What is Percussion Massage: The Benefits of a Massage Gun Explained

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If you do any kind of activity – and talk about it on social media – chances are at some point the magic algorithm will have done its thing and you will have been shown an advert for a massage gun – leading you to wonder if you need one. We’re here to help explain what this type of therapy (known as percussive therapy or percussion massage) is – and the benefits of a massage gun, so you can decide.

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What is Percussion Massage?

It’s a type of massage technique, also known as percussion therapy or percussive therapy, that uses vibration to give a deep tissue massage to the muscles and tissues. This stimulation causes a few reactions in the body which help speed up recovery after exercise and may play a role in reducing pain or helping sore muscles.

How fast, and in what form that vibration occurs depends on the implement you use to carry it out. You can do percussion massage with your hands – and it is used for this in the treatment of some lung diseases – but when it comes to fitness, the most common way that percussive therapy is carried out is via massage guns that can be used at home or at the gym, before or after your workout.

To do it, you simply put the knobbly bit at the end of the gun onto the area you which to work and switch it on. Don’t push, don’t press just gently glide it around the area for a minute or two and, job done.

What Does a Massage Gun Do?

‘They use vibration (side to side wiggling), percussion (back and forth hammering) or both to manipulate your soft tissue – skin, fat, muscle, tendon etc,’ explains London-based physiotherapist Nell Mead. ‘Different guns use slightly different mechanisms. The idea is that using a gun should work in a similar way to a massage, but the vibrations are much faster movement than a therapist’s hands could ever produce.’

The speed and intensity of a massage gun is determined by the Hertz it uses, each Hertz is how many times per second the gun will hit the skin – most are between 22-40 Hertz which means you’re looking at stimulation of 22-40 times per second. See, there’s no masseuse on earth that could manage that!

‘There are various theories as to what the effects of percussion, and massage gun benefits, are on the body. The manufacturers claim that they increase blood flow to the muscles which helps with recovery after exercise but I think the main benefit is that it tells your brain where the tension is, and therefore which muscles it should try to relax,’ says Nell Mead. ‘They also overstimulate your pain receptors until they effectively switch off which is why they have the potential to help reduce discomfort.’

It’s also said that because of this pain release mechanism, you can use a massage gun more deeply, or in areas that might perhaps be a bit painful, when massaged by human hands. Although, you do have to get the balance right between treating an area and overloading it.

What Are They Best Used For?

‘If massage would help, then a massage gun probably will too,’ says Nell.

You can use them before exercise to help warm up the muscles, or, most commonly they are used after a work out to promote faster recovery.

The most common use is to help reduce DOMs – delayed onset muscle soreness – which happens after a heavy workout.

DOMs is a natural reaction. It’s caused by a build up of lactic acid in the muscles, the damage that exercise causes to the muscles (that is how they build and get stronger) and the inflammatory reaction your body sends to help with the repair of that.

The theory is that increased blood flow and reduced sensation of pain help minimise DOMs.

Another use is pain reduction. Many of the aches and pains we experience are caused when muscles get tense and strained, usually because of overwork. By relaxing the muscles massage guns can help prevent those feelings of tension.

‘They’re also good for temporary pain relief so you can work on faster recovery,’ says Nell. ‘I used mine last year, a few days after I strained my calf.

Before I used it, my calf flexibility was reduced, and so was my ability to do a calf raise (go up on my toes). After I used it on my calf in the painful area, my flexibility increased to normal levels, and my strength and endurance for calf raises also improved – I was able to do more before I couldn’t continue.’

Lastly, massage guns are a good adjunct to your stretching routine. Using the gun before you stretch helps relax the muscle which its said extends the stretch further – obviously, there are some people (like those with hypermobility) that might not want to over extend their stretch so, just bear that in mind.

Who Shouldn’t Use a Massage Gun?

There’s a few general groups who probably shouldn’t try it without professional advice and they include those on blood thinning medication, those with diabetes, those with heart disease or vascular disease (including varicose veins) or those that are pregnant.

It’s possibly also not the best idea if you have osteoporosis or osteopenia. While it’s true that vibration treatment is used to help strengthen bone – as it triggers the production of bone-building cells called osteoblasts, it’s not a therapy that should be tried without advice. Definitely speak to your doctor before trying it of you have any concerns about bone density.

Where Shouldn’t You Use a Massage Gun

There are also some areas you might not want to treat with a gun at home.

‘You wouldn’t want to massage over an area that had just been damaged (eg an acute muscle or ligament sprain), or over an inflamed bursa, or over a damaged bone (in fact over any bone, as it just hurts and doesn’t achieve anything). I also don’t like using it on my neck as I find the vibration gives me a headache,’ says Nell.

