- A massage gun is a handheld electronic device that pushes a small rubber or foam attachment back and forth to rub, compress, and jiggle your muscles.
- Although massage guns may slightly reduce muscle soreness, there’s no scientific evidence they significantly improve performance or mobility or reduce the risk of injury.
- Keep reading to learn how massage guns work, what massage guns will and won’t do for you, and the best massage guns for any budget.
Muscle recovery nostrums are an evergreen fad in the fitness industry.
Fancy foam rollers, special kinds of stretching, overpriced medical tape, CBD oil, and gimcrack supplements are all à la mode.
If you stay up to date on these sorts of things, you’ve probably seen one of the latest recovery trinkets: massage guns.
Although massage guns have existed for about a decade, they’ve become popular recently thanks to stylish new branding, celebrity endorsements, and aggressive marketing.
And you’ve probably wondered, are they worth it?
Massage gun advocates claim these devices replicate the benefits of traditional massage therapy: soothing sore muscles and boosting blood flow, recovery, flexibility, and mood.
Skeptics claim massage guns are no more effective than regular massage and not much if any better than cheaper alternatives like a foam roller or lacrosse ball.
What does science have to say about all this?
Can massage guns boost muscle recovery and provide other benefits, or are they just an extravagant gimmick?
You’ll learn the answers to these questions in this article, but first, let’s take a closer look at what a massage gun actually is.
What Is a Massage Gun?
Massage guns have just a few parts: a handle which contains the motor, battery, and other electronic components, and an attachment, which is a piece of soft plastic or foam that vibrates and/or reciprocates, depending on the model and settings.
To use a massage gun, you place the attachment on your skin and turn it on. The motor moves the attachment in either a circular or back-and-forth motion to massage your body. You can change the vibration speed of most massage guns and swap out differently-shaped attachments such as balls, ovals, or spikes to fine-tune the massage to your liking.
Basically, massage guns just replicate what a massage therapist does—rubbing, compressing, and jiggling different tissues. The difference, of course, is that you can use them to massage yourself, whenever you want, in the comfort of your own home, without paying by the hour.
Summary: Massage guns are handheld electronic tools that use a small motor to move a soft plastic or foam attachment back and forth or side to side, which you can use to rub, compress, and jiggle different parts of your body.
Why Do People Use Massage Guns?
Just like regular massage therapy, people use massage guns for many different reasons.
If you look at a few of the websites from massage gun manufacturers, though, they primarily tout the following benefits . . .
- Increased recovery after exercise by improving blood flow and reducing inflammation.
- Reduced delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) after long and intense workouts.
- Improved muscle relaxation to increase mobility and lower stress.
Then, of course, many people use massage guns simply because they find them relaxing and enjoyable.
Summary: Massage gun manufacturers claim their products increase recovery from exercise, reduce muscle soreness, and improve mobility.
What Are the Benefits of Massage Guns?
Despite the hype, only a handful of studies have directly tested the benefits of massage guns.
The first was conducted by scientists at the University of Rouen, which investigated how massage guns affected DOMS in athletes. As you’ve probably experienced yourself, DOMS is not only uncomfortable but can also change your posture and biomechanics, which can negatively impact your athletic performance (think hobbling along on sore legs during a run).
In this study, the researchers had thirty professional futsal players complete a series of tests to measure their posture, balance, and perceived muscle soreness, and took several blood samples to measure markers of muscle damage.
Then, they had the athletes complete a workout designed to cause as much muscle damage (and thus soreness) as possible, which involved 5 sets of 15 eccentric (lowering) leg extensions, with a 30-second rest between each set.
Next, the researchers divided the athletes into two groups:
- A massage gun group, which received 15 minutes of massage gun therapy immediately after the workout and again 24 and 48 hours later.
- A control group, which didn’t receive any massage gun therapy.
Then, the researchers had the athletes take all of the same tests at the following times:
- One day after the workout (24 hours later)
- Two days after the workout (48 hours later)
- Three days after the workout (72 hours later)
The researchers found that the massage gun group experienced 33% less DOMS than the control group after 24 hours, 43% less after 48 hours, and 50% less after 72 hours.
