If you have even a passing interest in health and fitness, you have no doubt heard tell of the Theragun (opens in new tab). The massage gun has been seen in the hands of elite sportspeople, celebrities and influencers alike with almost alarming regularity on social media, with the result that many amateur athletes have looked into getting one to support their training.
So is it worth splashing out on a massage gun? You can find my thoughts after using the device below, but first here’s an expert take on the science behind percussive therapy and the effectiveness of the Theragun from Claire Small and Andy Stanbury, clinical director and head of soft tissue therapy respectively at Pure Sports Medicine.
What is percussive therapy?
“Percussion is a method within the realm of soft tissue therapy,” says Stanbury. “It can be done using your hands with tapotement, which is just rapid movement of the hands in different shapes to create a vibration effect in the tissue.
“It creates a wave of vibration. The tissue in the body responds to different types of pressure, and really it [percussive therapy] is creating a rapid pressure, the closer to the skin the harder it is. You can get a similar effect from a massage, or fascial cupping.
“The aim is to improve things like blood flow, flexibility, mobility, and general freedom of movement and recovery, through the removal of byproducts that sit in the tissue because of restrictions preventing them from flowing as they should do through the body.”
What is the scientific evidence like behind the Theragun and percussive therapy?
“From a scientific perspective, there’s no scientific, PubMed-based evidence on the Theragun itself,” says Small. “And there’s very little specifically on percussive soft tissue massage, with a machine or anything else.
“There is a bit on vibration therapy, and it does show that it can have an effect on products like creatine kinase and blood lactate, which are byproducts of muscle damage and breakdown, and it can have an influence on cortisol levels. Using a tennis ball, or a foam roller will also produce those sorts of results.”
Elite athletes use the Theragun, so is it fair to assume there’s some kind of benefit to it?
“There are a lot of elite athletes who have it, but it’s not used in isolation,” says Stanbury. “What we see in adverts and on social media is the claim that this is what allows them to turn up and play on the weekend, and break records, but really it’s just 1% of what’s underpinning that. They all have access to medical practitioners, strength and conditioning coaches, soft tissue therapy… This is the tail end of it to give them that marginal gain, that 1%, but they’re also doing the other 99% consistently. What you tend to get with the general public is this kind of technology is used as the 99%.”
“We used to have people trying to sell us products and the argument was, ‘This is used by AC Milan, or Manchester United’," says Small. “But they have unlimited budgets, and they’re looking for anything that can make a 1% difference, which is understandable. If you can give every player a Theragun and say to use it for ten minutes a day, and that gives you some slight difference, you’re going to do that aren’t you? But if a normal person is spending that money out of their own pocket, there are better things they can spend it on.”
If you have a Theragun how should you use it?
“To get the most value out of the device, go and see a clinician and get ideas about how to use it effectively for you,” says Small. “It’s like everything – you get more effective results if you individualise it. What works for you won’t necessarily work for someone else. Buying a Theragun is like buying a TRX. It’s just equipment. What you need to know is how to use it effectively.”
“Because there isn’t an abundance of research we don’t know what the carry-over is in performance vs everything else,” says Stanbury. “If you believe that it [the Theragun] has an impact, then as long as it doesn’t negate your performance I don’t see what the problem is, but what you need to appreciate is that it’s not a standalone tool to improve performance.”
Theragun Elite Review
As a very keen amateur runner who doesn’t do nearly enough in the way of recovery work like foam rolling or supportive stuff like pre-run drills, I was intrigued by the idea that the Theragun could help me do more on that front without taking up much time.
The latest generation of Theragun devices has just launched, with the company rebranding to Therabody in the process. I’ve been testing the Elite device (opens in new tab), which costs £375 and sits between the top-of-the-line Pro (opens in new tab) (£549) and Prime (opens in new tab) (£275). There’s also a portable Mini device (opens in new tab) (£175), which doesn’t offer the same level of percussive therapy as the other three guns, but is handy when travelling.
The Elite, like the Pro and Prime devices, can connect to the Therabody app where you’ll find various preset routines designed to help support different sports and target different areas of the body. These are key to using the device, because they guide you through which muscles to work, for how long, and how much pressure to use, automatically changing the intensity of the percussion on the gun. When left to my own devices, it turns out I did it for too little time and with too little pressure.
Even with the guide I found that applying the recommended pressure got a little intense at times, and I’d ease off especially when targeting areas like the muscles around the shins. This is where even more advice from Therabody would be handy, though it’s naturally tricky to offer personalised guidance through an app.
I used the Theragun every day for a couple of weeks, aiming to incorporate it into a short pre-run routine and then do the ten-minute Theragun preset Run session to aid recovery regularly as well. The machine certainly feels good on aching muscles and I’m sure it can’t hurt in terms of activating them before exercising, but it’s very hard to ascertain what precise benefit I was getting in terms of either performance or recovery.
Before a run it’s easier to quickly grab and use the gun than work through a five- to ten-minute routine of drills and dynamic stretches, but I’m sure that the latter is what I should really be doing first and foremost. I’d keep using the Theragun if I had one – it is a nifty device and the preset routines in the app are well-implemented – and I certainly enjoyed using it much more than a foam roller, hopefully with the same effect. However, there are definitely a lot of ways I could support my exercise without splashing out on the massage gun, and I suspect that would be the case for most amateurs. Once you’re nailing every other part of your supportive work, the Theragun could be the cherry on top, but it can’t be the whole cake.
Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.
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