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  • Writer's pictureCompression Athlete

The Complete Guide to Percussion Therapy for Athletes

Here’s how percussive massage can boost your muscle recovery.

Athlete applying percussion therapy with massage gun.

No matter your sport or skill level, if you’re an athlete that gives 100% and is always pushing toward your goals then you know sore muscles and stiff joints well.


And while there’s no escaping this painful reality of human physiology, there are ways to speed up muscle recovery that will get you back in action faster and performing at a higher level.


New advancements in science and technology have led to worthwhile muscle recovery tools that are accessible for athletes of every stripe.


And of these new muscle recovery tools, percussion therapy is by far one of the best available.


Percussion therapy is a form of massage that uses rapid, targeted pressure to improve circulation in your muscles and boost recovery.


Here, we’ve put together the complete guide on percussion therapy for athletes with everything you need to know about incorporating it into your training routine and daily life.



Note: Featured products are independently selected and reviewed by Compression Athlete. If you purchase through our links, we may earn commission.



What Is Percussion Therapy for Athletes?


Over the past couple years, massage guns have experienced a huge surge in popularity and use among both competitive athletes and everyday active individuals.


For good reason too. Not only are there a wide variety of options available, but massage guns are simple to use and noticeably effective.


Because of their popularity, you may already be familiar with massage guns (and may even have one of your own), but you might not be as familiar with what percussion therapy is and why so many athletes use it.

So, what exactly are we talking about when we use the term percussion therapy?


Percussion therapy, also known as percussive therapy, is a form of massage that delivers rapid and targeted pressure to your body.


Athlete using massage gun for percussion therapy.

You can think of it in a similar fashion to music, in which a percussionist strikes or beats a musical instrument (typically drums) in a repetitive manner.


In this case, however, percussion therapy is applied to the body to improve circulation, relax muscle tension, and boost overall recovery.


Percussion therapy is most commonly applied by a massage gun, which is a handheld device with adjustable pressure levels and customizable head attachments to deliver various types of relief.


The head of the massage gun moves rapidly for vigorous pressure and can be directed back and forth across your various muscle groups for targeted massage.


The repetitive and impactful pressure relaxes muscle tension for immediate relief while also boosting circulation in your muscles, which in turns helps to flush metabolic waste and pump nutrient-rich blood into your limbs.


This improved circulation reduces muscle swelling and soreness, and thus shortens your muscle recovery span.



How Does Percussion Therapy Work for Athletes?


If you follow any of your favorite athletes on social media, there’s a good chance you’ve seen them working a massage gun along the muscles in their arms or legs at some point.


Tune into any professional sporting event and you’re almost certain to see the players on the bench using massage guns on their key muscle groups, as well.


But these massage guns and other percussion therapy devices aren’t just for professional athletes.


Athletes and active individuals of any stripe and sport can benefit from incorporating percussion therapy into their muscle recovery routines.


Here’s how the percussion therapy process typically works for athletes.


Turn on your massage gun and choose your desired pressure level.


If you’re just starting out, it’s best to work from low to high pressure intensity. This will allow you to see how your body and muscles react to the pressure without accidently overdoing it.


Gently apply the rapidly pulsating head to your desired muscle group and slowly work the massage gun along the muscle.


Athlete working massage gun over leg muscles.

Allow the massage gun to apply the percussive pressure to your muscle, taking care not to add any pressure of your own by pushing downward with the massage gun.


Move the massage gun back and forth, up and down, across the muscle. If you come across a particularly tense or tight spot, you can focus extra attention on the area.


Even if you’re enjoying the relaxing effect of the massage gun, be sure to limit the duration of your percussion therapy to no more than 2 minutes per muscle group.


Percussion therapy can be used for both warming-up your muscles prior to activity and cooling-down post-activity to improve recovery.


Massage guns are a great way to target certain muscle groups prior to physical activity, prepping them for movement and decreasing your chances of injury.


When it comes to recovery post-activity, the targeted pressure of massage gun reduces muscle soreness by forcing muscle fibers to release lactic acid buildup from your workout.


In other words, that dreaded muscle pain and stiffness that sets in a day or two after pushing your body won’t be as bad and won’t stick around for as long.


Not only does percussion therapy help alleviate the muscle soreness from your workout but it better prepares you for your next one faster and will allow you to perform at a higher level.



Where Can Percussion Therapy Be Applied on Your Body?


Massage guns are the most widely used form of percussion therapy. And because of their convenient handheld designs, it’s easy to target nearly any area of your body with these devices.


However, just because you can target nearly any area on your body, doesn’t mean you should.


While massage guns are often compared to foam rollers because of their ability to administer self-massage, massage guns can reach deeper to release tension within the layers of muscle and fascia.


For this reason, it’s important that you only apply percussion therapy to muscles and tendons, while avoiding bones, joints, and your spine.


Athlete using massage gun on arm muscles.

If you work your massage gun over bones or bony areas, you’ll likely experience kick-back from the massage gun and may feel pain in the area.


Likewise, do not use your massage gun over sensitive areas, vital organs, open wounds, injured areas, and areas that are already experiencing swelling.


Also, keep in mind that massage guns often come with a variety of head attachments to apply different forms of pressure on different parts of your body.


