Is Cupping the Holy Grail of Recovery? Maybe—or Maybe Not, Researchers Say.

Michael Phelps during the Men's 200m at Rio 2016 Olympic Games
Vaughn Ridley / Contributor

Cupping may be an ancient muscle recovery method, but it seemed to explode onto the national consciousness around the 2016 Rio de Janiero Olympics, when swimmers started showing up to the pool looking weirdly…bruised.

Those alien purple dots scattered on the backs of Michael Phelps—and, more recently, Washington Nationals player Bryce Harper—are intriguing and, to some, impressive.

But while there is some evidence to suggest that cupping can benefit the average non-professional athlete, is there science to suggest this modality can speed recovery? Not really, according to a new systematic review published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.

Researchers analyzed 11 clinical trials, including 500 participants, to explore cupping’s efficacy and safety.

Overall, the researchers found the studies and reports had a high amount of bias in their trial designs. So, while some illustrated benefits related to pain relief, there were no concrete recommendations or conclusions claiming cupping is good or bad for sports performance. 

“Cupping therapy is a classic example in which research lags behind clinical practice,” co-study author Romy Lauche said in a press release. “We are confident that this review will point out the need for and encourage further high-quality research of cupping, a therapy which has been around for millennia.”

Thanks @arschmitty for my cupping today!!! #mpswim #mp 📷 @chasekalisz

A post shared by Michael Phelps (@m_phelps00) on


And to be fair, these professional athletes are competing at such a high level that they’re far more likely to experiment with less common recovery methods. For regular folks? Cupping has been shown to help loosen chest congestion, relieve sore muscles, and even help with digestion, Dr. Anne Mok, D.A.O.M. (doctor of acupuncture and oriental medicine) told Men’s Fitness in an earlier interview.

Want to boost recovery post-workout? Try these other methods as well:

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