Tuesday 21st February, 2023

Is it good to get a sports massage? Your guide to the types, uses and benefits

Sports massage 3
In this article we share what science says about sports massages, with uses and recommendations

Sports massages have been widely used by professional sports clubs, and more recently self help options have become popular. Should you be getting one, and if so which types are best and what benefits can you expect? We reviewed 50 clinical trials and other scientific papers and found that while some uses were excellent, others are a waste of time and can even hurt you.

To help you make the best choices and get the most benefits, in this article we will summarise the various types and massages and potential uses, letting you know what works and what doesn’t. We will also discuss other things that should be done to complement sports massage to help you perform well, stay injury free and recover faster.

Also, a lot of information provided by marketers is inaccurate and misleading. Therefore at the end of the article we clear up a few of the really bad things we’ve read.


Types of massage
Potential uses
Appendix: common misinformation

The types of sports massage

Professional therapists

When people think of sports massage they usually think of a professional therapist using techniques such as “rubbing”, “kneading” and “stroking”. There is no one type of “sports massage”. Rather a typical sports massage is a combination of these techniques which vary depending on the needs of the client and preferences of the therapist. In other words a “sports massage” may be practically identical to a “remedial”, “Swedish”, “Deep Tissue” or other types of massage depending on the circumstances, with the only difference being that it is done for a sports person.

Vibration massage principles
Vibration massagers send vibrations deep into your muscles

Vibration massage

Vibration massage is where the vibrating head of a massager is placed over the part to be massaged and the vibrations are allowed to penetrate and have their therapeutic effects. This is very similar to the way ultrasound works. Ultrasound is just vibrations at a higher frequency. Therapeutic vibration massage has several huge benefits.

Excellent therapeutic effects

Science has found that vibrations in the therapeutic range of 30-60 Hz (cycles per second) have excellent therapeutic effects. For more information please see our article The scientifically proven effects of vibration massage- with clinical applications .

Most vibrating massagers you can buy will not deliver professional standard vibrations (1)⁠, so it is very important that you check out our article that shows you how to choose one that does .

Excellent penetration

Just like ultrasound professional standard therapeutic vibrations penetrate very deeply. They have no trouble reaching deep into any muscle.

Excellent safety & no pain

Because it is the vibrations that penetrate there is no need for the physical pressure that causes pain and can easily cause injury or damage.

You can do it yourself

There is no need to know any special massage to do vibration massage. Basically all you need to do is sit the head of an appropriate vibration massager on the part to be massaged and let the vibrations penetrate. As long as you hold the machine in the right spot it will do the same job as if a professional was holding the handle.

For more information on vibration massage

The sports and exercise guide to vibration massage
How to choose a massager

Foam roller vs professional therapist

Foam rollers

Foam rollers are devices that enable users to self apply pressure that imitates the techniques that professional therapists use. They are heavily advertised, and promote self massage. However, as we will be discussing in the scientific results below they only give marginal or no benefits in clinical trials. This infographic shows the main reasons why.

Vibration vs percussion vs conventional

Percussion massagers (massage guns)

Percussion massagers are a hybrid machines that try to combine vibration and conventional massage. In this diagram the device on the left is a vibration massager while the tool on the right is a t-bar which therapists use to save their thumbs and apply deep (painful) pressure. As you can see massager gun makers have basically converted the a t-bar into a “jackhammer” designed to drive it’s head into the muscle.

The idea of combining vibration and conventional massage is an excellent marketing gimmick, but the reality is that they deliver far less therapeutic vibrations than a genuine vibration massager, while driving the head into the muscle has no proven benefit and is potentially very harmful. Colleagues tell me that they have seen lots of damage caused by massage guns, and there is even a report in a scientific journal of a person who nearly died from injuries received trying to help her muscles relax after cycling (2)⁠.. For more information please see our article Are massage guns effective- beyond the hype .

Misleading “scientific” information about massage guns.

Marketers use the results of clinical trials of vibration to support the use of their machines, but as you have seen they deliver far less therapeutic vibration. Also in clinical trials of percussion massagers they use special damper heads to help make them more like a vibration massager and less like a jackhammer. For more info please see our article Is percussion massage scientific .

The uses and benefits of sports massage

Using massage pre-exercise (warm-up)

Warm-ups are done to help prepare muscles for exercise or competition, to help prevent injuries, and enhance performance. We will look at how massage can help with these.

