12 best muscle rubs that soothe soreness and tackle stiffness

We tried a range of rubs after heavy gym sessions, cycle rides and training runs  (iStock/The Independent)
We tried a range of rubs after heavy gym sessions, cycle rides and training runs (iStock/The Independent)

Truth be told, we’ve always been a little sceptical of “magic” muscle rubs, creams and balms that promise to relieve aches and pains and speed-up recovery. And that’s probably because there’s very little scientific evidence to prove they actually work.

We’re often left wondering: are they just a placebo? But while some people roll their eyes and say they don’t work at all, there are also people who swear by them.

From marathon runners looking to heal their injured or fatigued muscles to arthritis sufferers wanting to alleviate muscular or joint pain, over-the-counter muscle rubs and topical analgesics might not completely eliminate muscle soreness, but they can offer some level of pain relief. In fact, according to a 2019 study on delayed-onset muscle soreness, using a topical analgesic like arnica can reduce the intensity of muscle soreness in the 72 hours after a run.

The problem? With an overwhelming plethora of gels, creams, sprays and patches on the market – how do you know which is the best muscle rub to choose?

Of course, it mainly comes down to personal preference – if you hate the smell of Arnica, for example, then best to avoid any balms featuring Arnica flowers as the active ingredient. In our opinion, the most effective formulas are usually light and non-greasy, and leave skin feeling soothed and nourished.

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How we tested

We tried a range of muscle rubs – all designed to ease pain and muscle soreness – after heavy gym sessions, long cycle rides and gruelling training runs. We ​​applied a small amount onto our fingers, or sprayed the product directly onto skin, and massaged onto the affected areas – namely; sore glutes, overworked quads and tight hamstrings. These were our favourites.

The best muscle rubs in 2022 are:

  • Best overall – Best CBD muscle rub – Pure Sport CBD muscle & joint balm: £30, Puresportcbd.com

  • Best muscle rub for runners – Premax recovery cream sour cherry: £16.79, Freewheel.co.uk

  • Best for a cooling sensation – Biofreeze pain relieving spray: £39.84, Amazon.co.uk

  • Best luxury muscle rub – Holistic Impact CBD body salve: £120, Holisticimpact.co.uk

  • Best for improved sleep – This Works sleep plus massage relief: £30.40, Thisworkscbd.com

  • Best muscle spray – BetterYou magnesium muscle body spray: £9.70, Betteryou.com

  • Best heated balm – MOi + ME CBD tension balm: £30, Moiandme.com

  • Best organic muscle rub –Neal’s Yard arnica salve: £10, Nealsyardremedies.com

  • Best muscle rubs for legs – Bloom and Blossom legs eleven cooling leg serum: £29, Bloomandblossom.com

  • Best British muscle rub – Inlight Beauty rosemary & hypericum recovery balm: £27, Inlightbeauty.co.uk

  • Best peppermint muscle rub – Tea and Tonic muscle tonic relief balm: £35, Teaandtonic.co.uk

  • Best muscle lotion – Eresos active muscle therapy balm: £45, Eresos.co.uk

Pure Sport CBD muscle and joint balm, 500mg

Best: CBD muscle rub

Rating: 9/10

Pure Sport, created by rugby players Grayson Hart and Adam Ashe while they were teammates at Glasgow Warriors, has gained quite the cult following over the past year or so. The story goes that after years of playing a high contact physical game – and having to deal with constant aches and pains – they swapped painkillers for CBD and became hooked on the benefits. So much so, they decided to create their own brand of CBD wellness products to help other athletes.

For those who don’t know, CBD is a chemical found naturally within the cannabis plant and does not contain THC, the psychoactive component of cannabis, so there’s no hit or illegal high.

Out of all the Pure Sport products on offer (the brand sells everything from oils to capsules, nootropics and even apparel), the muscle and joint balm is our favourite. Last year, when training for the London Marathon, this small 50g bottle lived in our bedside drawer, ready to rub into sore muscles pre-bed.

It has quite a potent smell – probably due to the peppermint and lemongrass ingredients – one whiff and we’re transported straight back to marathon season. Its yellow waxy consistency is smooth, if a little greasy (you’ll want to wash your hands afterwards) until it fully absorbs into the skin. For those new to CBD, the 500mg dose is a great place to start, but if you’re looking for something a little stronger, Pure Sport also do a 50g bottle at 1000mg (£43).

