If you flip through photos of 2016 Olympians, you may notice something strange. Enormous, dark red spots are dotting the backs, shoulders, legs and chests of the world’s greatest athletes. It isn’t a rash or an illness. The perfectly round bruises are from cupping, a derivative of acupuncture and a form of alternative medicine.
So, What Is “Cupping”?
Cupping uses glass cups to suck the skin away from the surface of muscles. Its proponents use it to stimulate blood flow and loosen tight fascia. The suction is strong enough to break capillaries at the surface of the skin, and the tell-tale red marks form.
Many athletes opt for electronic pumps, but the traditional “hot cupping” method requires a bit of physics. A flammable ball, like herbs or alcohol-soaked cotton, is lit inside a glass cup. When the flame goes out, the cotton is removed and the cup is placed on the skin. Skin draws up into the cup as the cup cools and creates a vacuum.
Cupping is an ancient practice that may date back over 5000 years. Examples have been noted in ancient Egypt, Greece and the Arabian Peninsula, but the modern form is derived from traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). In TCM, the cups along meridians where practitioners believe qi, the body’s life force, flows. Athletes target specific muscle groups.
Today, those seeking cupping therapy from a professional practitioner would typically visit a licensed acupuncturist or massage therapist who has taken advanced CE classes for cupping.
Upcoming Cupping Massage Classes
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Why the Olympic Craze?
The Rio Olympics seem to be a who’s who of cupping devotees. Michael Phelps’s spot-riddled back is getting plenty of press, but he’s not alone. From Alex Naddour to Pavel Sankovich, Olympians across different nations and events are reaching for the glass cups.
Its fans say that the increased blood flow helps clear lactic acid out of hard-working muscle groups, reducing pain and fatigue. For athletes, any little reduction in soreness can help them keep their numbers up from event to event in a challenge as grueling as the Olympics.
“You’re like, ‘OK, I’m sore here,'” US gymnastics team captain Chris Brooks told BBC. “Throw a cup on, and your roommate will help you or you can do it yourself.”
Michael Phelps was introduced to the practice by his strength-and-conditioning coach, Keenan Robinson. Robinson says feels the cups help keep Phelps’s muscles moving freely by keeping fascia loose.
Olympians and DIY Recovery
Cupping is just one of many methods Olympians use to recharge between practice, workouts and events. Massage, saunas, compression systems and more are all common, but cupping is drawing athletes in because of its simplicity.
Time is everything for the competitive athlete both on and off the event stage. The average cupping session takes between 3 and 10 minutes, and many athletes do it themselves. Professional practitioners warn that only a trained hand should ever perform hot cupping, but some athletes are flaunting their heat-free, pump-assisted cups on social media.
Olympians are always looking for a new, rules-friendly way to get an edge. In London 2012, every athlete seemed to be covered in colored bands of kinesio tape. Like cupping, it aimed to lift the skin and fascia, promote blood flow and improve mobility.
“We’re trying to use whatever we can to help them really move better,” says Chris Robinson told Time Magazine.
In Rio 2016, this means cupping. In 2020, we can expect to spot something new on the athletic field.