Have you ever had a massage therapist chop away at your quads or pecs like John Wick going to town on some poor sap’s face? If so, you know it hurts—but in a good way. Especially if you’re a longtime lifter whose muscles are riddled with knotty, trigger points associated with months and years of steady effort in the gym.

A few years back some techy types posed the question: what if you could pound a muscle yourself—way faster, way harder, and with little to no effort? 

Enter the massage gun, a handheld, rechargeable device that can thump away, up to 2500 times a minute, for as long as you can endure it. 

“The first models were basically repurposed jigsaws,” says Tom Pepe, CEO of TimTam, one of the top players in the industry. But recently, manufacturers have refined them in response to the burgeoning demand for fancy recovery tools (think knobby foam rollers, cryotherapy, and e-stim). “We started in 2016, with 500 units, and we sold them out, to 30 countries in 40 days,” says Pepe. In the last year, he sold nearly a million of them.  

Give a massager a try—run it over your upper traps, quads, calves, or any other tight muscle group—and it’s easy to see why they’re so popular. Within a few minutes, a massage gun can effectively work over a large muscle group, loosening tissue, increasing blood flow, and temporarily easing pain and soreness. 

And you don’t have to tip them at the end. 

But will pounding on your muscles actually aid you in your quest to build muscle, burn fat, and lift more weight? And are they worth the (sometimes significant) price? 

How Do Massage Guns Work?

The short answer: it’s not entirely clear how these devices work on the body. They may help relax sore muscles by stimulating the GTO (Golgi tendon organ), a structure within a muscle that inhibits contraction. Massage guns may also override the sensation of pain within a sore muscle in the same way you might if you rub your forehead after smacking it on a door jamb (this is what’s known as the “Gate Control Theory of Pain.”)

But the most likely mechanism of soft tissue work—whether it’s a foam roller, a massage gun, or the trained hands of a massage therapist—is neural, says performance coach and physical therapist, Dr. John Rusin. “Mostly you’re affecting your brain’s ability to sense tightness or laxity in soft tissue, whether it’s a muscle, tendon, or fascia.” The therapist’s hands (or the roller, or the massage gun) focuses your attention on the tight muscle allowing your brain to zero in on the tension and let it go. 

Vibration vs. Percussion

If you’ve ever used a vibrating foam roller or platform, you’re familiar with vibration therapy: you mount the unit, push a button, and let the device shake your fillings out. The back-and-forth oscillation is small, creating a pleasant, miniature muscle-quake inside the target tissues.  

Early massage guns worked in a similar manner, vibrating the muscle to help it relax and stimulate blood flow. More recent models go beyond vibration, penetrating an inch or more into the target muscle: “It’s like a muscle jackhammer,” says Los Angeles-based massage therapist Art San. That’s percussion: a deeper, more intense stimulation of the muscle.

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