What they are, why they work, how to use them, and
5 key things to look for when buying massage therapy balls.
As powerful as massage balls are, it’s most likely an ancient device because many ancient cultures used smooth heated or chilled stones in massage. Imagine two smooth warm river stones placed on your lower back by the village shaman. It’s not too far-fetched to think the massage ball is thousands of years old, is it?
But today, if you’re shopping for massage balls, it’s a whole lot more complicated because they come in every size and shape imaginable and we use fancy words like ‘mobility balls’, ‘myofascial release balls’, ‘yoga balls’ or ‘physical therapy balls’ — which all mean exactly the same thing. With this guide, I can spare you the effort and expense from having to try them all. The straight story is that most of the manufacturers are using gimmicks to sell you plastic that won’t be as useful as the balls you can pick up in sporting goods or toy stores.
If you look at the average massage ball and ask yourself “why is it like that?”, you’ll find most of the time it’s lightweight to make it inexpensive to produce and ship, it’s going to have bumps or knobs which make it patentable and allow the marketer to spin a “secret sauce” story to persuade you to buy it. None of this has anything to do with your body’s needs.
Massage balls really are very special and have unique benefits.
In spite of all the marketing gimmicks, massage balls are far more effective at isolating problem areas in your body and enabling you to make permanent changes that increase your flexibility and eliminate pain. They allow you to do your own deep tissue massage approximating the pressure you could expect from a massage therapist’s palm or elbow.
Top physical therapists, massage therapists and athletes all use massage balls for their own self-care and most use lacrosse balls for massage.
Massage balls are so effective they can even prevent risky surgeries. I don’t want to over dramatize this but it’s a known fact that back surgeries sometimes result in death or a lifetime of debilitating pain.
How to choose between massage ball options
What matters most is your ability to position a massage ball and control the movement to apply pressure on specific body parts. The factors that determine whether you’ve got the right massage ball for your need are size, weight, shape, grip and hardness. Let’s go over them one at a time.
Size – you want to select the size based on the body part you’re working.
Hands, forearms or feet – you’ll want to try golf ball and lacrosse ball sizes. For the technically minded, the golf ball has a diameter of 42.7 mm and the lacrosse ball’s diameter is 63 mm. Lacrosse ball set on Amazon here.
Calves, hamstrings, abdomen/psoas, buttocks, upper and lower back, deltoids and neck – the lacrosse ball, tennis ball and baseball sizes work best for these body parts. Their diameters respectively are 63 mm, 67 mm and 73mm.
Chest and shoulders – here you need a 4 inch diameter ball (or about 100 mm) which is an unusual size. The picture on the right, shows the large massage balls we launched on Kickstarter in the summer of 2017. On Amazon here.
Weight – the heavier the ball the more likely it is to stay where you put it. We manufacture all of our massage balls with the maximum weight possible for this reason even though it increases the cost significantly. So, solid balls are preferable to hollow or inflatable because of their greater weight. The solid balls also deform more predictably when you put your weight on them.
Shape – it’s important to use a smooth round ball so you can control its movement precisely when you roll on it. I’ve seen marketing pictures of people holding a massage ball in their hand and pressing it on their body which is pure fantasy. If you’re not using your body weight to apply pressure on the massage ball, you’re wasting your time. So forget about spikes and bumps on the ball — as cool and interesting as they look, they’re just gimmicks. The one possible exception – if you’re sweaty from a workout, small bumps might improve the grip.
Some may say you need protrusions to dig into a tweaked muscle or tendon but, all of my tweaks and injuries have always been resolved easily with smooth round balls. In addition to getting better control over the movement with a smooth ball, you can also cover more territory faster and more easily.
Remember that the best way to treat a tweaked muscle or tendon is to work around it, not directly on the tweak. You want to go after the attachment points and stretch surrounding areas to relieve the pressure on whatever is causing you pain. That’s why ‘digging in’ doesn’t carry much water.
Finally, for those that bruise easily, even the dimples on a dimpled baseball can damage skin tissue. So one more reason to go smooth.
Grip – a great massage ball has good grip and won’t slide easily against a wood floor, wall or your skin. This makes it easier to control the movement and prevents the ball slipping out from under you or falling if you’re using it against the wall. The tennis ball is a reasonably good massage ball except for its lousy grip – it slides around too easily. The best grip you’ll find comes from the natural rubber used in making lacrosse balls.
Hardness – there is no perfect massage ball hardness as each body part will respond best to a different hardness. Also, as the health and flexibility of your tissues improves, you’ll want to use harder massage balls over time.
Injured tissues will always need softer massage balls. In manufacturing, hardness is measured with an instrument called a durometer typically on the Shore scale. The lacrosse ball, for example, has a Shore C hardness of 60. Our softest massage ball gets measured on a different scale specific for foams and has a hardness of Shore A 40.
It’s worth mentioning that the hardness is not the only characteristic that determines how the ball deforms under your body, as a hollow and solid ball can both have the same hardness, but they will feel different. Hollow balls like hockey balls can work reasonably well and I’ve used them for long periods of time myself even if I now prefer the heavier solid balls we manufacture.
What about hot and cold massage balls?
First let’s talk about cold — it’s helpful for stimulating blood flow and reducing inflammation. As such, cold definitely has its place in the physical therapy tool bag. But a cold massage ball doesn’t make a lot of sense in my opinion. Here’s why – a massage ball is a great deep tissue tool which when done properly is about stretching. The whole point behind using a ball is that you penetrate deep into the belly of the muscle or tendon which stretches it restoring flexibility where fibers have tightened. Would you ever chill your muscles before a stretching routine? You might, if you wanted to get injured.
So you can see why a heated massage ball makes a lot more sense. But, let me make a prediction. If you were to buy a massage tool that could be heated, you’d try it once or twice and then would use it without heat thereafter. Who has enough spare time for heating a massage tool when the heat will dissipate in a couple of minutes? It’s a nifty idea, but personally I’m into simplicity and practical tools. If I need heat, a heating pad makes a lot more sense to me.
How to use massage balls for myofascial release
Now that’s the straight dope on massage balls! Look for heavy, smooth, round balls with good grip and get them in a variety of hardnesses and sizes like the ones we offer in our Deep Tissue Massage Ball Set, found here on Amazon. My favorite is our green 70 mm FIRM ball.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What are the best massage balls for back pain?
A: my personal preference is to use the green Firm massage ball shown in the picture for my upper back and the yellow Extra Firm oversized lacrosse ball on my lower back. Sometimes if I have a tight knot that needs working out I’ll use the orange lacrosse balls because they penetrate better. Note that if you have an injury or long-standing pain, you’ll need to start with something like our blue Soft massage ball and work your way up slowly to the harder balls.
Q: What are the best foot massage balls?
A: It’s really hard to beat the lacrosse ball for foot massage! However, when you first start out you may want something a little larger and softer. If you have very specific knots or substantial scar tissue, you may want to try using golf balls for even better penetration and targeting then you’ll get with lacrosse balls.
Q: What are trigger point massage balls?
A: Trigger points are specific spots in your body that give you a lot of trouble and may cause pain in other distant but related locations. Any massage ball that is the right size to isolate and penetrate a trigger point can be thought of as a trigger point massage ball. Usually that will be a smaller ball like a golf ball or lacrosse ball. The concept of a ball with knobs seems good in theory, but in practice, with knobs you lose some control over the movement and positioning of the ball, so stick with smooth massage balls.