Percussive and vibration massagers are the latest among a neverending parade of recovery and performance fitness trends. But do they work? Vibe with Get-Fit Guy to find out.
When I first went after a runner I coach with my new Hypervolt percussive massager, she looked terrified. And rightfully so! It looks and sounds a lot like a power drill. So, when I walked toward her, grinning maniacally, brandishing this machine, she had every reason to think I'd lost my mind. But, as I explained to her, what looks and sounds like a power tool is actually a massage device that promises to do things like increase range of motion before a workout, prepare muscles for activity, and relieve delayed muscle soreness after a workout.
The popularity of these vibrating and percussing devices is hard to miss these days. I see constant ads for them in my social media feeds and in targeted browser ads alike. Slow-motion videos of fit-looking individuals pressing these devices into their quads, glutes, lats, and pecs causing mesmerizingly relaxing waves to cascade through their skin have been tempting me for months. So I finally gave in. And you know what? I like it!
The pseudoscience of recovery
If you've followed Get-Fit Guy over the years, you'd think I would have learned my lesson by now. Especially after reading the book Good to Go and interviewing its author, Christie Ashwandan about the hits and misses of the science of recovery. But what kind of coach and fitness writer would I be if I didn’t keep myself up to date with the latest tools?
Before I get into any of the science behind these power tools, vibrating balls, and rumble rollers, let me remind you of something that has come up a few times in the past (most recently in the episode about pneumatic compression pants): If something makes you feel better—and isn’t causing any harm—isn’t that enough?
After all, recovering from a hard workout is essentially about feeling ready to hit your next workout with vim and vigor. However that refresh happens—whether its from your most powerful recovery tool, sleep, or wearing inflatable pants, or vibrating the bejeebers out of your muscles with a crazy-looking device—it might not matter all that much if you have a ton of scientific literature to back up its effectiveness.
But luckily, we do have scientific evidence for the effectiveness of percussion and vibration massage. I'll get to that in a minute.
Are the percussion and vibration massager benefits worth the price tag?
Of course, the price of these devices might have some of you raising a skeptical eyebrow right now. I declared that if something helps, there's no reason not to go for it, despite what science may or may not say. But that declaration came with a caveat—it's all well and good as long as that product isn't causing any harm.
Given the cost, it's important to find out if these devices are really worth the investment.
Well, one could argue that the cost of these massagers could cause harm ... to your bank account. A device called the Theragun Pro goes for about $500 USD. The Hypervolt (the one I have) sells for about $350. The vibrating foam rollers go for about $200 and the Hypersphere mini vibrating therapy ball (which I also have) sells for about $100.
So, yes, given the cost, it's important to find out if these devices are really worth the investment.
What does percussion massage do?
All of the devices I've mentioned so far do what is known as percussive or vibration therapy. This type of therapy applies rapid bursts of pressure into your muscle tissue, transmitted to your skin through specific frequencies of vibration. In the power drill looking version, the rapid pressure is transmitted to your skin via a shaft extending and retracting very quickly in and out of the device. The end of the shaft has a variety of attachments—round, flat, and pointy.
In the vibration balls and rollers, the mechanism of action is more akin to your phone on vibration mode, but turned up to eleven! These things vibrate like crazy, and when you apply them to just the right spot in a muscle group, you can really feel it. The phrase "hurts so good" comes to mind.
The original idea for these devices likely came from manual massage therapy. Massage therapists traditionally use a series of light-to-moderate thumps from their hands or fists on a muscle group to get this type of effect. The beauty of the massage guns is that they allow us to get the same therapy at home and also at a velocity, frequency, and amplitude far beyond what a human is capable of.
Non-vibrating or percussing myofascial massaging tools, foam rollers, Kinesio balls, and massage sticks can do a similar job, but these new massage guns can target a specific problem area far more effectively. While some people claim they find these percussion devices easier to use than the more traditional home massage tools, in my experience, they all come with their advantages and drawbacks. For example, I find it much easier to Hypervolt my shins and calves but I have yet to figure out how to target my shoulder blades as well as I can with a foam roller. So I haven’t forsaken my good old rollers quite yet.
When do you use percussion massage?
According to the instruction booklets and scientific studies, there seem to be three distinct times to use percussion therapy: before exercise, during, and after. Each has its purpose and superpower.
- Before exercise. Prior to workouts or physical activity, massage your specific muscle groups for up to 30 seconds to activate (wake up) your muscles.
- During exercise. You can reactivate muscle groups during a workout or physical activity by massaging them for 10-15 seconds.
- After exercise. Use the device for up to two minutes per muscle group for recovery and to decrease soreness, tightness or spasm.
Depending on the result you're after, it's recommended that you use percussive or vibration therapy for a minimum of 15 seconds and a maximum of 2 minutes per muscle group. A full-body percussion session can be about 15 minutes long and you can percuss yourself two or three times per day if you're so inclined.
Do percussion massage devices work?
As this form of home therapy has become more and more popular, it is not surprising that there are more and more studies being released about both the benefits and the limitations.
A study called Vibration Therapy in Management of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness concluded that vibration therapy and manual (human) massage were equally effective in preventing DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). So, although there was no “winner” in this study, this conclusion would indicate that if your lifestyle doesn't allow for trips to the massage therapist after every heavy workout, a Hypervolt would be just as good.
Another (unpublished) study done at Brigham Young University Hawaii, which was partially funded by the company who makes the Hpervolt device, found that both DOMs after exercise and range of motion during exercise were aided by percussive massage therapy. I have to admit, the range of motion parts of this and other studies really piqued my interest. Before I read this, I had been narrow-mindedly focusing on these devices as a recovery tool only. Actually, using them during a workout is pretty cool!
Another study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences called Comparison of vibration rolling, nonvibration rolling, and static stretching as a warm-up exercise on flexibility, joint proprioception, muscle strength, and balance in young adults confirmed that percussion and vibration massage was promising in pre-activity routines. They concluded that “athletic professionals may take Vibrating Rolling into account for designing a more efficient and effective pre-performance routine to improve exercise performances. Vibrating Rolling has high potential to translate into an on-field practical application.” I take that to mean that we should start watching the sidelines at football and basketball games for these devices.
And finally, a Swedish massage technique called Tapotement, which follows the same principle as these devices, has also been shown to improve athletes' overall range of motion and performance after a five-minute treatment. Tapotement is a specific technique of rhythmic percussion, most frequently administered with the edge of the hand, a cupped hand or the tips of the fingers. Think gentle karate chops to your muscle groups.
So, whether you want to use a vibrating ball before physical activity, roll a muscle group out on a vibrating foam roller between sets at the gym, or pummel yourself with a power-tool-like device after the race is over, there is some scientific evidence that it's at least as effective as a real massage and plenty of anecdotal evidence that it just plain feels good.