What Is Percussion Therapy?

Updated:

Every runner has their own recovery routine. This might be foam rolling, compression gear, ice baths, or yoga. One of the newer forms of recovery is percussive therapy. It’s become more and more prominent thanks to its popularity with pro athletes.

But exactly what is percussive therapy, and is it worth all the hype? Or should you wait before you go out and spend money on a fancy massage gun?

Here’s what you need to know to see if it’s worth adding to your recovery routine.

What Is Percussion Therapy?

Percussion therapy—also called percussive therapy or percussive massage—uses a small machine to apply rapid, repeated pressure pulses to your muscles.

These small machines usually come in the form of handheld massage guns, with interchangeable heads to better target different muscles. They’re easy to hold and move around to hit all the sore spots!

Percussion therapy can be applied by a professional – usually a physical therapist – or done at home. This makes it an easy, accessible form of massage for runners and other athletes. It’s more suited to small muscle groups, although it can be effective for smaller knots in large muscles.

How Does Percussion Therapy Work?

When you apply the rapidly vibrating head of a massage gun to a muscle, it acts in the same way a massage therapist’s palm or knuckles would. The pressure stimulates the nerve receptors and causes tight, knotted muscles to relax.

Not only does it ease up the physical muscle, but the motion increases circulation in the area, bringing oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood to the muscles. The improved circulation also helps to flush out metabolic waste.

The rapid-fire pulsing of the massage gun enables the effects of the massage to penetrate further into the muscle, giving you a deeper massage than a therapist is likely to be able to give.

Benefits of Percussion Therapy

Why add percussion therapy to your own running recovery routine? Here are some of the benefits of using it.

Muscle Recovery and Repair

The repetitive pulses to the muscles and tissues increase blood flow, bringing oxygen and nutrients to the muscles. This is the perfect healing combination, so your muscles can begin to recover faster.

Reduces Muscle Soreness and Stiffness

As well as bringing healthy blood to the area, the motion flushes out metabolic waste and breaks up knots in the muscle. Both of these factors can improve muscle recovery range of motion, and lower the chance of DOMS.

Enhanced Lymphatic Flow

A percussive massage can also enhance the flow of lymphatic fluid through the body. The lymphatic system plays a huge role in transporting waste and toxins out of the body, so this is an important health benefit.

Pain Relief

Studies show that using a percussive therapy gun can help to reduce pain. Increased blood flow, nutrients, and waste removal all play a part in pain relief, but it’s also possible that the frequency of the massage may disrupt the brain/body’s pain signals. It could also stimulate a release of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers.

Breaks Up Scar Tissue

Scar tissue limiting your range of motion can be broken up safely and without pain by using a massage gun the right way. Not only does this improve the physical appearance of surface scars, but it can also significantly improve your range of motion if scar tissue is hampering your mobility.

Muscle Activation/Warm-Up

Thanks to the increase in circulation, a quick round of percussive therapy massage a few minutes before your activity can help your muscles warm up much faster.

Relaxation and Stress Relief

Massage has always been a source of relaxation, and it’s no different for percussive therapy massage. While it might sound uncomfortable, it can be soothing and stress-relieving, especially as it helps your muscles relax when tight.

Improves Flexibility

Your muscles become more elastic with fewer knots, better blood flow, and less metabolic waste. This can help to improve your flexibility over time.

Who Can Benefit from Percussion Therapy?

Percussion therapy can be a valuable tool for athletes of all levels. It can help speed up recovery, ease DOMS, and keep the muscles loose and warm for better performance.

Those recovering from injury may also benefit from this kind of therapy, which brings oxygen and nutrients to the injury site for faster recovery. People with mobility and flexibility restrictions may also benefit from using it, as it can loosen up muscles and scar tissue.

How Can Runners Use Percussion Therapy?

Want to start using percussion therapy to improve your running performance? Here’s what we recommend.

Warm-Up

We don’t advise skipping your regular warm-up, but you can add a quick 1-minute massage to the quads, hamstrings, and calves. This will get the blood flowing nicely, warming them up for your upcoming run.

Post-Run Recovery

This is the most popular use of percussive massage, and it speaks to its effectiveness. Make it part of your workout routine by doing a short massage after every run or in the evenings on running days. Get ready for less DOMS and faster recovery!

Massage Knots and Trigger Points

Muscle knots can limit your range of motion and make certain movements feel painful or stiff. Work out those trigger points with your percussion gun, and you won’t have those problems anymore.

Who Shouldn’t Use Percussion Therapy?

