A lot of us have been on post-pandemic health kicks or just relishing a return to the sports and fitness regimens we enjoyed before COVID-19 derailed everything. Subsequently, many of us (raises hand) might have overexerted ourselves.
Unfortunately, a few minutes of post-workout stretching isn’t always enough to relieve the aches and pains of a Couch to 5K excursion. While several popular massage gadgets have hit the market over the last few years, the pandemic has led to many seeking out recovery methods that don’t require coming face to face with a massage therapist. These gadgets might not measure up to a professional’s hands, but they may help. We’ve researched and tested all of the following picks, including percussive therapy guns, compression therapy tech, and even some analog accessories that don’t require charging.
I’m not an athlete, but I’ve had several chapters in my fitness journey over the years. I have a black belt in Judo, and am currently trying to perfect a backflip. I sweat my way through HIIT and weight training classes five times a week. And because of all these things, I have my own particular aches and pains, especially with my knee, neck and shoulders.
When testing some of these devices, I used them daily for over a week. Depending on what kind of recovery gadget it was, I would spend at least 15 minutes targeting stiff areas, alongside stretches. I’ve intermittently been using some of these accessories, like a foam roamer, for years.
There’s no vibrating function here, just a cylinder-shaped piece of foam (sometimes plastic or rubber) for you to gingerly roll yourself across. I’ve personally enjoyed some relief from knee issues (combined with recovery exercises and guidance from my physio) and found that it helped loosen up tight quads.
The great thing about a foam roller is its versatility. There are exercises for the shoulders, back muscles, the iliotibial (IT) band and every other part of your leg. Many rollers come with basic diagrams to try out, but you can also follow along with many YouTube videos; just search for a specific tight area.
If you’re new to foam rolling, I’d suggest this one from Trigger Point, which is gentler on your tender muscles than some of the plastic-molded options.
Trigger point massage balls
These rigid massage balls, usually the size of a tennis ball, offer a trigger point massage that helps tackle knots in your shoulder blade, or that tight corner of your glutes. Place the ball on a yoga mat (or carpet) and position your problem area over the ball, using your body weight to apply force. Relief isn’t just limited to the floor either. Try positioning the ball between your back – or shoulder – and a wall. There are several guides online, but this set of balls, with differing levels of stiffness, should ensure you feel the pressure at just the right level.
This recommendation comes from my colleague Valentina Palladino, who loves this bolster for improving her yoga habit. Bolsters are firm pillows that come in several shapes and sizes which help many yoga practitioners maintain proper posture in certain movements, due to lack of flexibility or minor injuries.
According to Valentina: “While I definitely don’t stretch as much as I should, this bolster that I originally bought solely for yoga practice has come in handy when I do sit on the mat for a 10-minute, post-run stretch. I mostly use it for back extensions, placing the bolster underneath my lower back so I can get a gentle spinal decompression.
She adds: “There are dedicated back stretchers you can buy that do something similar, but I have come to prefer the bolster for its supportive comfort and its versatility. I still use it during yoga sessions as a tool to get deeper into certain movements, and it provides extra support in sitting poses.”
Percussive therapy and massage guns
Should you splurge on something a little more powerful and expensive, though? There is established evidence that manual hand massage helps to reduce pain, but there’s less supporting data for many of the benefits claimed by percussive therapy devices.
Depending on the company and the device, some claims (like improved performance or range of motion) are backed up by small studies, but others (including reduced cellulite and sped-up muscle recovery) are not.
Dr. Kelly Starrett, Athlete Performance Advisor for Hyperice (and founding mobility expert for CrossFit) told Engadget: “When we are trying to change how the brain interprets information from the body’s tissue systems as threatening or unsafe; vibration, percussion, and even heat can help us feel better.”
My own experience tracks with this: using one with a targeted approach to tight areas feels good and can help you prime your body ahead of a workout without overexerting yourself.
If you’ve seen the Instagram ads, you already know there are many massage guns to choose from, but our picks come from two of the most prominent players in the field, Therabody’s Theragun and Hyperice’ HyperVolt series.
We’ve touched on the benefits of the $699 Theragun Prime before, but it’s the company’s unique triangle design that helps its devices stand out. It offers multiple ways to grip the Theragun and help target trickier parts of the body. As one of the more premium massage devices, you get 16mm amplitude (typically only beaten by devices several hundred dollars more) and speeds of up to 2,400 percussions per minute.
The Prime comes with three extra attachments in addition to the standard ball: a cone, a dampener with a flattened head, and a thumb attachment, which can help dig deeper.
Therabody’s latest family of percussive therapy devices is also quieter than older Theraguns – and most of the competition – but it certainly isn’t silent.
HyperVolt 2 Pro
The HyperVolt 2 Pro has a more conventional design, but I prefer its dial for switching between different speeds. It, too, comes with extra head attachments, including a fork attachment, a flat wedge and a cushioned head.
This is the premium flagship Hypervolt, so it offers the fastest speeds (faster than even the Theragun Prime). However, while it's also quieter than the Prime, it is a little trickier to maneuver into difficult tight spots without assistance from someone else.
These devices are generally safe in most use cases, but check out each company’s safety guideline pages. It’s sensible to talk to your doctor before use if you’re pregnant, have had recent surgery or have any existing skin or nerve system conditions.
Hyperice has also combined its vibration tech with the targeted relief of a massage ball. The Hypersphere (and HyperSphere mini) include three levels of vibration and an easy-to-understand LED read-out to gauge battery life and intensity levels. In addition, the shape adds a different degree of versatility, as you don’t need to reach with your arm to where you might need relief.
It’s also got a rubber coating that helps it stay in place if you’re not stretching or massaging on a yoga mat. Notably, the smaller Mini has a more powerful motor and is more comparable in size to a lacrosse ball. Despite a more powerful motor and roughly identical battery life, it's more affordable than the bigger model. Most will find the Mini the better option, but the larger Hypersphere, I found, worked well on my lower back and chest, as it raised my body further off the ground, increasing the targeted pressure.
Therabody, the company behind Theragun, has branched out into several additional recovery products. The company also offers a vibrating foam roller and ball, but its RecoveryAir series is entirely different, using controlled compression to massage your legs or arms gently.
The RecoveryAir system is split into a lower (for your legs, from foot to hip) and upper body system, but the “trousers” seem like the best device for most, massaging some of the biggest muscle groups in your body. They feel particularly good after a heavy session of squats or a lengthy run.
While Therabody might be new to compression therapy, science and research into it has continued for decades, with medical compression garments as far back as the 1950s used for treating conditions following the end of World War II.
The RecoveryAir squeezes at your legs, stimulating your body’s circulation like – and this is a quote from a Therabody’s spokesperson – “squeezing a toothpaste tube.” It’s a relaxing sensation: the RecoveryAir cycles through squeezing at your feet, calves, knees, hamstrings and thighs. You can adjust both the strength of the compression and the length of the massage up to an hour. Compared with massage guns and static tissue massage, you get to be a little lazier and let the RecoveryAir do the work.
You can just chill on your sofa or favorite chair, watching Netflix, while it squeezes away. That ease of use comes at a high price, though: $1,299. It’s rather expensive compared to the other devices we’ve included here, but it’s also a very different experience and one that steers itself.