Whether you’re an athlete looking for ways to help with your post-workout recovery or are experiencing newfound back pain thanks to a less-than-ideal work-from-home setup, it might be time to invest in a targeted deep-tissue massager, otherwise known as a massage gun.
A massage gun can be used from the comfort of your home to help your muscles recover after a particularly grueling workout or a long day on your feet. “What the massage gun does is combine impact and movement, known as vibration therapy, to help loosen up tight and sore muscles, similar to that of a massage, as well as stimulate blood flow to help increase recovery,” explained physical therapist John Gallucci Jr., CEO of JAG-ONE Physical Therapy.
To help you pick the right massage gun for your needs, we spoke to experts about how the device works and collected some of their favorite massagers on the market.
What is a massage gun?
A massage gun, more technically called a percussion massager, is a handheld tool that limbers muscles by providing rapid mini bursts of pressure in concentrated pulses, Gallucci explained. This tool is often referred to as a “mini jackhammer” for your muscles and it’s meant to be used when you’re sore or tight. “The percussion therapy provided by the massage gun will help to loosen up or relax tight muscles or trigger points (hyper-irritable spots located in a tight band of muscle) and will also increase blood flow to the affected area,” Gallucci explained.
Other names for this type of therapy include a deep tissue massage or a self-massage, and it can be done on areas of the body with significant muscle mass — such as the neck, back, shoulders and legs — to help alleviate or prevent muscle soreness. “The massage guns can cause local stimulation to drive the cascade of blood flow and associated nutrients to those areas,” explained Dr. Rahul Shah, an orthopedic spine and neck surgeon. “These are also the areas where muscles are likely to build lactic acid [which causes a burning sensation] and other byproducts of increasing muscle fatigue. By stimulating blood flow to these areas, these toxins can also be effectively neutralized.”
A massage gun’s high-velocity vibrations stimulate nerve fibers, which in turn dampens local pain responses, explained Bianca Beldini, an acupuncturist, physical therapist and triathlete. “The oscillatory pressure vibrations can release tension in the fibers of the muscles and increase circulation of blood and lymph to the soft tissue, leading to relaxation of the muscle and a decrease in pain,” she said.
Massage guns are not recommended for everyone, explained Allen Conrad, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and owner of Montgomery County Chiropractic Center. “Anyone who suffers from hypertension, rheumatoid arthritis, bone fractures, swelling, varicose veins or any autoimmune or muscular disorder should consult with their doctor before using a massage gun,” he said.
Best massage guns to shop
Based on the experts we spoke to, here are some of the best massage guns to consider across various brands and price points. All of the options experts recommended have multiple speeds and attachments.
Best overall massage gun: Hyperice
Beldini personally uses Hyperice’s Hypervolt 2 model and said it provides the best all-around value, with three speeds up to 3,200 percussions per minute (PPM), five head attachments and a rechargeable lithium-ion battery that holds up to three hours of juice, according to the brand. “It is easy to handle and it is relatively quiet,” she said.
Best affordable massage gun: VYBE
For those looking for a budget-friendly option, Gallucci likes this model from VYBE. It’s suitable for athletes at every level, the brand says, and is relatively lightweight at under 4 pounds. The massage gun has five levels of vibration up to 3,200 PPM and comes with four different attachments. “This machine is great for on the go and comes with a rechargeable built-in battery,'' Gallucci noted.
Best travel-friendly massage gun: Hyperice
Hypervolt massage guns are known for their quick-charging batteries, minimal noise levels, power and ease of use, according to Gallucci. “Weighing in at 1.5 pounds, this Hypervolt product packs a lot of power into a travel-friendly option,” he said, noting that it’s “nearly as powerful as many full-size guns.” Conrad agreed that this is a quality lightweight option that can easily be carried or packed in a bag when traveling.
Best splurge massage gun: Theragun
This massage gun stands in a class of its own due to its ergonomic grip and adjustable arm, according to Gallucci. It’s easy to angle the arm for a customized massage catered to any body part. “A few other special features include the six speeds, seven attachments, two batteries lasting five hours total and Bluetooth capabilities,” he said. “This massage gun is an investment, but fitness enthusiasts and athletes feel it is well worth the splurge.” Conrad also noted that the Pro model is over 50% quieter than previous Theragun generations. The company also offers a 60-day risk-free trial.
Best massage gun for beginners: Wahl
Conrad recommended this option for beginners looking for a budget-friendly option before making a more sizable investment. It comes with four attachment heads, and although it isn’t battery-operated, it has a 9-foot power cable so you can move freely. It also has two speeds and two vibration settings with up to 3,350 PPM. Conrad noted that while travel guns like this may not be powerful enough for larger areas, like the hamstrings, they can be useful for smaller regions, like the calves and forearms.
