Originally published February 25, 2015
Most of us know what to do with muscle rubs. We rub them on when something is sore, whether it be a sore knee or a sore muscle. This usually happens after we work out. A common question, however, is whether sports rubs or muscle rubs can be used before we weight train or exercise.
Some exercisers, and especially lifters, may think that it’s not okay to occasionally use a muscle rub to help with aches and pains before a workout, or to help deal with stubborn joints. It is. You just have to use your best judgment and not try to use muscle rubs to cover up the pain of an acute injury so that you can work through it at the wrong intensity and volume. A pre-workout muscle rub is great for a stubborn joint that needs a little help now and again, but it should never be used to work around an active injury. To help you understand, I thought in this article I’d go over some basics of how muscle rubs work.
How Muscle Rubs Work
Most commercial muscle rub preparations contain methyl salicylate or trolamine salicylate as their primary active ingredient. Their chemical names are methyl o-hydroxybenzoate and 2-hydroxybenzoic acid, respectively (you don’t need to know this; I provide it for cross-reference). Salicylates are the plant chemicals from which aspirin, a COX inhibitor, is made. Although willow bark is the most famous source of salicylate, since the first aspirin, or acetylsalicylic acid, was made from it, the methyl salicylates in muscle rubs come from wintergreen or birch bark, which gives the rubs their characteristic minty smell. The oils of these trees contain concentrations of salicylates so high that if you drank it you would basically experience an aspirin overdose…or something very much like one.
Icy Hot Before Workout?
When looking for a muscle rub, as opposed to a pain relief cream, ointment, or liniment, the first thing to look at is the percentage of salicylate in the ingredients. Do not get anything that says extra-strength to use for a pre-workout rub. The familiar product Icy Hot Extra Strength Cream is a pain relief product. So too are Bayer Muscle and Joint Pain Relief Cream and Ben Gay Extra STrength Cream. These and various others can contain up to 30% methyl salicylate along with some camphor, menthol, and sometimes other herbals. For a muscle rub, as opposed to a joint pain reliever, you want a little less salicylate. The primary reason for this is you do not want to mask pain to the point of working an injury because you’ve dulled the pain too much. If you have a choice between a concentrated salicylate formula and a rub that contains only camphor, menthol, and other ingredients, go for the latter, as this “basic” rub will still work pretty well for pre-workout, without going too far.
Camphor and menthol primarily work as counter-irritants. A counter-irritant is something that, when rubbed into the skin, causes local skin irritation (slight), local vasodilation, and a feeling of warmth. All of this actually serves to mask any feeling of pain. However, the warmth and vasodilation is what we are looking for, since it increases blood flow to the area, helping us to get our cranky “cold” joints ready for action. However, a little normal soreness can also be ameliorated safely. Realize that this mode of pain relief is different than the mode of action of topical NSAIDs (such as diclofenac), which work by inhibiting cyclooxygenase enzymes that cause inflammatory responses.
Topical salicylate does actually permeate the skin like topical NSAIDS do, down to 3 to 4mm. As you might have guessed, there is also a direct anti-inflammatory action since they are hydrolyzed to salicylic acid, but the exact mechanism of this action is not clear. The following are some examples of products containing around 30% salicylate:
- Icy Hot Extra Strength Cream (30%)
- Bayer Muscle and Joint Pain Relief Cream (30%)
- Ben Gay Ultra Strength (30%)
- Tiger Balm Liniment (28%)
Now, this does not mean you must use a pre-workout rub that does not contain salicylate, only less of it. Stronger formulas are way too irritating to be used prior to workout. You want a little help warming up, you don’t want reddened skin and a deep burning irritation. A product such as Tiger Balm Muscle Rub, which contains 15% methyl salicylate along with camphor and menthol will work well. Now, cropping up more and more in muscle and joint rubs is something you’ll want to avoid for pre-workout unless you know how much burn the product brings is oleoresin capsicum. Capsicum is the stuff that makes chile peppers hot and it is also a great topical pain reliever. Yes, it burns, but once the burn fades, so does pain. But you don’t want too much burn during a workout. Look at the ingredients and make sure it does not say capsicum or make sure that it is formulated to not be too intense. Cramer Atomic Balm recommended above, can be thought of as a muscle warming cream. It contains methyl salicylate and capsicum (1%) but in a less intense warming formula that can be used before workouts and works very well to loosen up muscles and provide some comfort to achy joints. If the Atomic Balm burns too much for you to use before a workout, then Cramergesic may be a better choice. This is a menthol and methyl salicylate formula, but in this case, it contains a lot of methol and only contains 13% salicylate, not the 30% like those products above that are for intense pain relief. The Cramergesic provides a milder warmth than the Atomic Balm. Of course, Cramer makes a more intense formula for actual pain relief, call Cramer Red Hot. Remember, don’t be afraid of capsicum or salicylate for actual topical pain relief, as long as you have no known allergy or sensitivity.