They also found that the control group experienced significant changes in their posture and biomechanics that could affect their workout performance, whereas the massage gun group didn’t.
Another study conducted by scientists at Massey University on 13 physically active men found similar results after a strenuous biceps workout. In this case, the participants received 15 minutes of massage therapy using a Booster Massage Gun immediately after the workout and again 1, 2, and 3 days later.
The researchers also used a clever study design where the participants served as their own controls. The exact protocols are more complicated than we need to get into in this article, but the long story short is that the participants trained both biceps, then received massage therapy on either their right or left biceps.
Then, they repeated the same process two weeks later, but switched arms—if they received massage therapy on their right arm the first time, they received it on their left the second time.
Before and after each workout, the researchers measured the participants’ biceps soreness, range of motion, and strength, and their blood levels of creatine kinase (a marker of muscle damage).
They found that after 1 day, massage therapy only caused a small decrease in muscle soreness, but there was a significant decrease at the 2- and 3-day mark. Massage therapy also cut creatine kinase levels in half and doubled range of motion three days after the workout.
Despite this, the participants weren’t any stronger when they received massage therapy, so it doesn’t seem like these benefits translated into better performance.
Before you get too excited about these results, you should know that both of these studies had relatively small sample sizes (30 and 13 people, respectively) and only lasted for three days, and it’s possible that larger and longer studies could produce less impressive findings. Plus, only one of them was really on massage guns. That said, the results were still positive on the whole.
While research on massage guns is sparse, there is research on massage therapies that work similarly to massage guns, which can give us a better idea as to whether these devices work as advertised.
In massage therapist lingo, massage guns use a technique called tapotement (tap-oat-ment, a tapping movement), which research shows has some merit. For example, a 2011 undergraduate dissertation by a student at Cardiff Metropolitan University found that 5 minutes of tapotement therapy provided by a sports massage therapist significantly improved agility in athletes compared with passive rest for the same amount of time.
In this case, two minutes of manual tapotement was more effective than five minutes, which suggests there’s probably some kind of goldilocks zone when it comes to massage therapy. That is, more isn’t necessarily better—you want to do enough to get the benefits you’re after, but not much more (and this probably applies to massage guns as well).
If massage guns do offer some benefits, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what to attribute these to. Is it the vibration? The back-and-forth motion? The pressure?
Scientists at the Universidad Católica de Valencia San Vicente Mártir tried to answer this question in a study of 24 recreationally active adults.
After warming up, the participants completed lunges until they gave up (till muscle failure, basically). Then, the researchers split them into three groups and had them follow one of the following protocols after the workout:
- Foam rolling, where they rolled their sore leg muscles with a regular foam roller for 2 minutes with a 30-second break in between each bout of rolling.
- Vibration foam rolling, where they rolled their sore leg muscles with a vibrating foam roller for 2 minutes with a 30-second break in between each bout of rolling.
- No foam rolling, where they didn’t do any kind of recovery treatment.
Then, everyone completed the same workout on two more occasions, except the researchers reshuffled the groups so that every participant tried either foam rolling, vibration foam rolling, or no foam rolling once.
The researchers measured the participants’ ankle range of motion and stability before and after each workout, and found that both kinds of foam rolling improved range of motion and stability more than no foam rolling.
That said, vibration foam rolling wasn’t any better than regular foam rolling, which suggests that vibration probably isn’t that helpful for muscle recovery in and of itself. That is, the benefits of massage guns may have more to do with the pressure and general “massaginess” of the therapy, rather than the vibration, per se.
So, where does that leave us?
Unfortunately, one overarching problem with all research on massage guns and massage therapy in general, is that it’s almost impossible to tell whether they work simply by making the person feel better, or through real physiological changes.
This matters, because as you learned a moment ago, sometimes simply feeling better doesn’t actually translate into better performance (if your muscles are damaged, you’ll still probably perform poorly even if massage makes you temporarily feel better).
Another challenge in deciding whether or not massage gun therapy is right for you is that many manufacturers, “influencers,” and even customers share pseudoscientific rationalizations for why massage guns work.