Injury prevention


If your joints are forced to move beyond their free movement or your muscles are forcibly extended you may be injured. The idea is that pre-competition massage may reduce this risk by relaxing muscles and allowing more full joint movement. While this seems perfectly reasonable, to our knowledge this has never been scientifically tested.

What we do know is this idea has been tested with stretching exercises, which also lengthen muscles and increase joint movement. However trials show that stretching exercises do not reduce the rate of injuries (3,4)⁠. The theory is that while stretching may reduce the risk of muscle strains and tears, over-stretching may allow joints to move excessively where they are more vulnerable to injury.

Injury prevention summary

It is unlikely that massage would cause excessive joint movement, so it is likely that any of the massages that help flexibility will help reduce the risk of muscle strains or tears.

Performance enhancement

Sports massage may help performance by increasing flexibility, increasing strength and increasing endurance. We will look at which massages do this, plus look at stretching and dynamic warm-ups (active movements) which are often included as part of a warm-up routine.

Massage by professionals

Massage may help flexibility, but according to the most recent review of clinical trials there is no evidence that massage has any effect on strength, endurance or fatigue (5)⁠.

Vibration massage

According to the results of many clinical trials the application of vibration massage of 30-60 Hz before exercise will:

  • increase flexibility similar to that achieved by stretching exercises (6)⁠
  • enhance strength (7,8), and
  • increase the time taken for muscles to fatigue (9)⁠.
Foam rollers

Clinical trials have shown that foam rollers give no improvement in performance (11–15)⁠. They also show that they initially increase flexibility. The problem though (which marketing will not mention) is that the increase in flexibility only lasts less than 10 minutes (14,16,17)⁠. It seems pointless spending 10-15 minutes foam rolling only to have the increase in flexibility disappear by the time you compete.

Percussion massagers (massage guns)

As discussed these are a marketing gimmick that is supposed to combine vibration massage and conventional massage, but do neither well. In addition most are ineffective “consumer” machines that do not deliver professional standard therapy.


Trials show that conventional static stretching will give a prolonged increase in flexibility, but actually decrease performance.

Dynamic warm-up

Dynamic warm-up means doing movement or activities. Examples include walking or exercising. This has been show to increase flexibility and strength (18)⁠. One trial found that compared with no warm-up dynamic warm-ups actually increased the height an athlete could jump by 2” (5cm) (19)⁠. The most beneficial dynamic warm-ups involve activities and movements that mirror the requirements of your sport rather general movements (20)⁠.

For more information

Warm-ups: a guide to the best massages, stretches and exercises

Standard disclaimer: this article is general information only. For specific advice please discuss with a professional familiar with your needs.

Using massage for post exercise recovery

Microscopic structure of muscles
Strenuous exercise can damage these microscopic fibres

After strenuous exercise you will likely feel a bit stiff and sore, and your muscles will not be capable of their usual performance. The reason for this is that strenuous exercise can cause microscopic damage to the fibres that make up your muscles. While you are recovering:

  • your muscle fibres will have microscopic damage,
  • your muscles will tighten, restricting blood flow, and
  • there will be a build up of chemicals and wastes products relating to the damage.

The purpose of recovery is to:

  1. reduce your stiffness and soreness (DOMS), and
  2. allow your muscles to regain their function faster.


The deep muscular soreness you get after exercise is called DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness). You usually get this between 24 and 72 hours after the exercise)

Can massages help recovery

Massage by professionals

There have been a large number of clinical trials using massage after exercise. In summary:

  • in over half showed no benefit at all (21–29)⁠ ,
  • a small percentage showed massage to reduce post exercise soreness (30–32)⁠,
  • a small percentage the massage reduced the post exercise stiffness and loss of function (33–35)⁠.

If you are a member or a sports club that provides massage (well done) it will feel good and you may get some benefits. However, as you will see there are better alternatives.

Vibration massage

We found nine studies where vibration massage was used after exercising. They consistently showed that this:

  • reduces post exercise soreness (DOMS) (36–43)⁠
  • reduces the loss of function and speed recovery (44,45)⁠, and
  • blood chemical analysis shows that unwanted chemical are removed much faster (38,39,41,43)⁠.
Compared with conventional massage

As well as the results of clinical trails being better and more consistent, in one trial where vibration massage and conventional massage were compared 5 minutes of vibration gave slightly better results than 15 minutes of conventional massage (37)⁠. This means that vibration gave the same (actually slightly better) results in one third of the time. If you use our professional strength four headed massager this will probably be quicker still.