You may be wondering about various other herb ingredients you see in the ingredients of various products. Some of these are other counter-irritants and some, such as arnica, are pretty much label dressing, having very little evidence of efficacy for anything. The primary counter-irritants I’ve discussed here are the only things you can be sure what they do.
The other thing, of course, is the base. Don’t go exclusively on whether the product is a cream, ointment, or liniment. Ointments are usually up to 80% oil, so you can do well to avoid them, but a cream, which usually also contains oils, may sometimes only contain hard waxes, which are technically based on fatty acids but which will not leave you feeling as greasy as an ointment full of oils.
Liniments are liquids, close to a lotion. They will likely contain some oil and alcohol. Liniments are great if you are treating very large areas, but they are not very convenient for a pre-workout rub unless you like splashing liquid all over the place.
Muscle Rubs You Can Try for Pre-Workout
To make it easier for you to choose, I’ve put together a list of muscle rubs to try for pre-workout or that are acceptable to use for before workouts based on the ingredients. I’ll give some thoughts based either on experience or knowledge of the ingredients. Some products may provide a better balance between relief and comfort for you. Do keep in mind that a product may burn too much at first but can fade, as long as you pay attention to the tips below. However, don’t underestimate the effect that a very burny product may have on your workout, as well as a product with fumes that irritate you.
1. Cramer Atomic Balm or Cramergesic: Use Cramer Atomic balm sparingly before a workout and rub it in thoroughly. If the Atomic Balm is too much, the Cramergesic may be just right. Atomic Balm contains Methyl Salicylate (12.5%) and Oleoresin Capsicum (1%). Cramergesic contains Menthol (1.9%) and Methyl Salicylate (13.7%).
2. Tiger Balm Muscle Rub or Tiger Balm Red: Tiger Balm is the most popular tried-and-true muscle rub for many athletes and bodybuilders. One thing I do not like about Tiger Balm is that they offer an array of products with little differentiation. It can be difficult to understand what each product is meant for and what is different about them. The familiar Tiger Balm in a small tub may actually be different strength products with different ingredients, but you would have a hard time knowing it from the label. Here, I’ve isolated the two products to look for, Tiger Balm Muscle Rub and Tiger Balm Red. Tiger Balm Muscle Rub contains Methyl Salicylate (15%), Menthol (5%), Camphor (3%), as stated above. Tiger Balm Red contains Camphor 25%, Menthol 10%, Cajuput oil 7%, Dementholised Mint oil 6%, Clove oil 5%, Cassia oil 5%.
3. NaturePlex Muscle Rub: NaturePlex Muscle rub is similar to Cramergesic. It contains menthol at 1% and methyl salicylate at 15%. It can be used for pre-workout and is a good overall product for muscle and joint paint.
