Monday, February 21, 2011

Gear Review: The Stick vs. OPTP Foam Roller



The Stick and the OPTP Foam Roller are two of the more common massage tools used by athletes. For the purposes of this review, I will be reviewing the Travel Stick and the OPTP AXIS Roller Black.

The Stick is a flexible plastic rod made up of two handles and a number of independently rotating spindles designed to roll over the muscle for compression, stretching, and trigger point massage. It claims to prevent injury, improve strength, flexibility, and endurance, prepare muscles for physical activity, disperse lactic acid,  and accelerate recovery. More details on how The Stick works and its benefits can be found here. Several different Sticks are available, ranging from long Sticks for full body use to short Sticks for use on the limbs. Additionally, Sticks are available in different levels firmness, where firm sticks are suggested for individuals who prefer deep pressure, as well as for mesomorphs with more muscular physiques, and flexible sticks for individuals who prefer less pressure or for ectomorphs with less muscle mass. The Travel Stick (tested) is described as a medium firm, short length Stick, at 17 inches long with 8 spindles.

The OPTP Foam Roller is described as a piece of rehabilitation and exercise equipment that can be used for core and balance training, therapeutic exercise and physical therapy, stretching, massage, and myofascial release. More information on the Foam Roller can be found here. Like The Stick, the OPTP Foam Roller is available in a variety of different lengths and densities in round and half-round shapes. Additionally, OPTP offers inflatable rollers and rollers of varying shapes, including a zoned roller, a roller with bumps, and a roller that is round on one side and flatter (but not totally flat like the half-round rollers) on the other. The OPTP AXIS Roller Black - Round 12x6 (tested) is described as a firm, long lasting, full-round foam roller that is made of heat-molded foam beads, measuring 12 inches long and having a diameter of 6 inches.

Using The Stick involves holding the handles and using it to apply manual pressure over a muscle or muscle group. To put it simply, you roll your muscles out using The Stick like a rolling pin. How much pressure is applied is up to you. With the Foam Roller, you place the Foam Roller on the ground and lay a body part on top of it, rolling yourself over the Foam Roller and allowing gravity to do the work for you. You can dictate how much pressure is applied by changing the amount of weight you apply to the Foam Roller. For example, resting the leg opposite to the one being treated on the ground would decrease the pressure, while stacking your legs and applying downward pressure with the opposite leg will increase the pressure.

While both products work as advertised, I generally prefer The Stick for massage purposes. With a smaller cross-section, it's a lot easier to really get in there, and I can better simulate what I'd get with a professional deep tissue massage. I can't get the same amount of deep muscle penetration with the far thicker Foam Roller, even when stacking legs to achieve the maximum pressure possible (wow, does sentence sound dirty...I apologize for that). However, I've heard many people say that they cannot get a proper amount of pressure out of The Stick when using it on themselves. For that reason, many people tend to prefer the Foam Roller. In order to really use The Stick properly, you either have to be willing and able to ignore your self-preservation instinct, or you need someone who is willing to use it on you.  No such problem with the Foam Roller, since you can dissociate and let gravity do the work for you. Admittedly, there have been massage sessions where I had to give up using The Stick partway through and move to the Foam Roller because I couldn't summon the willpower to continue applying enough pressure with The Stick. However, upon moving to the Foam Roller during those sessions, there is a definite decrease in muscle penetration from The Stick. I have also heard from several people that each is better than the other for different purposes. However, I have yet to find a body part that is better massaged by the Foam Roller than The Stick, though admittedly, my usage with both has been limited to various leg muscles.

An additional benefit of The Stick over the Foam Roller is its portability. The small Sticks, like the Travel Stick, can be thrown in a bag and taken to races or on training trips. On the other hand, the Foam Roller is more bulky and would have to be carried separately.

The Foam Roller does have one definite benefit over The Stick, and that's in its versatility. The Foam Roller can be used for stability and core exercises by balancing in different positions on the foam roller (particularly with the longer length Foam Rollers). However, I have not used the Foam Roller in this manner and therefore cannot give a good review on its efficacy as a piece of strength training equipment.

I have not had any issues with the durability of either product. I have heard reports of The Stick snapping, but this seems to be more of a problem with the very flexible sticks being used by more muscular people. I have also heard of Foam Rollers breaking down, but the new Foam Rollers are made of a more durable foam than older Foam Rollers. Additionally, I am using one of the more dense Foam Rollers, so it is unlikely I will see the breakdown that someone using a less dense Foam Roller may see.

With all of this in mind, the ideal situation is to own one of each. However, since this may not be practical for everyone, I would encourage you to honestly assess yourself to decide which is more appropriate for your needs. If you do not have someone who would be willing to help you with massage and you are unsure of your ability to ignore your self-preservation instinct, you will most likely be happier with the Foam Roller. Additionally, if you think that you will use the Foam Roller for its exercise properties, you should also go with the Foam Roller. However, if you are looking for the deepest muscle penetration and deepest massage possible, I would strongly encourage you to consider The Stick.

The Stick ranges in price from $27.50 to $53.95 depending on which Stick you buy and is available through their website, as well as at many running stores. The Travel Stick that was tested is the least expensive Stick at $27.95. The OPTP Foam Roller ranges in price from $5.50 to $69.95 and is available through their website, as well as at many running stores. The OPTP AXIS Roller Black - Round 12x6 is one of the less expensive Foam Rollers at $9.95.

Full disclosure: Neither The Stick nor the Foam Roller was provided to me by the company. However, I did receive team discounts from Fleet Feet Boulder in Boulder, CO for the Foam Roller and from the National Running Center in Clarks Summit, PA for The Stick, so I did not pay full price for either. Props to those two stores for supporting the local running scene!


  1. A really goofy question but... if I'm not a big time runner and I'm just trying to rehabilitate a Grade II Calf Strain on my own, can I use a wooden rolling pin (from my kitchen--the type used for rolling out pastry)instead of spending money on a stick? Will this work in a pinch or is there not enough flex? Thanks for your input!

  2. The Stick is really nice because it has the individual rollers and there's some flex to it. But if you're not going to be using it all the time and/or just don't want to spend the money, a rolling pin will work perfectly well! Similarly, a piece of PVC pipe will do the same thing as a Foam Roller, though it is obviously harder, which may or may not be a good thing depending on your build. I actually use both the Foam Roller and a piece of PVC pipe depending on what muscle I'm working on, and my friends and I used to use a rolling pin in college, when none of us wanted to spend the money on a Stick.

  3. I have both (bought the foam roller a couple years before the stick) and I use them for different purposes. The sprinter stick is smaller and more rigid, so I can do the 'deep' tissue massage on my hamstrings and calves, which I am unable to achieve with the foam roller even if I 'stack' the legs as you do. For upper back. arms, and IT bands the foam roller is great. For lower back, calves, hamstrings, glutes and quads the stick is my go-to option. And the occasional foot massage with my dog's tennis ball. Hard to choose one for sure!

    1. Another thing to try is a golf ball, especially for that foot massage. Since it's smaller and harder, it's easier to get deeper into the fascia (and the muscles that are deep to the fascia). Of course, there's always your thumb too!

  4. Great information! Check out the newest 5 in 1 foam roller on the market the ProUnit Performance Trainer


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