So, be sure to choose a head attachment and pressure level that best meets your needs and always start with a low intensity before working your way up.


Finally, it’s important that you listen to your body.


While you may experience slight discomfort initially as you get used to the targeted pressure of a massage gun, stop your treatment if you begin to experience any pain.



What Are the Benefits of Percussion Therapy for Athletes?


Simple to use and easy to customize, percussion therapy is a great muscle recovery tool that any athlete can incorporate into their routine.


One of the main aspects of percussion therapy that athletes appreciate is how they feel immediate relief from using a massage gun while also enjoying longer-term benefits in the days after.


A key benefit of percussion therapy that drives many subsequent benefits is a boost to circulation in the muscles where it’s applied.


This boost helps to flush out lactic acid and metabolic waste (responsible for making your muscles sore), through your body’s natural lymphatic system.


As more oxygen and nutrient-rich blood is ushered into your limbs muscle soreness and swelling is reduced, leading to a decrease in delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and faster recovery times from one workout to the next.


Athlete using massage gun on leg for recovery.

Additionally, athletes will notice an improvement in their overall flexibility and mobility, as percussion therapy helps to thin and distribute fascia fluid that thickens around muscles to relieve pressure and tightness.


And, of course, limber muscles that offer you a full range of motion, are less likely to strain or experience injury.


So, while the benefits of percussion therapy for athletes are very clear, remember that percussion therapy isn’t strictly reserved for athletes.


Any individual can benefit from incorporating percussion therapy into their daily routine.


While it’s probably true that you most often see massage guns being used by athletes, any individual that’s active or experiencing muscle soreness can benefit from percussion therapy.



Is There Science to Back Up Percussion Therapy?


For starters, it’s important to note that there isn’t a silver bullet currently available today that solves the problem of muscle pain, soreness, and stiffness.


When you physically exert your body, whether training hard, practicing hard, or competing hard, it’s going to take a toll.


So, of course, utilizing percussion therapy won’t magically melt away your muscle soreness.


But the massage guns available today from high-quality brands are designed, tested, and scientifically backed to boost circulation, improve your range of motion, and prevent delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).


Athlete using massage gun on leg.

These percussive therapy devices provide concentrated pressure through rapid pulses that thump in a consistent and targeted manner to simulate the muscle.


Inflammation, swelling, and soreness (etc.) occurs when fluid and metabolic waste builds up in your muscles and tissue.


And the targeted pressure of massage guns helps to relieve muscle tension, improve circulation, and force muscle fibers into releasing lactic acid buildup.


So, while your body naturally maintains a complex system of recovery that includes rest, rehydration, nutrition, repair, and resynthesis, percussion therapy gives a boost to the important aspect of reducing inflammation.


Because this recovery process in the body is well-established and because high-quality massage guns are widely accepted to improve the conditions under which it occurs, percussion therapy is considered a science-backed method for muscle recovery.



Do Athletes Actually Notice a Difference From Percussion Therapy?


So, massage guns look impressive and the science behind percussion therapy is sound, but you may still be wondering on a more basic level: Do athletes actually notice a difference from using percussion therapy?


While it’s true that results can always vary from one individual to the next, athletes overwhelming report noticing a substantial difference in muscle recovery from using percussion therapy.


It’s important to note that percussion therapy is not introducing some farfetched, unproven recovery method to your body, but merely giving a boost to your natural recovery process.


Athlete using massage gun for muscle recovery.

The majority of athletes that incorporate percussion therapy into their muscle recovery routines feel fresher from one workout or competition to the next, while also noticing improved flexibility and overall mobility.


Percussion therapy is unique from other muscle recovery therapies in that athletes can feel certain immediate results as they apply treatment, such as reduced muscle tension and an improved range of motion.


If you’re an athlete looking to incorporate percussion therapy into your routine, remember that percussion therapy should not be used as a replacement for any muscle recovery basics: rest, sleep, hydration, nutrition, etc.


Think of percussion therapy as an effective tool you can add to your muscle recovery toolkit.



How Often Should Athletes Use Percussion Therapy?


Once you’ve tried percussion therapy for the first time and felt the positive effects, the natural next question most athletes have is how often they can use their massage guns.


How often you should use percussion therapy will boil down to your level of physical activity, training goals, personal preferences, and so on.


In general, however, athletes should cap their massage gun use at 2 to 3 times a day with treatment durations that do not exceed 2 minutes per muscle group.


Athlete using massage gun on shoulder.

Some athletes may choose to use their massage gun only on training days, whether to warm up, recover afterwards, or both.


While other athletes choose to incorporate percussion therapy on a consistent basis, using it on both active and rest days to help keep their muscles loose.


Whenever you’re experiencing muscle tension or stiffness from activity or throughout your everyday routine, treatment from a massage gun is an effective way to provide quick relief and improve your range of motion.


So, whether you’re looking to recover from a rigorous workout or simply to decompress and relax after a long and stressful day, percussion therapy is a great tool for all sorts of athletes and active individuals.



For a look at other great muscle recovery tools you can add to your recovery toolkit, check out our top picks for 2024.


Discover all of the best treatments and techniques that help athletes RECOVER.

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