Massage Gun Vs. Foam Roller Vs. Stretching: What Works Best?
Is your personal trainer a beast? Does he regularly challenge your performance? Do you experience that after-burn the next day? If you work out on a regular basis you are probably looking for ways to reduce post-workout pain, or DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness). Which is the best way to relieve those sore and tired muscles? Should you invest in a get a massage gun? Spend some extra time on your foam roller? Or is more stretching in order? What is the best way to reduce your soreness, improve performance, and feel better overall? Let’s to find out.
Massage Gun vs. Foam Roller vs. Stretching: What works best? Pre-workout, dynamic stretching is the clear winner. After a workout, the foam roller is great. Use your massage gun for the in-between workout relief.
In the interest of research, I compared each mechanism; massage gun, foam roller and stretching, in 3 key areas. First are benefits, then risks, and finally, cost.
Each area begins with addressing exactly “what” the mechanism is and “how” it works. This way, you can compare each and see what works for you.
Right now, the massage gun is the hottest thing in hand-held massage equipment. You can’t go on any form of social media without seeing some athletic individuals pushing one of these into their quads. Additionally, many professional teams are using them on camera, increasing the interest of the public in general . . . and yours truly. 🙂
What is a Massage Gun?
More basically, a massage gun is a tool. It looks somewhat like a jigsaw, with a reciprocating shaft and a head that generally has interchangeable tips. It has a rechargeable battery, with battery life running from 1 to 3 hours, depending on the brand and model. Most have a one-touch trigger to engage the shaft.
It is believed to have been invented in 2008 by a Los Angeles chiropractor named Jason Werseland. Werseland apparently invented the gun to address his own back pain after receiving a herniated disc in a motorcycle accident.
His invention went on to become the TheraGun, one of the most popular percussive massagers currently on the market.
How Does a Massage Gun work?
The massage gun uses a combination of pulse and vibration to loosen tight muscles and help relax and elongate muscle fibers.
The reciprocating shaft pushes the tip into the muscle, hitting it up to 3600 times per second to a depth of 16mm. This applies concentrated pressure and vibration deep into your muscle tissue. The repetitive pressure causes the muscle tissue to relax and may assist in stretching or elongate the muscle fibers, which helps to relax those pesky “knots.” It also helps increases blood flow to the area, which can aid in the reduction of lactic acid build-up and help with lymphatic drainage.
The interchangeable tips include broad flat tips for larger muscles and narrower, more pointed tips for more targeted areas. There are also balls, forks, wedges, cones, and cylinders for different applications. Some of the guns even have a heated tip function, to utilize heat in your massage gun experience.
You use the gun by letting it “float” over the muscle, letting the reciprocating shaft do all the hard work.
What are the benefits of a Massage Gun?
The benefits touted by proponents of the massage gun are both impressive and extensive. They include:
Increased blood flow. This assertion has been supported by a study utilizing thermographic imaging. The subject was scanned prior to a massage. After 3 minutes of percussive massage using a massage gun, the body was rescanned. The thermographic imaging showed greatly increased blood flow in the muscle areas targeted. Surprisingly, the effects lasted for over an hour.
Increased blood flow has many benefits. It improves oxygenation to the muscles, transports nutrients throughout the body, helps remove wastes and toxins, and helps promote recovery.
Decreased lactic acid build-up. Lactic acid is made when oxygenation to the muscle is insufficient. The body begins using lactate as an energy source. The waste product known as lactic acid is formed.
Lactic acid build-up can cause you to feel tired, nauseated, and experience muscle cramps. It is removed through the bloodstream.
Decreased after-workout soreness. The reduction in lactic acid, caused by the increase in blood flow, leads to less after-workout muscular stiffness and less cramping. The application of pressure to the muscle, tendons, and ligaments, it may also reduce the risk of spasm or painful contraction.
What are the risks with a Massage Gun?
As with any tool, the safety of the gun is directly related to the user. If used correctly and as directed, the massage gun is a safe option.
It is important not to use the gun directly over bony areas. The pulsating nature of the reciprocating shaft is designed for deep tissue, not shallow tissue. You would find the use of the gun over bone to be uncomfortable, to say the least.
You also want to avoid using the massage gun over a strained muscle, more commonly known as a pulled muscle. There is evidence that the deep action of the percussion massage could inflict more damage on a strained muscle.
