training sessions – Our sessions start with foam rolling, then a warm up, and then functional strength training. The last two parts of the workout are meant to hold the length changes made during the foam roller so they last longer.
  4. Using your own pain threshold – Has a massage therapist ever gone too deep to the point you had to tell them to go softer? Probably. With the foam roller, you are applying the pressure so you can use more or less force based off your pain threshold.
  5. Overstimulation of the Golgi Tendon Organ and Muscle Spindles – When you feel a really tender spot, these are bunched up muscle tissues that are stuck “on.” The Golgi Tendon Organ and Muscle Spindles are to be overstimulated with pressure to shut these spindles and GTO’s off. The advantage of the foam roller is you can feel the specific spots that are more tender and you can stay in that area with the foam roller until it turns off.


So, as you can see, there is a time and place for both. I personally use both massages (2-4x/month) and foam rollers (before every workout). Coincidentally, I’m raffling off a foam roller from Trigger Point Therapy called “The Grid,” as well as a 90 minute massage from John Marsigan. John is NY certified which means he’s done more than 1000 hours of training and a full day of board exams. This is actually no coincidence at all that I’m blogging about massage therapy and foam roller, I’m totally trying to get you to refer me people 🙂

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