Are you looking for the best muscle roller stick to relieve tightness in the legs and rest of your body? For 2020, we researched over 30 different options before purchasing 7 for inclusion in our comparative, side-by-side review. Our expert runners and athletes put these roller sticks to the test both before and after workouts to discover which ones worked best to loosen up tight muscles and tissues and relieve persistent soreness. We graded each based on four different metrics, including texture on skin, friction over clothing, how smooth they roll, and how easy it is to target your massaging pressure where you need it.
The Best Muscle Roller Sticks of 2020
If you simply want the best muscle roller stick you can buy, stick with the original — The Stick! It comes in many different lengths, and we tested the most portable "Travel Stick", which includes eight smooth white plastic beads loosely surrounding its semi-rigid plastic spindle. The looseness of the design ensures that it has the least inherent friction of any we tested, which translates directly into the smoothest and easiest use. With The Stick, you can very quickly and easily warm up muscles and tissues before a run or workout, and its small beads also allow for easy targeting of specific knots that need extra attention.
The Stick is the only design we tested with a semi-flexible spindle or axle, which helps it wrap muscles slightly for greater coverage per roll. However, this design also means that when you really want to bear down on a persistent knot, it can be hard to generate the same force that comes easily with the Tiger Tail. We found this to be a particular issue when we used The Stick for areas other than the legs, where we have less leverage, such as the neck or back. It's also on the pricy end of the spectrum, although the performance matches the expense. If you are a runner or athlete looking for a self-massage tool especially suited to the legs, look no further than The Stick.
The Tiger Tail is our tester's other clear favorite, and serves as an excellent alternative to The Stick. It's the only design we tested that doesn't have multiple, independently rotating beads, and instead acts like a single rigid foam roller on a stick. This design allows one to really press hard on persistent knots, and to reach the deepest levels of muscle and connective tissue when maximum, targeted pressure is desired. The foam texture of the roller also feels great against the skin and doesn't yank on hairs. We also found this to be the best roller stick for nailing other areas of the body besides the legs, in particular we loved it for massaging the forearms and biceps/triceps by pinning one end into our hip and using it one-handed. It comes with a handy pamphlet that gives you lots of tips on potential positions.
On the downside, this muscle roller is also one of the most expensive. To be clear, we aren't talking budget-breaking prices here, but simply pointing out that it costs more than the others. It also doesn't roll as smoothly as the The Stick, so it's harder to get that high speed back and forth warm-up action going. Its enhanced grip may at times catch on thick or baggy clothes, so this one works better in workout clothes or on bare skin. If you want a roller stick that can rival the amount of pressure that comes from using a foam roller on the ground, then the Tiger Tail is the one for you.
Muscle roller sticks tend to be of two varieties — those with smooth round beads, and those with knobby or pokey rollers. Our favorite knobby roller is the Ameri Fitness Massage Roller, which features large cog or gear-shaped roller beads that add a bit of extra bite to your self-massage. Unlike other textured rollers, this one is nice and smooth over both bare skin and clothes, and offers nearly frictionless rolling that doesn't require extra effort to move back and forth, allowing for some pretty high speed massaging. We found the knobs do a great job of stimulating and loosening up the superficial, surface level tissues. The Ameri Fitness Massage Roller is also very affordable.
Due to the large cogs, however, it's hard to target the pressure right where you want it. The protruding knobs don't always line up with each other, or the exact point where you need intense sustained pressure. And since the beads are so big, they also distribute the force over a wider area. For that reason, we think this roller stick works best as a warm-up tool or for flushing out muscles post-workout but doesn't offer a satisfying deep tissue massage.
If you are looking for solid performance for the lowest possible price, look no further than the Supremus Sports — Top Rated Muscle Roller Massage Stick. This affordable roller costs no more than a couple of protein shakes, and does an effective job, whether you want a muscle relaxer or want to apply maximum pressure to break up deep tissues. It features rather large, rounded beads with little grooves that add a bit of grip as you roll, but don't catch skin, hair, or clothes. To top it off, the rigid stainless steel axle allows you to push hard for the deepest possible massage, which is nice if you are trying to relieve knots in pesky tight quads, or loosen up a problematic IT band.
Compared to the higher-priced roller sticks, however, this one feels slightly cheap, and ours squeeked quite a bit as we used it. The beads are also close together with little play between them, meaning that there's a bit more built-in friction than you would find with The Stick. While it isn't our top-performing option, it still serves well for all purposes, and comes at an unbeatable price.
