Over the past few years, I have received a lot of questions about vibration training. For those of you who are new to vibration training, it involves the use of mechanical vibration to stimulate the neuromuscular system. Researchers of vibration training have shown benefits on strength, power, vertical jump height flexibility, balance and muscle soreness (Cochrane, 2011).
My journey into the world of vibration training started when I studied the effects of whole-body vibration on muscle function for my Master’s Thesis (Jordan et al., 2010). As with most graduate students, I started off a little lost and totally unsure about what I was going to study. All this changed one afternoon when two of my most significant mentors and advisors on my thesis committee, Dr. Dave Smith and Dr. Steve Norris, approached me about a presentation they had just seen. Joachim Mester from the German Sport University in Cologne presented some unbelievable results on the effects of vibration on muscle strength in an elite skier. Needless to say they were very enthused, and encouraged me to pursue my research in the area of vibration training.
I knew absolutely nothing about vibration training so I began reading as much as I could. I came across three papers published by a group out of Israel who had also found impressive gains in strength and flexibility after vibration training, and by a completely strange coincidence, I found out that one of these guys happened to be at the University of Calgary for his sabbatical. I couldn’t believe my luck, and when I sat down with this guy I expected him to tell me I had found the holy grail of training methods. I was shocked that instead of enthusiasm, he spoke with extreme caution and skepticism about vibration training. As I sat there in disbelief, he carefully went down the long list of very well known health risks of vibration exposure, which include everything from detached retinas, to motion sickness, to debilitating nerve and blood vessel disorders (Griffin, 1996; Handbook of Human Vibration). This led me to lesson #1 about vibration training: the risks of vibration training, if used improperly, could be significant.
He definitely took the wind out of my sails but after some further thought, I decided to take a trip to Europe to visit Dr. Mester and one of his former PhD students in Munich. They took me to several training centres where vibration training was being used extensively, and once again, while some of the results had been staggering, they also expressed concern about the potential risks for vibration training. I experienced this firsthand when they threw me on a vibration leg press and had me perform a few repetitions. It was one of the most intense exercises I had ever done, and at the risk of hyperbole, it literally felt like someone had taken a jack hammer to my spine. As I researched more about why I found this such an intense movement I started to learn the complexity in the response of muscle to vibration, and that vibration could possibly cause the re-recruitment of acutely fatigued motor units. To put this into layman’s terms, this could allow you to potentially work beyond your normal capabilities, which on the one hand could lead to a substantial training effect but on the other hand could push you to the edge of the injury precipice. So, lesson #2 about vibration training was that intense resistance training, combined with vibration, represents a substantial and intense training load. Subsequent scientific research confirms that vibration training can in fact lead to the re-recruitment of previously fatigued fast-twitch motor units (McBride et al., 2004). Despite the possible contraindications, I think the use of vibration training in this manner is very intriguing, and is definitely on my research radar.
After my trip to Germany, despite the somewhat mixed opinions on vibration training my advisors and I made the decision that there was too much potential with vibration training to ignore it. By the fall of 2000, I had what I believe was Canada’s first whole-body vibration platform. It arrived from Italy, and after ripping open the packaging I stood there a bit dumbfounded deciding where to start. To start the process of understanding this training method, I decided to do what most responsible strength coaches would do and I got my other strength coach buddies to stand on it to see what would happen.
Stu McMillan, a long time friend and great strength coach was the first guy to experience some adverse effects. Against my subtle warnings, Stu cranked the machine up to 60 Hz, which was the maximum intensity, and stood on the platform for one-minute. He didn’t look overly good when he stepped off the platform. His ears were ringing, and he had some pretty wicked vertigo, which passed after a short time. The rest of us who were experimenting with the platform were responding without issue, and some of us were even feeling pretty good after we stepped off. We all learned our third lesson: the frequency of vibration along with parameters such as the duration of exposure, amplitude, and what you do during vibration training are critical, and more is definitely not better (Jordan et al., 2005).
About two weeks later, after nothing but smooth sailing in terms of negative reactions to the platform, another friend of mine Andre Benoit, who is also a fantastic strength coach, noticed that if he relaxed his muscles while standing on the platform the vibration wave would travel up his body, and when he contracted his muscles the vibration wave would travel back down his body. This was my fourth lesson that muscle dampens vibration, and incidentally, this is one mechanism leading to increased muscle activity during vibration training.
