Sciatica has plagued me for years. I’ve gone to physical therapy to rid myself of it, and while that worked, it’s vital that I spend time every day stretching, massaging, and ultimately paying attention to my body. I’m really bad at it. Percussive massagers promise to help make it easier to keep my body limber and pain-free. Now that I’ve used several, I can tell you that they do help — but not as much as promised.
Here is a look at five percussive massagers I have tested recently.
What is a percussive massager?
A percussive massager is a handheld device that uses a rapid forward and backward movement to apply force to your muscles. The idea is to help stimulate soft tissues and blood flow, and to essentially help your muscles recover after a workout or injury.
Percussive massagers come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and all the ones I tested come with replaceable heads. This is an important feature; the replaceable heads allow you to tailor how hard the percussions feel and how deeply they penetrate your muscles. Some are much softer than others, so if you’re just looking for a pleasant massaging feel rather than a deep tissue treatment, you can do that.
I tested five different percussive massagers, and they break down into two broad categories: large units meant for home use, and portable units meant for travel or other space-saving situations. All five units feature swappable attachments, multiple speeds, and rechargeable batteries.
The large units all feature Bluetooth connectivity so you can use them in conjunction with their respective apps. The Addaday BioZoom Jr. and the Theragun Mini do not feature Bluetooth.
The apps largely serve to educate the consumer on how to properly use the units. They also offer structured sessions tailored to specific goals or even parts of the body.
All of the units in the test feature rechargeable batteries. Some use USB-style cables, while others have custom ports and charging cables to go with them. Charging stations are available for some units and are generally sold separately.
The handle shape of a percussive massager has a big impact on how useful it is for certain parts of the body. The L-shaped unit is most common; Theragun’s Elite percussive massager features a triangular-shaped handle that helps you leverage it behind your back. Compact units often sacrifice leverage for portability.
How to choose the best massager for you
There are four primary considerations you should note when choosing the percussive massager for you. First is of course price; large units run anywhere from $150 to $400. Based on my testing, you can certainly get a decent unit for less money, but the more expensive units ten to have more bells and whistles — and more importantly, stronger percussive force.
Size matters, too. If you’ll be traveling with the unit, you’ll want to err on the smaller side, even though functionality will be more limited, and the units probably won’t integrate with an app.
Which leads me to the third consideration: Do you even want or need the app integration? If you’re just looking to get a massage your own way, you won’t need the app to structure a session for you. But if you like tracking your sessions and having guided walk-throughs, be sure the unit you buy has an app to go with it.
Finally and most importantly, make sure that the unit you choose has enough percussive force to get adequately deep into your tissues. If you’re mostly using this for injuries or pain, you’ll want something that offers more force. General relaxation and massage can be achieved with any of these units, even the ones with the least amount of force.
Theragun’s Elite is the most powerful massager in this group, which makes it the clear winner for me. But that’s not the only thing that sets it apart from the rest: The triangular shape also allows you to get at muscles you simply can’t get to with the other units.
The Elite comes with five interchangeable heads, and one of them is a harder durometer than the others, so it’s easy to go very deep into troublesome areas.
The small screen shows battery life as well as a pressure gauge so you know how much force to apply. This matters most when you’re doing some of the structured sessions with the app, though I found it useful when I was using the unit without the app as well.
There are two major drawbacks to the Theragun Elite. First, it’s the most expensive percussive massager in our test, so you’re certainly paying for the privilege to use this one.
And second, it’s easily the loudest unit of the bunch. While it’s not as noisy as the older version of the Theragun, it still can’t compete with the likes of the HyperVolt, so if noise is a major concern, you’ll do better with the HyperVolt.
That said, the Theragun still takes the cake for the most useful percussive massager due to its best-in-class force application and unique handle design.
You can read my full review of the Theragun Elite here.
The HyperVolt from HyperIce offers most of what you need and nothing you don’t. And it’s the quietest unit of the bunch, which means you won’t feel too awkward using it while you’re watching Netflix next to your significant other.
It’s almost perfect as percussive massagers go. It’s powerful enough to get into your deep tissues (though perhaps not quite as powerful as the Theragun Elite, which performed the best in this test as far as power goes) and adjusts quickly and easily on the fly using the single button on the back of the unit.
The HyperVolt features three speed settings, which is not as diverse as some of the other full-size units — but I never really found myself wishing for more options here. In fact, the simplicity here is nice. Easy massage, medium massage, deep massage. Easy peasy.
The unit also includes five different interchangeable heads to customize the depth and intensity of the massage. I tried all of them but found the round head to be the most useful for my needs.