For example, you’ll often see people claim that massage guns prevent injuries by boosting blood flow and loosening tight muscles, none of which is supported by research. There’s also very little evidence that massage or massage guns improve blood flow, or that tight muscles cause injuries.
Now, none of this is to say that massage guns are useless. If you enjoy using them and they make you feel better, then by all means, continue. Just don’t expect them to be a panacea or “hack” for protecting you against injury or supercharging your recovery abilities.
Summary: Although a handful of small studies have shown massage gun therapy may slightly reduce muscle soreness, there’s no evidence they significantly boost performance or mobility or reduce the risk of injury.
Should You Get a Massage Gun?
Massage gun therapy is probably about as effective as getting a traditional massage, although you also won’t be able to replicate some massage techniques like effleurage (circular stroking movements) and petrissage (kneading movements).
What’s more, one of the main reasons many people enjoy massages is the relaxing atmosphere and personal touch (harhar), which you won’t get from a massage gun.
That said, massage guns beat traditional massage when it comes to convenience and cost-effectiveness. You can do it anywhere, anytime, and without having to book a massage therapist or go to a salon.
They’re certainly not a “must-have” tool, but if you’ve got the money and are looking for a more convenient alternative to traditional massages, they’re a good choice.
If you do want to get one, keep reading to learn how to choose the best one for you.
Summary: Massage guns are not a “must have” fitness tool, but they are a cost-effective and convenient alternative to traditional massage therapy.
The Best Massage Guns for Any Budget
Massage guns range from about $155 to $450, depending on what features you want.
Different model have about 6 to 24 hours of battery life, 4 to 8 attachments, and up to 30 speeds. The main difference between cheaper and more expensive models is the strength of the motor (how hard the little reciprocating arm can push before it stall to a complete stop), the durability, and the noise as well as some extra features like handling, user experience, weight, user protection mechanism.
Nicer models tend to have stronger motors, last longer, and tend to be much quieter than cheaper ones. Then, of course, pricier massage guns also tend to have a better fit and finish.
Here are a few models worth considering, ranging from cheapest to most expensive:
How to Use a Massage Gun to Get the Best Results
There’s no “right” way to use a massage gun—just play with different settings, speeds, attachments and massage schedules until you find one that floats your boat.
As you learned a moment ago, there’s also very little research on how to use massage guns, so if something works for you, do it.
That said, here are a few common sense tips that might help you get better results:
- Don’t force the massage gun into your muscles. Instead, place it on your skin and move it around using slow, smooth motions.
- Aim to use the massage gun for 1 to 2 minutes on larger muscle groups and 30 seconds to 1 minute for smaller ones (more isn’t better).
- Don’t use a massage gun immediately post-workout, as this could exacerbate delayed-onset muscle soreness. Give your muscles a few hours to cool down before you start jiggling and jabbing them.
Most importantly, don’t make the mistake of thinking that using a massage gun means you can ignore the tried-and-true principles of proper training and workout recovery:
- Always gradually increase the volume, intensity, and frequency of your workouts
- Learn and practice proper weightlifting technique
- Complete a sufficient warm up before training
- Eat enough calories and protein
- Get enough sleep
The Bottom Line on Massage Guns
Massage guns are handheld electronic tools that use a small motor to move a soft plastic or foam attachment back and forth or side to side, which you can use to rub, compress, and jiggle different parts of your body—similar to what you’d get from traditional massage therapy.
Although massage gun manufacturers claim their products increase recovery from exercise, reduce muscle soreness, and improve mobility, there’s very little evidence any of this is true.
Instead, a few small studies have shown that massage guns can slightly reduce muscle soreness and improve range of motion after particularly tough workouts. What’s more, most studies have also shown that massage guns (and massage therapy in general) doesn’t boost athletic performance.
What massage guns do well, though, is help people feel better, which is the main reason most people use them anyway. And even if there isn’t much scientific evidence to back massage gun therapy, if you enjoy it, there’s no reason not to do it.
Just don’t buy the marketing boilerplate you see about preventing injuries or helping you bounce back from workouts like Wolverine.
If you do decide to get a massage gun, here are four worth buying: