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From race expos, to physical therapy offices, athletic training tables, and even drugstore shelves, percussive massagers seem to be popping up everywhere these days. With a wide range of styles, sizes, settings, and price points, navigating the ins and outs of what these massage guns are, how they work, and when and why they are should be used can be confusing. When used properly, though, percussive massagers are valuable tools for both pre- and post-training routines.
What are percussion massagers?
Percussive massagers, (or, more commonly, percussion or massage guns) are a handheld devices with an oscillating end that provides rapid-fire, jackhammer-like pulses of pressure to muscles. Percussion guns essentially provide a form of self-massage or myofascial release that’s more targeted and deeper than foam rolling or vibration plates. Characteristics of percussion guns include:
- Torque, which is much pressure is applied in pounds
- Frequency, which is how many percussions occur per second or minute, and
- Amplitude, which is the tissue depth that the percussive treatment can reach.
Percussion guns can come with a variety of attachments (or “heads”) aimed at different body parts and user comfort level. The science behind treatment is consistent across brands, but different price points can come with differences in overall quality, customization (including head shapes and treatment frequencies), and ease of use, including longevity. Percussion guns are commonly incorporated into warm up routines, post-workout recovery, and soft tissue treatments.
How do percussion massagers work?
Percussive massagers are proposed to relax tight muscles, improve myofascial mobility, increase range of motion, decrease pain and muscle soreness, and improve blood and lymphatic flow, thus assisting with both pre-workout readiness and post-workout recovery. Although specific research on percussion guns is still in its infancy, the mechanisms of action are thought to be similar to vibration and massage therapies, with a combination of mechanical and neuromuscular effects. Percussion guns aim to target both muscle and fascia. Fascia is a fibrous network of connective tissue that envelopes the body’s soft tissues, and plays roles in force transmission and reactivity. Adhesions or scarring in fascia lead to a loss of normal “slide and glide” of tissues, decreased mobility and range of motion, soft tissue “knots”, pain, dysfunction, and potentially injury. Myofascial release aims to counteract this by targeting restricted areas, traditionally through manual techniques, and restoring normal movement. Percussive massagers are considered to be a form of myofascial release without the need for a therapist.
Similar to some massage techniques and vibration therapy, from a neuromuscular perspective, percussion guns are also thought to alter spinal reflex activity without impacting muscle strength, allowing for increased range of motion without a loss of performance. This was seen to be the case in a study of ankle motion and muscle strength following several minutes of use over the calf muscles. While some research has suggested that vibration therapy may increase muscle activation when used prior to exercise, further investigation is needed to see if this applies to percussion guns.
Post-exercise, percussion therapy can decrease delayed-onset muscle soreness, pain, and perceptions of muscle stiffness. Percussion guns may even have the edge over other therapies, as they been found to improve muscle recovery values to greater degrees than foam rolling and vibration, and in less time (two minutes vs 15 minutes) than manual therapy.Improved local blood flow and lymphatic drainage also helps to clear waste products, leading to speedier recovery and happier legs.
What are percussion massagers used for?
It follows the above that percussion guns are useful tools both pre- and post-workout, as well as in rehabilitation settings. Because they can improve mobility and range of motion without negative impacts on muscle strength, percussion guns are a useful addition to a dynamic warm-up routine, helping the body settle into fluid motion more quickly. Athletes who are attempting to treat chronically tight, restricted areas should use them for myofascial release and neuromuscular benefits prior targeted rehabilitation or mobility work in order to maximize benefits. Take, for example, a tight calf-releasing soft tissue adhesions with a percussion gun prior to stretching is akin to untying the knot it a rope prior to yanking on the ends. Post-training, the demonstrated benefits of percussive therapy on soreness and pain makes them a useful adjunct to any recovery routine-and, let’s face it, they just feel good on tired muscles, so percuss away! With, of course, some impunity. Here’s what you need to know about using your new massage gun.
The 6 Don’ts of Using Your Percussion Massage Gun
Don’t use for too long.
The magic numbers to remember: no more than 2 minutes per muscle group prior to exercise, and 2-5 minutes post-exercise. While research has yet to establish an “ideal” amount of time for percussive massager use, clinical consensus tends to agree this is an adequate (but not excessive) amount of time to maximize benefits. We recommend setting a timer on your phone to make sure you stay within your set time frame.
Slowly cover the whole muscle in a relaxed state, paying special attention to any tight or tender areas. Different manufacturers do have different recommendations for how to move percussive massagers over various muscle groups (side-to-side, up-and-down) pre- and post-exercise, so refer to websites or apps for specifics. Post-exercise, though, typically a slow up-and-down motion, with pauses over particularly tight areas is recommended.
Don’t use directly over bony prominences, the front of the neck or abdomen, or acute injuries.
Percussion guns work on soft, contractile tissue. Use over bones, sensitive areas, vital organs, or already inflamed areas won’t just be ineffective, it will hurt. So stay off that kneecap, and definitely steer clear of fresh road rash.
Don’t use the same head attachment for every treatment area.
Select a head attachment that is appropriate for the treatment area and your comfort level.Different manufacturers may suggest specific attachments for various areas of the body, based on muscle size and characteristics. Ultimately, though, use your judgement as well, and select a head that’s comfortable.
Don’t assume high frequency is better.
Use a frequency and pressure that’s comfortable. Again, this is an area that needs further research for optimization, but percussion guns are manufactured to be within therapeutic frequency ranges across their speeds, so use what feels best.
Don’t overdo it.
Remember, exercise induces muscle damage. We want our recovery methods to promote recovery and not further damage muscle. Jackhammering a sore quad at full force won’t help. In an extreme case report, an episode of acute rhabdomyolysis following prolonged use of a percussion gun occurred in a cyclist. Very rarely in triathlon does excessive amounts of anything help, and this is one of them – so don’t smash your calves for an hour.
Don’t forget the rest of your recovery protocol.
Using a massage gun should be part of your recovery routine, but it shouldn’t be your only recovery modality. Don’t forget to pay attention to the foundational things like nutrition, sleep, and managing stress. And once in a while, swap out the massage gun for a human massage – it’s a good complement to your percussive-massage routine.
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Jennie Hansen is a physical therapist, Ironman champion, and USAT Level 1 triathlon coach with QT2 systems. Hansen has a background as a collegiate and professional runner, as well as a number of professional triathlon podiums. She has been in the sport for over a decade.