Hard vs. Soft Massage Tools Tune Up Fitness Blog » Hard vs. Soft Massage Tools

Hard vs. Soft Massage Tools

By: | Wednesday, October 25th, 2017 | Comments 19

More isn’t always better; less is sometimes best
When you have issues in your tissues
Please careful how hard you press
– a poem by yours truly

When it comes to affecting the human body through massage, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, nor is there a one-density-fits-all-solution. The two major factors that influence how much pressure is created when pressing the object into the human body are:

1. Density (how hard something is) of the object.

2. Force (how hard that thing is being pressed).

While my physics studies were…minimal…my basic experiential understanding goes something like this:

How hard an object is + how hard it is pressed = pressure of that object against the thing its being pressed against

The amount of pressure needed to create change in tissues varies case to case, based on a number of variables, like one’s pain sensitivity, the condition of the tissue being massaged, the condition of the person’s nervous system, and more. When doing “DIY bodywork,” as I like to call it it’s also important to ask: what are the desired effects to the tissues being massaged, and more generally to the rest of the body?

Massage is a modality that can be used to achieve a number of benefits, including increased relaxation, proprioception, pain-relief, and circulation, reduction of inflammation, and sometimes, manipulation and restructuring of connective tissue. Which of these, or which combination of these, serve your needs?

It’s also important to keep in mind that massage work alone is quite ineffective compared to massage work combined with movement. For example, massage alone to deal with chronic pain is most likely functioning like a band-aid: it provides a temporarily fix, but does not address the underlying cause of the pain. In most cases, corrective exercises to address strength deficits and movement/postural imbalances are even more important than massage. One of the most beneficial aspects of massage is that it offers a way to make your stretching and strengthening exercises less painful and more effective.

As a good rule of thumbs, when performing DIY bodywork for most desired outcomes, I believe it is best to default to:

  1. Using soft massage instruments.
  2. Pressing gently, at least at first.

Why? Well, safety first.

Speaking of first…this is the first of a six-post series on massage tools. Stay tuned to the Tune Up Fitness® Blog as we explore methods for easing oneself into DIY bodywork, tools of the trade, and techniques.

Liked this article? Read Your Movement Medicine Cabinet: What Are the Roll Model Balls, and How Do They Work?

About This Author

As a competitive high school athlete, Max developed several chronic over-use injuries that left him on the sidelines for his senior year. His journey of fixing these injuries over the past 6 years has taught him the value in integrating one's movement practice -- be it sports, yoga, or any other kind of exercise -- with body work. He has developed a passion for self-myofascial release and its therapeutic effects, especially in combination with strategic stretching, correct posture, and a balanced lifestyle. Max completed his 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training through YogaWorks while at school at UC Santa Barbara in spring 2013, and is now combining his athletic background with his knowledge of yoga, Yoga Tune Up®, and embodied anatomy.

Hard vs. Soft Massage Tools

  1. Lewis says:

    Thanks for the great post Max. I really appreciate your scaled down description of pressure and force, it definitely helped to put the rest of the article into perspective. In regards to the connection between exercise and DIY bodywork, I see them as a tandem pair. I appreciate the way you insinuated that the amount of stress put on the body dictates the amount of self massage necessary.

    Great post!

  2. MMoens says:

    Thank you for this break-down on (self-)massaging Max. I couldn’t agree more with how massage and physical exercise go hand in hand (there is a reason sports teams and professional athletes have massage therapists and kinesiologists on board), something that is often overlooked with us semi-professional athletes (based on the amount of time we spend on our physical “hobbies”, aren’t we all semi-professionals these days?). I love the YogaTuneUp Massage Balls, because of their ease in applying pressure (either by using your hands or pushing more weight into them when you use them against the wall, on the floor or any other hard or soft surface) .

  3. jialu says:

    A tool is a tool, (of course there are definitions of good tools and bad ones but it is still just a material for the improvement, saying in general).
    What I found in my massage experiences is, the directions and movements are the most important elements to help and let’s get real, our own hands actually can help us relief the neck pain, body soreness or even headache. But speaking of myself, I would not push myself too hard on getting alone with a harsh massaging tool (like a super rigid new rolling ball) even if “it can be good to your body, maybe”.

  4. jialu says:

    A tool is a tool, (of course there are definitions of good tools and bad ones but it is still just a material for the improvement, saying in general).
    What I found in my massage experiences is, the directions and movements are the most important elements to help and lets get real, our own hands actually can help us relief the neck pain, body soreness or even headache. But speaking of myself, I would not push myself too hard on getting alone with a harsh massaging tool (like a super rigid new rolling ball) even if “it can be good to your body, maybe”.

