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I Tried At-Home Cupping Therapy for Sore Muscles and Was Surprisingly Impressed

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Photo: Imagination55/Shutterstock

Cupping was first widely noticed last summer during the Olympics when Michael Phelps and crew arrived with dark circles all over their chest and back. And pretty soon, even Kim K was getting in on the action with facial cupping. But I, being no professional athlete nor reality star, was never that interested—until I found out about Lure Essentials Chakra Cupping Therapy Kit ($40; lureessentials.com) as an at-home cupping option.

While science-backed benefits of cupping therapy are lacking, the process is said to relieve tight and sore muscles and improve range of motion by drawing blood to the surface. Since I wasn't training for a marathon or anything, I wasn't sure cupping would have any noticeable effects on me. But I thought the at-home, less-expensive kit was worth testing out. (Related: I Tried "Facial Cupping" to See If I'd Get Skin Like Kim Kardashian)

I recently started getting back into weightlifting—after a summer-long hiatus—so I'm often sore after my workouts. For two weeks, I tested the cups' effectiveness for easing that, hoping to avoid being forced into a rest day when I really didn't need it. (Wondering if you need to chill out? Here are 7 surefire signs you seriously need a rest day.) First up, my first Barry's Bootcamp class. I run regularly so I wasn't concerned about the treadmill portion, but then we got to the weights. I went on a day when the strength training was focused on your chest and back, and I was woefully unprepared for how hard it was going to be.

Needless to say, the next day I was Sore with a capital S.

That night, I asked my roommate to help apply the cups to my back because I found it pretty difficult to apply the cups on my back on my own. While she seemed to have no problem figuring out how to do it, this was one drawback to the at-home kit.

Here's how it works: You set a cup on the surface of the skin, then squeeze until skin pulls into the cup, creating a vacuum-like seal. The kit I got had pictures of various ways to apply the four different sized cups. You can leave them on anywhere from three to 15 minutes, and I left mine on for the full 15. I could feel the pressure from the suction, but it wasn't painful. The most uncomfortable part is taking the cups off; you put a finger under the edge to release the seal. But it still feels like they're being yanked off.

Despite that discomfort, I immediately felt that the muscles in my shoulders were more relaxed. They still felt sore, but I could move with less stiffness. In fact, even as sore as I was after Barry's, I could have maybe even done a workout—I wouldn't have said that 20 minutes prior. While there's no way to promise you'd experience the same results (or that I would have pain relief if I did it again), Steven Capobianco, a doctor of chiropractic medicine with the Foundation for Chiropractic Progress, does affirm that cupping is an effective tool to manage post-workout muscle soreness and improve range of motion.

I had the telltale rings directly after removal, but they were mostly faded by the next morning. I've found the smallest cups leave the longest-lasting bruises—these were more purple than pink and were visible for two days. My muscle pain was almost completely gone by morning, but admittedly, this was two nights after my workout. The cupping may have more of a placebo effect than actually be responsible for a shortened recovery time.

You can use the cups as often as every day, but weekly is a more typical time frame, says Capobianco. I exercise regularly and don't currently have any injuries, so I was able to keep up the cupping habit three more times over the following two weeks.

Monday is always leg day and my hardest workout of the week. I tested the cups that same night before I even let my body experience any significant soreness. There wasn't a guide for how to apply the cups on every body part, so I looked online for pictures on where to place them on my legs over the muscles that tend to get sore. I was able to apply them myself this time, so the process was smoother. This time around, I found that 15 minutes of cupping on my legs was much more painful. Capobianco says that could be for a number of reasons, such as inflammation of the muscle tissue or even my mental and emotional state.

Overall, I was actually really impressed with the results of at-home cupping. I'll definitely continue to use the kit after tough workouts or before events where I really can't be sore—like a race or lengthy social event. For me, I look at cupping kind of the way I look at foam rolling: I don't always realize the effect it has on my recovery in the moment (because ow). But if it helps me get ready for my next workout faster, it's worth a little discomfort.

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