Massage Guns: Recovery Essential or Trend-of-the-Day?
Get the inside line on whether this high-tech tool is worth the hype.
Tight hamstrings, tense shoulders and that knot in your quad that always pops up after a HIIT class—if those aches and pains sound familiar, there’s a new tool to consider: Massage guns. While in the past, you might have taken your sore muscles to a physical therapist or tried another form of recovery, massage guns offer a fast, high-tech way to bounce back after tough workouts.
If you’ve never heard of them, it’s time to acquaint yourself with these devices that come with a hefty price tag. Some people swear by them while others say they’re overhyped. Either way, without proper training on how to use a massage gun there is a possibility of injury or inefficient results. If you’re curious about the pros and cons of massage guns, take a look at how they work and what the pros say about using them for recovery.
What Are Massage Guns Used For?
Think of a massage gun as a mini-jackhammer for your muscles. The handheld tool creates short, intense bursts of pressure that reach both superficial and deep muscle fibers and it’s designed to loosen tight areas of your body and increase blood flow for a faster recovery. The goal is less stiffness and a greater range of motion—everything you need to perform at your best.
The biggest advantage of massage guns may be their ability to help you quickly get rid of muscle soreness, says Kelly Starrett, DPT, a physical therapist and mobility coach in San Rafael, CA. “After training, athletes can immediately address areas that felt stiff during their workout,” explains Starrett. Research confirms this recovery benefit: One study found that percussive therapy was as effective as massage in preventing delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) after exercise. Other studies from the Brookbush Institute in New York City found that pre-exercise local vibration reduces signs of DOMS and may improve performance in subsequent workouts.
Massage Gun Benefits
Along with their effectiveness in relieving muscle aches and stiffness, handheld tools like Hypervolt, Hyperice and Theragun are much more convenient than making regular appointments for massage therapy. You can use the massage gun while watching television, waiting for a conference call to start or for a couple minutes before lacing up for a run—all from your own home.
And because you use it on yourself, you get to direct how much pressure you want to apply to a tender area. “In literally tens of thousands of athletes’ sessions, we've never seen anyone really press harder than they can stand,” says Starrett. “The Hypervolt is self-limiting when it's performed by you, on you.” Some users also might find it easier to apply pressure with a massage gun than with a stick, foam roller or other recovery tool.
Drawbacks to Massage Guns
Unless you’re a medical professional with deep knowledge of human physiology, there’s always the chance of user error. “For example, if too much force is applied, it can cause pain. Also, it’s important to avoid using it on broken skin (skin that is burned, cut or has open sores),” says Ashley Vance of ExoGun, a manufacturer of one of the leading massage guns on the market.
Then there’s the cost. Most massage guns are in the $100 to $300 range, a bigger investment than your standard pair of leggings. And with such a wide variety of massage guns available online, it can be overwhelming to choose the right one for your needs. “If you are buying your first percussion device, look to see which sports and settings it supports most,” suggests Starrett, who also recommends exploring the company’s website for helpful educational resources about the product and who its intended audience is.
Finally, be careful that you don’t overdo it. Watch out for an area of skin turning red quickly, which indicates increased blood flow to the area and that it’s time to move on to another muscle. As always, talk with your doctor before using one if you have a chronic pain condition or other conditions that affect your blood vessels.
How to Use a Massage Gun
“It’s best to start slow and on the lowest setting, then increase the speed, power and length of the massage gradually,” advises Vance. “Don’t put too much pressure or push too hard to the point that using the device is painful. The point of using a massage gun is to have it help your muscles relax.”
Once you have the basic technique down, it’s time to figure out what angles and speeds work best for your needs. Experimenting will improve your results. Says Starrett: “Can you add movement? Can you work in the ‘seams’ between muscle groups? Can you take a big breath while you work in a sore area?” He recommends moving the attachment in small circles so you don’t put pressure on one area for too long. “If it feels sore where you’re using it, focus on your breathing until it starts to feel better,” he adds.
Bottom Line on Massage Guns
If you’re training for something specific and want to reduce your muscle soreness in order to stick with your workout schedule, a massage gun may expedite aspects of recovery. And if you’d normally schedule deep tissue massages, a massage gun is more affordable and more convenient than paying for an hour-long appointment several times a month.
However, other traditional techniques like self-massage, stretching and foam rolling provide post-workout benefits as well. So if you don’t love the feeling of the massage gun or you’d rather spend your hard-earned money on new training shoes, easing tension in your muscles with a tennis ball will work just fine. It’s not a matter of a right or wrong way to recover from your workouts, it’s about doing whatever feels best for you.