How to Use a Massage Therapy Device for Maximum Benefit

The massage therapy trend started with professional athletes on the sidelines of games, and now you can find the devices in gyms, fitness studios, and home gyms. Although more research is necessary, massage devices appear to have benefits. They help decrease post-workout muscle soreness and increase range of motion, says Mike Herman, DPT, Cert-DN, a physical therapist in North Carolina. They can also up- or down-regulate the nervous system, adds Jereme Schumacher, PT, DPT, senior therapist in San Diego for Bespoke Treatments. That means they’re good for both warmups and cooldowns.

In order to reap the most benefit from these percussive therapy devices (as they are technically called), you need to use them properly. While they’re pretty straightforward, the below tips will maximize your gains. If you’re uncertain about anything, ask a physical therapist or certified trainer. “Even though there’s not a lot of risk to using a massage therapy device, there are still risks if you use it too often, too long, or too much,” Schumacher says. “You don’t want to cause any negative effects and hurt yourself or your performance.”

Keep it moving. “In general, you want to start the device and, keeping it about an inch away from the skin, move it around,” Schumacher says. If you feel stiffness in a specific spot, though, you can hold it there longer. Small circles can help knead the muscle and relieve tightness, Herman explains.

Don’t push. You may think you’ll get more if you use pressure, but trust the machine. “Never press down on the device. Let the percussion head do its job,” Schumacher says. That’s all the pressure you need.

Use a big head. Massage devices can come with various percussion heads. For the most part, use the larger, rounder head, Schumacher says. (These are the classic heads on most devices.) “This helps promote greater blood flow to the muscle and stimulate the nervous system,” he explains. It’s also less painful on sore muscles. On the other hand, bullet-shaped heads are good to target trigger points—but only use them for short periods of time since they’re more intense.

Time it right. You can use a percussive therapy device before, during, or after a workout, or on rest days. But you don’t want to use them all day long. Schumacher recommends the following:

  • For a warmup: 20-30 seconds on the muscles you will be using
  • During a workout: 15-20 seconds on the muscles you are using
  • For a cooldown: 90 seconds to 2 minutes on the muscles you used
  • On rest days: 90 seconds to 2 minutes on any sore spots

Target the right part of the muscle. “In general, use it on the muscle belly—the meatier part of the muscle, away from the joints and bonier surfaces like the shins,” Schumacher says. “With your hand, feel where the bulk of the muscle is, and focus the attention there.”

Massage the appropriate muscles. For any workout, you want to target the muscles you will be using or that you just used. “The bigger muscle groups—the quads, hamstrings, glutes, calves, and back—are generally beneficial because no matter what you’re doing, you’re probably going to be using them,” Schumacher says.

For more activity-specific advice, consider the below from Herman:

  • Running: calves, hamstrings, glutes
  • HIIT training: quads, glutes, upper traps
  • Cycling: quads, upper back, upper traps, glutes
  • Strength training: Whichever muscle group(s) you are exercising or did exercise
  • Crossfit: Glutes, quads, back of your shoulders, forearms
  • Working at a desk: Glutes, hip flexors, upper back

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