USA’s Swim Team Has a Surprising Affinity for This Ancient Spa Technique

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Thanks @arschmitty for my cupping today!!! #mpswim #mp ? @chasekalisz

A post shared by Michael Phelps (@m_phelps00) on

Making a mark! While warming up to win his 19th gold medal at the Rio Summer Olympics 2016 on Sunday, August 7, Michael Phelps emerged from the pool with round, dark purple marks covering his back and arms. Though spectators flocked to social media wondering where his bruises stemmed from, there was nothing to fear. The discoloration was a result of cupping, an ancient spa technique loved by athletes and celebrities alike.

Cupping dates back to the fourth century, when Chinese doctors applied animal horns on certain areas of the body to improve blood flow, according to Acupuncture Today. These days, acupuncturists use glass cups soaked in alcohol to create a vacuum that sucks out air. “Drawing up the skin is believed to open up the skin’s pores, which helps to stimulate the flow of blood, balances and realigns the flow of qi, breaks up obstructions, and creates an avenue for toxins to be drawn out of the body,” the modern medicine magazine explains.

Michael Phelps
Michael Phelps Al Bello/Getty; Inset: GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty

The cups, which are typically placed on backs, arms, and chests, also stimulates blood flow. That’s why gymnast Alex Naddour does it. It’s “been the secret that I have had through this year that keeps me healthy,” he told USA Today in an August 6 post. “It’s been better than any money I’ve spent on anything else.”

Cupping is so popular that Phelps, 31, showed himself undergoing the treatment in his Under Armour commercial. And Kassidy Cook often does it on Snapchat, inviting her followers to see the process up close and personal. While some prefer to visit acupuncturists for the procedure, others, like Naddour and Chris Brooks, take matters into their own hands by purchasing cups and hand pumps online. 

“You’re like, ‘OK, I’m sore here,’” Brooks, team captain of the U.S. men’s gymnastics team, added. “Throw a cup on, and your roommate will help you or you can do it yourself.”

Natalie Coughlin
Former U.S. Olympic swimmer Natalie Coughlin has also documented her own cupping experience. Natalie Coughlin/Instagram(2)

The procedure may have paid off: USA won gold in the 4×100-meter freestyle relay on Sunday, August 7. “Our bodies are going to hurt after doing this for so long,” Naddour continued. “It’s the best thing that I’ve ever had. It has saved me from a lot of pain.”

Gwyneth Paltrow
(L-R) Gwyneth Paltrow, Justin Bieber and Jennifer Aniston. Jim Spellman/WireImage (2); AKM-GSI; Gregg DeGuire/WireImage; Inset: Jason Merritt/Getty

Hollywood has certainly embraced the technique. Jennifer Aniston, Justin Bieber and Lena Dunham are all obvious fans, as they’ve been spotted with the round marks on their backs and torsos. And Gwyneth Paltrow, who was one of the first stars to vouch for cupping, sang its praises on her website, Goop.

“One day, when being treated by an acupuncturist, a Spanish friend who was visiting me in London walked into the room and remarked that I looked like a bull who’d had a run in with the picadores,” she recalled in a post. “Don’t get me wrong, I am thankful as hell for a round of antibiotics or surgery when necessary, but I have been helped tremendously by various practices that help the body heal itself.”

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