Human beings need tools, right? It’s the oldest story in the book: We want to live a certain way, we invent something to allow us to do it, and we move on from there. In some cases—like fire, the wheel, pizza, and electric guitars—we find that these inventions become absolute necessities, things for which there were really no shortcuts or alternatives; with others, we inevitably end up wondering whether the thing we made is really essential, or whether it’s just another piece of junk on the market. In light of the recent wave of boutique tech-health devices, from Peloton and Tonal to Whoop and Theragun, I find myself asking that question more and more often: Do I need to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on these devices, or are there more primal ways to achieve my ends? Did I need the Peloton, or could I have cycled through the pandemic by hooking up my road bike to a cheap trainer? Do I want Tonal, or just some Craiglist dumbbells and a YouTube series on weightlifting?
In the case of physical recovery, I’ve found myself asking whether percussive massage guns are a must, or whether they’re just a bougie alternative to a good old-fashioned foam roller. Recently, I’ve been dealing with bad plantar fasciitis and trying to find new ways to stay loose, so I asked my massage therapist whether she recommended massage guns and, surprisingly, she told me that all massage therapists highkey love them. She said I could just get a cheap one on Amazon and that it would be fine, but I am simply not that kind of guy; instead, I set out on a journey to find out whether the Theragun hype was real. Here’s what I learned.
First of all, “Theragun” isn’t just “a massage gun”; it's just part of a brand that’s been slowly morphing over the past couple of years into Therabody, which comprises a ton of products, from massage guns and vibration therapy devices to pneumatic compression boots, muscle stimulators, and even a line of CBD topicals and oils. The company as a whole dates back to 2007, when chiropractor Dr. Jason Wersland was in a motorcycle accident and found himself living with paralyzing pain; wanting to avoid fusing discs or becoming addicted to pain medication, he sought to invent a device to soothe his extreme muscle pain.
What Wersland came up with was a tool that combined vibration therapy and pressure therapy, and that aimed to emulate a DMS (deep muscle stimulator). Blending those ideas into the original Theragun prototype—a power drill with a bent saw that he took from his garage—he started to correct his movement patterns and heal himself. Wersland developed the technology over the following decade and launched Theragun in 2016.
What makes this form of percussion therapy unique is the combination of frequency, amplitude, and torque it offers. Theraguns can get up to 2,400 PPMs, meaning 40 beats per second; the main three gun offerings—Prime, Elite, and PRO—have a 16-millimeter amplitude (aka full depth of vibration), which makes them unique from other massage guns. “That gave it enough of a pull-off when it came in contact with the skin,” a Therabody representative explained to me. “It’s deep enough to communicate with receptors, heats up tissue around it, and changes the viscosity of the fluids.”
Essentially, this means the guns go deep enough to really put in work on the muscles, but are distanced enough to actually come off between strikes, which is an important factor in how signals are sent to the brain; if a gun head just remained on the muscle without bouncing off, its effect would be completely different.
I asked the rep point blank about what benefits a Theragun add to traditional stretching. Regarding warmups, she said, “Stretching gets the heart rate up and heats up tissue so you have freedom to move around. Theragun is just accelerating that process..” She went on to add that she would never replace a warmup, but would absolutely add Theragun into the mix. “Think of the Theragun like your pit crew—you’re calling it in when you feel that tension building up,” she said. During cooldown, “it actually downregulates your system—there’s a calming effect that happens after about two minutes.” So essentially, it sounds like Theragun’s main goal is to facilitate waking up the muscles and putting them to sleep before and after use, whether that’s during exercise, gaming, lifting, or just going for a walk.