Buy now £30.00, Puresportcbd.com

Premax recovery cream sour cherry, 200ml

Best: Muscle rub for runners

Rating: 8/10

Sports skincare brand Premax – created by leading Australian sports physiotherapist, Randall Cooper – has a range of products specifically designed for cyclists and runners. Think: sports suncream, anti-chafe and chamois cream. The recovery cream comes in a 200ml bottle, so it’s great value for money and is specifically designed to assist recovery from sports and exercise.

With a distinct sour cherry smell, the cream includes tart cherry extract, niacinamide, allantoin and arnica to help soothe distressed skin, while the sweet almond, shea and cocoa butter help to restore skin hydration and resilience. It sinks into the skin really easily, giving you a natural post-workout glow. Basically, it’s a fancy, hard-working body moisturiser perfect for sore muscles, and we really rate it.

Buy now £16.79, Freewheel.co.uk

Biofreeze pain relieving spray, 473ml

Best: For a cooling sensation

Rating: 8/10

If you’re looking for something fast-acting – and cold – then Biofreeze is great for providing instant pain relief for sore muscles, backaches and sore joints. The bottle for this is pretty big – 473ml – and lasts for ages (honestly, we’re still working through the same bottle we bought back in 2018).

As this is a spray, there’s no need to rub this one in, so great for reaching those hard-to-get-to areas. It even works well when sprayed upside down. But, boy, it smells. One spray too many and the menthol really hits the back of your throat – so don’t go overboard. If you’re putting it on before bed, do give it time to dry before climbing into your bedsheets else the minty smell will linger for days.

Buy now £26.05, Amazon.co.uk

Holistic Impact CBD body salve, 90ml

Best: Luxury muscle rub

Rating: 7/10

Packaged in a small 90ml tin, the exterior of this body salve doesn’t scream luxury, but the £120 price point most definitely does. Why so expensive? The fact that it’s packed with 1,500mg of fast-acting and potent active CBD (that’s three times as much as the Pure Sport version (£30, Puresportcbd.com).

With a waxy consistency this CBD body salve, from the Holistic Impact range, is created by renowned osteopath Kemmy Gichaba to combat a wide range of aches and pains – and it smells divine (thanks to the eucalyptus and lavender oils). As soon as you unscrew the lid and delve into the wax, the essential oils create a calming and relaxing aroma. Plus, as it guarantees zero THC, it’s safe for high-level athletes to use for sports recovery.

Buy now £120.00, Holisticimpact.co.uk

This Works sleep plus massage relief, 50ml

Best: For improved sleep

Rating: 8/10

This soothing sleep plus massage relief with an inbuilt massager rollerball, from well-known brand This Works, is by far the easiest to apply. It looks just like a roll-on deodorant, and works just the same – you simply roll the product onto stiff or overworked muscles and it gently ekes out any knots. We love that it’s not messy or sticky, and so easy to use.

Made with black pepper, hemp-derived CBD (2,448mg per bottle) and magnesium it’s designed to help both relax any muscle tension and also prepare your body for sleep. We recommend using the rollerball to massage limbs and target specific acupressure points after a workout and before bed – it’s the perfect way to unwind from the day. A night-time routine must-have.

Buy now £30.40, Thisworkscbd.com

BetterYou magnesium muscle body spray, 100ml

Best: Muscle spray

Rating: 7/10

This magnesium chloride spray is infused with lemon oil, arnica and capsicum to add a little heat and speed up recovery time after a workout. Simply spray onto the skin and massage in to soothe hard-working, aching muscles. It absorbs into the skin quickly and is great for reducing lactic acid, helping to hydrate the body and minimise tightness and cramping. We sprayed it on our tired legs and feet, roughly ten to 15 minutes before bed, and found it really helped to release and relax tense muscles.

BetterYou is one of the cheaper post-exercise products out there and is also one of the more environmentally friendly – the bottle is made from fully-recyclable plant-based plastic and also palm oil-free. We also really like the Magnesium oil body spray (£9.70, Betteryou.com) – a saturated solution of Zechstein magnesium chloride – which is particularly great straight out the shower.

