More and more athletes are using pulsating products to help their muscles get stronger. Does the tech really work? – By Cassie Shortsleeve
Let’s pretend that you’re a sore runner training for one of the world’s first marathons in ancient Greece. You visit a practitioner to heal your weak-feeling muscles. He places a plank of wood on your sore spot, and using your body as a stabiliser, begins sawing away. The hope: that the resulting vibrations reach your muscles and help alleviate pain.
That was the beginning of vibration therapy, and while it sounds a little horrifying, the intention was scientifically sound. We now know that the technique helps build strength and speed, improve flexibility, and loosen stiff muscles, says Matthew N Berenc, director of the Equinox Fitness Training Institute. And until recently, this was largely done through bulky platforms found in gyms (rather than tools with dangerously sharp edges – phew). If athletes wanted to get strong, they stood on top of the vibrating Power Plate machine and performed dynamic exercises like squats and lunges.
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When recovery was the goal, they draped a leg over the platform as it buzzed. Either way, the vibrations stimulated muscle fibres and the nervous system, priming the muscles for quicker reaction and greater strength and power output.
But let’s be real: unless you’re a hardcore athlete, these machines often collect more dust than users. They also require a trip to the gym. That leaves a clear void in the market, which companies such as TriggerPoint have recently filled. Their devices – mini jackhammers and vibrating foam rollers – can be used whenever, wherever.
The Buzz on a Little Buzz
When our bodies are exposed to vibration, muscles automatically twitch against it, says Dr Michele Olson, an adjunct professor of sports science at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama. It’s a defence strategy: too much vibration can damage our organs, so muscles contract to dampen the blow. But low levels of pulsation can help muscles maintain their function and prime bones to lay down new cells while casting off old ones. So there’s a balance to be found; and, for at least the last decade, that was achieved primarily through whole-body therapy (e.g. using a Power Plate).
The problem is that the research on whole-body vibration therapy has been mixed. A small study found that running economy – the energy needed to put in kilometres – increased after eight weeks of whole-body vibration training. But other research compared whole-body vibration to resistance training in endurance runners, and the results were equal. So it begs the question: since you’re already doing strength-training, is it necessary to add more to your routine?
Some experts answer with a tentative ‘yes’, if vibration is delivered in a localised fashion. An exploratory study found that in recreational athletes, using a vibrating foam roller increased pain tolerance more than a traditional one did. Plus, when vibrations are applied directly to a muscle, certain proprioceptors (sensors in the muscle) cause tissues to relax and loosen, Berenc says.
For runners, that could lead to an increased range of motion. Preliminary research from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that when 19 people used a vibrating foam roller, from their ankle to their knee, they experienced a greater increase in ankle range of motion than those who statically rolled.
When to Pump Up the Pulse
Manufacturers will tell you that at-home vibration therapy is great before, during, and after a workout. And while science still has to establish this for sure, there is a case to be made for each.
Before your workout, Berenc says, you can benefit from post-activation potentiation – a fancy way of saying your muscles are primed to work harder. “When the muscles work to control the vibrations, they recruit a high number of muscle fibres,” he explains. This way, when you start running, your muscles are already prepared and your stride could be more efficient, he says.
In the middle of a sweat session – say, in between sprints around the track – Jason S Wersland, chiropractor and founder of TheraGun, says that quick, targeted vibration could signal glycogen to flood to a muscle. “It brings new blood and stored energy to the muscles, while also keeping you loose and limber so you can finish a workout feeling strong,” he says.
Berenc thinks it’s smart to vibe after you run, especially if you’re hitting the pavement five to six days a week. Running more often means more repetitive movement, which Berenc says should be counterbalanced in a way that allows the tissue to relax so that you can maintain range of motion.
Ten minutes of vibration therapy each day is plenty to accomplish this; you can target three or four areas of the body each session to keep boredom at bay.
No matter when or how you use the device, though, most experts agree that it can’t hurt to give it a try. At the very least, you’ll get a mini massage – and we know those are awesome.
Newbie vibers should start on the lowest setting and gradually build intensity, limiting use to one or two times a week – and only vibing for 30 minutes max at a time – to avoid overuse injuries, says Berenc. “As your muscles become used to the stimulus, you can increase how often you use a device,” he adds. Pay attention to how you feel, and adjust accordingly.
This next-level foam roller has built in motors to ease tired muscles. The lowest speed is more of a gentle vibration, intended to loosen up your muscles; while at a higher intensity, the soft, gridded foam targets the larger muscle groups of your back, quads and calves.
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Oops! We Got It Wrong…
In our February edition we featured the TriggerPoint Grid Vibe in our gear section and quoted the price at R799 from Sportsmans Warehouse. However, the Vibe is not yet available in South Africa but the TriggerPoint 1.0 foam roller is available at Sportsmans Warehouse for R799.90. Please note that the TriggerPoint Grid Vibe will be in South Africa soon, but will retail closer to R3000.