Ask any athlete who takes their sport seriously, and they’ll tell you they’re always looking for ways to optimize their training and recovery. Ask any injured athlete if they’d like to find a way to speed up their rehabilitation, and you’ll get a resounding “Yes!”
As such, it’s not uncommon these days to see athletes sitting or standing on vibrating platforms, rolling their muscles on portable vibrating devices, or even wearing vibration gadgets. The rationale can range from enhancing muscle performance before an activity to preventing injury and accelerating recovery.
But can exposing the body to vibrations actually make any sort of difference to the body, be it for performance or recovery? It turns out that science has found some surprising details on this modality.
So, if you’re curious about the details and scientific findings of vibration therapy, this article will walk you through a general background of what it consists of and what the scientific literature has found for its impact on human physiology and athletic performance.
Let the good vibes begin.
The Premise and Mechanisms of Vibration Therapy
The premise behind vibration therapy is rooted in its ability to change or improve various aspects of physiologic function within the body, particularly for neuromuscular function (the functioning of nerves and their associated skeletal muscles).When applied directly or indirectly, vibrational stimulation can favorably influence the neuromuscular functioning of an athlete’s body. Click To Tweet
As such, when applied directly or indirectly (defined later in this article), vibrational stimulation can favorably influence the neuromuscular functioning of an athlete’s body.
One can really get down into the scientific weeds with how and why these responses are elicited; however, that is not the intent of this article. Instead, I’ll provide a general overview, best practices, and practical considerations for incorporating this modality into any aspect of your athletic endeavors.
There is a lot to unpack here, so let’s start with the basics and then progress into some specifics.It’s worth mentioning that percussion therapy (such as handheld massage guns) is not vibration-based. It can deliver similar local effects but is technically not the same as vibration therapy. Click To Tweet
Special note: It’s worth mentioning that percussion therapy (such as handheld massage guns) is not vibration-based. It can deliver similar local effects but is technically not the same as vibration therapy. Keep this in mind as you read the article.
Physiologic Effects of Vibration Therapy
There are several ways in which vibrations influence and affect various tissues of the body. We have yet to fully understand all of the mechanisms behind their actions, but there is a fair amount we do understand and strong theories for the rest.
In a nutshell: Vibrational stimuli act as a signaling mechanism that can excite and enhance various aspects of the neuromuscular system, either for improving physical performance or accelerating physical recovery and injury rehabilitation. Ultimately, it is believed that musculoskeletal structures respond to vibrational stimuli to modulate the muscle’s tone in a way that allows them to accommodate the vibrational waves they’re experiencing.1
The specifics of how either of these outcomes is achieved depend upon manipulating the vibration parameters that comprise vibrational therapy (which this article will discuss later).
Neurological mechanisms: Many of the effects elicited by vibrational therapy arise from influencing the nervous system. The hardcore details of how these effects are achieved are mainly outside the scope of this article; however, a basic understanding is necessary for anyone interested in adopting and utilizing vibration therapy, particularly coaches and rehabilitation professionals.
Vibrations, which are small oscillations, provide mechanical stimulation to specific sensory receptors within the skin, muscles, and tendons.
It’s largely believed that exposure to vibrations triggers a neurogenic reflex that, when combined with other muscular responses, activates a reflex known as the tonic vibration reflex.2–4 In short, this occurs from the vibrations activating muscle spindles (a type of intrafusal muscle fiber within the skeletal muscle), which, in this application, are responsible for producing an involuntary increase in force output of the muscle itself (occurring via alpha motor neurons).
If that sounds rather technical, don’t sweat it: Essentially, it just means that the result of a muscle’s exposure to the right type (and amount) of vibration is an increase in motor unit firing rate, coordination within the muscle, and increased central motor command.4 As mentioned earlier, the extent to which these changes can occur is believed to vary based on the individual vibration parameters utilized.
