Thursday 26th January, 2023

What does a sports massage actually do

Sport massage
In this article we tell what sports massages are used for and what they actually do
What sports massages promise

Sports massages are widely used and come with a host of claims such as that they increase performance and help recovery.

What sports massages actually do

However, when we looked at the clinical trials and other scientific evidence we found that these massages varied a lot in their usefulness, and only some of the claims have merit.

How to get the most from your sports massages

In this article we will share with you:

  • what sports massages are used for,
  • what they actually do, and
  • which types of massage gave the best result in the clinical trials.

As a bonus the massage that did the best in the clinical trials is one you can actually do yourself. If you use this it means you can enjoy the benefits more and save a lot of money.

What is a sports massage?

You will see “sports massage” described as a particular type or style of massage. The reality is that “sports massage” is not an individual style. Rather, the term is used to describe a wide variety of types of massage applied to help those who play sports or exercise. The massage applied will depend in the skills and preferences of the therapist. It will also depend on the person’s needs, which may vary from a simple “warm up” pre exercise massage to remedial work to help with rehabilitation.

Conventional massage vs vibration massage

Both conventional massage (eg. pressure, rubbing and kneading) and vibration massage are used as sports massages. The way they are applied and their scientifically proven effects differ, so we will be discussing both.

The main uses of sports massage

  1. Pre-exercise
  2. Post exercise
  3. Injuries and rehabilitation

Pre-exercise sports massages

The purpose of pre-exercise massage is to help prepare your muscles by relaxing (lengthening) them and increasing circulation.

Post-exercise sports massage

The purpose of post exercise massage is to reduce post exercise stiffness and soreness, and help speed recovery.

Sports massage of injuries and rehabilitation

Massage is recognised as useful therapy for a variety of sports injury and rehabilitation needs.

What do the sports massage actually do?

How effective are sports massages at doing these? We’ll look at the various claims, which massages are the best for each, and the best ways to use them. This is all based on our extensive review of the relevant science and clinical trials, which we have summarised in the appendices below.

  1. Do sports massages help prepare muscles and help prevent injury?
  2. Do sports massages help athletic performance?
  3. Do sports massages reduce post exercise pain and stiffness?
  4. Do sports massages help speed recovery?
  5. Is sports massage helpful for rehabilitation and sports injuries?

Does sports massage help prepare muscles and prevent injury

Both conventional massage and vibration massage will relax muscles and increase blood flow (1–4)⁠, which can be part of a “warm up” which is very important before sports and exercise, especially relieving any muscle tightness so that they are at their optimal operational length.

Does sports massage help athletic performance

Sports massage usually doen't help performance

There are claims that sports massage can help increase athletic performance. If you apply a general massage it is very unlikely to help you run faster or jump higher. Various studies show that if you apply vibration it will increase strength (5)⁠, but this effect probably won’t last that long, so by the time you compete the effects will likely have worn off.

The exception: when massage can help athletic performance

The exception discussed here is where very specialised massage is used to help eliminate lumps in muscles called (myofascial) trigger points. These trigger points are extremely common, and reduce performance by both causing muscles to weaken and fatigue quickly, and by altering the neurological control of muscles affecting their timing and coordination. As discussed here vibration massage is an excellent way to rid these performance robbing problems.

Does sports massage reduce post exercise pain and stiffness?

Conventional massage

Conventional massage relaxes muscles and increases blood flow so it should help reduce post exercise soreness and stiffness, but the large number of clinical trials conducted have only shown a very small or no decrease (6–11)⁠.

Vibration massage

The trials of vibration massage (see below) show that this gives excellent reduction in post exercise soreness and stiffness (12–15)⁠. The best part is that with the appropriate equipment you can easily do this yourself. We discuss this later.

Note: the most common form of post exercise soreness is called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS for short). This is typically deep muscular pain that occurs between 24 and 72 hours post exercise.

Does sports massage help recovery

After strenuous exercise your muscles will likely suffer a temporary loss of strength and endurance while they recover.

Conventional massage

Clinical trials of using conventional massage after exercise have shown either a very small reduction in this effect, or no improvement at all (6–8,11,16)⁠.

Vibration massage

The trials of vibration massage (see below) show that this will reduce your loss of strength and help you regain normal strength faster (17–19)⁠. Again, with the appropriate equipment you can easily do this yourself. Please see our article The best massage for sports recovery for how to do this.

Does sports massage help sports injuries and rehabilitation

Both conventional and vibration massage are widely used by professionals to help with sports injuries and rehabilitation. For more information please see some of these articles.
Is massage good for shoulder pain
Does massage help healing and recovery
How to treat tennis elbow
Massage and trigger point therapy for low back pain
Massage and trigger point therapy for calf pain

Choosing the best sports massage

You can possibly get a lot of benefit from sports massage, so which should you choose? As you’ve seen the scientific data strongly shows that vibration massage gives the best results and you can easily do this yourself. If you like you can jump straight to vibration massage, but we will go over your other options as well.

