The Science Explained: Massage and Vibration Massage - Do they work?

One way I like to get my cardio workout is playing basketball. The time flies by faster than a 40 minute session on the stair master. Presently, I’m doing 5 low intensity steady state cardio sessions at 300 calories/session and I lift weights 5x/week. This year I’m doing my first physique competition so I’ve been meticulously sticking to my plan. Yesterday (May 16, 2019), I decided to switch it up and head to the basketball court to run some basic drills, take shots and chill until I burned 300 calories. But if you’ve ever gone to a basketball court, you know a chill shoot-around never happens and suddenly you’re the next in line for a 4v4 full-court pickup game. 45 minutes of high-intensity playing later, my legs are spasming like jack hammers. I can feel the soreness and jello in my quads the moment I slow down. The only time I don’t feel it is if I keep running. Normally, that’s not a big deal but because of my contest prep, all I could think was shit…I have deadlifts tommorow.

Fearing the next day’s soreness and stiffness, I pull out my Hyperice Hypervolt which is a vibration massage device for your muscle. Basically a foam roller on steroids. The purpose of foam rolling, massage and other types of soft tissue work/massage is to reduce soreness, relieve hypertonic muscles (aka “tight” muscles and restore natural range of motion through mechanical pressure. After 5 minutes of work on my quads, hamstrings and calves, I felt relieved and was able to get a nice sleep. No soreness the next day for deadlifts even though I haven’t played basketball in over 2 years. This was surprising. Muscle soreness or DOMS occurs due to a combination of microscopic tears in the muscle from an unfamiliar high-level work on the muscle and an accumulation of metabolites (byproducts of burning energy in the muscle for exercise). I thought to myself how strange and why wasn’t I as sore as I anticipated?

The hypervolt in action.

To be honest, I bought this $600 vibrator without doing any in-depth research, I was too lazy to foam roll and I saw Lebron using it mid-game. Totally fell for the marketing. As a result, I’ve been using the Hypervolt for 1 year on myself and clients. They love it! It looks badass* and anecdotally, I’ve seen improvements in my clients with tight hip flexors and kyphotic upper backs. Keep in mind, like any soft tissue work- it’s best when used in combination with specific stretches and appropriate exercise selection for the client.

*It’s been a great conversation starters/lead generator. Random gym members come up to ask me about how it works all the time. Existing clients love it because you’re investing in the best equipment for them and shows that you’re different from other trainers.

Anyways, looking cool is irrelevant to the true fitness professional. I’m here to produce results. I first went to youtube to see if anyone investigated the science of these products. There was nothing. And all of the articles on the science of vibration massage devices were by the manufacturers themselves so I didn’t even bother looking at those most likely biased reviews. I started digging out several peer-reviewed scientific journals that looked at percussive vibration massage versus other massage methods to see if there are benefits and if so, to what degree.

1) Does massage in general work?

In a 2017 meta-analysis, “Massage Alleviates Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness after Strenuous Exercise: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis” - two researchers looked at 11 different randomized controlled studies involving healthy humans that compared a massage treatment group with a control group. All 11 studies included looked at muscle pain/soreness rating, muscle strength and creatin kinase level (a byproduct that accumulates in muscle cell under strenuous exercise). All 11 studies equated to a sample of 504 participants and 23 data points. 8/11 of the articles used western massage techniques (light stroking and deep tissue). 3/11 of the articles used Chinese techniques (percussive, pushing, swinging, grasping).

The majority of the studies found that DOMS was reduced at 24H, 48H and 72H post exercise. Muscle strength immediately after intense exercise with massage intervention showed no significant difference compared to without massage. However, at 24H and 48H post-exercise, peak torque and isometric muscle strength were greater with the massage treatment groups. Creatin kinase levels showed no significant difference between massage and control groups immediately after exercise and 24H after. However, lower levels were shown at 48H and 72H for the massage group.

