Shake, Rattle & Roll

January 29, 2015

The latest buzz in the athletic training world is whole body vibration, which holds promise for everything from strength work to prehab to rehab.


By R.J. Anderson


R.J. Anderson is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning. He can be reached at: rja@MomentumMedia.com.


When Craig Friedman, ATC, CSCS, a performance specialist at Athlete's Performance in Tempe, Ariz. traveled to Germany for the 2006 Men's World Cup, he brought along some new tools that are creating a buzz in sports medicine and athletic performance training. Charged with designing short-term performance programs for world-class soccer players and helping them recover quickly from the rigors of competition, Friedman counted on whole body vibration (WBV) to help keep the host team at the top of its game.


Friedman is one of a growing number of athletic training and conditioning professionals adding WBV to their performance-building and treatment approaches. Although the idea of vibration is not new, it hasn't been extensively researched, and the hows and whys behind the technology remain a bit of a mystery.


Yet despite the lack of quantitative evidence, anecdotal findings from performance specialists, athletic trainers, and strength coaches ring loud and clear: Vibration has many benefits—both acute and gradual. And as time unfolds, experts say we'll likely see more benefits come to light.


SHAKING THINGS UP

The idea behind whole body vibration is pretty straightforward. The body is shaken, usually by an oscillating platform, while athletes perform exercises or stretch.


These repetitive impulses from the platform excite muscles' motor neurons, causing the fibers to contract. In addition, vibration has been shown to affect the sensory, neuroendocrine, and cardiovascular systems. In an athletic setting, benefits are thought to include increased flexibility, increased bone density, synchronization of motor units, hormonal secretion, and pre-activation of the musculoskeletal system.


Although WBV is just now gaining traction in the U.S., it's been around for a while. Vibration technology was initiated in the mid-1850s in the form of steam-powered devices shaped like saddles. In fact, three of these devices sank with the Titanic. "That technology was inappropriately claimed to have wild benefits—everything from healing broken bones to curing dandruff, paralysis, and leprosy; weight loss; you got taller; your hair got curlier; everything," says Patrick Jacobs, PhD, CSCS, a professor at Florida Atlantic University and a speaker on WBV at the recent National Strength and Conditioning Association convention. "Then in the 1920s, the U.S. started cracking down on quackery and determined many of these claims were outrageous, and the vibration industry fizzled out."


In the early to mid-1970s, the technology resurfaced when Soviet scientists began developing it for use in athletics. "They applied it in both clinical populations and with their elite, Olympic-level athletes," says Jacobs. "The devices looked very similar to foot stools, and in limited studies, were shown to increase flexibility, both acutely in one day, and over time in several weeks."


Because most modern platforms have only been available commercially for less than five years, most practitioners at the forefront of WBV training have been learning on the fly as they experiment with the technology. But in the short time they've been working with WBV, many report seeing dramatic results in building strength and power, shortening recovery periods, and creating more thorough pre-activity muscle activation.


HOW IT WORKS

Vibration training can be implemented in a variety of ways. "There are three main groups of platforms," says Jacobs. "There's the up-and-down platform that has vertical and horizontal vibration, and a teeterboard-style platform that produces mostly vertical vibration. These typically work by having the athlete stand on the plate to stretch or do exercises using either body weight or a weighted vest. The third type is a larger up-and-down platform that has enough space for users to perform weight-training exercises, such as squats, bench presses, dead lifts, and cleans."


The basic biomechanical function of this training begins with abrupt impulses delivered with a frequency that typically ranges from 25 to 60 impulses per second, which is usually reported in hertz (Hz). Those impulses send signals to different sensory receptors, which are carried to the central nervous system.


So for a setting of 30 Hz for 30 seconds, the body receives 900 impulses, forcing 900 involuntary contractions in each muscle the impulses reach. "Each of those bursts probably has a benefit in terms of neurological input for reorganization," says Jacobs. "They are introduced simultaneously to all of the involved muscles. So at the same time there's a burst going to the hamstring, there's a burst going to the quad and all the adductor groups."