The IDSON Massage Roller Stick for Athletes is another top contender for most affordable, and comes at a price that few could argue not being able to afford. It features large round beads with deeper grooves cut into them than the Supremus Sports roller stick. Its stainless steep axle design makes it possible to apply as much pressure as you desire.
Compared to the competition however, we didn't find this one to be enjoyable to use. There is a ton of friction, so it doesn't roll smoothly, and the grooves not only catch hair a bit too easily, but also make it difficult to use over clothes. There is little reason to consider this one over the better performing options.
The Physix Gear Sport — Muscle Roller Leg Massager is another massaging stick that is very affordable. It features grooved beads much the same as the IDSON, but which are much smaller by comparison. The smaller beads allows one to focus pressure even more precisely, and this ability is greatly aided by the stainless steel axle.
Once again, however, the grooved beads prove problematic. They grip the surface they are rolling over — whether it's skin, hair, or clothes — far too aggressively, such that they pull hair out, pinch skin, and bunch up clothes. The beads also have perhaps the most friction of any that we tested, meaning you can only roll this one slowly at best.
The Gaiam Restore Massage Stick is perhaps the most unique one we tested, and is certainly the most eye-catching. Instead of a long row of rounded beads, it has three balls on a spindle that are covered in sharp, rubber spikes. Rolling these spiky balls over yourself is certainly very stimulating and is sure to get the blood flowing. It also seems to be so effective at breaking up superficial tissues that countless online reviewers report problems with bruising!
We found this device to be too painful to enjoy, and despite being ultra-runners ourselves and having what we thought was a pretty high tolerance for pain, we couldn't hang with this masochistic device. Using it on bare skin caused pain initially, and left red marks and burning sensations that lasted up to an hour after use. There was no way we could push hard enough with this thing to reach deep tissues, and we couldn't target pressure on sore spots either. Overall, we find this device to be pretty ineffective as a self-massage tool, although many online reviewers commented that they used it to break up hardened fascia or break down cellulose deposits. We couldn't scientifically test its efficacy for either of these purposes, but assure you that it enhances blood flow, and are positive that there are some unique folks who will actually love using this medieval torture device.
Why You Should Trust Us
Tackling this review for us is Andy Wellman, a dedicated trail, mountain, and ultra runner who has been our point man for all things trail running since 2013. He has competed in trail races around the world, from the famous Transvulcania Ultra on the Canary Islands, to the nine-day long Mustang Trail Race in the Himalayas of Nepal, and has landed on the podium, or even won, trail and mountain races of every distance between 10k and 50 miles. Racing and training for years has, of course, led to many common running injuries, including shin splints, bunions, a torn meniscus, IT band syndrome, and a whole stack of wipeout related contusions — but luckily never plantar fasciitis or stress fractures. Daily self-massage is critical for keeping overuse injuries at bay as well as rehabbing from what injuries do crop up, and for years Andy has followed a routine of roller stick for the calves and shins, golf ball for the feet, and the foam roller/lacrosse ball combo for the upper legs and back. By conducting this review, he was surprised to find some roller stick products that can replace the foam roller, sometimes even more effectively. He is also an avid climber, backcountry skier, and yoga practitioner and lives in the mountains of Ouray, Colorado.
Testing took place over a period of weeks in the spring, and was conducted at all times of the day, both pre- and post-runs. We used these roller sticks first thing upon waking to loosen up the body, before running to help warm-up muscles and connective tissues, immediately after runs to aid with recovery and flushing out accumulated waste products, and later in the evenings to relieve sore and tight muscles. Other athletes, including professional runners, climbers, and yogis were recruited to aid in testing and offer their opinions. We also conducted side-by-side tests, comparing each product one after the other, and graded them on four critical metrics for performance: texture on skin, friction over clothing, the ability to apply targeted pressure, and rolling smoothness. Rest assured that the opinions and recommendations offered in this review are the qualified advice of trusted experts.
Analysis and Test Results
We intensively tested each product and graded them based upon four critical metrics for their performance.
Texture on Skin
During our test period, we found ourselves most frequently using the roller sticks on bare skin. If you are rolling out pre- or post-workout, you are most likely wearing shorts and a light shirt, so this makes sense. Furthermore, while it is possible to use these sticks over clothing, we wouldn't call this optimal, so we generally preferred bare skin anyway.
The best roller sticks create almost no friction with your skin, and roll comfortably and smoothly without catching or yanking on hairs, bunching up and pulling on the skin, pinching, or creating other painful sensations. Smooth beads are the best for this function, while deeply grooved beads tend to be far less comfortable.
