Everyone has heard of massage guns: those famous vibrating devices that claim to relax our muscular or articular tensions within minutes.
Faced with the appealing ads we see everyday, many people who suffer from muscular pain or tension (whether it’s back pain, aching legs, or tension in the shoulders) are considering the idea of acquiring a massage gun.
Used by dozens of A-List celebrities, including Mark Walhberg, Chris Hemsworth, and even Christiano Ronaldo, massage guns have seen a spectacular surge in popularity over the past few years.
However, many specialists have recently tried to warn the public against these massaging devices. According to several chiropractors, the vast majority of massage guns available on the market have very limited benefits when it comes to muscle relaxation.
Some massage gun models could even be potentially dangerous to our health, due to the cheap materials they are made of or their excessive percussive force, among others.
In this article, we will see that there are three important things to know before buying any massage gun. We also talk to a number of industry specialists about how to choose a massage gun that is safe and reliable in this largely unregulated market.
1. Why most massage guns fail to actually relax muscles
Many people buy massage guns for their supposedly relaxing benefits. But in practice, the opposite effect usually occurs: our muscles contract instead of relax.
In a study conducted by Loughborough University, researchers asked a dozen British volunteers to test vibrating massaging devices and evaluate their experience throughout several weeks of use.
The study concluded that “the vibration was often ineffective and sometimes painful during use and afterwards. The vibrating function made the product too noisy and disturbing to promote relaxation,” according to researchers.
Noise pollution is indeed one of the main characteristics of massage guns that physically prevents muscle relaxation:
“Lots of people choose to purchase a massage gun to relieve muscle tension or back pain. The problem is that these devices are often way too noisy to allow proper muscle relaxation,” explains Dr. Jan Kinzel, a Vienna-based chiropractor and recovery specialist.
“There is a simple reason for this: it’s physically impossible to relax completely when the noise level exceeds 55 decibels. The higher the decibel level, the more our nervous system is ‘on guard’, and the more contracted our muscles,” he says.
“These results were demonstrated in a recent study conducted on 144 volunteers. The researchers played loud, medium, and soft music to the group of volunteers, changing the volume every three minutes. Researchers then placed small heart monitors on the wrists and chest of volunteers to measure their state of relaxation during the experience.
The results of the study are very clear: the highest levels of relaxation were detected while the volunteers were listening to ‘soft’ music. When the music was medium or loud, the volunteers found it harder to relax their bodies. “
“It’s actually very simple. Above a certain sound threshold – generally estimated to be around 55 dB – it is almost impossible to relax completely, unless you take calming drugs like morphine.”
“The problem is that the vast majority of massage guns available on the market have a sound intensity that exceeds this 55 decibel relaxation threshold, which is why many users can’t really relax when using these devices. There are, however, a few silent models that produce less than 55 decibels, but the majority of them are well above this threshold.”
We will see later in this article which massage guns are below this 55 dB noise threshold.
2. Why many massage guns may actually be useless to deliver a “deep tissue massage”
“Many massage gun manufacturers like to promote the technical prowess of their device by talking about “high amplitude”. For the record, amplitude refers to the depth of percussion produced by the massage gun, i.e., how deep the massage head can go into your muscle tissues”, explains Dr. Kinzel.
“Some of these brands proudly claim to have an amplitude of over 16mm, telling the consumer that this high amplitude is necessary to deliver a deep tissue massage. However, this is not entirely true…”
“To perform a deep tissue massage, you need to apply moderate pressure to the fascia – a thin layer of muscle tissue that envelops all our organs and holds the muscles in place. When the fascia is gently massaged, muscle fibers can relax, and tensions can be released. But contrary to what people think, this critical layer of connective tissue is actually not that deep: it can be found only a few millimeters below the skin.”
“That means that you don’t need to have a massage gun with a very high amplitude of 16 mm to perform a deep tissue massage… An amplitude of 12 mm is more than sufficient for this purpose. In fact, an amplitude that is too high can even be potentially dangerous by applying excessive pressure on the nervous tissue. Bottom line is: 12-13 mm is perfectly fine. Beyond that, it is excessive,” he explains.
“On the other hand, a much more important (and often neglected) factor in enabling a deep tissue massage, and hence truly allowing the muscles to relax, is the stall force. The stall force is the maximum amount of force applied that will stop the massage gun’s motor from running.”
“Many of the massage guns available on Amazon use amplitude as their main value proposition, completely ignoring stall force. The majority of these cheap devices have less than 25 lbs of stall force. This level of stall force is not high enough to deliver a deep tissue massage, especially on large muscles like quads, hamstrings, and glutes.”
“For example, a device with an amplitude of 12-13 mm but a stall force of over 30 lbs will deliver a much more effective and relaxing massage than a massage gun with an amplitude of 16 mm and a stall force of 25 lbs.