A torn or damaged tendon, more commonly known as a sprain, is another area you don’t want to use the massage gun on. Again, the deep, repetitive nature of the massage gun could cause further damage. This is an area to discuss with your doctor to assess the stage of healing.
Finally, you don’t want to use the gun over areas of inflammation. Stimulation of the inflamed area(s) can cause further inflammation, discomfort, and damage. Inflammations include bursitis, tendonitis, fasciitis, and periostitis.
What does a Massage Gun cost?
There is a HUGE range in massage gun cost, quality, technology, and options.
Least expensive. A quick search on the internet and you will find a veritable smorgasbord of massage guns, with the least expensive running about $90.
This is NOT the professional-grade massage gun you’ve seen on YouTube! These under $100 guns are generally lower quality with fewer features.
Reviewing them quickly, I noted that they tend to have a stroke depth of 12mm, rather than the 16mm the higher end massage guns offer.
Most offer you 3 to 5 interchangeable heads, as opposed to the 6 to 9 found with the higher end units.
I’m not saying these aren’t good. It depends entirely on your personal needs and preferences. If you aren’t a professional athlete looking for professional results, one of these may be just right for you. These are also a good initial investment to see if the massage gun is right for you before anteing up your hard earned money.
Mid-range. Continuing on Amazon, there are probably more than 25 options between $100 and $200.
As you would expect, quality is better than the entry-level guns, but not at the level of our high-end choices.
They have more heads, longer battery life, and a longer stroke length than the economy brands. Some of their features rival those of the high-end guns, but you won’t find all the great features in any one gun. Each will have a special focus, and there will often be shortcomings in other areas.
Here is where we separate the boys from the men, so to speak.
Heated tips, 8+ hour battery lives, vibration with percussion options, up to 9 interchangeable heads, these bad boys will do everything but wipe the sweat off your brow after you’re done.
What About Foam Rollers?
A foam roller is a very firm, circular piece of foam used to roll sore, tired muscles over. This is called foam rolling or, more technically, self-myofascial release.
The practitioner uses their own weight to roll their muscles over the roller, pushing the muscle into it and releasing muscle tightness and trigger points.
In addition to a formal “roller,” you can use tennis balls, lacrosse balls, your own hands, yoga mat around a PVC pipe, or what have you. There is no specific benefit from a “roller” that doesn’t exist with these alternatives. It simply depends on what you have and what works best for you in your lifestyle.
How does a Foam Roller work?
The beauty is in the simplicity. By pressing against the target muscle, your own body weight puts pressure on it. This pressure helps improve blood circulation, improve oxygenation, and relax the muscle itself.
For targeted areas, you can use a smaller roller or ball. If you’ve ever run your tired feet over a tennis ball or spiked ball, you’ve done self-myofascial release, and it felt soooo good! If you want to take your rolling to the next level, you can indulge in the Hyperice Vyper 2.0, a roller that also provides the benefit of 3 levels of vibrational therapy.
Deep compression, like that found with a foam roller, helps break up tight muscles and adhesions that can form between muscle layers and their surrounding tissues. The compression, coupled with the rolling action itself, increases blood flow to the muscle.
As discussed previously, increased blood flow means increased oxygenation. Like the massage gun, it will help reduce lactic acid build-up and improve lymphatic drainage.
If used prior to a workout, the foam roller can also help “warm-up” or pre-loosen the muscles. This can help reduce the risk of sprain or strain, thereby making the workout more effective and less painful overall.
What are the benefits of a Foam Roller?
The benefits of foam rolling or using a foam roller are very comparable to those of using a massage gun. Increased blood circulation, improved lymphatic drainage, and improved oxygenation. There are other benefits, as well.
- Prevent injury. If you use your foam roller prior to a workout, you can get those muscles nice and loose, reducing the risk of injury. Additionally, proponents state it will reduce recovery time after your workout. This can also be said for the massage gun and stretching options.
- Break up scar tissue. The deep compression and rolling mechanism in foam rolling can help break up thickening in the fascia or connective tissue.As this thickening is how scars are formed, the rolling can, in fact, break up scar tissue. Be aware; this is not going to fix that surgical scar you have from 20 years ago, though it can increase the flexibility of the scarred area.
- Increased flexibility and mobility.Since the roller is a good option for addressing your tendons and ligaments, as well as reducing associated adhesions, the roller is an excellent option for keeping your tissues supple and reducing friction between them. This combination will result in increased flexibility and mobility in the body.
