Whatever happened to cupping? Are golfers still using this therapy?

November 10, 2023

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Back in 2016, many athletes in the Summer Olympics were caught on camera with bizarre circular blotches on their bodies (swimmer Michael Phelps most famously). The redish marks were the temporary side effect of a pain-management treatment known as cupping, and that exposure in the Olympics made it one of the most trendy therapies at the time for elite-level athletes.


Tom Pennington

If you're not familiar, this ancient healing process entails heating bulbs and placing them on areas of the body where pain/soreness is felt. The heat turns the bulbs into suction cups that adhere to the area of the body for 10 to 15 minutes. The theory is that, when these suction cups lift the skin, they also separate the layers of soft tissue directly underneath them—most notably the thin layer of fibrous tissue (fascia) that surrounds your muscles and organs. This separation allows muscles to function more freely and helps improve blood flow. Your blood transports healing agents to injured areas, which helps reduce pain and inflammation and speeds recovery from an injury.

"When you get a normal massage, you're compressing those layers of soft tissue. Cupping does the opposite," Golf Digest medical advisor Dr. Ara Suppiah said at the time. Suppiah has been the team doctor for several Ryder Cups and is the consulting physician for many of the game's top golfers. "Think of it this way: Imagine playing golf in a tight jacket. It really restricts your swing. But then you unzip it, suddenly you feel like you've got more room to move."

At the time, Suppiah said many golfers were getting into cupping as a way to recover faster from round to round and week to week, especially addressing the stiffness felt from overuse of soft tissue. But fast forward seven years, and it's rarely talked about. This begs the question: Is it still a thing?

Several Golf Digest Certified Fitness Trainers confirm it's still in use, especially on the pro tours. Golf Digest Chief Fitness Advisor, Ben Shear, says many tour pros do it post-round and typically target the low back (as you might guess). Other top trainers say they use it for a variety of reasons, although it's not something employed as frequently as other pain-management and mobility-improvement strategies.

"I use them to provide a tactile cue during active mobility exercises," says Golf Digest Certified trainer Cory Ginther. "Take the targeted cat/camel drill. If I want a patient to focus on actively moving the lumbar spine in this drill and restrict movement in the thoracic spice, I will place one or two cups on the lateral lumbar soft tissue regions so the patient can feel the pressure where they should be flexing/extending through."

Adds certified trainer Karen Palacios-Jansen, "We use it for recovery to balance out muscles and I think it evens helps elongate them."

The process, which dates back thousands of years, is somewhat controversial to this day, as there is no scientific proof that it accelerates the natural healing processs. That said, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to make it something worth looking into if other treatments are coming up short. Dan Swinscoe, a Golf Digest Certified Fitness Trainer, says he uses it in combination with compression therapy such as massage, as "it gives me the best of both worlds."

Adds GD certified trainer Levi Root, "I still have a couple of my younger pros doing it. I know at least one of them has a self-applied set. I’m wondering if that might be why we don’t hear as much about it. Similar to the way everyone has a Theragun or Normatech for recovery, it’s become something they can incorporate for themselves on the road."

If you are interested in trying it, here are some things to keep in mind, Suppiah says:

1. Do not cup immediately before you play golf. Only do it on off days or after you play. Why? It can get your muscles so loose, you'll lose a feel for your swing and your timing will be wrecked. "You won't feel the top of your backswing and things like that," Suppiah says. "One tour pro who did it before a round went out and shot 10-over."

2. Do not cup areas that you're massaging or foam rolling on the same day. "You can massage a hamstring and cup a quadriceps muscle, but don't foam roll a hamstring and then cup it, or vice versa. Defeats the purpose."

3. You can do the cupping yourself, but make sure you buy silicone suction cups. You can get a set of four for less than $30. "If you have general soreness, make sure you put multiple cups on to cover as much of the area as possible," Suppiah says. "All you need is 10 minutes."