Unlike the other units in this test, the HyperVolt’s lithium-ion battery is removable. You can pop the battery out and place it on the charger stand (sold separately) or just plug it in while it’s still attached to the unit. If you’re buying this unit for regular, heavy-duty use, you can buy an extra battery and swap them out easily. HyperIce says you’ll get about 3 hours out of a charge, and the light around the end of the unit indicates how much charge you have left.
Like the Theragun Elite, the HyperVolt features a pressure indicator to let you know whether you’re applying too much pressure, not enough, or just the right amount. That’s done via the LED lights on the back of the unit. It’s a simple and intuitive feature.
And of course, the HyperVolt communicates with HyperIce’s app should you want to structure your sessions and take advantage of the other app features. It’s a well-designed app that I found easy to use, even though I prefer to use these massages in a less structured manner.
My only real nitpick on this one is the same nitpick I have with other percussive massagers that look a lot like this one: the L-shaped unit isn’t always easy to position or leverage properly, especially when you’re trying to massage shoulders and lower back muscles.
The HyperVolt has become a favorite for its combination of low noise, good power, and easy use.
For my money, the Theragun Mini is the unit I would buy, largely because of how much travel I do. It’s quite powerful for its size — not quite as powerful as the larger Theragun Elite, but certainly more powerful than some of its full-size competitors.
The triangular shape makes it easy to apply pressure, especially when you’re using the unit on your legs. It’s a bit more difficult to maneuver this one over your shoulders or to position it at your lower back, though it is possible to do both.
With three speeds to choose from, the Mini is plenty versatile for a smaller, travel-size percussive massager. It comes in a neoprene case too, so you can stow it in your carry-on without too much worry.
Since it is a bit smaller and stripped down, you’ll do without the app integration and any screen to display pressure sensitivity, but that’s just fine, as this unit’s all about simplicity anyway. There’s just one button to contend with; other than that, you just apply pressure and massage away.
This is definitely the choice for a small, travel-size unit. It’s quieter than the Theragun Elite, too, so if you prefer to capitalize on the strength Theragun offers without the noise of the larger unit, this is a great choice.
You can read my full review of the Theragun Mini here here.
Addaday’s BioZoom Edge comes with a nice array of swappable heads that let you tailor the massage quickly and easily.
There are three ways to control the unit. The easiest and most intuitive method is to use the blue buttons underneath your index finger. The second is via the top digital display, which I found to be extraneous and less intuitive. The third is by using the dedicated app.
It’s Bluetooth-enabled to work with the Addaday app, which offers structured sessions, a session log, and other nifty features. If you like the idea of structured sessions based on your specific needs, just punch in your symptoms — I searched for ‘sciatica’ and a few options came up to address that particular problem — and follow the session’s instructions. The videos are well-shot and useful.
I personally don’t like the idea of having to pair to an app to use the device, so I mostly used the BioZoom manually. The unit is very quiet, but it also feels very underpowered. It was possible to slow the head almost to a complete stop by applying the same amount of pressure that I applied with other units.
The BioZoom comes in at just $149, which makes it one helluva deal if you are new to the percussive massager game. But that price definitely reflects some of the unit’s finish: the decals peel off and bend easily, contributing to a somewhat shoddy look. And while the app offers benefits for certain users, it doesn’t offer much above and beyond the competition.
This is your unit if you want to get into a full-size massager at a low price, but be aware that it may not offer as deep of a massage as its competition.
The smallest and lightest of all the percussive massagers in the test also happens to be the least powerful of all the units I tested. That was enough to become a dealbreaker for me, but the BioZoom Jr. does have some beneficial features.
The BioZoom Jr. comes with three different heads, and it can be operated at three different speeds. It’s easy to change speeds simply by pressing the power button.
And it’s a very light and compact unit. Frequent travelers will appreciate the diminutive size, and the easy USB charging — which means you don’t have to tote a dedicated charging cable along with you, just use a USB cable you were likely bringing with you anyway. You’ll get 90 minutes out of a charge, which is more than enough for a quick session in the hotel room.
I like the shape of the Jr., too. It’s easy to grip and apply pressure in various locations, including over your shoulder.
But like its larger sibling, the BioZoom Jr. feels underpowered, so much so that it was pretty easy to get the head to stop moving almost entirely when I applied the kind of pressure I was used to applying with other units. And it’s also plagued with the shoddy decals that fall off easily.
Still, for its compact size, low weight, and easy to grip handle — not to mention the 1-year warranty — this is a good option for the traveler who doesn’t want to spend too much on a unit and will only be doing light massages.