Massage roller sticks are designed for and work best on the legs, where you can use both hands and arms to apply maximum pressure. They are especially useful for the calves and shins, which nothing else can target as effectively. While they work well on the glutes, hamstrings, and quads, often you can get more pressure on these areas by using a foam roller. Two-handed use on the neck works, and roller sticks can be used one-handed by tucking one handle into a hip for rolling out forearms and biceps/triceps. Depending on how flexible your arms and shoulders are, they can even be used on the back. Generally speaking, a curved point massager will work better for your upper body needs, however.
Without doubt, the product that rolls over skin the easiest is The Stick, which features small, smooth beads that roll with very little friction and don't pinch close together. Testers also loved the foam covered roller of the Tiger Tail, which can't pinch because there are no separate beads. While it features large, knobby beads, the Ameri Fitness also rolls comfortably and smoothly over the skin.
Friction Over Clothing
Whether you are rolling out in cold weather where wearing shorts or a t-shirt isn't an option, have to access parts of your body that are going to be covered in clothes no matter what, or simply want a little relief after you've already put your pajamas on at night, how much friction your roller stick creates with your clothing matters. For comparison sake, we tested each stick on the same clothing, but found that baggier, thicker clothing is harder to use in conjunction with a roller than thinner, tighter clothing.
The most egregious offenders made it difficult to use them at all over the top of clothing because they would grip and pull on the cloth, causing it to bunch up and get in the way of a smooth roll. On the other hand, some devices that we couldn't enjoy on bare skin actually felt significantly better with clothes as an intermediary, such as the Gaiam Restore Stick.
Once again, the smooth, texture-less beads found on The Stick meant that it rolled over clothing better than any other. Surprisingly, and despite the large knobby protrusions, the Ameri Fitness also rolls over clothing with no problems, likely due to how large the beads themselves are. The Supremus Sports, our top budget option, has large smooth beads and also rolls over clothes relatively well.
If all you want to do is quickly warm up cool muscles, or help flush out some of the accumulated toxins after a workout, then a light, smooth-rolling session that increases blood flow is the ticket. However, if you want to work out persistent knots or loosen up overly tight tissue, you are going to want to go a bit deeper. For this, you need to able to apply targeted pressure on just the spot you want, which is easier done with some roller sticks than others.
How much pain you induce with your muscle roller stick is completely up to you. However, different levels of pressure work best for different purposes. Light and gentle pressure is optimal for increasing blood flow without damaging tissues, and this is what you should aim for when warming up or using the stick for recovery. If you are trying to relieve pain or loosen up overly sore muscles, be aware that pain and soreness indicate muscle damage, so rolling no harder than medium pressure will work best without setting you back. For breaking up knots and scar tissue, you may need to press as hard as you can handle, but by doing so you are likely creating tissue damage, so you may end up with soreness afterwards, and a period of recovery could be needed to notice significant improvements.
To do this, smooth beads works better than textured ones, and it really helps to have a rigid spindle that doesn't bend as you push down as hard as you desire. Every tester agreed that the Tiger Tail is simply the best for pressing hard to work out deep tissue tightness, and most said they would make it their top choice for this exact reason. Depending on where you are massaging, we find it can even perform as good as a foam roller. The economical Supremus Sports is another good choice for applying pressure to the legs, but didn't work as well for us on other parts of the body.
For optimal usage, it's nice to be able to roll your stick smoothly and quickly back and forth. Unfortunately, many of the products are designed such that there is a fair amount of built-in friction, which prohibits you from rolling as quickly as you can, and often takes more energy. It seems to us that the plastic bead on stainless steel spindle creates more friction than plastic on plastic. Of course, the looser the beads fit on the spindle, the less friction, whereas tightly fitted beads create more friction.
Once again, the smoothest rolling product by far is The Stick. This makes it especially effective for warming-up and recovering from runs or workouts, because it enables rapid action that greatly increases blood flow. The Ameri Fitness also rolls very smooth. While the crowd favorite Tiger Tail isn't quite as frictionless, our testers found themselves willing to overlook this deficiency for its targeted pressure.
Muscle roller sticks are a fantastic tool for self-massage, and are an important part of almost every runner's daily routine for injury prevention and self-maintenance. Their use isn't limited to runners, and nearly any athlete or person who works out can find a role for them in relieving pain and soreness, loosening tight muscles, and quicker recovery. We hope this review has provided information and recommendations that serve you well in choosing the perfect stick for your needs.
— Andy Wellman