Hypervolt, Theragun, Tim Tam—if you’re a fitness enthusiast you’ve probably heard about or seen these handheld massage devices at your gym or online. They combine vibration and massage to provide a tingling, tickling, awesome, or all of the above. feeling, depending on who you ask. So, what do they really do?
The short answer is: they’re too new for anyone to know. The makers of mini jackhammer-like devices like these claim benefits such as, “helps relieve muscle soreness and stiffness” and “improve muscle strength, flexibility, coordination and performance.” Yet, there are zero peer-reviewed studies on their websites about their devices.
You can’t go wrong with more proven, traditional recovery methods like yoga and static stretching, both of which are popular choices on Aaptiv. But, these massage guns are popping up everywhere, so they warrant a discussion.
In the scientific literature, treatment that applies vibration to a specific area of the body is called localized vibration, and there is promising research about that. But, the studies don’t use these muscle drills that you’ll find on NBA and NFL sidelines. Let’s take a look at what we do know about localized vibration for workout performance and recovery.
Vibration and Foam Rolling
Before the Theraguns and Hypervolts of the world, medical professionals were using things like body buffers, vibrating foam rollers, and vibrating massage balls to provide cutting edge treatment. A 2018 Journal of Sports Sciences study compared the effects of vibration rolling (VR), non-vibration foam rolling, and static stretching as part of a warmup for the lower body in young adults, and they found VR to be the most beneficial. The VR doubled the amount quadriceps muscle strength and increased balance by 1.8 fold compared to static stretching. Flexibility, strength, balance, and proprioception (muscle awareness) were similar between the VR and regular rolling groups.
A 2019 Journal of Sports Science and Medicine study compared the effects of VR and non-vibration rolling on recovery after exercise and found a couple of benefits for vibrating rolling. Specifically, VR resulted in short-term benefits in pain perception and increased hip joint range of motion. This study was actually done using the Hyperice vibrating roller, so time will tell until a study is published on the Hypervolt. According to a 2018 Journal of Sport Rehabilitation study, VR increases tolerance to pain in the quads and knee range of motion more than regular foam rolling or doing nothing at all. That’s the latest research on vibrating foam rollers, but what about studies on vibration using other devices?
Whole Body Vibration
Remember those infomercials on vibrating boards? Turns out, Power Plate and other whole body vibration (WBV) devices can speed up recovery from exercise and improve balance. One 2018 Journal of Athletic Training study on people with chronic ankle instability found that six weeks of balance training on a Bosu ball placed on a WBV trainer resulted in better performance on the Biodex Balance System compared to using a Bosu Ball on the floor. That’s right, put the Bosu on a vibration plate to really work those ankles.
According to a Journal of Clinical & Diagnostic Research review, vibration therapy may be an effective intervention as a treatment for delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), may enhance performance, and may help to prevent injuries. Researchers from Technol Health Care, based in Korea, used a vibrating chair to apply whole body vibration after exercise and observed recovery benefits in a 2017 study. The study participants walked at a 15 percent incline for 30 minutes, then rested in either a vibrating chair or a chair without vibration for 30 minutes. It turned out that the people with the vibration recovery decreased lactate levels (a biomarker for muscle fatigue) by 93 percent compared to 32 percent in the control group. They also had better heart rate recovery.
As with other recovery techniques, let’s also consider that there are a few studies that show no effect for WBV. For example, a 2015 Journal of Athletic Training study had women do four sets of single leg split squats until muscle failure during four separate workouts, then use WBV or do nothing to recover their DOMS. Researchers concluded that “the WBV treatment approach studied did not aid in alleviating DOMS after high-intensity exercise.” Another study in the Journal of Sport Rehabilitation found that “WBV was not effective in the recovery of lower-extremity fatigue in healthy young men.”
Vibration applied directly to muscles goes beyond recovery. Athletes are using it before workouts to lift more weight, do more reps, and build their muscular endurance. An International Journal of Sports Medicine study found that direct vibration to the biceps muscle increased force during a dumbbell biceps curl compared to just doing a biceps curl without vibration beforehand, although the amount was statistically insignificant.
In a 2017 European Journal of Applied Physiology study, 15 minutes of localized vibration therapy applied to the biceps after performing biceps exercises yielded positive benefits. “The localized vibration was able [to] reduce muscle pain, improve range of motion, and reduce a blood marker of muscle soreness,” says study author Darryl Cochrane, associate professor of sport and exercise at Massey University in New Zealand. “However, it was unable to accelerate the recovery of muscle strength. Therefore, localized vibration may assist post-exercise recovery, as it may make the athlete feel better, but from the current results it had a non-significant effect on isometric and concentric strength.”
Cochrane, who has done extensive research on vibration therapy, says localized vibration therapy is normally applied by an external device to a target area, structure, or muscle group. How localized vibration therapy works is similar to WBV in that it’s supposed to increase tolerance to pain allowing for better athletic performance, improved joint range of motion, relief from muscle tightness, and improved blood circulation.
“The physiological rationale for the improvement in range of motion (mobility) is that localized vibration may alter muscle pain threshold, in combination with a change in muscle stiffness that reduces muscle tension,” Cochrane says. “Similarly, localized vibration may provide a neurogenic effect to enhance muscle strength recovery. At this stage, it is difficult to pinpoint one mechanism as there could be many that are acting and require further investigation.”
A recent Journal of Canadian Chiropractic Association review of 21 studies of localized vibration probably sums up the effects of this emerging trend best: “The majority of the studies found that local vibration does seem to induce beneficial changes in outcome measures such as muscle activation, stimulation, muscle strength, muscle power, and joint flexibility/range of motion. With that said, the available literature is quite heterogeneous in terms of how local vibration therapy is applied.”
These devices aren’t for everyone since there are restrictions, such as wearing a pacemaker or being currently pregnant. Plus, not everyone likes the feeling of hundreds of percussions per minute hitting their muscles, even if they are perfectly healthy.
But, massage guns are having a moment, and they’re probably worth their pricey costs for fitness and medical professionals, athletic trainers, athletes, and physical therapists to use on others. For everyone else, handheld massagers are a wellness investment that seem to have more positives than negatives.