It’s obviously also not a good idea if there’s any suggestion that a break or fracture might be causing the pain

‘And if you have reduced sensation – eg nerve damage – then it may be best to avoid the damaged area as it is possible to overdo things with a massage gun, so you need to be aware of what you’re doing,’ says Nell.

There are also some muscles that may not like the intensity of a massage gun. One such creature is the piriformis – a muscle that is currently the bane of my life.

This runs through the middle of your butt and, if your glutes are weak it takes over some of their work. The problem with the piriformis is that it doesn’t know it’s own strength, it tries to do too much and when it does it gets angry and leads to hip and back pain – stimulating the muscle for too long has the same effect, so, be a bit careful if you have piriformis, hip or back issues.

If you do have any specific aches and pains, best have a chat to your physio before using a massage gun so you can check it’s the best option and know of any areas to avoid.

What to Look For in a Massage Gun

Intensity

Different guns work at different intensities and there’s two numbers to look at here.

PPM (or RPM) that’s the amount of times per minute the gun ‘hits’ the skin – it’s basically the Hertz number rounded up to minutes. The higher this is the faster it will go and the more intense the massage. It’s good to pick a gun that has a few different speed settings so you can adjust to different parts of the body, how you feel that day and also the fact that as you get used to how the gun feels you might want to amp things up a bit.

You’ll also see a mm measurement – that’s how deep the ‘punch; of the gun goes.

If you have a deeper punching gun, and a low pain threshold, then you might find you can’t use the gun for as long as one with a shorter punch. IF you’re doing serious CrossFit five times a week, you might want to get deeper into the muscles.

As far as I can find online there’s no independent comparison studies that says which Hertz or millimeter gives the best results so there’s no prescription for the perfect gun, so, you might want to go to an actual shop (I know, exciting eh) to get a feel for what the different numbers feel like and which you think you’d prefer.

How Noisy Is It?

The old guns sounded like power tools and there’s no point reducing pain in your muscles if you end up with one in your head. Check how loud the device is when it’s switched on.

How Heavy

If it’s too heavy you’re going to tire using it, especially if you have to hold it in an unusual position like trying to work on a shoulder, and it’ll end up in the cupboard with all the other gadgets that seemed like a good idea at the time.

Attachments

Does it easily reach where you want to massage. If you’ve got particularly tight muscles you might find it harder to twist to use the gun and one with a longer or rotating head might be a better option for you.

If you want to target specific areas, make sure the gun you choose has the best attachement for the job. Generally ball-shaped heads work for big muscle groups, U-shaped ones are goods for backs and shoulders, smaller ones are if you want to really get deep into a muscle (I don’t understand you people!)

Battery Life

How long can you use it for before you have to recharge it? Trying to work a gun around a power cord is just annoying.

Best Massage Gun Brands

In the last couple of years the massage gun market has exploded (no pun intended) and there are hundreds of models out there with prices ranging from tens to hundreds of dollars/pounds. As such it can be really hard to decide what to buy and who from – but these are three of the most established and respected brands to look at …

Hyperice

Their entry level product is the Hypervolt. It weighs just 1kg and has five different head attachments and three different speeds – the highest is 3200 per minute.

Hypervolt is also one of the few products where I can find an independent published study using the actual product (rather than talking about general studies on the benefits of percussion type therapy) and it showed that people using it did increase flexibility

Check out more details and prices of the Hypervolt here.

Therabody

Their brand, Theragun is probably the best known brand in the market, they have a wide range. Their most basic product the Mini has three speed settings but few other bells and whistles but might be a good starting point if you’re not sure if a massage gun is for you. See more about the Theragun mini here.

Or, try the Prime model which is entry level but has five different intensity settings and four different heads. See mroe about the Prime here.

They also have more professional models if you want more features – and are happy to part with a bit more cash. The Theragun Pro G4 has come out top in most of the testings we’ve read.

Recovapro

This brand is big in the UK and the Recovapro SE scored highly on a testing by Women’s Running magazine who liked it because of hte variety of pressure settings – and the different attachments it offers. See more about the SE here.

Massage Guns Vs Foam Rolling

If you do spend time and attention on a recovery routine you might have been using a foam roller after your workout to stretch out the muscles and be wondering whether using a massage gun is better than using a foam roller.

‘There’s very little solid research out there comparing the two,’ says Nell Mead. ‘Like a foam roller, the gun presses into the soft tissue. The difference is that it can be more targeted (because the head is smaller) so you can get into smaller areas such as the groin or the back of the hip joints, and that it’s easier to change the depth of treatment – you can go more gently with a gun by reducing the pressure, whereas with a roller you’re using your bodyweight, so it’s easier to be more accurate and sensitive.

