Massage guns have become increasingly popular, but they come at a cost. What’s the hype about? Are they overrated?
Let’s see what the research has to say.
What Do Massage Guns Do?
Massage guns (like Theragun and Hypervolt) are percussive instruments that allow you to self-massage. In scientific terms, this type of massage is called “percussive therapy”.
- Deep tissue reach
- Repetitive pressure based on amplitude, frequency, and torque
There are many proposed benefits, but there is very little proof. The hype also discounts some of the proposed dangers of using percussive therapy, although mostly anecdotal at this point.
The Shown Benefits for Recovery
As you may remember from the Recovery Series piece on foam rolling, there are psychological benefits to your favorite recovery methods regardless of their proven physical benefit.
In other words, if you love doing it and you feel good after, then do it regardless of the research (as long as there’s little to no harm).
However, if you want real recovery results without the placebo effect, there are is one thing that percussive therapy has been shown to offer.
Fast Muscle Restoration
One study analyzed muscle properties before and after certain recovery methods including: massage therapy, vibration therapy, percussive therapy, and foam rolling. (3)
It showed that massage therapy, foam rolling, and percussive therapy were all effective in restoring muscle properties to near pre-workout levels, but it occurs much quicker with a percussive instrument (Theragun, in this case).
These muscle properties, like contraction time, are important to returning to play with the same performance potential.
Manual massage and Theragun use had the most similar results, but…
- Manual massage needs 15 minutes
- Theragun needs 2 minutes
So, a percussive instrument was way more efficient and cost-effective.
If you don’t want to drop the cash, using the foam roller for a few minutes may give you enough recovery benefit to rival manual massage or percussion.
Other Benefits of Massage Guns…?
Generally, massaging does help short-term flexibility. Muscles are more pliable after using tools like a foam roller or massage gun, however the pliability wears off after a short period of time. That’s why we see massage guns used frequently in conjunction with stretching and mobility work.
There are many studies regarding vibration therapy. Because massage guns incorporate vibration, those studies are relevant, but not directly applicable.
Worth mentioning, though.
Vibration is known to improve muscle fiber recruitment, which helps improve coordination and strength of muscle contraction. This is important because you want to use your muscles’ full potential when you’re competing – your execution counts on it. (4, 5)
However, this is more useful for those getting ready for activity, not for recovery.
… But settings matter.
Why Massage Gun Settings Matter
There are different amplitudes that do different things. This may be different for each person, but there are some findings that came out in vibration research that may be transferrable to massage gun use.
Lower vibration settings (18 Hz or less) help with muscle relaxation. Higher vibration settings (50 Hz or more) can cause major bruising and soreness.
If you’re using a massage gun, know what you’re using it for. Sometimes going ham on a muscle group can cause more pain rather than decreasing pain.
It may take some trial-and-error before finding a setting that agrees with your body and your unique pain perceptions.
Known Harm in Using Massage Guns
There has been report of adverse affects in those with blood disorders.
There is a frightening case study where an anemic woman (low iron levels in the blood, a very common disorder) used a massage gun and developed rhabdomyolysis. Rapid increase in blood flow to one area could be problematic with other underlying blood disorders, too. (1)
If you’re thinking about purchasing a massage gun and you have a known blood disorder, make sure you ask your doctor first.
These worries do not exist with manual therapy or foam rolling.
Massage Guns are Cool!
Massage guns can be a fast and effective way to recover muscle, but it doesn’t offer anything different (so far) compared to other methods like foam rolling.
Its main advantage is muscle recovery speed, which is convenient.
Keep in mind that, although tools can be fun and easy to use, there can be risks. Pay attention to your body and how you respond. Just because it works for one person, doesn’t mean it works for everyone.
Most importantly, recovery tools can be useful… But there’s nothing more valuable than active recovery, adequate nutrition, and quality sleep.
1. Chen, J., Zhang, F., Chen, H., & Pan, H. (2021). Rhabdomyolysis after the use of percussion massage gun: a case report. Physical Therapy, 101(1), pzaa199.
2. Cochrane DJ. The inclusion of vibration therapy in rehabilitating a gastrocnemius tear: a case study in master athlete. J. Phys. Ther. Sci. 2019; 31:738–42.
3. García-Sillero M, Benítez-Porres J, García-Romero J, Bonilla DA, Petro JL, Vargas-Molina S. Comparison of Interventional Strategies to Improve Recovery after Eccentric Exercise-Induced Muscle Fatigue. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2021; 18(2):647. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18020647
4. Magoffin RD, Parcell AC, Hyldahl RD, et al. Whole-body vibration as a warm-up before exercise-induced muscle damage on symptoms of delayed-onset muscle soreness in trained subjects. J. Strength Cond. Res. 2020 Apr; 34:1123–32.
5. Rittweger, J. , Mutschelknauss, M. & Felsenberg, D. (2003). Acute changes in neuromuscular excitability after exhaustive whole body vibration exercise as compared to exhaustion by squatting exercise. Clinical Physiology and Functional Imaging, 23 (2), 81-86.