How whole-body vibration affects your body

Whole-body vibration (WBV) is when your body is vibrated, often by a device commonly seen in gyms, or by environmental vibration such as riding in a helicopter. Whether WBV is good or bad for you depends entirely on the context of the vibration. Is it applied in a controlled way, such as a machine in a gym? How often are you exposed to it? What’s the frequency of the vibration? If you search “whole-body vibration” on the Internet, most of the information is about adding it to your workouts or selling vibration plates. However, in the military, it means something different.

Whole-body vibration in the military

Service Members, especially those who work in the aviation community, are often exposed to whole-body vibration. It’s commonly encountered in helicopters and propeller-driven fixed-wing and tiltrotor aircraft, such as the C-130, C-12, or V-22. WBV has been linked to back pain in helicopter pilots, who often sustain poor postures during long missions. However, WBV exposure isn’t unique to the aviation community. It’s also been linked to pain and muscle fatigue in armored-vehicle drivers and passengers.

Researchers aren’t exactly sure why WBV contributes to back pain, but they’re fairly confident it isn’t the sole cause of such pain. However, they seem to agree that WBV contributes to pain severity. The more you’re exposed to WBV, the worse your pain.

Researchers and engineers are working to identify the full effects of WBV and ways to prevent them. Some attempted solutions include shock absorbers in the seats for pilots and crew, and the use of seat cushions when possible. One way to minimize the effects of WBV is to maintain the best posture you can when you fly. The best thing you can do to prevent or limit back pain is to be fit and perform core exercises every day.

Whole-body vibration for exercise

The trendy WBV devices you might have seen in gyms are promoted to improve training and performance. The vibration frequencies are typically higher than those caused by aircraft and vehicles. In this case, higher doesn’t necessarily mean worse for your body. You don’t stand on the vibration plate for nearly as long as you sit in a helicopter. The question then becomes, “Does whole-body vibration work to improve performance?”

The short answer: Possibly. When you use WBV plates before exercise tests (such as a vertical jump), it can help improve your performance on that test. It also shows immediate increases in other laboratory-based strength measures that require expensive testing equipment. What remains uncertain is how to best leverage the use of WBV in a physical training program, especially when it’s performed outside of laboratory conditions. However, WBV shows potential for performance enhancement. It just needs more focused research on how to best use it in a daily workout.

If your gym has a WBV device, and you’re interested in trying it, here are a few ways you can try to get the best use out of it.

You can do core exercises right on the platform if it’s big enough. For example, you can put your elbows or feet on it when you perform a plank. Or you can sit on it for Russian twist exercises. If it’s leg day, hold a half-squat on the platform for 30–60 seconds immediately before a set of an exercise. This pre-exercise WBV procedure is similar to research methods that showed improvements in jump height. It won’t hurt your performance to incorporate WBV into your workout, but it’s questionable how much it will really help. Keep in mind that, when you use a WBV device, it will add a fair bit of time to your gym sessions.

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