Journal summary
A scientists conclusion after reviewing 21 trials of foam rolling

Foam rollers

Despite being heavily marketed a recent review of 21 studies concluded that any benefits from foam rolling are minor or negligable (46)⁠. Other scientits have expressed concerns about the injuries they cause (47)⁠. This is why as a Chiropractor for over 27 years I saw a lot of people hurt and injure themselves doing self massage with balls or rollers.

Percussion massagers (massage guns)

As discussed above while massage gun marketers claim the benefits of vibration, their machines only deliver a fraction of the theraeutic vibration a genuine vibration massager does. There is no scientific support for "punching" their heads into the muscles, and looking at it logically that is one of the last thing healing muscle fibres would need. As previously mentioned there is a journal report of someone nearly dying from internal bleeding after using a massage gun for recovery (2)⁠.

Recommendation for post exercise recovery

For effective recovery you need a complete strategy to help provide everything your muscles need to recover. This includes considerations such as sleep & rest, nutrition and hydration. Please see our Practical, science based guide to post exercise recovery .

Regular massages for maintenance and enhancement

In the previous section we looked at whether using massage before competition will prevent injury and improve performance. In this section we will look at regular massages. Their main benefits are to help deal with musculoskeletal issues that can 1) cause pain, 2) inhibit performance and 3) predispose to injury.

Regular massages to increase performance

Rather than enhance performance these help by removing things like tightness and lumps (trigger points) that inhibit performance. For more information about these please see our article on the effects of (myofascial) trigger points on sports and athletics performance . We found three clinical trials where this had been done. All produced very worthwhile results.

Trial one: regular Thai massages during a training camp (48)⁠

Athletes attending a training camp over 10 days were given three 30 minute Thai massages. These were done in the evenings. Compared with the athletes who received no massage the recipients had:

  • greater measured oxygen uptake (VO2max)
  • greater strength, speed and agility.

Trial two: ten week training camp in preparation for a 10k race (49)⁠

During a 10 week training camp preparing for a 10 km race half the athletes received a weekly half hour massage. 100% of those receiving the massages finished the race, while only 53% of the others finished.

Trial three: regular vibration massage reduced fatigue (50)⁠

During a three week training camp athletes received a 45-52 Hz vibration massage each evening. They suffered reduced fatigue compared with those who received no vibration massage.

Sports massage for remedial, injuries and rehabilitation

Massage is widely used and recommended by professional for the treatment and rehabilitation of sports injuries, and are used by professionals to help with sports injuries and rehabilitation. With so many potential injury and rehabilitation conditions and uses a discussion is way beyond the scope of this article. However, we’ve linked a number of references on various conditions in the resources below

Resource for fitness professionals

Video guide for fitness professionals.

Appendix: misleading information about sports massage online

We found a lot of terribly incorrect and misleading information about sports massage online. The problem with this that people relying on this information may waste a lot of money, not get better, and even have harmful therapy done to them. What we will do here is give a few examples so you know what to be wary of.

Question: does sports massage need to hurt?

The correct answer is sports massage does not need to hurt. There are excellent effective painless alternatives, and too often when therapists inflict pain they are actually doing harm rather than good. Understanding this, please consider the following quote taken from the website of a professional sports massage therapist. Do these people actually believe that the way to help prepare muscles for exercise or to help them recover is to traumatise them?

Your body will undergo trauma during a sports massage, and while it’s likely you will feel a bit sore for a few days, you may also feel cold, thirsty and a faint as your body works to metabolize the waste products removed from the soft tissue. Drinking plenty of water and taking a warm bath will aid this process” (Quote for a sports massage website)

Questions: What is sports massage and what is the difference between sports massage and other types of massage?

We have seen that “sports massage” includes massages other than conventional massages by professional therapist. However, just limiting it to conventional massages by professional therapists the correct answer is that sports massages usually are a mixture of the techniques listed below, and vary depending on the needs of the client and the preferences of the therapist. These may be identical to any of the common types of massage such as “deep tissue”, “Swedish” or “remedial”, with the only difference being that it caters for sport people. With that in mind I have pasted some sample misleading quotes below.