With a higher stall force, you can apply the device to your skin without the motor stopping and in practice get a much deeper, effective massage. The sweet spot for a deep tissue massage is a massage gun that has an amplitude of 12 mm and a stall force of at least 30 lbs. This is what you should aim for if you are interested in massage guns.”
We’ll see in a second which massage guns are offering this ideal balance between amplitude and stall force.
3. Are plastic massage guns harmful to the skin?
Several industry specialists are also warning consumers about the materials frequently used by massage gun manufacturers.
According to Olivier Levy, a 3D printing specialist and consumer safety consultant based in Paris, the plastic used by many massage guns sold on the market could potentially be a problem:
“Massage gun manufacturers have entered into a ruthless cost war. There are now factories in China that produce low quality massage guns in industrial quantities, which can be ordered for less than $15 on AliExpress… These low-end, cheap products are then sold to consumers on Amazon under private labels for $65, $80, or even $110. This is simply outrageous,” he explains.
“The problem is that these low-cost devices are often made of cheap plastic materials that can heat up pretty fast as they touch the skin. For example, several popular massage gun models on the market (which I won’t mention here) are made of ABS plastic.
While ABS is safe at low temperatures (LEGOs are made of ABS), some studies suggest that ABS could potentially release harmful particles at high temperatures.”
“According to a 2015 study published on 3Dsafety.org: ‘both the gaseous molecules and the nanoparticles are inhaled by humans through the olfactory system. The ultrafine particulate is deposited mainly in the cells of the respiratory organs and through the olfactory nerves of the nasal mucosa, it reaches the brain. The single exposure [to ABS] through the skin allows a partial absorption.’”
“Since cheap plastic massage guns can reach relatively high internal temperatures after several minutes of use, one might question the safety of massage guns made of plastic.
That’s why I generally recommend that anyone who wants to try a massage gun choose a model that is not made of plastic. Personally, I use a massage gun made of aluminum, which has much better temperature insulation properties than plastic.
The contact with the skin is also much more pleasant than those vibrating and overheating chunks of plastic made in China,” he argues.
So, are massage guns worth the trouble? Here’s what doctors think
In light of this information, one might ask: should massage guns be avoided? Not necessarily.
While some devices are not recommended for the reasons mentioned above, there are several massage gun models that produce more benefits than they do harm. As Dr. Kinzel points out:
“There is compelling evidence to believe that some massage guns can indeed be useful in the treatment of muscle pain and tension. For example, a 2014 study published in the Journal of Clinical & Diagnostic Research found that vibration therapies delivered by massage guns could clinically reduce pain. Another study published in 2015 showed that self-myofascial release was effective at increasing the range of motion of both joints and muscles.”
“That’s why I myself use massage guns in combination with manual massage to relieve muscle and joint pain in my patients,” he explains.
Dr. Corbin Hedt, a physical therapist specializing in orthopedics and sports medicine at Houston Methodist, also shares the same view:
“From a physical therapy perspective, I certainly think a massage gun is a useful recovery tool,” says Dr. Hedt. “One study actually shows that percussive massagers can provide the same benefit as a 15-minute massage in as little as two minutes of using it.”
“Massage guns work in the same sense that foam rolling does,” explains Dr. J.C. Clark, Medicine Physician at ORA Sports. “It is another method of tissue mobilization that provides the benefit of loosening up your muscles. In theory, they both provide relief and a short-term improvement in flexibility.”
According to Joshua J. Bruner, a physical therapist who is board-certified in orthopedic physical therapy with the Orthopedic Institute at Southwest Health, massage guns may indeed help muscle tissues relax by triggering the release of relaxation hormones:
“The mechanism behind these massage guns involves increasing blood flow and nutrients to the tissues, stimulating receptors to decrease muscle stiffness, increasing production of relaxation hormones and reducing pain perception in the nervous system,” says Bruner, who is also a clinical instructor for Specialized Physical Therapy Education.
The question is: which models of massage gun can be trusted?
“For those who wish to purchase a massage gun, whether it’s to relieve back pain or reduce muscle soreness after a workout, there are fortunately a few massage gun models on the market that are certainly worth a look,” explains Dr. Kinzel.
“Like many things in life, the finest choices are not always the ones you hear about in the media or on TV. Everyone knows about Moët & Chandon Champagne, but very few have heard of ‘Roger Coulon’s Blanc de Noir’, which is one of the most exquisite, refreshing and authentic Champagnes you can find nowadays. Often you have to dig a little to find the so-called hidden gems…,” he says.
“Well, I’d say that’s also the case in the world of massage guns. Personally, I’m a big fan of the Hydragun, a medical-grade massage gun produced by a Singaporean start-up. This is the device that I currently use to treat all my patients. It is extremely quiet and very effective at relaxing muscles deeply, thanks to a perfect balance between amplitude and stall force. The Power Plate Pulse massage gun is also an excellent choice.”