Whether for improved performance or accelerated recovery following injury or exercise, vibration therapy can achieve a few other noteworthy effects (which occur either indirectly through neurological means or separately altogether). These mechanisms lead to outcomes that include:
- Increases in intramuscular temperature via the circulatory system.5
- Increased metabolic rate within the activated muscles.6
- Reduction in myofascial and musculoskeletal pain.7
- Improved proprioception and kinesthetic awareness.8
Parameters for Vibration Therapy
Four parameters can be manipulated when delivering vibration therapy. These parameters are:9
- Frequency (refers to the number of oscillations per second, measured in Hz)
- Displacement (refers to the size of the oscillation, measured in millimeters)
- Amplitude (determines the magnitude of vibration, measured in m/s2)
- Duration (the time spent delivering the vibrations, measured in minutes or seconds)
Each parameter is likely to play a significant role in the effects achieved. However, as you’ll soon see, it’s not overly clear which combination of parameters yields the most effective intended outcomes. (The best practices section of this article will help point you in the right direction.)
Types of Vibrational Therapy
There are two ways vibrational therapy can produce its effects within the body. They are classified into two distinct categories, with one being whole-body vibration and the other being local vibration.
If you decide to read any vibration therapy research within the scientific community, you’ll want to be aware of which type of vibration is studied, as some studies examine the effects of whole-body vibration, while others look at the effects of local vibration.
A quick note: While it’s believed that the mechanisms of action between whole-body and local vibration are the same or very similar, it’s possible that how they achieve their respective effects could be somewhat different depending on the specific effect they produce.10
1. Whole-Body Vibration
Whole-body vibration refers to delivering the effects of vibrational stimuli throughout the entire body. This type of vibrational therapy is often referred to as indirect vibrational therapy since its effects extend beyond the regions of the body that are in direct contact with the vibrational device (typically a vibrating platform).
This intervention method has been studied more than local vibration and can yield effects reaching beyond the local body part in contact with the vibrating device. Of note, these whole-body effects include:
- Increases in serum concentration of growth hormone and testosterone.11,12
- Decreases in serum concentration of cortisol.11,12
- Enhancement of anabolic gene expression in tendons.13
2. Local Vibration
Local vibration refers to vibration being delivered directly to a specific body part. For this reason, it’s often referred to as direct vibrational therapy.Local vibration refers to vibration being delivered directly to a specific body part. For this reason, it’s often referred to as direct vibrational therapy. Click To Tweet
Local vibration has been shown to produce favorable outcomes for different aspects of performance and rehabilitation; however, local vibration therapy has been studied far less extensively than whole-body vibration.2
Common local vibration devices available to athletes and coaches include:
- Vibrating travel rollers
- Vibrating massage balls
- Wearable vibrational garments or patches
Vibration Therapy for Improved Performance
Multiple performance avenues have been studied and analyzed for improving athletic and physical performance via vibration therapy. Below are some of the findings for more common realms of enhancing athletic performance.
Scientific Findings for Muscle Performance Characteristics
Studies examining various characteristics of muscle contraction and function (ballistic contraction, resistance to fatigue, maximal force output, etc.) when exposed to either type of vibration tend to be favorable and statistically significant, but not all studies produce these findings. Notably, these differences in outcome effectiveness are likely due to the study design and the vibration parameters utilized for a study’s protocol.3
The takeaway: Most studies examining the improvement of muscle performance have utilized local vibration (though plenty have used full-body vibration). Of these studies, those that found favorable improvements in muscle performance utilized frequencies ranging between 20 Hz and 60 Hz with oscillation amplitude from 1–2 mm. Shorter session durations (1–5 minutes) are most often used.
Scientific Findings for Improving Proprioception
Regaining proprioception (the brain’s ability to determine the position of joints and limbs accurately) is highly important with injury rehabilitation, as it’s often impaired after injury. This is particularly true with ankle rehabilitation.
The takeaway: Some studies have examined the ability of direct vibration therapy to enhance proprioception, but there is little solid data to go on at this time. It has been examined in elderly and young populations, and it shows promise, but the scientific consensus at this point in time is that more research needs to be done.4
Injury Prevention and Rehabilitation
Numerous studies involving whole-body vibration have found favorable effects on improving the flexibility and perceived stiffness of muscles. Less literature is available for when using direct vibration therapy, though some emerging evidence has found that utilizing a Swissring® at 20 Hz with amplitudes ranging from 1–6 mm and applied to various regions in two-minute durations has produced notable improvements in ankle and hamstring mobility—two body parts that are of particular interest (and importance) to velocity-based athletes.14 It stands to reason that other direct vibrational devices could produce similar effects when using identical or similar parameters.