Professional conventional massages

Massage therapist
Don't worry about what the massage is called. It is what they do that counts

Which type of professional massage is the best for sports?

Most professional massage therapists do a great job. Although you are after a “sports massage” the name is actually not that important. The common massage styles such as “Swedish”, “Remedial” and “sports” all use similar techniques. The actual massage you receive will depend more on the skill and experience of the therapist and what he or she is trying to do (eg. treat a specific problem vs generally relax muscles and increase blood flow).

Is a “sports massage” better than a deep tissue massage, or does a sports massage need to hurt?

As stated, the term “sports massage” covers a variety of styles of massage and caters for a variety of needs. For a pre-exercise “warm up” massage to relax your muscles and increase blood flow a non-painful massage would definitely better, and deep potentially damaging massage is probably one of the last things you need for muscles that have suffered microscopic damage due to exercise and need to recover. Deep painful massage massage is more suited to helping with deep muscular problems such as trigger points, but as discussed here vibration massage is a far better option for that.

Heavily marketed self massage tools

Foam roller vs professional therapist

Foam rollers

Foam rollers are widely marketed as a self massage substitute for sports massage, but as discussed here the results are generally not that good, and as a chiropractor for over 27 years I saw a lot of people hurt themselves using one. This infographic shows the main reasons why the use of foam rollers is usually no where near as effective as that provided by a professional therapist.

Percussion vs vibration massage

Percussion massagers (Massage guns)

Massage guns are another thing heavily marketed for do it yourself sports massage. As discussed above vibration massage is highly beneficial, but as discussed here although massage guns vibrate they are not effective at delivering actual therapeutic vibrations. The best way to explain this is by considering two different vibrating machines: a vibrating compactor and a jackhammer.
As you will see genuine therapeutic vibration massagers are like the vibrating compactor, designed to send large amounts of vibrations in deep without affecting the surface. On the other hand percussion massage (massage gun) makers have modified their machines to be more like the jackhammer claiming it gives them better penetration. The reality is that jackhammers are designed to smash the surface rather than deliver penetrating vibrations. As a result massage guns are poor at delivering therapeutic vibrations, but very good at causing damage.

Vibration massage: your best option

As discussed above vibration massage generally gives by far the best results, and it is extremely easy to use on yourself. In this section we will briefly explain what vibration massage is and how it works, then point you in the right direction to get an effective vibration massager and use it properly.

The scientifically proven effects of vibration massage

What is vibration massage

Vibration massage is where vibrations are used to penetrate and have their therapeutic effects. Like ultrasound (vibrations at a different frequency) all you need to do is place the head of a vibration massager on the surface and the vibrations will penetrate deep into your muscles. There is no need to press in so there is no pressure to cause pain or physical damage. These vibrations are highly effective because as this diagram shows scientists have found they have a host of beneficial effects.

What equipment do you need

You will need a decent professional strength vibration massager. They are available, but most massagers on the market are either ineffective “consumer machines” that are built to look good on shop shelves rather than work well, or percussion massagers (massage guns) which as discussed are designed to drive their heads into your muscles rather than deliver therapeutic vibrations. To get the right equipment please see our article How to choose a massager.

How to use a vibration massager

Vibration massagers are incredibly easy to use. We have links below to instructions with hints, precautions and specific uses, but basically all you need to do is place the head of the vibration massager over part you want to massage and let the vibrations penetrate. There is no need to press in, move the machine around, or know any conventional massage techniques. You can use it on your muscles before exercise as a warm up, after to help recovery, or on specific issues such as trigger points or injuries.
How to use a massager
The sports and exercise guide to vibration massage

Resource for fitness professionals

Please check out our video guide for fitness professionals.

Appendices: summary of research on sports massage

Vibration massage

NOTE: You may need to scroll the table below left/right for more information


What was done

What was found


Reviewed 11 studies related to the effects of vibration on muscle strength

Most studies reported a significant improvement in muscle strength following the application of vibration


Review of seven studies related to the application of vibration to older people suffering from muscle loss

Both whole body and locally applied vibration improved muscle strength


10 healthy males were fatigued using 10 sets each of wrist flexion exercises. 10 minutes of 45 Hz vibration was applied 1 hour post exercise then twice a day.

Resulted in greater strength and tissue oxygenation when measured 1, 24 and 48 hours post exercise.