As I write this, I’m worn out from a week of foam rolling, percussive muscle massages, weightlifting, pilates, and long walks, all on relatively new orthotics. Today I did the Theragun PRO pilates warmup session from the Therabody app, a full mat session, and the corresponding cooldown. I’ve been doing pilates for years now, but after keeping my muscles pounded out for the past few days, it feels like a whole new experience. Open leg rocker felt completely different—because my shoulders and hips were more open, I could better massage my spine, and felt like I got more out of the move; saw—probably my least favorite mat move—also felt better, as I could feel more of the fine mechanisms at work in my obliques after giving my torso a few days of attention from the Theragun. And the app was great, because it told me exactly where to massage, for how long, and what head to use. It even controls the device in starting and stopping; it also tells you when you’re using the gun with the optimal amount of pressure, which is one of its most useful and impressive features.
Ultimately, I ended up trying many of Therabody’s products and came away feeling like a few would become staples in my life going forward. I’m not going to stop doing traditional stretching, but the Theragun does offer a particular way of engaging deeply with muscles that basic stretching can’t always achieve. Frankly, I mostly feel loose as hell right now thanks to a new regimen of consistent Theragunning. Here’s a breakdown of some of the products I enjoyed the most.
This is the big daddy of percussive massage guns. The Prime, Elite, and PRO models offer basically the same therapy in terms of frequency and amplitude, and all have the same excellent, sleek ergonomic design, but the PRO has the most torque and comes with two batteries, six attachments, and a travel pouch. And it has a rotating arm. Specs aside, it’s an absolute monster that can handle basically anything you throw at it. For half the price you can get the Prime—fewer batteries and attachments, no case, etc.—and it’ll suit your needs (unless you’re John Cena or something), but honestly, the Pro is the annihilator you deserve.
The mini bears a less powerful and flexible design than the other three models, and has shorter amplitude, meaning you won’t get as deep into those muscles. But it’s an excellent light massager, especially for people who don’t have super thick muscles, want something that they can travel with, or just need something more casual. I think it’s awesome—this thing absolutely decimated a knot in my foot within minutes. It rules. That said, if you’re really trying to jam some serious therapy, spend an extra $100 on the Prime; otherwise, this is a solid beginning investment and would also make a killer gift for a tense homie.
The goal of the Wave Solo was to combine vibration with the benefits of foam rolling, and Therabody definitely succeeded there. This device works especially well on feet and legs for pinpointed pressure rolling, but also does wonders on other spots; recently, on a long drive, I used the Wave Solo for back and hip tightness and it felt amazing. I’ve used it frequently at my desk as well, and it’s quiet enough that it never bothers my coworkers. I also think it could make a good sex toy, but whether or not my girlfriend and I actually tested that is none of your goddamn business!
The Wave Duo is like if you took two Wave Solos and fused them together. Because of its contour, it’s awesome on the calves and the spine, and works super well on the upper back. It’s dense enough that bigger dudes like myself don’t need to worry at all about getting as deep as they want to. This thing is for everyone, but I’d think it’s especially good for people doing a lot of weightlifting and full body workouts who want pinpointed release.
The RecoveryAir is Therabody’s pneumatic compression system. Basically, you zip yourself into boots that make you feel like you’re about to be launched into outer space, set your pressure and session length preferences, turn it on, and relax while you get a compression massage that really only professional soccer players should have access to. It might sound scary, but it appears to be something of an intelligent device, customizing pressure to prevent over-constriction of the legs, which can be dangerous. It also just feels very good, which you deserve.
Revive CBD Body Balm
The Revive stick is by far my favorite CBD product that Therabody offers. With a whopping 835 milligrams of full spectrum CBD in every 1.67-ounce container, it packs a subtle but noticeable punch. It’s an excellent thing to have on the go; recently, I used it on a sore foot and knee while on a long drive, and it felt great. But of course it’s going to feel good with that much CBD in addition to organic turmeric oil, organic menthol, organic arnica oil, and much more.
In the end, the growing world of Therabody provides great tools that can help you stay loose and limber. Yes, they can be expensive, but some of these devices have definitely helped my plantar fasciitis and have become part of my daily routine of exercise and physical therapy. Whether you’re wanting to soothe or avoid injury, generally stay loose and relaxed, or spice things up in the bedroom—again, you didn’t hear this from me—these products are a worthwhile investment.