By Carl Valle
Every decade we see a new tool or method claiming to harness the power of vibration for sports performance. Before you add a vibration technology or methodology to your coaching or sports therapy craft, I want to give you a comprehensive deep dive into the science, share a little experience, and list popular equipment and techniques for training and sports medicine. I’ve witnessed amazing results with vibration modalities when used appropriately, but I’ve also seen a lot of time, money, and energy wasted on them.
Vibration and Humans: From Ancient Civilization to Modern Sport Science
Vibration is older than most article writers realize–most authors refer to the late 1800s instead of earlier civilizations that used vibration for spiritual and medical purposes. From the dawn of time, vibration has occurred all around us and down to the atomic level. The amount of research on vibration training and its hazards is so vast, it would take me decades to read every journal article on the subject.
Instead of digging in and summarizing what the science says or parroting previous authors, I believe it’s better to give a brief but important perspective of what humans have been up to for the past thousand years or more. A vibration is “an oscillation of the parts of a fluid or an elastic solid whose equilibrium has been disturbed, or of an electromagnetic wave,” according to one online definition.
In simpler terms specific to sport, vibration is physical contact in a rhythmic pulse for training effects and therapy. As coaches and therapists, we’re exposed mostly to platforms, massage techniques, and massage devices. The promise of these tools is that they’ll increase strength, boost hormone production, strengthen bones, improve flexibility, assist warm-up and potentiation, and promote faster recovery.
Most studies, however, show little promise outside of their controls, meaning they’re better than nothing but are not ideal solutions for improving athletes beyond more potent options.
Vibration’s history is rooted to ancient Egypt, although the goal was not to get athletes, or even their military, to perform better or recover faster. As a scientific solution, vibration originates with modern electricity, and only when the US and the Soviet Union were in a space race did it start trickling down to athletic performance and sports medicine.
The commercialization of vibration plates or platforms sparked better and more specific research, and today we can find research on countless diseases and populations. Although much of the research on whole body vibration (WBV) shows it has merit, the findings are not noteworthy.It’s not that vibration training doesn’t work, it’s that conventional training works better. Click To Tweet
It’s not that vibration training doesn’t work, it’s just that conventional training works better, all else being equal. The general public loves vibration because it feels good and is part of the mainstream pleasure market. Our nerves sense vibrations and EMG picks up the rise and fall of forces through the body with surprising accuracy. Because everyone knows about vibration devices and some know about the training equipment, the pressure on support staff to use vibration platforms and medical tools is overwhelming.
Every day research shows a “new” finding on how vibration can burn fat, improve fitness, and even treat cellulite. It’s hard to know what to believe when the marketing and testimonials are so alluring. But the science is available to inform us that vibration is a complementary solution, not a key component of a successful program.
Vibration Platforms: The Origins and the Science
The use of vibration platforms is older than most manufacturers claim; the cosmonaut and astronaut origins is far more exciting for marketing than earlier pioneers. Although a shaman stomping around an ill person who is lying down is very primitive, the idea has merit beyond the spiritual components. Many of us love vibration chairs for relaxing at airports, but that technology started before the turn of the 19th century by a French scientist working with Parkinson’s patients.
Another burst of innovation occurred during the space race of the 1960s and 1970s because the lack of gravity caused bones to lose density over time. Even then, the application to athletes was minimal. Much of the real progress came from the work of Henk Kraaijenhof and Carmelo Bosco.
The late 1990s and 2000s became the moneyball period for vibration platforms as the growth of Power Plate and VibraFlex skyrocketed from the budget wars among college football and some professional teams needing an extra edge. There was enough science to say that there was something there, but nothing in the research showed that conventional training was missing out by any means.
Everyone who uses vibration platforms must weigh their effectiveness compared to regular modalities. So far no solid body of research proves that stacking, or combining vibration platforms and conventional training, creates some sort of synergy. Based on what we know, vibration platforms’ primary benefits are nothing exciting, though they are useful working with the elderly and for rehabilitation. Some coaches love them for warming up, and the platforms do provide excellent ways to stimulate athletes who need a little wake-up.
Many meta-analyses, or review summaries of multiple studies, have found vibration platforms to be very mild and useful only for sedentary and older populations. Sport performance? The benefits are so slim I would not invest much time in them. After using muscle testing instrumentation with his athletes, Landon Evans mentioned at the CVASPS conference that he was not a fan of the vibration platforms.
