Thursday 17th August, 2023

The evidence based guide to sports massages for fitness professionals

Sports massages have long been used by professional sports clubs, but we now have self massage options that make this much more convenient and affordable. This article and video have been put together as a concise but very easy to understand resource so fitness professionals can best advise clients how to use sports massage to:

  • warm-up,
  • recover faster,
  • perform better, and
  • help with injuries and rehabilitation.

For each of these we'll go over:

  • the potential benefits
  • what works and what doesn't, and
  • your best options.


Summary video
Massages before sports or exercise as part of a warmup
After exercise to help recovery
For injuries and rehabilitation
Improving performances

Summary video

Standard disclaimer: this is not specific advice, just general information to be discussed with your own health care professional.

Pre-exercise massages (warm-ups)

The main reasons to do pre-exercise massages are to prevent injury and improve performance. To do that a massage has to do things like relax your muscles so they aren’t tight, and help get some blood pumping through them.

Preventing injuries

It make sense that massage can help, but to my knowledge no one has ever tested it. The idea is if you relax muscles they won’t be as tight, so they’ll be less likely to tear. That’s the same theory as stretching to help prevent injuries, which scientists have tested. With that the problem they found is that stretching can allow joints to move more than they normally would making them more vulnerable. You end up with less muscle tears but more joint injuries. I can’t see that being a problem with the massage though. I think it would just relax muscles enough to do normal full movement.

On the basis, therapeutic vibration massage is excellent. Conventional massage not quite as good, but still OK, while on the other hand foam rollers improve flexibility, but the effects only last less than 10 minutes.

Improving performance

Looking at increasing performance, all the evidence shows that both conventional massage and foam rollers have no effect on performance what so ever. Therapeutic vibration massage on the other hand has been shown in clinical trials to increases the time taken for your muscles fatigue, and reduce your post exercise soreness. It’s also been shown to increase strength, but only for a little while.

The other important thing to mention here is that dynamic warm ups, which are basically exercises to warm you up, do an excellent job of increasing flexibility, and and improving performance. In one trial athletes were able to jump 50 mm (that’s 2 inches) higher.

The best use of your time

The thing to consider with a warm up is that time is critical. As I said we’re not even considering foam rolling because by the time you’ve finished, the first part you did has lost any increase in flexibility. Vibration massage is quick and gives great results so it’s OK, but even though conventional massage is OK, do you spend time on the massage table when you’d get better results using that time doing a dynamic warm up?
Information about the massages
More info. and references on warm-ups.

Massages after exercise (recovery)

You need a comple strategy

The first thing I need to share is that any massage you do should just be part of a complete strategy to provide everything your muscles need to recover as fast as possible, and that includes things like rest, hydration and nutrition as well as therapies and other things that can help. For more info. please see our article The practical, science based guide to post exercise recovery .

The microscopic structure of muscles
Strenuous exercise damages these microscopic structures

The main issue

The main issue with post exercise recovery is that after strenuous exercise your muscles will tighten, you’ll have microscopic damage to the muscle fibres, and a build of of toxic chemicals from that breakdown. That means your muscles will be sore, and won’t perform as well until they are recovered. So, what you want the massage to do is help relax your muscles, and to increase blood flow to flush out those chemicals and bring in fresh nutrients.

Your options

Foam rollers

For a start despite the marketing claims foam rolling is probably worse than useless. In clinical trials they only give trivial or negligible benefits, but when people use them in the real world with no professional advice or supervision you probably won’t even get that and it’s very likely that you will do damage instead.

Conventional massage

Conventional massage relaxes muscles and increases blood flow so it should help, but in clinical trials the improvements have been small. If you have a conventional massage the main thing is that there’ll be microscopic damage to your muscles and maybe other tissues so you just want a massage that’s firm enough to increase the blood flow, but not cause further damage.

Vibration massage

Looking at genuine vibration massage next, trials show that applications in the proper therapeutic range give excellent reductions in post exercise soreness and help muscles get back to full strength faster. It also has a couple of other big advantages.

  • The first is when done properly you’re not pressing into the muscles so there’s very little risk of doing any damage to the healing muscle fibres or any of the tiny blood vessels that might be damaged.
  • The other advantage is that if you’ve got the right equipment you can easily do it yourself. Obviously that will be more convenient and save you money, but it lets you do multiple applications rather than just one or two. Within reason, you’re always going to get better results from multiple regular applications rather than a one offer. For example in a couple of clinical trials they used an application after exercise, then each day during recovery.

Injuries and rehabilitation

As a Chiropractor injuries and rehabilitation was my big area. It’s a big subject though, so what I’ll do here is give some generalities and link to some specific articles and videos.

For a start I’m probably sounding like a cracked record, but don’t bother with foam rollers. The clinical trail results are nothing to write home about, and as a Chiropractor for 27 years I saw a lot of people hurt themselves with them.