4. Biofreeze: I’ve included Biofreeze because it seems to be a popular product that a lot of people ask about. In full disclosure, I’ve never tried it. I can, however, discuss the ingredients. Judging from the ingredients, you should certainly be able to use it before a workout. The primary active ingredient is Menthol, at 4%. It contains an undisclosed amount of camphor. It also contains an array of herbal ingredients including arnica and aloe. Most of these are unproven and there is not a lot of evidence as to their effectiveness. The amounts of each ingredient are not given and they are listed as inactive ingredients. As it stands, I would think of Biofreeze as primarily a menthol product. If you have some on hand and you are not allergic to any of the ingredients listed, then you should feel safe using it before or after a workout, or any other time. However, from what I can see, I would not recommend it as a serious muscle rub, not because it relies on menthol, but because, given the unproven ingredients used in unspecified amounts, it relies too heavily on label decoration. Many consumers see more ingredients as a signal of more effectiveness. If you want more ingredients, focus on proven ones. The Biofreeze Pain Relief Cream, as opposed to the gel, contains a higher percentage of menthol and yet another array of inactive ingredients. Keep in mind that some of the inactive ingredients in any rub may be carriers, colors, etc.
5. BenGay Pain Relieving Cream and BenGay Cold Therapy Pain Relieving Gel: BenGay Pain Relieving Gel (greaseless) contains Menthol (10%) and Methyl Salicylate (15%) while BenGay Cold Therapy relies on menthol at 5%. Don’t be confused by products that claim a cooling effect. Menthol gives a sensation of cold on the skin, similar to rubbing alcohol, but the therapeutic effect is based on its vasodilation and counter-irritant actions. You may find that it feels cool at first followed by a warming sensation. Do not use BenGay Ultra Strength before a workout, as it contains the maximum amount of salicylate (30%), which, as already explained, may dull pain too much and thus mask an active injury during a workout.
6. Deep Blue Muscle Cream: Deep Blue muscle rub is safe to use before or after workouts. However, I would not recommend this product in general. It contains a ‘proprietary blend’ of essential oils, none of which are the tried and true active ingredients mentioned in this article except for camphor. The fact that it is a proprietary blend means that no percentages are given as to the relative amounts of any ingredient so we have no way of knowing how much camphor is in the product. The first ingredient in the product is wintergreen while camphor is the second ingredient, followed by peppermint, ylang ylang, helichrysum, blue tansy, blue chamomile, and osmanthus essential oils. While the wintergreen, peppermint, and camphor will certainly provide a warming sensation, this product seems more about providing nice aroma than a muscle rub for a hard-working body. Besides the first three ingredients, the other ingredients seem to be chosen because of supposed anti-inflammatory propterites and for aromatherapy purposes. The important thing to keep in mind when choosing a muscle rub is that many ingredients can provide a soothing, cooling, or warming sensation, but this sensation may be only occurring in the skin. Despite my hesitation, Deep Blue is certainly a very popular muscle rub.
Some Quick Tips for Pre-Workout Muscle Rubs
1. Although we call them “muscle rubs” think of them as joint rubs. You don’t need to use a muscle rub to relieve mild DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), as lightly working the affected area with moderate repetitions will usually take care of mild DOMS before a training session (don’t try to stretch out the soreness, it doesn’t work as well and will likely sap your strength).
2. Don’t try to rub out the pain of a strained muscle or sprained joint so you can abuse it! Aching joints and soreness sometimes can be expected, especially as we grow older. Usually, we can find the source of the pain and do much to relieve it by changing out habits, etc. But sometimes you just have “stubborn joint days” or joints that need a little extra loving care, especially with pre-injured joints, which can tend to plague you for years to come.
3. Use rubs for pre-workout over a small area only. The rubs tend to cause heat, irritation, and sweating. Use too much and you’ll be hot, irritated and sweaty! Put a small amount of rub on the problem joint or area and rub it in thoroughly. Remember the act of massaging in the rub does as much good as the rub itself.
4. Never, EVER, wrap a joint that you’ve applied muscle rub to. This will cause a burning sensation and can severely irritate the skin. If you make this mistake, you won’t make it twice and you will remove the wrap quickly, I’ll bet. There are some muscle rubs that claim to be okay to wrap over, but in my experience, it’s still very uncomfortable.