- Utilize it as a workout tool.Unlike the gun, you can actually integrate the foam roller into your workout program. There are online videos that show you how to use the roller to tighten your gluteus maximus (butt muscles), for example.
What are the risks with a Foam Roller?
Just like the massage gun, the primary risk is in the user. There are right and wrong ways to use the foam roller, and there are times when it is not recommended.
The right way. Start with light pressure and build up. You might find it slightly uncomfortable, to begin with.
For tender areas, roll for only about 10-20 seconds, before moving to a different area. You can build up a tolerance for up to 30 seconds or even a minute, but the rolling should be a little uncomfortable, but not at all painful.
Drink plenty of water afterward to help improve recovery time.
You want to avoid rolling entirely if you have a muscle strain, ligament sprain, or tearing of either. Additionally, here are a couple of other areas of concern to consider while using a foam roller.
You want to avoid rolling over small joints, like those in the wrists, knee, elbow, or ankle.The concept is to roll the muscle. Rolling over joints could cause you to hyperextend them, actually causing injury to the area you’re trying to improve.
With any of these options, consult with your obstetrician first. What might be fine for one pregnancy may not be for another. In fact, using a foam roller over the knees has been known to induce early labor.
- Certain stages of neuropathy.
Acute neuropathies can cause nerves and nerve bundles to be extremely sensitive. You certainly don’t want to roll over one of those!
- Uncontrolled high blood pressure.
Rolling can be very uncomfortable to painful. This discomfort can cause an increase in blood pressure. Best to be done under the guidance of a healthcare professional.
Osteoporosis is a degenerative disease of the bone, where the bone becomes brittle and much more fragile.Though in an of itself, osteoporosis is not painful, the deep compression of the muscle over or against the bone could result in fracture or break, which IS very painful.
What does a Foam Roller cost?
Not surprisingly, that depends on where you buy it, how big it is, what it’s made of, and any special shape you want.
On shopping sites like Amazon, you are likely to see a range from $8 for an “Amazon basic” 12″ high density round roller to $69 for a Brazyn Morph 14.5″ collapsible roller supporting up to 350 lbs, and upwards of $100.00 for rollers with more advanced technology. The average rollers are in the $20-$30 range.
There are a HUGE number of options. You could easily spend all day picking and choosing what works best for you. Some of them look like medieval torture devices but to each their own.
Don’t forget….there is also the DIY yourself version, where you make it yourself to the size and design you prefer. Obviously, this is potentially the least expensive way to go. If you choose to do it yourself, please take the time to research size recommendations and make sure what you’re making is what you intend.
What is Stretching?
This sounds stupid. We all know what stretching is, right? Or do we? Stretchcoach.com defines stretching as “the process of placing particular parts of the body into a position that will lengthen, or elongate, the muscles and associated soft tissues.”
That is a very formal sounding definition. Furthermore, there are different types of stretching. There are static stretches, where you stretch and hold for about 30 seconds, and there are dynamic stretches, which involve stretching with some form of movement like swaying or bouncing.
Another good definition is “A form of physical exercise in which a specific skeletal muscle (or muscle group) is deliberately elongated to its fullest length in order to improve the muscle’s felt elasticity and reaffirm comfortable muscle tone.”
I really like this one. It goes directly to the basis of the comparison we are making.
Stretching requires no specialized equipment or knowledge, is convenient, portable, natural, and can be easy to do.
Stretching is also the basic foundation of yoga moves, and we all know how good those are for you.
How does stretching work?
There are actual physiological changes within the muscle, tendon, and ligaments when stretching is performed. The water in the area can be changed, and, in joints, stem cells can be encouraged, which can differentiate into different forms of elastin and collagen, which are building blocks of tendons and ligaments.
You can also actually lengthen the muscle fibers by stretching. When stretching over time, the muscle fibers add “sarcomeres,” which is the stretching component of muscle tissue. This addition causes the fibers to lengthen.
According to Harvard Health, sedentary behaviors like sitting, cause the muscles to contract, which makes them stiff. Stretching stops the contraction, reverses it, and loosens the muscles overall.
Also, stiff muscles can more easily be injured when called upon for strenuous activities like exercise, working out, or running for your life. Loose muscles have a lower risk of injury.
What are the benefits of stretching?
