Which self-massage tool is for me?
An important question but akin to asking which shoes are for me? It depends. Let's step through the questions to ask so we can find the answer.
Are you wanting skin-deep acupressure or a massage?
If skin-deep acupressure is what you are looking for then a ball, or tool with small points should work well. A massage tool that is good for acupressure may not be the best for massage of muscles or trigger point work. For this kind of massage or trigger point release, we tend to want higher forces applied. When these forces are applied via small points, it can lead to bruising of the skin as well as unnecessary pain! To consider how effective the points are for a muscle, put a yoga mat or two over a small pebble and try to feel the pebble.
The rest of this article will address how to choose a massage tool.
What are you trying to achieve with the self-massage tool?
Common reasons for getting a massage include:
If you err toward general recovery and are not that interested in the other reasons, then you may want a massage tool with a larger 'effective area'. That is, with either a larger diameter or a longer section. A foam roller or tool such as the Doublar with both balls together would work well. The opposite of a golf ball.
For everything else, choose something that can apply predictable pressure in a specific location. Lumpy tools can make this hard to do, as can tools that 'cave-in' as you lean harder on them trying to get into that spot.
Where on your body would you like to massage?
Your feet and your thighs are not the same. We all know that. Feet have many small bones, and many small muscles. Your thigh has just one bone and a few large muscles. If we use a large diameter tool on the feet, such as a foam roller, it cannot apply enough pressure for a meaningful massage. Even a bar or roller style tool can be too broad as it lets part of the muscle 'hide' between the phalanges. At the same time, a golf ball in the thigh may be too localised unless you apply pressure with your hands. A golf ball may also be too small, such that it does not get 'deep' enough and the deeper tissue does not receive as much pressure as you are wanting.
If your focus is one part of the body, choose by size. Smaller muscles such as those of the forearms, feet and hands will appreciate a smaller ball. For the larger muscles like glutes, pecs, quadriceps and hamstrings, go bigger. Not too big though or you may not be able to apply enough localised pressure.
Small massage balls give a ‘pointier’ massage, larger massage tools gives a broader massage. Sometimes a larger massage tools may be required to apply pressure to deeper muscles. If you have been to a masseur or therapist, consider what body part they used to massage that area also. Fingertips would equal small ball here, forearms or palm of the hand equals larger ball. Their elbow would typically equate to a large massage ball but there are a few very pointy elbows out there (Carrie happens to be one of those!). If the therapist used their thigh, consider a foam roller. If they massaged you with a studded collar, either get yourself a spikey ball or a new therapist!
A few special cases
The Back or Spinal Musculature
The back is a special case. Avoid using a 'straight' tool like a typical roller. Straight roller may direct force to the spinous processes of your vertebral column rather than your muscles. This is why any good massage tool designed for backs will have a groove or gap in the centre region. Two balls next to each other, such as the Doublar and Eagle, achieve this nicely. Size fo the tool can depend on your body, and your needs. For most people, we recommend the Doublar which is approximately the size of a lacrosse ball or hockey ball. For youth and petite builds, we recommend the Eagle. That said, the Eagle can be great for 'getting into' the multifidus muscles due to their smaller size.
Shins - both front and outside
After trying a number of things, I’ve found that the two balls of the Doublar give a much better effect than just one. By slightly separating the balls, you seem to get better leverage into muscles like tibialis anterior. The nemesis of many runners.
Shoulder blades or scapula
Whether it is infraspinatus, supraspinatus, teres minor or even teres major, a Birdie or Eagle can nail the point well. A Solo or Doublar are also great, but the small balls seem to do that bit better. Be especially careful here if you are using a hard ball like a golf ball or hockey ball. The muscles are thin and there are nerves and arteries in the area.