Vibration Massage for Muscle Recovery and Regeneration
Tapotement massage is simply a rhythmic activity in any form by caused by soft tissue manual therapists. Lateral vibration patterns developed by the legendary Waldemar Matuszewski are extremely effective for loosening muscle tone. With vibration massage, the most common debate we see concerns the overall argument about massage in general: Does it work?
In theory, if a massage is designed to wake up the body and stimulate a stress response, how does it create a recovery response? Second, even if it does create a regeneration effect on the body, how long does it last and how can we measure it? I’ve asked these timeless questions about massage and regeneration techniques for nearly twenty years, and believe I have a scientific answer at a time when science is struggling to explore muscle physiology.
Massage does work, but only if the right instrumentation is used. Elastography, Tensiomyography, and Myotonometer are the only tools that make headway in the understanding of the properties of tissue.
I’ve looked at peripheral changes to the leg muscles as well as vibration massage in multiple forms and saw absolutely no changes locally. But with other measures, we saw dramatic changes. A major increase in sympathetic status was seen using galvanic skin conductance. This was confirmed with invasive biomarkers such as free cortisol.
Athletes who receive vibration work from handheld instruments and digital products experienced decreased sympathetic drive, and we improved their real time heart rate variability (HRV) when using a measuring tool like Hexoskin. A coach in Toronto measured other therapy options like Graston, and the athletes’ HRV was severely decreased for days after just one 20-minute therapy session. Vibration never seemed to have negative effects systematically to the whole body or directly to the muscle.
During the same time as electricity became available commercially, so did a rise in “medical” vibration tools. These tools repeatedly make the rounds every decade with growing popularity, each time with more settings and features. All of these products are a response to the universal acceptance of vibration as a medium of health and wellness. Currently, we see foam rollers with vibration settings, showing how far public awareness has come and how little has changed.
Some of the sports technology on the market is capitalizing on the professional-grade device space, such as the Hyperice Raptor (not to be confused with my jump test) as well as other products that are growing in popularity. These products have been used for decades but are only now being researched because of the current ease of measuring muscles. One new product, the TheraGun, resembles an electric hand saw with a rubber mallet. About 100 professional teams are now using it.
I believe the potential of sports vibration exists, but we need a sound methodology to come up with protocols to allow validation by the peer review process. As far as I know, there is no research published about manual vibration and its lasting and significant changes to muscle tone.
Sports Technologies that Reduce Vibration
In most of this article, I’ve provided evidence on the value of vibration, but what about solutions and products that reduce vibration? Stimuli in training is a thorny rose; it has benefits but it also has risks and vibration is no exception.
Most of the compression products in the sports market claim they reduce vibration by controlling excessive muscle motion during foot strike. How companies can address compression demands while optimizing the vibration demands of various body compositions and densities is beyond my knowledge. I first experienced high tech fabrics that could make a small change in vibration with the early versions of the Speedo Sharkskin body suit around the time of the Sydney Olympics.
Tissue oscillation rates are very difficult to measure, and how much they slow down or fatigue an athlete is hard to say right now. Most research on compression garments focuses on biochemical responses and field test changes, not actual claims about theoretical mechanisms like vibration.
Any athlete who has hit a baseball with a wooden bat away from the sweet spot, or the center-of-percussion, knows that vibrations are not easy on the body. Rapid rhythmic forces may stimulate bones, but joint surfaces and ligaments are not always equipped to handle the vibrations we don’t often encounter in nature. Humans are designed to handle vibrations from running and locomotion, not recreational and elite sports.We are designed to handle vibrations from running & locomotion, not elite sports. Click To Tweet
Vibration eliminating equipment and medical devices are common in the market, but because the research is so scant, I’m skeptical about the effectiveness and even their value if they do work. Many of the implements currently available in sports, such as tennis rackets, golf clubs, and alloy baseball bats, claim they minimize unwanted vibration, but product changes make it hard to know if one is using something that actually dampens forces.
The athletic shoe market is an area that deserves its own article, but based on the research, shoe cushioning does not help reduce excessive vibration from the foot strike up to the skull. Humans have a nuchal ligament to help dissipate forces during running.
Many companies realize that consumers believe a soft material will mitigate forces. But the reality is that a firmer composite will better control forces by slowing down motion. That’s the strange paradox about reducing forces. We don’t want to add more cushion or softer materials; we want to increase firmness to help with the shock as it echoes up the kinetic chain.
Nike and Adidas are engaged in a marathon war and want their athletes to break two hours. Their results so far, including the recent attempt in Italy, were more likely due to the success of wind resistance rather than shoe design.