I think there is likely to be more of a painkilling response with the gun as well, because of the vibration of the head, which you can’t get with a foam roller, and which will give faster results.

I also find it’s easier to relax with a gun than with a roller, which should make it more effective – it’s difficult and inefficient to get deep into a muscle that’s not relaxed!’

How to Get Most Benefits of A Massage Gun

‘The first tip is to get your anatomy book out,’ says Nell. ‘You really need to focus our efforts on some cells called the Golgi Tendon Organs. They sit (mostly) in the musculotendinous junction between the tendon and the muscle. Their job is to react when you stretch, or otherwise threaten the area – think of them as threat receptors. The massage gun seems to be able to calm the Golgi Tendon Organs down, allowing you to stretch the muscle more easily.

The other tip is not to think of the massage gun as a passive treatment. It’s more effective if you don’t just release one muscle group – you should also then activate the antagonist group.

For example, a common pattern around the hip is that the muscles at the front (adductors and hip flexors) get tight and sore, while the muscles at the back (the glutes) get lazy. So I teach people to use the gun over the adductors and hip flexors, and then work on activating the glutes.

This “double whammy” seems to work much more effectively for hip pain than just doing the massage or just activating the glutes.

Take it gently. It can be a bit uncomfortable but it shouldn’t be painful.’

Don’t go mad. ‘If your goal is to reduce muscle tension and pain, then you don’t achieve that by triggering muscle tension and pain.

If you feel yourself tensing up as you use the gun, then you’re going in too hard – back off to the point where you’re able to process the discomfort and relax into it,’ says Nell.

Keep breathing. If you’ve ever had someone stretch out your muscles, you’ll know that they tend to ask you to inhale, and then slowly exale and it’s during the inhale that they work the muscle further so, keep breathing. Holding your breath will just create tension.

Are Massage Guns Worth the Money?

Even entry model massage gun comes with a three figure price tag and so, it’s not just a throwaway purchase so, is buying a massage gun worth it?

For this you need to ask yourself a few questions…

Would you be more likely to reach your goals if you could work out more often? And, is it muscle tightness or soreness that stops that happening – in which case, it might be a good investment.

Do you already have regular massages or physio treatments to release or stretch the muscles? Then a massage gun might help keep up the effects allowing you to leave longer between treatments – especially if you ask your normal therapist how best to target the area.

Do you have general aches and pains, or a specific problem? If it’s the latter, you might be better off speaking to a physiotherapist before spending a lot on a massage gun only to find it might aggravate your problem rather than help is

Are you hoping for a magic result like becoming bendier or stronger without stretching or strength training (because there’s no proof that they can do that – instead they just help you put in the work). Or, hoping for the removal of cellulite, weight loss or instant cure for back pain -in that case, no a massage gun probably isn’t worth it – and read on to find out why…

Can a Massage Gun Help Cellulite?

This is one of the most commonly asked questions about massage guns – probably because cellulite can be quite hard to get rid of.

The fact is that cellulite is fat – not toxins or any other theory you might have read. But what makes it different from fat elsewhere on the body is the pockets they are held in. In areas of cellulite, the bonds that hold the fat cells in place become thickened and tough which squishes the fat upwards – so, can massage guns help with this?

‘Not directly, but they can help to smooth the soft tissue over the fat cells, so although the massage won’t change the structure of the cellulite, it can sometimes help with the appearance,’ says Nell Mead.

The absolute best way to bust cellulite is to weight train – building the muscles in the area helps support the fat pockets which makes them less noticeable.

Can a Massage Gun Help Weight Loss?

Another very popular question but, unfortunately, you can’t massage away excess weight (otherwise I’d be carryng a massage gun everywhere like the fitness version of Wyatt Earp). ‘The only way I can think that a massage gun might help with weight loss is if you’re overweight because you can’t move easily,’ says Nell.

‘If a massage gun helps you to move more easily – and then you move more – then I can see that might help you.’

Can a Massage Gun Help Back Pain

‘Again, if you use massage guns as a purely passive treatment, then any effects will be very short term. However, if you use a massage gun to increase your flexibility and reduce your pain, and then take advantage of the extra flexibility and pain relief to train your glutes and abs, mobilise your spine etc (all the good exercises to help with back pain) then yes, I think they can definitely help.

So there you go , our explanation of what percussion massage is – and the benefits of massage guns that you might expect. But, do you have any more questions? If so, drop them in the comments and we’ll try and answer them. Or, do have favourite massage gun – let us know which one and why in the comments too.

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