Massage guns are more popular than ever. Celebrities, professional athletes and fitness influencers alike rave about their benefits. Can they help up your fitness game, too?
Here’s everything you need to know about when they help, who they might benefit, and how to use one if you decide to try it out.
What Is a Massage Gun and Why Use One?
Massage guns (sometimes called “percussive massage treatment” or “vibration therapy,” too) are portable, handheld devices that look like a power drill and in some cases, sound like one. They’re almost always wireless — most use a rechargeable battery — and they come with interchangeable attachments.
When the gun is placed on your muscles and turned on, the attachments vibrate or “percuss” at a high frequency and low amplitude of movement, which advocates claim promote recovery from workouts and improve overall performance while reducing soreness.
“You can use a massage gun whenever you’re looking to relieve some muscle tension, but it may be especially beneficial to use after a workout to promote recovery with reduced muscle soreness,” says Leada Malek, CSCS, a sports physical therapist in San Francisco who’s board-certified through the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialists.
While Malek says the evidence is scant to conclusively link training benefits with massage guns, there is research to support the two modes of therapy that behind the percussive massage treatment of massage guns. Those are massage, a treatment that your muscles being kneaded and manipulated by another person, and vibration therapy, which involves placing a vibrating device on certain parts of your body.
“Massage can reduce tension in muscles and impact flexibility, reducing muscle stiffness, increasing blood flow, and decreasing muscle soreness,” Malek says. And there is some evidence that vibration therapy can have the same effect as massage therapy in terms of limiting delayed onset muscle soreness (the tightness and achiness you feel a day or two after a tough workout).
The Difference Between Massage Guns, Foam Rollers, and Other Muscle Recovery Options
“Massage guns do similar things as massage, but the way they go about it is different,” Malek says. So they’ll offer a similar effect as foam rolling and massage. Which you choose may depend on personal preference.
Foam rolling uses myofascial release to decrease muscle tension. Fascia is the connective tissue that surrounds muscles, blood vessels and nerves. For various reasons, fascia can get tight, even inflamed, and when that happens, your ability to move can be hampered. Yet the gentle to moderate sustained pressure you apply with a foam roller can help tight areas of the body relax or release, Malek says.
You might get similar effects by holding a massage gun to one area, but it doesn’t qualify as myofascial release because of its rapid, percussive nature, Malek says.
An advantage of the gun? It can target specific areas of the body better than a foam roller, especially those that are hard to reach, like the pectoral muscles in your chest, your biceps, and psoas muscles (which run from your low spine to the tops of the femur bones in your legs), says Brian Abarca, personal trainer certified through Passaic County Community College and owner of Abarca Fitness in Union City, New Jersey.
Static stretching, on the other hand, uses slow, sustained stretches on a muscle to promote relaxation and reduced feelings of muscle tightness, and like foam rolling, it has more research to support its benefits, Malek says.
For some people, stretching may be more relaxing because of the non percussive impact to the muscle, Malek says. And because you don’t need equipment, it’s more convenient.
How to Use a Massage Gun
You can use a massage gun whenever you want to relieve muscle tension, but it’s most commonly used before and after workouts. “For warmups, using a massage gun can reduce soreness or stiffness from workouts from the day or days prior and activate muscles before a session,” Abarca says.
According to Abarca, they’re recommended to be used within 48 hours following workout to help reduce soreness and improve recovery.
To use the gun effectively, find an area on your body that feels tight and start by moving the gun over the bulk of the muscle. “Add pressure as tolerated but not too aggressively,” Malek says. (Typically there’s a button or switch on the gun to increase pressure.) Stay in one spot for up to 15 seconds or sweep an area for two minutes. Some guns even have a monitor connected to an app to direct you how hard and how long to go.
Stay away from bony areas. And if you have an injury, check with a physical therapist before using a massage gun on it. Malek recommends avoiding going over any area of acute pain or injury, which can aggravate the issue.
If you feel more sore after using a massage gun, you’ve pushed too hard or too long.
“Remember that the goal is to relax and feel better, not suffer,” Malek says.
And if you have nerve sensitivity or deep vein thrombosis, or you’re pregnant, consult with your doctor before using a massage gun. Also, if you know you bruise easily, make sure the speed and attachment are suitable for your tolerance, Malek says.
What to Look for if You Decide to Buy a Massage Gun
Massage guns aren’t cheap. Top-of-the-line guns can cost several hundred dollars, which is why you should evaluate your purchase carefully. Search online for reviews to start, Malek says.
Because massage guns come in different sizes, consider your own comfort when it comes to how heavy and how large you want it to be, and which muscles you’ll want to use it on, Malek says.
Some come with adjustable heads and handles (making it easier to reach certain body parts). Think, too, if you want to take your device on the go; if so, mini massage guns might be an excellent option, as they can easily fit into a backpack.
No matter the size, check that the gun comes with different attachments to help you hit hard-to-reach or difficult spots, Abarca recommends. It should also have different settings so that you can choose more gentle or more intense percussive movements. And do pay attention to how loud or intense the gun is, as that will also affect your enjoyment.