Muscle soreness after a workout can feel like an inevitable part of exercise, but there are a variety of workout recovery modalities that athletes have access to these days.
From foam rollers and Epsom salt baths to red light therapy and heating pads, there are different ways to try to combat delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) after you’ve pushed your body a bit too hard in a workout or done some type of unaccustomed exercise.
But, what about massage? Does a massage after a workout reduce muscle soreness? Is it better to get a massage before or after a workout? Is a massage gun as effective as a hands-on manual massage?
In this article, we will discuss the benefits of a pre-workout massage, the benefits of a post-workout massage, whether it’s better to get a massage before or after a workout, and if a massage gun can provide the same benefits as a professional massage.
We will cover:
- Benefits of a Massage Before a Workout
- Benefits of a Massage After a Workout
- Is It Better to Get a Massage Before or After a Workout?
- Is a Massage Gun an Effective Form of Massage?
Let’s jump in!
Benefits of a Massage Before a Workout
There are several potential benefits of getting a pre-workout massage:
A Massage Can Increase Endorphin Production
Sometimes, our interest in working out isn’t where we’d like it to be, and we might have pain or a low mood that interferes with our ability to attack a workout with gusto.
Endorphins are the natural, “feel-good” chemicals that are released by the body in response to pain, exercise, or pleasure.
Although it’s likely equally attributable to endocannabinoids, the “runner’s high” or feeling of euphoria at the end of a hard workout is thought to be due to the release of endorphins.
Studies have found that endorphins can reduce pain, decrease stress, and elevate mood.
Massage has been shown to increase the production of endorphins.
A pre-workout massage can, therefore, potentially elevate your mood and release muscle tension or pain, making it more enticing to work out or easier to overcome mental hurdles.
A Massage Can Warm Up Your Muscles
Massage increases circulation, which can help oxygenate your muscles and warm them up before a workout.
Getting a pre-workout massage can help prepare your muscles for exercise by increasing blood flow and range of motion in your joints. This may potentially reduce the risk of injury and make it easier to transition to higher-intensity activity from a state of rest.
A Massage Can Increase Flexibility And Mobility
Because massage can increase circulation and decrease muscle tension and stiffness, pre-workout massage can warm up your muscles and increase flexibility and mobility before a workout.
Evidence has found that massage can be an effective means of increasing range of motion.
Flexibility refers to the amount of permissible range of motion around a joint, whereas mobility refers to the amount of movable range.
Although it’s beneficial to increase your flexibility and mobility, improving your mobility is particularly important for improving exercise performance and decreasing your risk of injuries.
If your joints and muscles are able to function under your own volition throughout the normal, healthy range of motion, you can perform any type of exercise with proper form and movement mechanics.
Consider the case of a runner with limited mobility in the hips.
If he or she tries to take a full-length running stride, some of the tight tissues (such as muscles, tendons, ligaments, fascia, and cartilage within the joint capsule) impeding the normal range of motion may become strained or pulled.
Additionally, if you are running with limited mobility in your hips regarding flexion and extension, your stride length will be compromised, reducing your running economy and efficiency and decreasing your performance.
Particularly if you have trouble areas in the muscles and joints that are particularly tight, a pre-workout massage can help loosen up your muscles and increase your range of motion before your workout, thus reducing your risk of injury and priming your body to move more fluidly and naturally when you exercise.
Benefits of a Massage After a Workout
There are also potential benefits of a post-workout massage:
A Massage Can Support Exercise Recovery
One of the primary benefits of getting a massage after a workout is that a post-workout massage can enhance recovery.
Because massage increases circulation, it helps bring oxygen and nutrients to your muscles to help repair any damage from the workout and restore glycogen.
Similarly, blood flow to the muscles helps transport out metabolic waste products from your workout, flushing away some of the acidic waste products and inflammatory debris that have accumulated after vigorous exercise.
In this way, a post-workout massage can help speed up the healing process, reduce delayed-onset muscle soreness and pain, decrease muscle stiffness, and decrease inflammation.
This, in turn, may lead to faster recovery, helping you attack your next workout from a starting point of greater healing and recovery. This may allow you to train harder without increasing the risk of injury.
A Massage Can Decrease Muscle Soreness
Delayed-onset muscle soreness refers to the increase in pain, stiffness, and discomfort in your muscles 24-72 hours after a strenuous workout.
As mentioned, because massage can increase circulation, studies have found that getting a massage after a workout can help your muscles obtain better access to the oxygen and nutrients they need to heal and offload the waste products that can cause pain and inflammation associated with delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
Is It Better to Get a Massage Before or After a Workout?
Although there are potential benefits to getting a massage before and after a workout, it is generally believed that it is better to get a massage after a workout than beforehand.
Research has found that a pre-workout massage does not improve athletic performance regarding strength, speed, or agility. In fact, some studies have actually found that getting a massage before exercise actually decreases certain aspects of muscular performance, speed, and reaction time.
This is thought to potentially be due to an increase in parasympathetic nervous system activity induced by massage.
If you think about getting a massage, it is typically a rather relaxing activity. This is actually due to the effect that a massage can have on your nervous system activity.
Massage can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the “rest and digest” nervous system, that opposes the sympathetic, or “fight or flight“ nervous system.
Although decreasing stress is beneficial and one of the perks of getting a massage, reducing sympathetic nervous system activation before a workout can impede performance.
The sympathetic nervous system, by nature, primes your body to perform, whether to “fight” or “flee,” so it increases your heart rate, improves your reaction time, gets your muscles ready to contract forcefully, and will help you run faster.
In contrast, the parasympathetic nervous system calms your body down for resting conditions. This is not really an ideal state to be in when you are looking to optimize your athletic performance.
You don’t want to be lackadaisical and calm; you want to be mentally and physically sharp and firing on all cylinders.
Although massage can increase circulation and warm up your tissues before a workout, you can also achieve these same outcomes through dynamic stretching and mobility exercises such as walking lunges, hip swings, gentle cardio, skipping, and carioca drills.
Is a Massage Gun an Effective Form of Massage?
There aren’t many scientific studies specifically comparing the effectiveness of a massage gun—a percussive therapy device—with a manual hands-on massage.
However, research evaluating the effectiveness of massage guns versus other modalities has found that massage guns do offer many of the same benefits as regular massages, such as reducing the severity of the DOMS, increasing circulation to the muscles, increasing mobility in the joints, and reducing muscle fatigue.
Although it’s potentially possible that one can substitute equally for the other, it’s reasonable to think that manual massage by a trained professional massage therapist with experience and knowledge of sports massage may be a more effective way to deliver targeted massage to specific tissues.
With that said, if you buy a high-quality massage gun and learn how to use the different attachment heads, it’s possible to deliver an effective self-massage with your massage gun.
You can even learn techniques for using a massage gun on different tissues with apps such as the Therabody app. You can also work with a physical therapist to learn how to use a massage gun in your workout routine.
If you would like to look into other options for getting rid of muscle soreness, take a look at our guides:
Acupuncture For Athletes: 7 Benefits and What To Expect
Red Light Therapy For Muscle Recovery