Foam rollers have become increasingly popular recently as a tool to speed up post-workout recovery, prevent injury, relieve muscle soreness and tension and, some say, improve overall athletic ability. Much like a deep tissue massage, the foam roller works by applying pressure to a small surface area along a band of muscle. This releases tension and fascia, the web of connective tissue covering your muscles. The same affect can be achieved through the use of a number of other tools, some of which offer distinct advantages over the foam roller in precision, portability and overall effectiveness
The PVC Pipe
A 2- or 3-foot length of flexible, 3/4-inch PVC pipe or even wooden rod can be used to induce myofascial release in a similar manner to the foam roller. The pipe can be held in both hands and rolled along various body parts, such as the hamstrings, calves, quadriceps, neck and lower back. By focusing pressure on areas of tension or "knots," the rigid pipe can effectively apply much greater amounts of force than the foam roller. It is also highly portable and inexpensive.
The Stick or Muscletrac
The "Stick" and the "Muscletrac" are two commercially available alternatives to the foam roller which work in much the same way as the PVC pipe or wooden rod. Both products consist of a flexible shaft with rows of free-spinning spindles or wheels which glide across the skin much more easily than the flat surface of a pipe. Due to the flexibility of the material, these two tools are much softer on sore muscles. While the rigid PVC pipe is more suited to trigger-point style rolling with intense pressure placed on one area, these two products offer the benefit of continuous pressure across an entire muscle band, much like the foam roller.
A rubber lacrosse ball or tennis ball makes an excellent tool for trigger point massage and for releasing areas of tension across muscle bands. Similar to the pipe or stick, it can be used to apply intense pressure across a small surface area, ideal for releasing knots and areas of painful tension. Much like a foam roller, the ball is often placed on the floor or up against a wall and then sat or laid down upon and moved around to trigger areas of soreness in the back, legs and neck. This is probably the most portable and readily available tool, but it does lack somewhat in versatility and ease of use.