To summarize, massage works for the most part and it usually takes over 24H to notice the effects. It’s safe to say it accelerates recovery. Which is pretty amazing given the more work your body can handle, theoretically you can get bigger, stronger and faster quicker. Keep in mind, this meta-analysis included articles that used different massage techniques which is a potential limitation to interpreting results. It leads to the question: which techniques is better?

2) How does vibration massage stack up against western massage techniques?

In a 2014 paper, “To Compare the Effect of Vibration Therapy and Massage in Prevention of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)” , 45 healthy non athletic females (age range wasn’t specified) compared muscle soreness, range of motion (ROM), maximum isometric force (MIF), and Creatin Kinase (CK) levels between a 50Hz vibration 5 min massage, 15 minute traditional massage (stroking & pressing) and a control (no treatment) groups. For both treatment groups, the participants started in supine position where they received their respective massage treatments on the biceps. After massage treatment, they performed 30 eccentric dumbbell bicep curls with 45 seconds break in between each rep.

Example Eccentric DB Bicep Curl

SORENESS:

The findings of the study showed muscle soreness was induced but significantly less for vibration therapy and massage therapy compared to control groups 24 hours, 48 hours and 72 hours post-exercise. This was determined through a VAS scale which is a visual scale to help participants rate perceived level of muscle pain. Between vibration therapy and massage therapy, vibration shows faster recovery over 72 hours marked by a steady decrease in rating of perceived muscle pain.

Creatin kinase levels after application of 50HZ vibration before exercise showed less CK release in blood compared to the control group 48 hours post exercise which could also explain a lower VAS.

STRENGTH:

Maximal isometric force between massage, vibration and control groups showed no significant difference.

RANGE OF MOTION:

Participants showed no significant differences after treatment + pre-exercise and 24 hours post exercise. However, 48 hours and 72 hours showed improved ROM for both massage and vibration groups. One major limitation of the study is that the authors did not provide any tables outlining the degrees of differences or individual participant results. Therefore, I’m not able to safely say which treatment would improve range of motion greater. However, they did say vibration massage did restore range of motion sooner than traditional massage when comparing across 72H post-exercise.

Overall, you can’t go wrong with either massage or the hypervolt. The nice thing about the hypervolt is that you can use it whenever once you own it. The hypervolt has 3 vibration levels going from 25Hz, 35Hz, ~53Hz. Most of the studies I looked at only used 50Hz. I would like to see more studies with trained populations and different vibration frequencies. The reality is, the only people who would care about such minutae would be high level athletes since the hypervolt and regular massage treatments are luxuries. Nevertheless, they have shown repeatedly to improve muscle soreness and restoring natural range of motion faster.

CONCLUSION - 3) Should you buy a hypervolt?

As a trainer, I love my hypervolt. The $600 price tag doesn’t bother me because I use it often on myself and my clients. It improves the overall training experience and I have seen changes in my clients mobility after using it. The gun-shaped design makes it easy to reach difficult areas compared to foam rolling. It comes with 4 attachments: the ball, the fork, the flat-head and the bullet which are all useful depending on the muscle you are trying to target. After a hard-game of basketball, I loved how easy it was for me to get a high quality massage in 5 minutes without needing to roll on the ground. It’s especially useful for general population clients who sit all day or athletes who are pushing their maximum recoverable limits. However, vibration treatment is not necessary. Most forms of soft tissue work through the same mechanisms but are called different things as we saw in the 2017 meta-analysis. Whether that be your foam roller, making a visit to your RMT, chiropractor or balling out on a $600 Hypervolt or theragun. Since we workout often, a massage technique you can do more often should compound it’s effects greater over time than compared to lengthy gaps in time waiting for the one Chinese masseuse to be free.

What type of soft tissue work do you get? Also, does it work for you? and would you buy a Hypervolt? If you own a hypervolt, what is your experience with the product? Let me know in the comments below.