A Massage Therapist Explains Why You Don’t Have to be an Olympic Athlete to Benefit from Cupping

Along with his team colors, Michael Phelps is sporting tell-tale circular bruises from cupping in Rio. Here, massage therapist Amanda Pulcine explains what the ancient practice is all about.

Michael Phelps
Salih Zeki Fazlioglu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

First Gwyneth Paltrow. Now Michael Phelps (along with various other swimmers at the Rio 2016 Olympics) is engaging in the ancient — and very legal — practice of cupping to ease their overworked sore bodies. But can amateur athletes benefit from a cup or ten? Absolutely, says Amanda Pulcine, a massage therapist who works in New York as well as the Ashram in Calabasas, CA. She’s been integrating cupping into the treatments of clients like Frederic Fekkai and Ariana Rockefeller for years. Turns out, it’s just as good for cellulite as it is for breaking up facial adhesions. Which begs the question: What’s less sexy? Cellulite or a thigh covered in purple spots?

Why do athletes cup? Cupping is really great for breaking up fascial adhesions. So when you’re training and the fascia that surrounds the muscle starts to stick together, you can use the cups to break that up.

How do the adhesions manifest themselves? Can you feel when your fascia is sticking together? You can. Basically, every muscle is surrounded by fascia, so when it sticks together, things start to pull towards that area and all sorts of things can become off-centered. An athlete might not be saying, “Oh, I have a fascial adhesion on my leg,” but they’re going to notice it on the other side of their back, or their knee is going to be off, or their balance will be. Think about when you pull on a tablecloth, how you can see the ripple effect through the entire piece of fabric. That’s what fascial adhesion is like.

Why do most people cup? For all sorts of reasons. It really gets the blood moving. In Chinese medicine, it’s used for an even deeper reason because they’re dealing with the chi and getting the meridians flowing the correct way. I’ve been using it on a really old client who had gout and his legs were cold all the time and cupping got his legs back to a normal temperature again and not so red and softer, instead of hardened the way old people’s limbs can become. It’s pretty remarkable.

Swimmers during the Phillips 66 National Swimming Championships, 2000.

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Would you get similar results from acupuncture or massage? Or is cupping like massage times 20? Cupping uses inverse pressure, so it’s sucking versus pressing. Also, there are different-sized cups depending on how you’re going to use them. On top of that, during massage, it’s like having multiple people working on you. I can use cups, then leave them to do their job while I work on something else on the body.

How often is too often when it comes to cupping? It really depends on the person and their stature and physicality and what they can take, pain-wise. It can hurt, especially if there’s stagnant chi, tissue or cellulite — it feels like getting a tattoo. You can lessen it to some degree, but it’s no joke. When everything is flowing, though, it doesn’t feel like anything, really. That’s how you know it’s working

Aside from the bruising, are there other side effects? If you do have a lot of toxicity, you need to realize that this is going to be a load on your system. You have to flush all that toxicity out through your kidneys, so you could feel bad the next day. I’ve had cupping done to me on my cellulite right after I’d gotten over a urinary tract infection and the next day, it came back.

Is that because cupping opens the body up so it’s more vulnerable for a while? No, no. It’s just that you’re putting this extra load on top of everything else. I wasn’t fully, fully done with the infection, apparently, so the cupping just brought it back. All of a sudden, your kidneys and your liver have to process out all these extra toxins that are being pulled into the bloodstream. If you’re already depleted on some level, I wouldn’t do it too much. That’s why we really have to be aware of what’s going on with our clients.

Any reason non-athletes would cup? Oh yeah. It’s great for cellulite. Breaking up these fascia adhesions works wonders for the decreasing the appearance of cellulite. A friend of mine cupped one thigh and watched her cellulite go away.

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