Applied vibration after exercise then each day for 4 days

Good reduction in soreness and increase in flexibility


Used 50 Hz vibration before exercising

Helped prevent post exercise soreness (DOMS)

Conventional massage

NOTE: You may need to scroll the table below left/right for more information


What they did

What they found


Review of 29 studies related to the effects of massage on performance and recovery

No evidence of improved strength, endurance or fatigue. Massage gave a small improvement in post exercise soreness and flexibility


Trial using massage on quadriceps muscles after exercise

Did not reduce post exercise loss of strength. No effect on post exercise pain


Trial of using massage after exercise

No improvement in performance or soreness


Trial of post exercise massage in older people

Some reduction in symptoms and impairment


  1. Fuller JT, Thomson RL, Howe PRC, Buckley JD. Effect of vibration on muscle perfusion: A systematic review Clin Physiol Funct Imaging. 2013;33(1):1–10.
  2. Maloney-Hinds C, Petrofsky JS, Zimmerman G. The effect of 30 Hz vs. 50 Hz passive vibration and duration of vibration on skin blood flow in the arm. Med Sci Monit. 2008;14(3):CR112-6.
  3. Nakagami G, Sanada H, Matsui N, Kitagawa A, Yokogawa H, Sekiya N, et al. Effect of vibration on skin blood flow in an in vivo microcirculatory model. Biosci Trends. 2007;1(3):161–6.
  4. Gasibat Q, Suwehli W. Determining the Benefits of Massage Mechanisms: A Review of Literature. Artic J Rehabil Sci. 2017;2(3):58–67.
  5. Alghadir AH, Anwer S, Zafar H, Iqbal ZA. Effect of localised vibration on muscle strength in healthy adults: a systematic review. Physiother (United Kingdom) 2018;104(1):18–24.
  6. Davis HL, Alabed S, Chico TJA. Effect of sports massage on performance and recovery: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ Open Sport Exerc Med. 2020;6(1)
  7. Jönhagen S, Ackermann P, Eriksson T, Saartok T, Renström PAFH. Sports massage after eccentric exercise. Am J Sports Med. 2004;32(6):1499–503.
  8. White GE, West SL, Caterini JE, Di Battista AP, Rhind SG, Wells GD. Massage therapy modulates inflammatory mediators following sprint exercise in healthy Male athletes. J Funct Morphol Kinesiol. 2020;5(1):1–11.
  9. Hart JC. Effects of Sport Massage on Limb Girth and Discomfort Associated With Eccentric Exercise. J Athl Train. 2005;24(2):181–5.
  10. Pinar S, Kaya F, Bicer B, Erzeybek MS, Cotuk HB. Different recovery methods and muscle performance after exhausting exercise: Comparison of the effects of electrical muscle stimulation and massage. Biol Sport. 2012;29(4):269–75.
  11. Naderi A, Aminian-Far A, Gholami F, Mousavi SH, Saghari M, Howatson G. Massage enhances recovery following exercise-induced muscle damage in older adults. Scand J Med Sci Sport. 2021;31(3):623–32.
  12. Imtiyaz S, Veqar Z, Shareef MY. To compare the effect of vibration therapy and massage in prevention of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). J Clin Diagnostic Res. 2014;
  13. Lau WY, Nosaka K. Effect of vibration treatment on symptoms associated with eccentric exercise-induced muscle damage. Am J Phys Med Rehabil. 2011;90(8):648–57.
  14. Bakhtiary AH, Safavi-Farokhi Z, Aminian-Far A. Influence of vibration on delayed onset of muscle soreness following eccentric exercise. Br J Sports Med. 2007;41(3):145–8.
  15. Percival S et al. Local vibration therapy increases oxygen re-saturation rate and maintains muscle strength following exerciseinduced muscle damage. J Athl Train. 2021;Aug 17.
  16. Robertson A, Watt JM, Galloway SDR. Effects of leg massage on recovery from high intensity cycling exercise. Br J Sports Med. 2004;38(2):173–6.
  17. Shuang Wu, Hong-Ting Ning S-MX. Effects of vibration therapy on muscle mass, muscle strength and physical function in older adults with sarcopenia: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Eur Rev Aging Phys Act. 2020;17:12.
  18. Noriak M et. a. Acute effects of local vibration stretching on ankle range of motion, vertical jump performance and dynamic balance after lan. Isokinet Exerc Sci. 2021;29(2):139–45.
  19. Lau WY, Nosaka K. Effect of vibration treatment on symptoms associated with eccentric exercise-induced muscle damage. Am J Phys Med Rehabil. 2011;
  20. Bakhtiary AH, Safavi-Farokhi Z, Aminian-Far A. Influence of vibration on delayed onset of muscle soreness following eccentric exercise. Br J Sports Med. 2007;

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Dr Graeme

About Dr Graeme

Several years ago Dr Graeme, a Chiropractor practicing in Victoria, Australia was looking for a serious hand held massager his patients could use at home to get the extra quality massage they needed. The ones he found in the shops and on-line for home use looked nice but were not serious, and... read more

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