The best massage guns on the market, according to our editorial team
Our editorial team went on a quest to find the best massage gun on the market. We tested a total of 17 different massage guns which gathered very positive reviews, and evaluated them based on several criteria (including chiropractor and customer reviews, quality of material, massage intensity, and noise level) over the course of 6 weeks.
Every team member then gave each massage gun a score out of ten, and at the end of the review process, we aggregated all the scores and ranked the massage guns based on their individual scores.
According to our rigorous review process, here are the top 3 massage guns on the market today:
Hydragun is a high-end massage gun designed by an engineering team based in Singapore. This massage gun model popular among chiropractors uses a proprietary motor technology called SmoothDrive™, which delivers a powerful massage experience while remaining extremely quiet.
The Hydragun‘s sound intensity at maximum power is around 50 decibels, allowing users to relax their muscles while watching TV – without being disturbed by the noise of the massage gun.
According to a recent comparative study, the Hydragun is on average 48.3% quieter than the top 5 leading massage guns on the market – making it one of the quietest massage guns available today.
This powerful massage gun offers a 12mm amplitude and 30lb stall force, making it ideal for safe and therapeutic deep tissue massage. It also offers a long battery life of 6 hours, which is above the market average.
Hydragun is made of premium aerospace grade aluminum, a material which is odorless, safe for the skin, and which doesn’t overheat due to excellent heat dissipation properties.
Finally, this massage gun model has pristine customer reviews, with 97% of customers giving Hydragun a 5-star rating.
The brand also offers a 30-day money back guarantee, giving users the opportunity to test this massage gun without risk.
The Power Plate Pulse is another massage gun that is relatively unknown to the general public but is well known to recovery specialists.
This massage gun is very quiet, light, and offers enough amplitude and stall force to deliver a quality deep tissue massage.
The sound intensity of the Power Plate Pulse is 50dB, which is ideal for relaxing muscles without the disturbing buzzing sound often found in mainstream massage guns.
Its lightweight design, convenient size and pistol grip design make it very easy to apply personal care to many parts of your body.
The only downside is that the battery life of this model is about 4 hours, which is less than other massage guns such as the Hydragun or Theragun. Nevertheless, the overall performance of the Power Plate Pulse is excellent, and this model will suit many people who want to try massage guns to accelerate their recovery.
3. RecovaPro SE
The RecovaPro SE is a high quality massage gun that is more affordable than the high end models sold by Theragun, for example. However, despite its relatively low cost, the quality of this model is far superior to the $60 generic Chinese models that can be found on Amazon for instance.
This device uses high quality materials, an aluminium frame to avoid overheating, and a comfortable ergonomic grip that is precisely designed for frequent usage.
Weighing in at 1.1kg, the gun is light enough to be worn without hurting our wrist, but heavy enough to apply a strong therapeutic weight to areas of pain. This makes it an ideal companion for top athletes.
The battery life is 4 hours, which is sufficient for professional use (although some massage gun models offer slightly longer battery life).
Overall, the RecovaPro SE is an excellent choice for those who wish to use a massage gun as a recovery tool.
What our editorial team members think of these massage guns
“This is the first time I’ve tried a massage gun in my life, so I had no idea what to expect. Among the selection of massage guns I’ve been able to test over the past month and a half, I have a big preference for the Hydragun and the Power Plate Pulse. You can feel that they are really high-end compared to all the others. The other massage guns feel a bit like pieces of plastic in comparison. Regarding the feel of the massage, I found both massage gun models to be very enjoyable, especially on strong muscles like quads and hamstrings. Personally, I had no particular pain before the test, but I definitely felt more relaxed after each self-massage session. Finally, if I had to decide between the Hydragun and the Power Plate Pulse, I would say that the Hydragun wins because it is slightly quieter. I could literally watch Netflix while massaging my shoulder with the Hydragun. But both are very good in my opinion.”
Sarah, Associate Editor
“The world of massage guns is not new to me as my chiro regularly uses these devices during my recovery sessions. I do intermittent sprinting three to four times a week so I often get muscle soreness. Personally, I have found the most effective massage guns for my aches and pains to be the RecovaPro SE and the Hydragun. Both of these massage guns massage the muscle tissue deeply, without creating discomfort ( I’ve found that some high end massage guns with 16mm of amplitude cause the muscles to hurt slightly). Both are of excellent quality, and their batteries last a very long time (especially the Hydragun’s which can last for over 6 hours).”
“In terms of massaging experience, I strongly preferred the Hydragun. The intensity of the massage is just perfect: strong enough to loosen muscle knots, but light enough not to bruise the muscles. The massage sensation on my thigh when I’m using the gun is out of this world… In terms of design, I have a slight preference for the Power Plate Pulse, because I like its bright red colour. However, the Power Plate Pulse is also a bit noisier than the Hydragun, so if I had to choose between the two, I think I’d take the Hydragun (even though the Power Plate is still relatively quiet compared to the rest).”
Marc, Senior Editor