Just like using a massage gun or the foam roller, stretching activates the muscle tissue, increasing blood flow, oxygenation, and decreasing pain. However, here are some more benefits associated with stretching
- Decreases muscle stiffness and increases flexibility. We’ve discussed stiff muscles already, but stretching can also improve the flexibility of your tendons and ligaments, which are key in overall flexibility
- Improves posture. Stretching the muscles in the neck, chest, and lower back helps keep the spine better aligned and improves posture.
- Reduces stress.Loose, relaxed muscles hold less tension and provide a feeling of reduced stress overall.
- Decreases risk of lower back pain. The lower back is one of the most injured areas during exercise or strenuous activity. Stretching this area both before and after a workout is a great way to avoid injury and the resulting pain.
- Improves the overall functional performance of the body. Put more clearly, range of motion is enhanced with regular stretching activities.
What are the risks of stretching?
Shocking, but true. Stretching does come with some risk. Most of that risk is associated with doing something improperly or pushing too hard.
- Stretching infrequently. This is an activity that is best done regularly. In fact, the best result is for a muscle group to be stretched a maximum of 5 minutes 6 days per week. Kind of a short but frequent deal is best.
Infrequency loses the increased flexibility benefit. This leads to a higher risk of pushing the stretch too far and causing injury.
- Static stretching to warm up.Remember, static stretching is a stretch and hold. You do not use this before exercise. Your before-workout regimen should include dynamic stretching, to both warm and loosen the muscle, tendon, and ligaments, prior to calling on them for action.
- Overstretching a “cold” muscle.Like spaghetti noodles, your muscles, tendons, and ligaments are most flexible after they’ve had an opportunity to warm up. Walk for a bit before your hamstring stretch. Swing your arms back and forth before stretching that rotator cuff. Warm-up BEFORE stretching begins.
- Overdoing a dynamic stretch.You know… don’t bounce or sway too hard while stretching. Again, this is a little bit at a time sort of deal. You want to ease into it.
How much does stretching cost?
Stretching is FREE. You can do it anytime and just about anywhere. Can you pay for it? Certainly! Yoga or Pilates are prime example of commercial stretching.
The primary focus of yoga is on stretching and breathing techniques. You can attend a formal class, pay for classes to come into your home online, stream free classes, or go to the beach with some friends and practice poses to the sound of the ocean waves.
Yoga classes in a studio range from $25 to upward of $100 per hour, depending on location, yogi/yogini, and studio.
Online programs can be purchased in the $20 to $50 range and frequently have an unlimited option, where you can re-take all the classes you choose, once the program is paid for.
Free classes are available online. Simply Google “free yoga” and see the 1,940,000,000 results.
Don’t think yoga is your thing? That’s fine. Slap on a pair of sweatpants and Google “stretching exercises.” Enjoy your 678,000,000 results. Then get to work on those hamstrings and quads.
All three methods offer a substantial benefit to your workout regimen. Utilized before or after exercise, they all show the potential to prepare muscle tissue, ligaments, and tendons for the increased work, they all show the potential to decrease after workout stiffness and relieve pain, and they all show the potential for increased blood flow, improved oxygenation, and overall better muscular performance.
Strengths and weaknesses?
The massage gun can be a little pricey, and limited in the areas it can address without help from another person. On the positive, it gets deep into the tissues, relaxing the muscles and working out the kinks. And make sure to proceed with caution to avoid any potential discomfort.
The foam roller can be a little cumbersome at first, and requires some level of knowledge to use correctly. Its positives include being reasonably priced, fairly portable, and less risk of pain than the gun. That said, done incorrectly, this can be painful.
Dynamic stretching is best suited to pre-workout,k while static stretching is best done following an exercise routine. Though it can help with post-workout stiffness, studies have not found it to be particularly efficient for true deep tissue relaxation. Pre-workout, it warms and loosens the muscles and improves flexibility to decrease the risk of injury. Post-workout, it does relax the muscle fibers, just not the really deep, targeted tissue focus that foam rolling and the massage gun excel at.
For me? I’m going to do some dynamic stretching before my workout and use my foam roller for my post-workout routine. I’ll keep my massage gun at home for in between workout sessions. And . . . don’t forget to get your periodic massage sessions from your favorite massage therapist to keep you at your best! There is nothing bewtter than educated therapeutic touch!
Richard A. Lehman, LMT, CSCS
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