Whole-body Vibration Training promises some impressive fitness and health benefits. But is shakin' it on a vibrating platform as good for you as regular old exercise?
Although these rather bland-looking platforms are only recently popping up in gyms and spas, whole-body vibration training (WBVT) has been around for quite a long time. According to the BioMedical Journal, the ancient Greeks were the first to think that shaking the human body would elicit faster healing.
The history of whole-body vibration training
Ancient Grecian doctors used body vibration machines as a "therapeutic methodology" to help soldiers recover from their injuries. Their version was a bow-like wooden instrument that they would pluck strings on to create vibrations over cuts and wounds. The Greek docs observed that the vibrations allowed pus to drain from wounds more freely (yuck) while also healing the wounds faster.
In the 1860s, Swedish medical student Jonas Gustav Zander explored the connection between mechanics of the body and muscle building. He went on to establish the Therapeutic Zander Institute in Stockholm, which used his machines to help workers correct physical impairments. Zander believed vibration therapy could be a way to increase weight loss and muscle gain in his patients.
Russian athletes used whole-body vibration machines to speed up their recovery after Olympic events.
In the 1960s, Russian scientists embraced vibration therapy, dubbing it rhythmic neuromuscular stimulation. They believed that they had discovered a way to support not only muscle building but also a way to help stimulate bone regeneration. Then in 1995, the cosmonaut Valery Polyakov (the Ironman of Space Flight) lived in space for 438 days without losing (much) bone density thanks to WBVT. In fact, instead of being carried from the Soyuz spacecraft to a nearby chair, as is customary, Valery walked. Not too shabby for having been in zero gravity for nearly 15 months.
The following year, Russian athletes also started using whole-body vibration machines to speed up their recovery after Olympic events. Since then, many studies have been done on the use of WBVT. And many entrepreneurs have created devices—available at lower and lower costs—for both gym and home settings.
The big question is, just because it helped one dude in space—where gravity is lower and bones lose their density quickly—does it do anything valuable for us earthbound exercisers? Well, let's see what some of the studies say.
How does WBVT work?
If you go to a gym or spa where they have a WBVT platform, you will usually sit, stand, or perform some basic exercises (like squats) on it. Due to the vibrations creating an unstable surface—at least as far as your nervous system is concerned—your muscles will contract and relax rapidly a bunch of times per second. These repeated contractions require a lot more energy than when you do that same activity on stable ground. Incidentally, some of this is negated if you use the platforms with handles to hang on to (as pictured above).
This rapid vibration also increases the circulation to the stabilizing limbs, which can help oxygen and nutrients flow to your tissues more efficiently. This is believed to help flexibility, muscle soreness, blood flow, and aid in the release of hormones.
A whole-body vibration training plate is essentially just a platform that vibrates at a specific frequency. According to a study published in the Journal of Sports and Medicine, the most effective frequency for most people is a constant vibration at 60 Hz.
The paper's author concluded "The observed findings suggest that myoelectric activity increases both with the amplitude and frequency (being the strongest at the frequency of 60 Hz and the 4 mm amplitude). Therefore, high frequencies and amplitudes might be recommended for trainers, fitness instructors and physiotherapists to improve the effectiveness of their training and rehabilitation programs involving vibration platforms."
Does vibration training increase circulation?
If you read my recent article about Pneumatic Compression Boots, you may recall that I pressed the scientist I interviewed when it came to the claims of increased circulation in a population with no proper circulatory issues (i.e., you fit folks out there). Well, I have the same question and issue with vibration platforms.
When you hear people make claims that WBVT increases circulation, they often cite a study that was done on forty-two elderly nursing home volunteers. The study showed that "The intervention group had significantly greater improvements from baseline on 8 of 9 items on the Short Form Survey compared with the control group." But these study participants had previously been assessed as being "at risk of falls," not people who just completed a CrossFit workout. So while the evidence is clear that vibration can help sedentary, elderly individuals—which is great!—I'm not convinced it's helpful for athletes.
Does vibration training help with balance and proprioception?
The science around this is once again, in my opinion, conjecture. A qualitative analysis was performed on five studies with a total of 71 subjects. It's true that some of the studies showed significant improvements in muscle strength, functional mobility, and of the timed get-up-and-go test. But the subjects of these studies had Multiple Sclerosis (MS), a dastardly, progressive, immune-mediated disorder that causes the body to mistakenly attack parts of itself that are vital to everyday function.
So, while the analysis of the findings in these studies allowed the authors of the paper to conclude that "WBV exercises could benefit patients with MS," there isn't a lot of evidence it will work the rest of the population.
Does WBVT increase bone density?
Aside from the human study I mentioned earlier, done on a poor lonely cosmonaut, there have been others who hoped to determine whether vibration could aid in increasing (or preventing a decrease in) bone density.
One Eqyptian study did indeed conclude that "Whole-body vibration may be an effective modality in improving Bone Mineral Density and functional capacity." But that study was done on children with β-thalassemia major which is a blood disorder that reduces the production of hemoglobin.
More recently, a contradictory study of post-menopausal women concluded: "WBV therapy at 30- or 90-Hz for 12 months had no significant effects on myotendinous density or volume at the distal tibia ... in postmenopausal women."