The next important variable in WBV is amplitude, or the vertical displacement setting. Amplitude multiplied by the frequency, creates the average velocity or rate of acceleration/deceleration. "The rate of deceleration determines the G-load at that impulse—and it's the G-load that is likely to determine how much work the muscles are doing," says Jacobs. "So when using the same frequency, but doubling the displacement from two to four millimeters, the average velocity doubles along with the work the muscles have to do."


In teeterboard-style platforms, the vertical displacement is based on the concept of a center fulcrum and alternating right-left and up-down motions, which produce a corresponding teeterboard motion at the pelvis. Benefits of the teeterboard motion include simulating a natural crossover pattern that requires active user participation to maintain postural stabilization.


Because the technology is so young, and research data so scarce, most experts agree that users need to proceed cautiously when introducing athletes to vibration. Though it may seem relatively low-impact (athletes report hardly feeling vibration effects during application), it's wise to progress slowly. After all, at this point nobody knows for certain where the overtraining limits of vibration lie.


"The bottom line is, we don't know much about the biological effects," says Jacobs. "We know from a peripheral level what's going on when you apply vibration, but most of the hows and whys are still very fuzzy."


For beginners, Friedman uses the lowest amplitude at 30 Hz for 30 seconds. When the athlete becomes comfortable with that, Friedman increases the duration. The next step is to change the rest-to-work ratio between sets.


"After adjusting the rest-to-work ratio, we change the body position and the movement to make it more complex," says Friedman. "For example, if we start with a pillar bridge on their knees, we'll progress to having them use their feet. Or if they're doing something on two feet, we'll have them go to one foot. After all that, we raise the frequency and amplitude."


Friedman calculates progression rates on an individual basis. "It's a qualitative assessment of how the athlete is recovering from their previous training sessions," he says. "Typically it takes about a week before an athlete is ready to progress, but for some it can take more or less time for to feel comfortable at a certain level.


"We usually give them 48 hours of recovery between specific movements on the vibration," Friedman adds. "For instance, I wouldn't have somebody do a single-leg squat on vibration every day. But I might have them do a single-leg squat one day, then the next day do a prone pillar bridge."


It's also important to remember that settings are not uniform for every machine and that parameters should be adjusted for athletes of different weights. "The frequency and amplitude seem different on each machine, and change with the size of the lifter, so don't assume that 40 Hz has the same benefits for a 140-pound person and a 300-pound person," says Myron Davis, PEd, Professor of Human Performance at Weber State University who is conducting pilot studies that incorporate weight training with vibration.


Above all, keep it simple. Because WBV training is based on a high volume of involuntary contractions, Friedman says it is easy to ingrain motor patterns—positive and negative. "We start with very simple movements, because we want them done cleanly," he says. "If you coach the athlete intently, it's easy to eliminate compensation patterns because they adapt so quickly. But if you're not paying attention, it's also easy to ingrain bad habits."


VIBRATION IN ACTION

None of the current WBV products have been on the market very long, and as such, no specific platforms or form of vibration has separated itself from the rest through studies or clinical trials. Nor is every platform designed for every purpose. With that in mind, it's incumbent on strength coaches and athletic trainers to determine what they want to achieve with WBV and how vibration fits into their overall training philosophy.


"Prospective users should experiment and familiarize themselves with each type of system before they make a purchase," says Jacobs. "They should identify their anticipated uses for the technology and make a decision based on which device they and their athletes will be most comfortable with.


"Some coaches like the smaller vertical and teeterboard-style platforms because they excite athletes' neurological systems before a workout," Jacobs continues. "There are other people who use vibration as a component of complex training and do heavy Olympic lifts on a platform, or use it for follow-up exercises like fast-squats. Within that philosophy, a coach will want to use a larger platform."


Chicago White Sox Head Athletic Trainer Herm Schneider, MS, ATC, finds that the teeterboard-style platform of the Vibraflex from Orthometrix fills his needs. "I use it for prehab, rehab, and maintenance," says Schneider, who keeps one unit at the White Sox home stadium in Chicago and another at the team's spring training facility in Tucson, Ariz.


At Athletes' Performance, Friedman uses Power Plate platforms from Power Plate North America to supplement his training protocols in a variety of applications. "We start by using it for activation work—whether it be neural activation or muscle activation in a warmup," says Friedman, whose clientele includes many elite college and professional athletes. "We have athletes on the platform doing prone and pillar bridge positions, as well as things like assuming an inverted hamstring stretch position and doing multiple hip rotation movements."


Friedman also uses vibration training to help build strength. "We'll have athletes who are in strength phases on the vibration immediately before or after their strength sets," he says. "They'll stand unweighted in a quarter-squat position for 15 to 30 seconds, then hop off and immediately go into the rack for heavy squats or heavy dead lifts or whatever we might be doing."


Davis has been using the Pneu-Vibe Pro from Pneumex for two years at Weber State. With a platform size of 30 inches by 40 inches, the device can hold up to 1,200 pounds and has a frequency range of 20 to 60 Hz. Davis takes advantage of the large deck by using it with free weights and plyometric exercises.


"It's an adjunct to a lot of other training work we do," says Davis, who has watched his colleagues use the device with Weber State's women's basketball team, and has also seen it help four football players improve their 40-yard dash times and vertical leaps for the 2006 NFL Draft Combine. "We do everything from plyometrics to functional and structural lifts to band training and compensatory acceleration training using vibration."


Davis also works with a 140-pound professional powerlifter who has made significant progress doing Olympic lifts augmented with vibration. "He's made continual gains and broken through plateaus that had stifled him for years," says Davis. "He is 42 and his personal bests are better now than when he was setting records in his 30s. For instance, in the dead lift and squat we've seen improvements of 30 to 55 pounds during competition since we've implemented vibration."


Glen Doyle, martial arts instructor and cross-training specialist at Cead Bua Fighting Arts Center in Milton, Ontario, uses a Whole Body Advanced Vibration Exercise (WAVE) platform for performance training with his clientele, which includes professional hockey players and two-time Olympic silver medalist figure skater Elvis Stojko. To build strength and power required on the ice, Doyle uses WBV to target the athletes' abductors, adductors, and glutes. "I want to mimic their push so I'll have them stand on the platform in a full-extension of their skating stride," says Doyle. "I have them hold that static position and the vibration recruits those stabilizing muscles."


Sessions on the vibration platform average 25 to 35 minutes. "The athletes do their exercises on the platform for about a minute, have a 30-second rest, and go again," says Doyle. "After that they're wiped out. But when they come back the next day, although their muscles might be a little fatigued, their joints and tendons aren't sore.


"That's huge for my hockey players because a lot of them have knee problems," he adds. "They love vibration because they can see and feel themselves get strong at a faster rate and they're not getting beat up in the process."


BOUNCING BACK

Another common use for WBV is aiding recovery. Schneider uses it to help his players grind through a 162-game regular season that includes few off days. He says WBV is especially helpful for pre-activity warmups when it's otherwise difficult to activate fatigued muscles. He says almost all of his players use the device before games and workouts.


"At first they may simply want to get their legs loose, so I'll show them how to do that. Then they'll usually say, 'That feels good, what can I do to get my back loose?'" he says. "It takes 10 minutes to teach them how to turn it on and be safe with it. I find out what they want to use it for, and then I show them a few exercises that will accomplish their warmup goals."


For instance, to target general back tightness, Schneider has a player stand on the platform and lean back on his heels, which sends the vibration up the player's legs and into his back. "I've found if you can contract your tightest muscles, the vibration seems to find its way to that tightness," he says. "That includes up into the cervical area—it can be felt all the way up into the neck and head."


Friedman is also impressed with vibration's recovery benefits, especially after using it on the German national soccer team. "A lot of what we saw was qualitative, especially in terms of players recovering more quickly," says Friedman. "The results from the blood tests we used to measure players' hormone levels, which are an indicator of recovery level, were very impressive. Their hormone levels were very high during their post-contest recovery periods, even after extremely rigorous games.


"We also used vibration platforms for pre-training and next-day recovery following high-stress games," continues Friedman. "We'd spend a lot of time using it to reactivate muscles that get turned off in soccer players. The players stood and did basic stretches on the platforms approximately three days a week anywhere from five to 10 minutes per session."


As an athletic trainer, Schneider also uses vibration as an aid to rehab, especially for ankle, Achilles' tendon, and calf injuries. "If a guy has an ankle sprain, and he can't stand on the machine, we'll have him sit on a stool and place his foot on the machine while doing toe raises to stimulate the ankle," he says.


Dustin Glass, DC, Team Chiropractor for the Los Angeles Avengers of the Arena Football League, who specializes in soft tissue active release techniques, uses WBV to reduce recovery time and for rehabs. "I use it to treat a lot of shoulder and rotator cuff injuries as well as knee injuries, patellar tendonitis, Achilles' tendon ruptures, plantar fasciitis, and shin splints," says Glass, who has his athletes do rehabilitative exercises on the platform.


Glass uses the TurboSonic from Vibration Health Solutions, which looks like most other platforms but features vibration created by sound waves. He utilizes a frequency range of three to 50 Hz, preferring lower frequencies when treating athletes in the early stages of recovery. "WBV allows me to relax ligaments and tendons and other components that are hard to target with any other manual therapy," he says. "I can get deeper into the joints and around the ligaments using specific frequencies and intensities."


WHAT'S NEXT?

Although there are more questions than answers regarding WBV, that should change as folks like Davis and Friedman work toward publishing their findings. Jacobs even has a book on WBV in the works. As more understanding of vibration's benefits comes to light, it's likely we'll see more diverse applications developed to incorporate the technology.


One such product that recently entered the market is the ExerVibe Climber, in which vibration is applied through the handgrips, foot pedals, and a seat using a programmed on-off timer. By implementing vibration into ideas successful with its original VersaClimber equipment, the company is taking a leap into new territory. "To take the benefits of whole body vibration and apply them to conditioning is pretty exciting," says Friedman, who recently started working with the device. "If we're doing interval programs, during the work intervals we can introduce the vibration as athletes are actively resting.


"It's going to be really interesting to see what the research shows about vibration's effect on heart rate response, lactate levels, anaerobic thresholds, and oxygen uptake," adds Friedman. "We're really excited when looking at the future of vibration as it's applied to conditioning."


Another new idea is bringing portable vibration to a workout, which may be accomplished with the StimTrainer. Worn around the base of the neck, and connected to a control unit that clips to a waistband, the device's headphone-like conductors send vibration throughout the body. John Bradley, Training Manager at Main Event Fitness in Marietta, Ga., uses portable vibration to help his clients improve both flexibility and strength.


"If I'm concentrating on improving flexibility, I'll have the client put the device on for one to three minutes and go through the range of motion. Once I hit a target, I then remove the vibration," says Bradley, who has been experimenting with the device for about seven months. "If it's something where they're simply tight, then the nervous system seems to respond to vibration to the point that they can sometimes double their range of motion while wearing the device.


"For strength-gain, most people wear the unit the first 10 minutes of the workout and there are some who keep it on the entire time," Bradley adds. "The vibration provides an extended feeling of well-being that lasts for a few days, which seems to affect performance during that time. And the best part is that I haven't seen anyone get hurt using it, no matter how long they keep it on for."


Jacobs predicts there could be a time when WBV is used as a quick game-day muscle activator. "If you're playing volleyball or basketball, and the coach says, 'You're in' you may have less than 30 seconds to get ready," says Jacobs. "What if you could walk under the bleachers and stand on a vibrating platform? You would enter the game warm and ready to move."


For the time being, the best course of action is simply to experiment. "When we got our first platform two years ago, our staff served as the guinea pigs. We used it more in our personal workouts than we did with the athletes," says Friedman. "Since then, it's become an integral part of what we do with our athletes.


"We're probably using only about 30 percent of its capability, which makes vibration very exciting down the road," adds Friedman. "And regardless of what product you use, the more that strength coaches start to study the biological effects of the technology, the more use we'll get out of it as a field."


Jacobs agrees. "I think vibration really is the next big thing—kind of like plyometrics was in the '80s," he says. "Which is significant, because there are not that many new things coming along anymore."

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