Best customizable massage gun: Theragun
This is Conrad’s favorite massage gun overall for three reasons: It’s quiet, has an ergonomic handle and packs plenty of power. Gallucci agreed: “Theragun is the pioneer in this market, and this fourth-generation [massage gun] lives up to the top-quality products that Theragun is known for.” According to the brand, the Theragun Prime is 70% quieter than its previous generations and has five built-in speed settings, two hours of battery life and four attachments. Users can also download the Therabody app, which integrates with Apple Health and Google Fit and recommends guided wellness routines based on your behaviors. With the app, you can also select any speed between 1,750 and 2,400 PPM.
Massage gun features to consider
According to the experts we consulted, there are some notable features shoppers may come across when checking out different massage gun models.
- Noise. Some units are extremely noisy, making them unpleasant to use near the head or neck, Gallucci warned. He recommended reading reviews and looking for noise level complaints to help avoid ending up with an overly loud massage gun.
- Strength. Some massage guns offer different speed levels measured in percussions per minute, or PPM. ”Higher speeds or velocity will yield a more superficial numbing effect and higher power models will reach deeper into the muscle fibers,” Beldini explained.
- Weight. A massage gun is meant to be used with one hand, which makes the weight extremely important. “If the gun is too heavy, your hand or arm may become fatigued before you are finished with your massage session,” Gallucci said.
- Portability. Along with weight, you want to take size into consideration if you want to keep your massage gun in a gym bag or take it with you when you travel.
- Ease of use. Consider not only if you can hold and apply pressure by yourself, but also how easy it is to swiftly cycle through the different speeds as you target different parts of your body.
- Smart app. Some massage guns sport Bluetooth connectivity and work with their own apps so you can control speed, personalize settings or select different programs based on activities or areas of concern.
- Head attachments. Buying a massage gun with a range of head attachments will give you the flexibility to work on different areas of your body. According to experts, a big round head can be used on larger muscle groups like your quads, while a flat head can be used on small, dense muscle groups like the shoulder blades.
Massage guns: Pros and cons
According to Gallucci, there are multiple aspects to take into consideration when it comes to a massage gun, both pros and cons.
After a tough workout or even some strenuous house or yard work, Gallucci said that it’s common to experience sore muscles, and a massage gun can help. “To soothe those achy muscles, many have turned to massage, and the massage gun is a convenient, portable way to bring your massage anywhere that you are,” he said. Using the massage gun not only alleviates pain but also speeds up your recovery time by aiding in the removal of waste product from damaged tissue and breaking up scar tissue.
According to Gallucci, massage guns also offer enough pressure to actually make a difference, unlike other massage tools like foam rollers. “Some people cannot physically push hard enough, while others are afraid of the pain they may feel in the affected area,” he said. “Massage guns are battery-powered and mechanical, so they do not hold back and always provide the same level of intensity and ensure pressure.”
Massage guns need to be utilized properly. Those who are inexperienced or have not done enough research on how to properly handle the massage gun can end up injuring themselves. “You may end up massaging an area that is experiencing referred pain and not actually targeting the area that needs help with recovery, doing more harm than good,” Gallucci said.
Massage guns used on injuries such as strains, sprains, broken bones or even extreme swelling can also potentially make the damage worse. “They can further damage the injured tissue or even increase swelling rate,” he said. “You should check with your doctor if you have a chronic condition before using a massage gun to see if it is right for you.”
Beldini also warned that overusing a massage gun can have adverse effects. “Leaving a massage gun on an area for too long could ultimately cause some soft-tissue trauma, leaving some internal bruising. Not all bruises are obvious black-and-blue. Deeper tissue can become more inflamed and irritated,” she explained. To avoid this, Beldini suggested moving the gun from area to area in short durations (10-20 seconds in each location. “This will ensure that you are not overdoing it at one tissue segment,” she said.
How to use a massage gun properly
If you don’t talk to your doctor before using a massage gun, Gallucci warned you might cause further injury. “My advice is to do the research and know what the machine is used for and how to use it properly so that you don’t end up hurting yourself,” he said.
Once you have consulted a doctor and done your research, Gallucci recommends keeping these tips in mind:
- Try to completely relax your body before using the massage gun. “There is a reason that when you go get a massage by a masseuse, they do so in a relaxing setting,” he said. “Your body will see better results from massage when the muscle is relaxed.”
- Use a slow and steady tempo. Especially when you are first using the product, it will treat the targeted muscle more effectively.
- Don’t just target the painful area. Also work on the muscles surrounding this area. “The body compensates by asking the surrounding muscles to act when another muscle is under stress,” he explained. “Treating the entire affected area can enhance the healing process.”