Yet another recent study investigated the effects of 10 weeks of whole-body vibration training on the bone density of 15 "well-trained road cyclists" who, due to the bike supporting their body weight, are known for bone density issues later in their careers. At the end of the study, the vibration-training group displayed a significantly greater increase in hip bone mineral density while the control group displayed no change.
I think this paper from 2018 sums it up well, concluding: "WBV interventions seem to help children and adolescents with compromised bone mass to increase their Bone Mineral Density, but these improvements are limited in postmenopausal women, and there is insufficient evidence for young adults. Further research is also needed to identify the ideal parameters of WBV training focused on bone health." Which I interpret as "it works for some people, but not all."
Does whole-body vibration increase strength?
According to a study comparing WBVT to conventional training, WBV produces a similar level of strength gains after six weeks. The authors of this paper concluded "WBV, and the reflexive muscle contraction it provokes, has the potential to induce strength gain in knee extensors of previously untrained females to the same extent as resistance training at moderate intensity."
In theory, this works through the augmentation of gravity. When we usually exercise, we use the formula Force = Mass x Acceleration. So if we increase either the mass (or the amount of weight we lift) or the acceleration (the speed we lift the weight), we will create more force and get a harder workout. With WBVT, the mass is your body, and the vibration is the acceleration.
On top of that, the WBV plate also uses gravity as another form of acceleration, which generates G-forces. So, WBVT incorporates more varieties of acceleration, which can make you strong.
Can WBVT enhance neural connections?
A really cool study that investigated the effects of whole-body vibrations on the mechanical behavior of human skeletal muscle did something unique. They started with six female volleyball players who all performed at a national level. Then, the researchers tested their maximal dynamic leg press using a slide machine with loads of 70, 90, 110, and 130 kg. After the testing, one leg from each woman was randomly assigned to the control treatment and the other to the experimental treatment (vibrations).
The subjects were then retested at the end of the treatment using the leg press and the results showed remarkable and statistically significant enhancement in average velocity, average force, and average power.
The velocity-force and power-force relationship shifted to the right after the treatment. This affirmed that the enhancement was caused by neural factors.
And this is where it gets cool, the velocity-force and power-force relationship shifted to the right after the treatment. This affirmed that the enhancement was caused by neural factors—new connections between the brain and the muscles—because the athletes were well accustomed to the leg press exercise, so the learning effect was minimized.
Does WBV benefit hormones?
One of the most promising elements of WBVT appears to be in helping to increase testosterone and growth hormone (GH). One study showed that after 10 x 60 seconds on a WBV platform, with a 60 seconds rest between the vibration sets, subjects saw a seven percent increase in testosterone, a 27 percent decrease in cortisol (the stress hormone), and a 460 percent increase in growth hormone.
Another study looked into how WBV reduces plasma glucose. The researchers of this study concluded "These results demonstrate that vibration exercise transiently reduces plasma glucose, possibly by increasing glucose utilization by contracting muscles." Incidentally, that's the same way any sufficiently hard exercise or movement would reduce blood sugar. Jus' sayin'.
The study authors went on to say that "this type of exercise is not expected to reduce fat mass in obese subjects." So although the vibration was decreasing the circulating blood sugars, it is not a magic way to stand still and shed body fat.
Does vibration training enhance endurance?
There are a few studies that have looked into using vibration therapy for improving anaerobic performance in endurance athletes. These are my favourites.
A 2012 study investigated the effects of whole-body vibration training on aerobic and anaerobic cycling performance in 9 road cyclists over a 10-week intervention period. The volunteers were tested for lean body mass, cycling aerobic peak power, 4mM lactate concentration, VO2-max, and Wingate anaerobic peak and mean power output. Then the volunteers were divided into two groups—one that added vibration training to their regimen and one that didn't.
Although adding vibration training to their day resulted in a reduction in their overall cycling training, the vibrating group still maintained aerobic peak power and increased Wingate peak power by six percent.
A study titled Improvement in running economy after 8 weeks of whole-body vibration training took 24 male collegiate athletes and divided them into two groups. One performed vibration training in a half-squat position while the other performed only the half-squat position on stable ground. The researchers tested isometric maximal isometric force and rate of force development before and after the intervention as well as running economy at different velocities. They reported that maximal isometric plantarflexion force, maximal isometric dorsiflexion force, RFD of 0-200 milliseconds during plantar flexion and running economy were significantly increased in the vibration-training group after eight weeks.
The Get-Fit Guy verdict
Vibration platforms show a lot of promise if you have certain conditions or circumstances that limit your lifestyle. But if you aren't elderly, and you don't have MS or a blood disorder, need a large growth hormone boost, or live in a space station, the benefits are inconsistent and negligible.
But, the benefits aren't non-existent, which makes this a hard call for me to make.
So let me say this: the availability and cost of these platforms (upward of $1500) versus the potential benefits remain a deterrent. But if my gym or a friend were to purchase one suddenly, I wouldn't avoid it.
So, I say, If you have access to a WBVT platform, try using it as part of your warm-up or cool-down. Unless you're one of the unlucky people who shakes loose a cornea, I'm quite sure you'll get some type of benefit from it. Just don't count on it to help you win any races of bathing suit competitions.