Massage techniques

  • Effleurage (stroking)
  • Petrissage (kneading)
  • Tapotement (percussion)
  • Friction

"Deep tissue massage is often administered as a full body massage, rather than focusing on a specific area of the body. Sports massage, on the other hand, is a targeted massage approach that focuses on specific areas of the body that are in need of healing or relief." (a lot of deep tissue massages are done to address a specific problem, while sports massages such as warm-ups often cover most of the body DrG.)

"In summary, a deep tissue massage is the best option for relief from general pain and tension; whereas a sports massage will suit anyone looking for the treatment of injuries or repetitive sprains or strains that have built up over time in specific soft tissue and muscle areas."  (deep tissue massages are often used to treat specific injuries whereas warm-up and recovery massages are completely different to as described here. DrG.)

"the difference between the two massages is that sports massage is “symptom focused” whereas deep tissue massage is “outcome focused" (total garbage DrG.)


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  2. Chen J, Zhang F, Chen H, Pan H. Rhabdomyolysis After the Use of Percussion Massage Gun : A Case Report. Phys Ther.2021;1–5.
  3. Small K, Mc Naughton L, Matthews M. A systematic review into the efficacy of static stretching as part of a warm-up for the prevention of exercise-related injury. Res Sport Med. 2008;16(3):213–31.
  4. Weerapong P, Hume PA, Kolt GS. Stretching: Mechanisms and Benefits for Sport Performance and Injury Prevention. Phys Ther Rev. 2004;9(4):189–206.
  5. 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):e000614.
  6. Kurt C. Alternative to traditional stretching methods for flexibility enhancement in well-trained combat athletes: Local vibration versus whole-body vibration. Biol Sport. 2015;32(3):225–33.
  7. 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.
  8. Pamukoff DN, Ryan ED, Troy Blackburn J. The acute effects of local muscle vibration frequency on peak torque, rate of torque development, and EMG activity Vol. 24, Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology. 2014. p. 888–94.
  9. Otadi K et. a. A prophylactic effect of local vibration on quadriceps muscle fatigue in non-athletic males : a randomized controlled trial study. J Phys Ther Sci. 2019;31:223–6.
  10. Haba D, Nakagami G, Minematsu T, Sanada H. Low-Frequency Vibration Promotes Ampk-Mediated Glucose Uptake In 3t3-L1 Adipocytes. Vol. 7, Heliyon. 2021.
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  19. Frant TL, Rui MD. Effects of dynamic warm-up on lower body explosiveness among collegiate baseball players. J Strength Cond Res. 2011;25(11):2985–90.
  20. McCrary JM, Ackermann BJ, Halaki M. A systematic review of the effects of upper body warm-up on performance and injury. Br J Sports Med. 2015;49(14):935–42.
  21. Jönhagen S, Ackermann P, Eriksson T, Saartok T, Renström PAFH. Sports massage after eccentric exercise. Am J Sports Med. 2004;32(6):1499–503.
  22. 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.
  23. Hart JC. Effects of Sport Massage on Limb Girth and Discomfort Associated With Eccentric Exercise. J Athl Train. 2005;24(2):181–5.
  24. 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.
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  30. Farr T, Nottle C, Nosaka K, Sacco P. The effects of therapeutic massage on delayed onset muscle soreness and muscle function following downhill walking. J Sci Med Sport. 2002;5(4):297–306.
  31. Bender PU, Luz CM, Feldkircher JM NG. Massage therapy slightly decreased pain intensity after habitual running , but had no effect on fatigue , mood or physical performance : a randomised trial. J Physiother. 2019;65(2):75–80.
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  38. Kim J-Y, Kang D-H, Lee J-H, O S-M, Jeon J-K. The effects of pre-exercise vibration stimulation on the exercise-induced muscle damage. J Phys Ther Sci. 2017;29(1):119–22.
  39. Zutshi K, Jhan T, Sethi A. Effect of Vibration on Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness before and after the Eccentric Exercise in Biceps Brachii Muscle of Females. Res Artic Int J Prev Cardiol. 2021;1(1):4–12.
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  43. Lu X, Wang Y, Lu J, You Y, Zhang L, Zhu D. Does vibration benefit delayed-onset muscle soreness ?: a meta-analysis and systematic review. 2019;
  44. 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.
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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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