The takeaway: Ideal parameter settings when using indirect vibration therapy to improve muscle and joint flexibility aren’t as clearly established when compared to direct means, but they likely involve parameters similar to those used for direct vibration. This typically involves a longer duration of vibration exposure (greater than 10 minutes) with higher frequencies, but there is no clear consensus within the scientific literature.
Scientific Findings for Bone Mineral Density
Bone mineral density is perhaps the most well-studied feature of vibration therapy. Most scientific articles have examined its effects using the whole body method, with favorable improvements in various bone characteristics that reflect improved bone health.
The primary mechanism behind its action is believed to be through improving bone circulation, which helps increase the overall nutritional supply to the bone tissue.15,16 Additionally, it has been shown to improve various aspects of osteogenic differentiation while reducing osteoclast formation.17,18
The takeaway: The vast majority of studies examining vibration therapy’s effects on bone mineral density have utilized a vibration frequency from 30–50 Hz with session duration varying between 10 and 20 minutes and session frequency varying between daily and thrice weekly. These studies ranged from 11 to 80 weeks, with most being approximately 20 weeks in length.
Vibration Therapy for Exercise Recovery
In the world of athletic performance, coaches often tell their athletes: train hard and recover harder. It makes perfect sense; you don’t actually become stronger within the gym or on the track—you merely use those facilities to elicit a stimulus that triggers desired physical adaptations. Those adaptations occur as your body recovers from the stressors it was exposed to within the workout or training session.It makes sense that any modality that helps enhance the efficacy of the body’s recovery process can lead to improved physical performance. Click To Tweet
So, it makes sense that any modality that helps enhance the efficacy of the body’s recovery process can lead to improved physical performance; the quicker and more complete an athlete’s recovery can be, the quicker they can induce another training stimulus to trigger further bodily adaptations.
Additionally, an athlete who has experienced a more complete recovery before their next training session will likely experience a better training session (maintain ideal training intensity, hit prescribed training loads, etc.), which will foster a better physical stimulus.
What follows are the scientific findings and indications for using vibrational therapy to improve muscular recovery induced by physical training.
Scientific Findings for Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)
For those unfamiliar with this terminology, delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is the phenomenon in which muscles become notably sore, stiff, or even painful anywhere from 24–72 hours after an intense bout of exercise or physical activity.
The ability to reduce or even prevent DOMS in athletes has massive implications for coaches, rehabilitation professionals, and athletes themselves, as minimizing muscle soreness and maximizing post-exercise recovery can reduce an athlete’s downtime and allow for greater training frequency. As such, vibration therapy has received considerable attention for its purported effects to help reduce the intensity and duration of DOMS symptoms.
Here’s the take-home information for some studies that have elicited DOMS through different training regimens and the positive effects vibration therapy had on the respective muscles:
- Recent research has shown that a vibration frequency of 80 Hz was ideal for reducing sensations of pain from delayed onset muscle soreness.19
- Other research has shown that exposure to local vibration therapy at 50 Hz to the quadriceps before a series of eccentric exercises significantly reduced pain perception elicited by DOMS.20
- Another study involving whole-body vibration therapy at 40 Hz found significant decreases in calf and gluteal soreness experienced by recreational runners who performed a bout of downhill treadmill running when compared to their control group.21
The takeaway: Utilizing vibration therapy for DOMS tends to produce favorable results and may be most beneficial with frequencies ranging from 40–80 Hz. Most studies finding favorable outcomes utilize a session duration of 1–10 minutes with direct vibration.Utilizing vibration therapy for delayed onset muscle soreness tends to produce favorable results. Click To Tweet
Optimal Parameters and Best Practices
Like any other training or recovery modality, the more finely tuned the parameters are, the greater the positive effect or outcome. It’s like taking a picture: the more in-focus and clear the image, the more obvious it becomes. A slightly out-of-focus image is still better than nothing, but it’s nowhere near as ideal as one that’s tack-sharp.
Vibration therapy is the same: the more you can fine-tune the parameters, the more evident the results will be. But…this is where vibration therapy sort of becomes the Wild West. We know the individual parameters that can be manipulated with vibrational therapy, and we know that collectively they can work to produce statistically significant results for various aspects of muscle performance and recovery—we’re just not sure which combination of parameters leads to the best results, or which parameters have the biggest effects (the ones that would therefore be the most critical to get right).
