Finding time for a proper workout (and adequate recovery) might just be the ultimate form of self care.
But between a job, social life, and chasing eight hours of sleep, workouts get squeezed into the day’s only free time slot. A proper massage is usually the thing you most want/need, but most often skip.
Percussion massage guns make it possible for you to nurture your tissues and sore muscles without waiting for an appointment with a PT or massage therapist.
The mesmerizing skin ripples that you’ve probably seen in an Instagram ad are more than a weird flex: The form of portable muscle therapy that started with professional athletes has trickled down into the lives of your average gym-goer who doesn’t have the time or money for foam rolling sessions on sore days.
The ability to give yourself a deep-tissue massage at home is also potentially life-changing for anyone suffering from chronic shoulder, neck, or back pain. When a cheap massage ball is too weak but weekly acupuncture is just too extra, a massage gun might be the perfect middle ground.
How do massage guns work?
Percussive therapy is the name of the game — which is essentially a more professional term for “your muscles like it rough.”
Athletes turn to deep-tissue massage for quick pain relief and faster recovery times. Here, a professional masseuse delivers forceful, rapid thumps to a specific area of the body to stimulate a specific set of muscles. The percussive therapy afforded by a massage gun lets individuals perform this same type of penetrative tissue attention on themselves without extra help, and in minutes instead of an hour.
Treating something that hurts like a punching bag may seem like the last thing it needs. But beating that damaged deep tissue into submission has a desensitizing effect, and if you’ve ever tried a cheap As Seen On TV massager on back knots, you know it takes some oomph to feel anything. These short-duration pulses enhance blood flow, soften knots, and accelerate the repair of muscle fibers, all of which can lead to better-prepared warmups and quicker recovery times. This form of self-myofascial release is huge for folks who have a hard time keeping up with a routine due to delayed-onset muscle soreness.
Your mood might see a spike, too. The pressure point relief that massage provides has been linked to decreased levels of cortisol (the stress hormone), an increased production of endorphins (the feel-good chemical), and even a lower heart rate.
Do massage guns and foam rollers do the same thing?
Both tools focus on that aforementioned myofascial release. The foam roller pushes lactic acid out of your muscles in a gentler and slower manner than a massage gun. They can be different sizes (including small enough to knead legs or large enough for the whole back) and can be textured with spikes of sorts to better reach pressure points. The rolling can help with flexibility and even be incorporated into yoga-esque stretching sessions — an approach that some may find more relaxing than a massage gun.
But foam rollers simply aren’t using the equivalent of 30 to 60 pounds of force. They’re not about to replace a traditional massage session. For hardcore athletes and gym goers (or people with severe chronic pain), the sheer intensity of the vibrations is more effective on deep-sitting tissue. The swappable attachments that most massage guns come with are able to pinpoint super specific muscle groups in ways that a foam roller may not be able to.
Whether a percussive massage gun or a foam roller is better for you just depends on your pain type and how you prefer to cool down. If you like it gentle and need to *easily* roll out some kinks (especially in the neck or back), go foam roller. If your body is begging for some serious, deep targeted relief after working your muscles to the death on a daily basis, go massage gun.
But remember, percussive therapy isn’t a fix-all. A massage gun may be able to replace pricey massage appointments or heckling your gym partner to help you stretch, but nutrients from a balanced diet, sleep, and proper hydration are still crucial to the muscle growth and recovery process.
Which massage gun is the best?
Frequent workout schedules and high pain levels might make a $600 massage gun worth it — but in other cases, a less-intense device may be more beneficial. Here are some factors to consider:
Shape: Popular massage guns come in two main shapes: a donut design and an L-shaped design that looks like a radar speed gun. Which one to choose mostly depends on what feels more ergonomic to you, but the donut shape could reach tricky areas better if its head can be pushed to different angles.
Percussion massagers vs. vibration massagers: Not all pain is created equal. Percussion massagers mimic the kneading hands of a masseuse, providing pressure strong enough to hammer below the top layers and tend to damaged muscle fibers. This is ideal if heavy-duty workouts are your lifestyle, but 60 pounds of force may simply be too much in other situations. Occasional exercisers, seniors, and folks with chronic pain may prefer the surface-level rumbling of a vibration massager, which provides the same speedy pulses with less “punch” for a more relaxing experience. Vibration massagers usually oscillate in more rapid strokes with less horsepower.
Customization options: You wouldn’t massage a bony spine like you would a shoulder with a tough knot — you don’t need a professional to tell you that. If you have multiple muscle categories that need to be worked on and varying levels of strain, look for a device that offers lots of different speeds (RPM) and attachment heads to target each specific muscle group. When comparing specs, remember that higher speed doesn’t always mean vigor. The amplitude (how deep the massage head will push into your body) relies on the amount of force (usually measured in pounds) behind each pulse. Heavier force on a slow speed setting will feel more intense than a faster speed setting with weaker force.
Noise: No one wants to be *that* person at the gym who’s distracting everyone — or *that* parent who just woke up a sleeping baby — by using a device that sounds like a construction site. It might be impossible for these drill-like massage guns to be completely silent, but the reviews will let you know if the noise is tolerable or obnoxious. The quietest ones will be somewhere between 30 and 60 decibels, mimicking a whisper to normal conversation level. For reference, a vacuum’s hum is around 75 decibels.
Battery life: Charging a massage gun after every use would be a huge inconvenience. People have lives! The best massage guns have batteries that last between 150 and 180 minutes (or more, if they come with two batteries). Most guns are so strong that the recommended self-massage time is just a few minutes. A 150 to 180 minute battery life has you set for days, even with daily use.
Here are the best massage guns on the market in 2022: