Red light therapy is bombarding the fitness space, becoming a more-and-more popular option as it’s escaping from the cosmetic world and proving its worth as a powerful recovery tool.
There are tons of different red light therapy devices out there, so it can get pretty confusing knowing exactly how to get the most benefits out of this technology for muscle recovery…
You need to look at several important factors to get the most muscle recovery from red light therapy, including how long your sessions are, amount of times used in a week, how often you use it in a day, and also what kind of device to use.
In this article, we’ll explore why you most definitely should use red light therapy for muscle recovery, I’ll give you the steps to getting the most benefits out of your treatment, and show you the best red light therapy devices for your muscle recovery needs.
What Is Red Light Therapy?
Light is measured in nanometers (nm), changing the color we see it in depending on how many nm the wavelengths clock in at.
Red light therapy uses light that has wavelengths between 630-700 nm, which we see as the color red.
Your body can absorb light waves, with red light being absorbed really well and offering some really cool benefits when it comes to recovery (we’ll talk more about those down below).
The lower the nm, the less deep the light will get absorbed into your body, so it’s important to line up your goals with what kind of red light therapy you use.
You’ll usually see red light therapy being done in hospitals and clinics to treat injuries and pain, but you can now see it in many homes with the massive spike in popularity over the last couple years!
Why Red Light Therapy Is Perfect For Athletes
Red light therapy promotes blood flow, improves skin health, helps heal wounds, and encourages hair growth, making it awesome for cosmetic reasons.1https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28328705/
But a ton of research has been done over the last 10+ years showing how it affects muscles and joints, and illuminating the crazy benefits it has on recovery and performance!
I also recently wrote an article discussing how fantastic red light therapy is for tendonitis, so if that strikes a chord with you, check that out!
It’s also completely painless – in fact, you don’t feel anything – making it a great alternative to agonizing foam rolling and throwing ice on every ache in your body.
Another great plus about red light therapy is how convenient it is.
You can take it with you nearly everywhere (depending on your device), and it’s generally a quick 5-15 minute session to get the most benefits from it – perfect for a warm-up or cool-down!
Red light therapy has also become way more accessible over the last couple years, with some amazing devices coming out for at-home treatments (I’ll show you my favorite one down below).
Red Light Therapy Benefits For Muscle Recovery
Red light therapy is amazing for muscle recovery.
And that’s not just me saying that – we’ll unpack a bunch of research that shows exactly what red light therapy can do for your recovery, and then you can decide for yourself!
Besides its convenience and effectiveness, here are some of the best benefits red light therapy can give you – backed by science!
Massively Enhanced Recovery Time
Ever finished a hard workout and wondered if you’ll be able show up at training the next day?
Your body has a recharge period after a workout during which it repairs the damage your muscles went through and builds them back stronger.
But the recovery can take longer than you’d like, decreasing how hard you can go at your next training session (ever try hitting legs with sore quads?).
Red light therapy acts as a speed boost, helping you shorten that recharge period and get to your next workout at 100% capacity.
Moreover, pre-exercise PBMT (red light therapy) seems to play an important antioxidant effect, decreasing exercise-induced oxidative stress and consequently enhancing athletic performance and improving post-exercise recovery.2https://www.hindawi.com/journals/omcl/2019/6239058/
That quote is from a study that looked at a group of high-level soccer players – and they really beat their muscles up!
Using red light therapy showed that they were able to recover quicker, allowing them to train more frequently with the same intensity.
Think about the massive advantage that provides – better recovery equals more workouts, more workouts equals more gains/improvements, more improvements mean stronger muscles and better performance!
Red Light Therapy Literally Makes You Stronger
Red light therapy is pretty wild for strength athletes – you can actually boost your strength gains by combining strength training and red light therapy!
A study took 36 men through a strength training program, testing each of their leg presses as the baseline for how strong the individuals were.
The program was 12 weeks long, with some of the men getting red light therapy at the end of each training section.
They then tested the leg press again after the program was over and compared the men who got red light therapy and the men who JUST did the strength program… and they found something amazing:
Strength training associated with LLLT (red light therapy) can increase muscle performance compared with strength training only.3https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21086010/
The red light therapy group increased their 1-rep max leg press by 55%, while the strength-training-only group increased it by 26% – that’s double the gains!
Pair that with the recovery effects of red light therapy and you’ll be an absolute beast after only a couple months of hard training!
Red Light Therapy Reduces Inflammation
Muscle inflammation can come from several things, including injuries, tough workouts, chronic pain, and strains.
Either way, it’s not something you want your muscles to have too much of or experience for too long, which is where red light therapy comes in.
A study looked at different markers in the body that are responsible for muscle inflammation in people struggling with chronic back pain.
They used red light therapy to treat the painful spots, and found that it reduces those markers that indicate inflammation while at the same time lowering pain.4https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6485775/
This is especially good to boost recovery in your muscles in the days after training as they’re healing from the damage.
Another study found that red light therapy consistently reduces inflammation, making it a predictable outcome:
One of the most reproducible effects of PBM (red light therapy) is an overall reduction in inflammation, which is particularly important for disorders of the joints, traumatic injuries, lung disorders, and in the brain.5https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5523874/
Red Light Therapy Increases Muscle Size
There are supplements, diets, training programs, and more designed to build you more muscle – but what about red light therapy?
This is the most surprising benefit to me, but red light therapy actually increases muscle mass when combined with training:
Regarding sports medicine, athletes and sportsmen could be benefited by phototherapy with a fast muscle recovery, a better gain in hyper-trophy (muscle mass), and improvement of muscle performance, without the use of any forbidden performance-enhancing drugs.6https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5026559/
The study above looked at a whole cascade of things, including how red light therapy affects energy production in cells, recovery, oxidative stress, glycogen synthesis, and more science-y things that affect muscle building.
All those things changed for the better, and resulted in more efficient and significant muscle growth!
Red Light Therapy Helps Injuries Heal
This is one of the most common uses of red light therapy, and is where it really shines!
It’s a two-fold benefit here: red light therapy is good to use before a training session or activity to help AVOID injuries – like a warmup – and also great for TREATING existing injuries!
The improved blood flow and effects it has on your cells prepares your body to counter-act the damage you’re about to do to your muscles by driving up the recovery troops and having an “antioxidant effect,” decreasing the negative effects of exercise-induced stress on your muscles.7https://www.hindawi.com/journals/omcl/2019/6239058/
It works the same way in treating damaged muscles, improving different factors like blood flow, pain sensation, and cellular healing to boost your recovery from injuries.
Red light therapy is also a non-invasive and completely painless form of therapy!
Red Light Therapy Prevents Muscle Loss
You’ve been crushing the gym, putting in the hard work and paying for your muscle gains with sweat and tears… and then comes an injury (cue sad song).
One of the worst feelings is when you’re stuck away from training, feeling your muscle wasting away, helplessly watching as your injury takes a sledgehammer to your weeks or months of hard work.
Turns out that red light therapy also acts as muscle shield, blocking that sledgehammer from chipping more and more muscle away from your frame.
A study showed that red light therapy helps keep your muscle on your body where it belongs, making it much more manageable to stay away from training an injured body part:
Light-emitting diode therapy can be useful to reduce muscle damage, pain, and atrophy, as well as to increase muscle mass, recovery, and athletic performance in rehabilitation programs and sports medicine.8https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5026559/
Another study showed that red light therapy also lowers performance loss in a 4-week detraining period, which will allow you train closer to your original level after recovering from your injury.9https://bmcsportsscimedrehabil.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13102-020-00171-2
So you can breathe a little easier knowing that you’re hard work wasn’t all for nothing!
Improve Performance With Red Light Therapy
Red light therapy has such a good effect on performance that this next study wants to “raise the question of whether PBM (red light therapy) should be permitted in athletic competition by international regulatory authorities.”10https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5167494/
They found that red light therapy improves athletic capabilities by lowering muscular fatigue, improving performance in terms of strength and endurance, and drops recovery times during exercise…
This can obviously give athletes the edge in a competition, but it can also aid your general training.
A study we previously discussed also found that red light therapy bumps up aerobic performance, allowing your muscles to use oxygen more efficiently and increase your performance threshold:
Evidence has shown that PBMT (red light therapy) applied before exercise is able to increase aerobic endurance in healthy, nonathletic subjects as well as in competitive cyclists.11https://www.hindawi.com/journals/omcl/2019/6239058/
This is a game-changer for all you athletes, as well as an awesome benefit to anyone training just for fun or non-competitive reasons – who doesn’t love levelling up their performance?
Red Light Therapy Lowers Pain
One of the best things about red light therapy is its ability to reduce pain, without the need for drugs.
We observed that the photobiomodulation therapy offers a non-invasive, safe, drug-free, and side-effect-free method for pain relief of both acute and chronic musculoskeletal conditions as well as fibromyalgia.12https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34913330/
It can be used for general pain from injuries, chronic pain, and even reduce pain from working out (AKA DOMS).13https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34913330/
Foam Rolling & Ice Vs. Red Light Therapy
We’ve all struggled through painful foam rolling sessions and numbed our pains with ice, but neither experience is particularly pleasant…
… Enter RLT…
We conclude that PBMT (red light therapy) used as single treatment is the best modality for enhancement of post-exercise restitution, leading to complete recovery to baseline levels from 24 h after high-intensity eccentric contractions.14https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27624781/
This is awesome news – you can trade in that torture device called a “foam roller” and your ice pack for a red light therapy device that’ll give you better recovery, more benefits, and no discomfort from using it!
Red Light Therapy Protocol For Muscle Recovery
Let’s check out how to get your hands on all these benefits!
It often depends on what kind of device you have, with things like towers and hand-helds generally needing longer treatment times than wearables.
This is because some red light waves bounce off your skin and don’t get absorbed when there’s no contact between the device and skin.
Our protocol can be used for pretty much all devices, but do best with wearables like the Kineon MOVE+.
Location of Red Light Therapy For Muscle Recovery
This is very straight-forward: aim your red light device right where the pain is.
That means putting the device directly on that sore/injured spot if you’re using a wearable, or making sure that the spot is exposed if you’re using a tower.
Put it on the muscle you trained or will train that day if you’re using it as a recovery and performance tool – like your shoulder on shoulder/push day!
The best way is to hit the target muscle from multiple angles – this either means multiple sessions or using a device that has more than one module.
That’ll give you a 360º treatment to make sure you hit the whole area!
How Often To Do Red Light Therapy Per Week
This depends a bit on WHY you’re using red light therapy.
For injuries, use it 5-7 times per week to get lots of therapy time in, with consistency being key to maximize the benefits.
You constantly want your injury to be in a healing state, so take advantage of red light therapy’s quick sessions!
If you’re using it more for the performance benefits, try using it before or after every workout – 3 times a week minimum to see results!15https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5026559/
You can’t really overdo red light therapy, so feel comfortable using it as much as you want!
Red Light Therapy Treatment Duration
Red light therapy is super quick!
You’re looking at 5-15 minute treatment times with the right devices (like the one down below), or 20+ minutes with most towers and some hand-helds.
Basically all the studies we talked about are done under 10 minutes, and got awesome results.
Use red light therapy for 5-10 minutes each session if done 6-7 times per week, and 15 minutes if done 3-5 times per week.
You’re also good to use 5 minute sessions if you do 2-3 sessions per day…
How Often To Do Red Light Therapy Per Day
You can’t really overdo red light therapy, but you also don’t need to spend all day with it to get the benefits.
Try 1-3 sessions per day – closer to 3 if you have a bad injury or a lot of pain, and closer to 1 if you’re using it for performance benefits or general recovery for training.
I’d also suggest using it 2-3 times if you have shorter 5-minute sessions, and 1-2 times if you’re doing 10-15 minute sessions.
Red Light Therapy Before Or After Workout
There are pros and cons to using red light therapy before or after a workout, but you can get pretty much all of the benefits out of it by using it either time.
Before a workout is great to boost your performance and drive your recovery markers up to prepare them for the damage you’re about to do to your muscles.
After a workout is great too, especially as a recovery tool instead of foam rolling or icing.
Try doing red light therapy 10-15 minutes before your workout for a 5-15 minute session, focusing on the muscles you’re about to train.
Spend 5-15 minutes doing red light therapy after your workout, focusing on the muscles you just trained or have soreness in.
It also helps bump up strength and performance gains for your next workout, similarly to how pre-workout red light therapy boosts it for the workout you’re about to do.
The Best Red Light Therapy Device For Muscle Recovery
The best red light therapy I’ve ever tried (and the one I’m personally using now) is the Kineon MOVE+.
It’s an extremely portable, high-quality, and effective product that takes care of everything you need in a red light therapy device.
The MOVE+ uses 3 separate modules connected by Bluetooth, wrapping around your entire muscle to provide a 360º treatment for ultra-coverage!
The strap and design makes it easy to fit onto your arms, neck, legs, elbows – pretty much anywhere you need to it!
It also has options to choose between 5, 10, and 15 minute therapy intervals, making it perfect for on-the-go treatment depending on how much time you have.
One of my favorite parts is how you can just attach it to whatever body part you want and go do something else – that’s the beauty about it being a wearable!
That also means the modules are in direct contact with your skin, making sure that your body absorbs all those precious red light waves.
The Kineon MOVE+ costs less than towers and most other red light therapy devices – plus you can get it at a great discount using our code A1ATHLETE!
Check out my full review of the Kineon MOVE+ here!
Red light therapy for muscle recovery offers some amazing benefits that you don’t get with most other forms of recovery.
Not only do you lower pain, decrease inflammation, and treat injuries, but you also improve strength, performance, and recovery!
Using it a minimum of 3 times per week before or after your workout will give you great benefits, giving your muscles some much-needed recovery and prepping you to crush your next workout.
You’ll thank yourself for using a proper, wearable device, as treatment times only take 5-15 minutes AND you can do other things while you’re recovering!
Now, go trade in your foam roller for some red light and enjoy the massive benefits!