Cupping: It’s been having a golden moment in the last few weeks. That’s because of Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, who had cupping marks on his shoulders and back in the 2016 Olympics.

While cupping is rare in the United States, it has been around for thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine. So what exactly is cupping, and what impact did it have on Phelps’ performance in the Olympics? Read on to find out.

What is Cupping?

Cupping is an alternative therapy used to heal muscles. There are many different ways of performing it. Most of these methods fall under dry cupping. Wet cupping involves bloodletting or medicinal bleeding. Dry cupping, also known as bloodless cupping, is the basic cupping technique.

Traditionally, cupping involves heating the inside of glass cups and placing them on the skin. As the cups cool, a vacuum is created and the skin is sucked upwards. The suction also pulls tight muscles and stretches the connective tissue around them. As a result, blood vessels expand and blood flow increases. The more the blood flow going to an area, the faster it heals.

The cups stay in place for 5-15 minutes. Blood vessels can rupture during the process. So when the cups are removed, circular purple bruises may remain. Some therapists use modern devices that rely on a mechanical pump to produce suction.

The Effect on Phelps

When Phelps was taking to the water to swim, many were left wondering what the eye-catching purple marks on his upper body were. In the post-4x100-meter relay interview, Phelps told reporters that he had asked for a little cupping on the previous day because he was sore. He also admitted to having been receiving the therapy for a while. In 2015, he posted a photo of himself receiving the ancient Chinese cupping on Instagram.


Competing in the Olympics is grueling, especially for swimmers. They are required to swim in competitive races on consecutive days, at times in the space of a few hours. In the 2016 Olympics, Phelps had to swim in the 100-meter butterfly semifinals less than an hour after winning the 200-meter Individual Medley final. And let’s not forget his tough workout routines. He reportedly spends up to six hours in the pool each day, practices speed drills and lifts weights on four or five days a week. It’s no surprise that he would want to fast-track pain relief.

By improving blood circulation, cupping helped repair Phelps’ muscle fibers after tough workouts. It also helped him heal and recover quicker after races hence perform at his peak despite the packed Olympic schedules. Although his personal trainer, Keenan Robinson, downplayed the therapy by saying that it was just another recovery modality, and there was nothing special about it, its contribution to Phelps’ legendary career cannot be overlooked given how committed the great Olympian is to using it.

Other athletes who use cupping include swimmer Pavel Sankovich and gymnasts Alex Naddour and Chris Brooks. Naddour describes it as being better than anything else he had spent money on. Although medical authorities are divided over the therapy’s effectiveness, high-profile athletes are continuing to use it to quicken their recovery. If you don’t have a bleeding disorder, and you’re not taking any medication with bleeding as a side effect, you can give the Chinese therapy a try and see if it will work for you. If done right, it’s relatively painless, and no significant risks are involved.

If you'd like to try cupping, contact Dr. Diem.