Are Muscle Rubs Useful For Pre-Workout?

Posted on 25 Feb 2015 18:13



By Eric Troy

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 workout. A common question, however, is whether sports rubs or muscle rubs can be used before we weight train or exercise.

I got on the topic of using muscle rubs for pre-workout on our Facebook page a while ago, dropping a few tips here and there. 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. I thought for today's letter I'd go over some basics on 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.1 Salicylates are the plant chemicals from which aspirin, a COX inhibitor, is made. Although willow bark is the most famous source of salcylate, 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.

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. Pain relief products, such as Icy Hot Extra Strength Cream, Bayer Muscle and Joint Pain Relief Cream, Ben Gay Extra Strength Cream, 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 vasodialation 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 clyclooxygenase 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%)
  • Muscle Rub Extra Strength Cream (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: 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 that burn during a workout. Look at the ingredients and make sure it does not say capsicum…don't don't be afraid of it 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.

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.

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This page created 25 Feb 2015 18:13
Last updated 23 Apr 2016 01:41

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