Did you go a little too hard on that leg workout you streamed this weekend? Did you spend the next couple of days waddling around with sore limbs and avoiding stairs at all costs?
Enter percussive therapy devices, handheld massage guns — like Theragun, Hypervolt, and KraftGun — that use vibrational frequency (more on that below) to help relieve muscle tension and soreness, and accelerate recovery after those back-to-back at-home HIIT classes. You’ve probably seen them all over the social-media feeds of celebs from Ashley Graham to Khloe Kardashian. But do they work? We asked two physiotherapists for the low-down on percussive therapy devices and whether or not they’re worth using.
How does the Theragun work?
When you're practising your latest TikTok dance or clocking kms on the treadmill, working out causes lactic acid to build up in muscles and these muscles to micro-tear (making you stronger). In order to heal, they tighten and shorten together to form what’s known as cross-bridges, aka making everything hurt.
Percussive therapy devices, such as the Theragun, vibrate at a specific frequency and amplitude touted to help loosen these cross-bridges. “Think of it like trying to hold on for dear life on a rollercoaster, but the vibrations from the wheels make it really hard to maintain a grip on the bar so you eventually just let go,” says Kate Roddy, senior physiotherapist at the Toronto Athletic Club Sport Medicine Clinic. When the muscles "let go," it releases some of the soreness.
Massage guns have been around for a few years now, mostly used by athletes, but as weekend warrior culture has taken over, they’ve trickled down to the masses. Proponents of percussive therapy devices claim they can also boost blood flow, break up scar tissue, and increase collagen uptake. Still, the jury is out on their effectiveness. “A lot of the claims right now about percussive therapy are very broad because the research about its lasting effects is just not out there yet,” says Emma Jack, a sports physiotherapist in London, ON. Even Theragun’s website acknowledges the need for more formal research.
Does the Theragun work?
I tested one out on my quads after an intense spin class to see what all the fuss was about. At first it tickled, then it hurt a bit, but I eventually floated into a state of zen as I felt the gun kneading out some of the stiffness in my thighs. “It’s definitely a ‘hurts-so-good’ type of feeling,” agrees Jack. Still, I felt a bit sore the next day. Which is normal. While these guns can lessen symptoms of soreness, they won't eliminate it entirely.
Are massage guns safe to use at home?
I mean, it’s not rocket science, but you need to be somewhat careful. Rule of thumb, stick to using these devices on big bulky muscles, like thighs, calves, and your butt. Oh, and don’t massage through an entire episode of The Bachelorette. Roddy recommends using a Theragun anywhere from two to five minutes, or applying pressure for 30 seconds on a really sore and tight area, stretching the muscle for another 30 seconds, then repeating. “There’s no one recipe, but going beyond 10 minutes will probably result in muscle fatigue,” she says. “There’s a fine line between the body being attacked and it being healed.”
Should I spend money on a Theragun?
If you suffer from occasional muscles aches and are game to shell out a few hundred for one, then by all means. But keep in mind that percussive therapy devices aren’t Band-Aid solutions to chronic injuries or pain. “If you’re constantly buying Advil for a headache that doesn’t seem to be going away, is that good for you in the long run?” Roddy asks. “You want to actually assess what’s going on, then utilize all of your therapeutic approaches.” She suggests using a Theragun in combination with other forms of therapy, like stretching, physiotherapy, and foam rolling, the latter of which lengthens muscles to relieve tension.
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*This story was originally published on January 15, 2020, additional reporting was added.