  5. Angela Yonkovich says:

    Sound advice….I have found (in my experience) that starting slow and gentle (especially when trying something new) allows me to listen and feel my body’s response to what I am introducing. In the past, the harder and faster brought me into more pain. I enjoyed your article and poem! Thank you.

  6. Marie-Michelle Darveau says:

    good way to see it: should be used as a tool to help your stretch and strength work be more effective

  7. Monika Bansal says:

    Great information on massage tools! I have been using Foam Roller for more than a year now and feel therapy balls in contrast are better due to their density. And very rightly said that only massaging will not help. Corrective exercises are equally important and Yoga Tune Up exercises work wonders in this regard. Look forward to reading more in this series. Thank you!

  8. Diana Azavedo says:

    Thank you for sharing this valuable information. I love this – ‘More isn’t always better; less is sometimes best, When you have issues in your tissues, Please careful how hard you press’ I am really happy to read about this especially since I used the ball and i did feel uncomfortable. I usually do not carry any tension in the shoudlers (or at least not knowingly) so i have to check while massaging an area which 1) doesn’t have much muscle especially since i am so thin, 2) check the applied pressure 3) check the density of the tool used. Looking forwrd to the remainder of this 6 series post.

  9. Becky says:

    A nice reminder that massage alone is only a temporary fix, and that it should be used as a tool to help your stretch and strength work be more effective. I have fallen into the trap of just using self massage to relieve pain without giving enough attention to fixing the cause of the problem only to go round in circles and likewise have seen students do the same – this is a great reminder to encourage the movement and corrective work too!

  10. Julieann says:

    My husband has been using hard tool for self massage. I have been trying to encourage him to use something softer. Great info given here for me to share with him.

  11. Izzy Leahy says:

    For all the reasons mentioned above, this DIY bodywork intimidates me. How do I know when I’m at the point where I understand my own anatomy, pain tolerance (which is high), and the condition of my connective tissues enough to not do any harm? I like the suggestion of using soft instruments and press gently at first.

  12. Rita Chow says:

    Great poem Max. Pain is everything from where I came from. People I know would go to massage asking for pain. I guess most people are still stuck in the “no pain no gain” game.
    I used to use hard tools like lacrosse balls on my body as well, I loved it because they give you quick fixes to problems. When I first switch to the yoga tune up balls, I thought they were too soft and I couldn’t feel a thing. Turn out that I was just rushing thru the process and I was doing everything too quick. Now I would slow down and enjoy the process. From my experiences, YTU balls might not give you crazy results quickly, but the long term effects are incredible.

  13. Phoebe says:

    OMG! That is so right. I used to go to massage with my friends when I was younger, the masseuses only make me feel the pain while my friends keep asking them to push harder. Turned out my friends keep going back/ ask for harder which the tiredness and pain never go away.
    Not only massage is not a permanent fix, it might even hurt you more.
    Also, can’t agree more on your poem!! Love it!

  14. Jennifer says:

    I 1000% agree that massage alone is ineffective as compared to massage and mobility work. While massage is fantastic, I have found that all it does is address the current source of pain rather than correct the underlying issue. For example, I can have my shoulders worked on repeatedly to reduce the tightness. If I don’t consciously correct my posture when sitting at my desk or use a standing desk every now and again, I will always have to work out that pain. It is the combination of the massage plus movement/correction that will reduce current pain and prevent future pain and need for the massage.

  15. Rachel Tarvin says:

    that poem is THE BEST. I think I may quote you in class tonight 🙂

  16. Noémie says:

    I agree with you 100%. I love how you describe massage alone as a quick but not permanent fix. This article really sums up what Yoga Tune Up is all about. Will continue reading your blogs.

  17. Katrina LK says:

    I 100% agree with the statement that “massage work alone is quite ineffective compared to massage work combined with movement!” Massage is only one half of living a pain-free life! The release can definitely help and needs to happen, but strengthening is the other half of that equation. YTU has given me some amazing tools, and I invested in the Roll Model kit so I can work on myself at home!

  18. Maddy says:

    From a massage therapist – the word you’re looking for is pressure, not force. Force =mass x acceleration. Pressure = force over the area.

    In essense, it doesnt matter to physics how dense the massage tool is, however, if it’s squishy it will spread out and cover more area, reducing the pressure. If it is harder, the pressure will be greater with the same amount of force.

    Now you know 🙂

  19. Jenna says:

    I couldn’t agree more with the sentence “massage work alone is quite ineffective compared to massage work combined with movement”. Massage (by whatever means, manual, ball work, etc) can help relieve pain and lengthen muscles, however, appropriate exercises need to be encouraged to correct our imbalances and create a robust system.

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