For treating injuries and rehabilitation both conventional massage and therapeutic vibration massage are excellent. The biggest issue I always found as a chiropractor though was that most people needed a series of therapeutic treatments over time. If we sent them to a professional massage therapist the patients would get maybe one or two massages but it wouldn’t be enough. If they had a proper therapeutic vibration massager though and were shown what to do they could have as many applications as they needed.

Increasing performance

We looked before at whether a massage before you compete will help performance. This time we’ll look at whether regular massages over time help. The key thing here is that if you’ve ever had a massage the therapist will likely have found tender spots and tight spots in your muscles, such as what we call (myofascial) trigger points or trigger points for short. Now I’ll link an article on these, but the key is that they stop your muscles working as they should and inhibit your performance. They reduce strength. They make you fatigue faster, and they effect your timing.

Therefore, by far the biggest way regular massages are going to help performance is by removing the problems that inhibit your performance. I’ll link info on treating these, but to get straight to the point the best way is by using vibration massage. It’s fast, highly effective and of course you can do it yourself so can easily keep repeating repeating the treatment.

An example

To illustrate what’s possible there have been three trials where athletes have been given regular vibration massages, such as a session each evening, and in each one there were good improvements in performance. One trial was done at a training camp for runners wanting to do a 10 km race. All the ones that had the massages finished the race, whereas nearly half the ones who didn’t had to pull out.
More information and references

The massages

Let’s look at the massages in a bit more detail.

Foam rollers

All the scientific evidence showed that they were next to useless, so next massage.

Conventional massages

As you’re probably aware there’s a few basic techniques such as pressure, kneading, stripping (rubbing along the muscle), and friction, but the actual massage you get can vary immensely depending on the skills and preferences of the therapist and what he or she is trying to achieve.

I can give you some general guidelines such as not going too hard after exercise so you don’t further damage the muscles, but apart from that you’re just going to have to look at the qualifications of the therapist and the results he of she is achieving.

One thing though, don’t get hung up on names such as “sports massage”. For a start there’s no specific sports massage as the massage really depends of what you are trying to achieve, which is obviously different for a warm up and say rehabilitation. The other thing is a remedial, relaxation or a Swedish massage might be exactly the same as the sports massage, with the only difference being one is being done on a sports person.

The scientifically proven effects of vibration massage

Therapeutic vibration massage

The last one I’ll discuss is therapeutic vibration massage. That’s where a vibration massager is placed on the muscles and the vibrations are allowed to penetrate. Vibrations from 30-50 hz, which is cycles per second have some pretty amazing effects including relaxing muscle and increasing blood flow. In some trials on wound healing it was even found that the vibration did things like increasing the production of natural growth hormones and making the muscle grow faster and with less scar tissue. I’ll link more info about that and how to use vibration massage.

Not percussion massages or "massage guns"

At this stage I need to differentiate between vibration massage and percussion massage or massage guns. Percussion massagers are machines built to drive their heads into the muscles in an attempt to combine the benefits of conventional massage.

Vibration massage vs percussion
Percussion massagers drive their heads into the muscle, but only give small amounts of therapeutic vibration

To help you understand the difference, the machine on the left has a vibration pad designed to send large amounts of vibrations into the muscles. The percussion massagers have a head that goes up and down much further and is designed to punch into the muscle like a jackhammer.

Looking at what each does to your muscles, the vibration massager sends in huge amounts of therapeutic vibrations, but sits on the surface so there’s little chance of it doing any harm. The massage guns send in far less therapeutic vibrations, and I don’t know of any evidence that punching into your muscles has any benefit at all. In fact if you think about it logically, before you exercise or after exercise when you have microscopic damage to your muscles the last thing you want is a massage gun punching in potentially doing more damage. This is not a trivial thing. Colleagues are telling me that they’re now seeing people with build ups of scar tissue in their muscles from repeated massage gun use, and there’s even a report in a journal of someone using a massage gun to help recover after cycling and nearly dying from the injuries.

How to choose a genuine vibration massager

So, if you want to get the benefits of vibration massage you’ll need a genuine vibration massager. Please see our article How to choose a massager .

DrGraeme General Purpose Massager

That said, genuine vibration massagers are not that common, and most are designed for professionals like myself to use on patients rather than for self use. Because of that we built our own personal use vibration massagers. This is our General Purpose Massager. The business end delivers copious amounts of therapeutic vibrations. It’s got a proper ergonomically designed handle so it’s easy to use anywhere on your body, and it has very easy to use controls. The on/off switch is underneath and it has a sliding variable speed control under your thumb.
More info on our General Purpose Massager

The DrGraeme Ultimate Quad Head Massager
The DrGraeme Ultimate Quad Head Massager

Over the years we’ve sold over 100,000 of these without any advertising, mainly though professionals like chiropractors, osteopaths and physical therapists using them and recommending them to their patients. More recently we’ve developed our quad head machine that has all the good things the General Purpose Massager has, but can do a much greater area at once and because the front part is larger and flatter you can easily use it like a cushion or chair massager.
More info on our Ultimate Quad Head Massager

We are continually adding more information on research and uses. Subscribe below to have us email them to you "hot off the press".

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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