The fifth lesson happened about 10-seconds later, and this was when Andre’s body went into complete full-body resonance. I’ve never seen someone shake like this in my life. He stepped off the plate, and just like Stu, he didn’t look or feel very good at all. Contrary to Stu’s symptoms, Andre complained of some serious gastrointestinal upset that persisted for a couple of days. The fifth lesson was that the internal organs and many other systems such as the eyes and inner ear are very sensitive to vibration, and that standing on the platform in relaxed postures that limit the muscles’ ability to dampen vibration can be a really bad idea.
As I completed my Masters research my understanding of vibration training increased dramatically. I was evaluating the effects of vibration on the ability of subjects to activate their muscles, and I was fortunate that all of my subjects were ex-athletes who could give me a maximal effort. When I went back to analyze my data, one thing stood out: there were responders, non-responders and extreme responders. In order to get my data published I looked at mean changes for the group but the responder-factor always stood out in my mind. Here is lesson #6: there is great inter-individual differences in the response to vibration. This was confirmed for me years after completing my Masters when I had a chat with expert track and field coach Dan Pfaff, and he told me about observing very explosive and fast twitch athletes who had lost “feel” after vibration exposure.
During the early years, I focused on using vibration to improve muscle strength and power, and as I experimented with its use, I refined my approach to use vibration in combination with plyometric or elastic strength development. It was interesting to note that certain athletes had disrupted movement patterns, and as I referred back to the scientific research to explain the findings, I came up with lesson #7: the proprioceptive system, which includes length and tension receptors, pain receptors, and receptors that detect touch and vibration, is very very sensitive and responsive to vibration. This is interesting because the proprioceptive system is heavily involved in regulating physiological responses like pain, the passive stiffness of connective tissue, flexibility, and balance.
Indeed, if you turn to the scientific literature, vibration training has been shown to affect all of the above mentioned responses. A few of the more significant studies in this area is one demonstrating a significant improvement in flexibility in trained gymnasts (Sands et al., 2006), and that others that show decreased muscle soreness following intense eccentric exercise (Bakhitiary et al., 2006; Broadbent et al., 2008). Interestingly, Broadbent et al., 2008 found that vibration also affected the biochemical inflammatory response following intense exercise demonstrating that vibration exerts its effects across many different physiological systems. Lesson #8 and #9 are that vibration training is a great tool in warm up for acutely improving range of motion and flexibility, and it can be used very effectively as a recovery modality.
The broad range of vibration on the human body highlights the potential usefulness for vibration training with other populations such as the general public and those who are unable to exercise with high intensity but here’s a caveat: vibration training by itself is certainly never going to replace hard work and good nutrition for improving fitness and strength. However, vibration training may be useful for offsetting age related bone loss in older populations and for improving strength, power and balance, which can reduce the risk of slips, trips and falls (Verschueren, 2004). Lesson #10 is that vibration training may be a great training method for those populations who are unable to engage in regular physical activity; however, it won’t change your body into that of a Greek God.
So to summarize, I’m definitely a big believer in vibration training. While the scientific research remains equivocal as it does with lots of novel training methods, I really do believe there is value to be found in vibration training. My top uses for vibration training would be:
- To enhance recovery following intense exercise that may result in excessive muscle soreness.
- To increase the training effect from resistance training in well-trained athletes by superimposing vibration during regular resistance training exercises.
- To improve flexibility and range of motion.
- To acutely improve strength and power when used in combination with plyometric training or explosive resistance training.
- To improve muscle activation and eccentric force production when vibration training is used prior to exercise.
- To improve strength, power, balance and bone density in older populations who are limited in their ability to engage in regular exercise.
- To condition athletes who encounter large vibration loads in their sport (e.g. alpine skiers) when they are in a return to sport stage after injury. My good buddy Matt Price, strength and conditioning coach with Alpine Canada, and I have used this a lot with our skiers over the years (www.meridian-ad.ca).
If you are interested in more information, stay tuned to my website as I will be releasing a video and Ebook on Vibration Training for athletes.