People with high blood pressure are discouraged from using a massage gun, as the increase in circulation may push their blood pressure up higher. Those with peripheral artery disease or neuropathy should also avoid them, as they won’t be able to feel the correct amount of pressure to be applied.

Others who should avoid using one of these devices include:

  • Anyone with moderate to severe varicose veins
  • Those with a deep vein thrombosis history
  • People with osteoarthritis or osteoporosis
  • Anyone with an autoimmune disorder like lupus

Also, common sense dictates that you shouldn’t use a percussive device on broken bones, open wounds, pregnant tummies, joints, and sensitive areas like the neck or groin.

How to Use a Percussion Therapy Device

Ready to start reaping the benefits of your percussive therapy massage device? Here’s how to use it for the best results.

Make Sure the Device Is Charged

Some devices may not come with a charge out of the box. Charge it up first and wait for it to indicate that it’s fully charged before you try it.

Choose the Right Attachment

This depends on where you want to use it. Choose where you want to massage, which will lead you to the best attachment.

  • Bullet: Perfect for targeted deep tissue massage. Use anywhere.
  • Fork: Targeted massage but helps to cover more area. Use on larger muscles like the quads, hamstrings, and back.
  • Ball: Versatile and handy for tricky curves like around the elbow.
  • Round Flat: Excellent for large muscles as it distributes weight more evenly.
  • Padded: Use safely in areas around bones, like the elbow or shoulders.

Set the Intensity

Start on the lowest intensity and work your way up to something that feels good. For just getting the blood flowing, you can stick to lighter intensities. To get down to those deep knots, you should increase the intensity.

Apply Pressure

Apply light pressure. There’s no need to press hard, but don’t “float” the head over your skin, or you’ll miss the benefits. The easiest way is to simply rest the machine on your muscle, which should provide the right amount of weight.

Move Slowly

Move the head along your muscles at a controlled pace. If you find a more painful part, hold it there for a few seconds longer without pressing harder. Take your time and don’t rush through the massage.

Target Muscle Knots and Trigger Points

If you feel a knot or a sore spot, target it. Again, just rest the device head on the sore spot without pushing until you feel the knot release under the pressure. If it doesn’t after a few seconds, move on and return to it later.

Avoid Bony Areas and Joints

Don’t massage bony areas like elbows, shoulders, knuckles, wrists, etc. The risk for injury is higher, so rather do these areas by hand.

Pay Attention to Feedback

Listen to your muscles! If your pain gets worse or new pain appears, stop. Consider lowering the intensity or the pressure. Stay in tune with what your body is telling you to do.

Keep the Session Short

A minute to 2 minutes per muscle group is ideal. Yes, it’s that short! Just a few minutes on each muscle can work wonders, and going over that time won’t add more benefits—it’ll just make you more prone to getting injured.

How Often Should You Use a Massage Gun?

If you’re keeping your sessions short and using them when necessary, you can use your massage gun as often as needed. They can be a valuable part of your everyday recovery routine, but don’t go and massage three times a day just because you can.

We recommend NOT using your percussion gun for every warm-up session, although it is a good way to get blood flowing in the muscles. You should still warm up properly whenever possible—keep the massage gun as a backup.

How to Choose a Percussion Therapy Device

Considering getting yourself a percussion therapy gun? Here’s what to look for to ensure you buy a good one.

Speed Settings

Most massage guns come with multiple speed settings that allow you some control over the intensity of the massage. Some also have something called “stall force,” which adjusts the speed based on the pressure you’re placing on it.

Stroke Depth

Stroke depth is how far the massage head strikes into the muscle. Deeper stroke depths will penetrate further into the muscle, providing better relief.

Noise Level

Quieter machines will allow you to massage your sore spots without disturbing others in the space. This comes down to personal preference, though.

Portability and Ergonomics

Want to take your massage gun with you to the gym? Consider if you need it to be portable because they come in various sizes. Larger ones may be harder to carry around with you, but small ones may be less powerful.

Battery Life and Reliability

If you’re using your percussive therapy device on the go, it needs a decent battery life. If you’re only planning on using it from home, make sure reviews suggest that it can handle many battery charge cycles.

Attachment Heads and Customization Options

Most percussive massage guns come with a range of different attachment heads. Double-check what’s offered before buying because having options is great for targeting all the areas you need to hit.

Price

Prices can vary a LOT, from $100 to over $500. Decide on your budget upfront and do your research from there. We recommend buying an entry- to mid-level massage gun as your first one and seeing if it works for you before investing in an expensive one.

Photo of author

AUTHOR

Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.