Various studies that have found statistically significant favorable effects for muscle performance, neurological functioning, and even pain reduction have generally utilized different parameters. To complicate matters a bit more, these parameters often differ quite substantially.
Nonetheless, the good news here is that various positive physiological effects have been produced with different parameters, so it may be a case of “close is good enough” until further studies help us understand the “perfect” set of parameters for a specific performance-based or therapeutic outcome.
While the individual effects of each parameter remain somewhat unknown based on the intended session outcome, the following parameters can serve as a general guideline when opting for incorporating vibrational therapy and should be kept in mind by athletes and coaches looking to incorporate its use:
- For pain reduction, both direct (local) and indirect (whole-body) vibrational therapy have been shown to be effective. Most studies showing positive effects have utilized longer session lengths (25–45 minutes) with frequencies typically higher (ranging from 20 to 200 Hz) than for performance-based intervention.
- For improving muscle force output and performance, a frequency of 30–50 Hz is likely most optimal, as this is the same frequency at which motor units discharge within the body when volitionally contracting.
- For reducing muscle soreness (particularly with DOMS), positive effects have been found with durations ranging from one minute to 30 minutes; however, most studies have utilized either one minute or 10 minutes. As such, any duration of time between these can likely be considered. It has been reported that 80 Hz is the optimal frequency for reducing pain thresholds with DOMS.
- Amplitude, if selectable, should be kept between 1 mm and 4 mm, as this is the range utilized in most studies looking at various performance parameters.
- Shorter session applications (<5 minutes) tend to produce improvements in muscle performance, while longer sessions (>10 minutes) tend to produce inhibitory effects on muscle characteristics. However, conflicting findings exist and may be due to the other vibration parameters used.
Scientific results mean very little if they’re in no way practical or transferable to the real-world scenarios of the athlete or coach. With vibration therapy, there are a few practical considerations that coaches and athletes will need to consider, be it for either performance or recovery benefits.On the whole, vibration therapy lends itself quite nicely to the practical aspects of athletic performance. Click To Tweet
Thankfully, on the whole, vibration therapy lends itself quite nicely to the practical aspects of athletic performance. Still, what follows are two considerations worth keeping in mind.
Consideration 1: Ease of Implementation
While whole-body vibration has shown to be rather effective for performance-based and recovery-based interventions, it won’t be practical for most coaches, athletes, or teams. Not every facility has access to a whole-body vibration unit, and even if they do… they’re not easily portable. There’s no lugging these things onto the track or the team bus.
Direct vibration therapy, while not studied quite as much, wins the practicality battle in a landslide. Vibrating rollers, vibrating massage balls, etc., are relatively inexpensive and can easily be tossed in a training bag. Additionally, multiple athletes can implement vibration therapy in the gym simultaneously (team warm-up, cool down, etc.) and at home if they have their own devices.
It’s unknown if direct vibration therapy can elicit the same systemic effects as whole-body vibration (the theory is that it likely doesn’t), but the benefits of direct vibration therapy for pain reduction, improvements in muscular blood flow, etc., are noteworthy enough to warrant its use.
Consideration 2: Experimenting with Parameters
As mentioned earlier, optimizing parameters for vibrational therapy can likely lead to enhanced physiologic outcomes; however, many vibrational devices on the market (particularly portable, direct vibration devices, such as vibrating rollers and vibrating massage balls) do not allow for changing frequency, displacement, or amplitude.
Some devices, however, do allow for varying levels of vibrational intensity (low, medium, or high settings), which may have predetermined parameter characteristics at each level.
As such, for many devices, the athlete or coach should be aware that time spent utilizing the device will be the most controllable variable. This can be thought of as the dose-response for the effects of vibration therapy, and it may just be that each athlete will need to determine what an ideal dose-response will be for their unique needs.
As a result, athletes looking to incorporate it into their training or recovery would be wise to experiment with this intervention at times that are not critical or detrimental to their training or recovery until they feel confident knowing how their body will respond.
There’s still a bit more to figure out with the fine details of ensuring we’re getting the most out of vibration therapy. However, there’s certainly enough scientific evidence to warrant its use for various applications, especially since it’s deemed to be a safe intervention with a very low risk of adverse effects.4 It’s likely a case of each athlete taking the time needed to become familiar with the intervention and how it’s tolerated to ensure success with its use.
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