Buy now £9.70, Betteryou.com

Moi + Me CBD tension balm, 300mg

Best: Heated balm

Rating: 8/10

Arriving in a cute little drawstring bag, this self-heating CBD balm (300mg strength) is designed to melt away tension and help take the edge off your agonies. We love that you don’t have to dig your fingers into the wax to scoop this product out – instead, you just twist the bottle and glide the balm on. It feels light, smells of peppermint and ever-so-gently heats your muscles. It’s a salve for the senses.

For those who aren’t already familiar with this British brand, MOi + ME is an all-star collection of high-quality CBD products that offer moments of wellbeing to help counteract the daily stressors of modern life, so that you can get on with your day (while prioritising self-care).

Buy now £30.00, Moiandme.com

Neal’s Yard arnica salve, 45g

Best: Organic muscle rub

Rating: 8/10

If lifting weights in the gym has given you DOMS (delayed-onset muscle soreness), that’s made you feel weak (at best) and unable to walk downstairs (at worst), Neals Yard’s arnica salve can go some way towards making the muscle soreness feel a little more bearable. Made with 99.9 per cent organic ingredients, this cocktail of plant-derived extracts – including arnica, beeswax, rosemary, ginger and lavender – can help soothe the tension in post-workout muscles and ease achy joints. Just apply a thin layer and massage gently into desired areas of the skin, et voilà – no more nagging aches.

Buy now £10.00, Nealsyardremedies.com

Bloom and Blossom legs eleven cooling leg serum

Best: Muscle rubs for legs

Rating: 9/10

British body care brand Bloom and Blossom want us to spend the same amount of time massaging our legs as we spend cleansing and moisturising our faces... It’s a tall order, especially at this time of year when our pins don’t see much (read: literally any) sunlight and they’re lucky to get a weekly moisturiser (and/or monthly shave) – let alone a massage, too. But perhaps once you try the legs eleven cooling leg serum, you’ll change your mind.

Packaged in a fun millennial pink bottle, the fresh, minty serum pumps out easily and isn’t at all sticky – instead, it lightly glides on, cooling and revitalising tired legs. It actually reminded us of aftersun – partially thanks to its aloe vera leaf juice and peppermint leaf oil – in fact, this may be our new holiday must-have, as we imagine its naturally derived ingredients make it just as good for soothing sunburn as it is for invigorating sore legs. We really were amazed by how quickly the serum sunk into our legs, so if you’re looking for something that will leave your legs silky smooth, this is the product for you.

Buy now £29.00, Bloomandblossom.com

Inlight Beauty rosemary and hypericum recovery balm, 45ml

Best: British muscle rub

Rating: 6/10

Hand-made in Cornwall, Inlight Beauty – founded by homeopath and renowned skin expert, Dr Mariano Spiezia – fills the gap in the market for affordable, luxury, 100 per cent organic, calming, protecting and nourishing skincare products for a range of concerns. The recovery balm for aching joints and tense, strained muscles comes with a tiny wooden spoon to help scoop out the waxy product (goodbye sticky fingers) which then instantly melts on the skin into an oil.

Cleverly harnessing British-grown plants such as rosemary, hypericum, ginger and thyme, this balm – previously known as Joint Easy – is formulated with sensitive skins in mind and laced with essential oils. We found it the highly concentrated balm incredibly moisturising – a little does go a long way. Whether or not it helps to help take the edge off those niggling twinges is yet to be determined – but it does a great job at soothing and quenching dry skin.

Buy now £27.00, Inlightbeauty.co.uk

Tea and Tonic muscle tonic relief balm, 50g

Best: Peppermint muscle rub

Rating: 8/10

Starring muscle relieving botanicals, active aromatherapy and essential oils, Tea and Tonic has a wholly holistic approach to addressing tired, sore and achy muscles. The brand even describes its muscle tonic relief balm as ‘a nutrient-charged fusion of age-old folk remedies’. Hand blended in small batches for optimal freshness, when you unscrew the lid of this balm you’re immediately hit with the potent smell of peppermint. We found this balm particularly greasy, so go easy on how much you scoop out the jar.

Buy now £35.00, Teaandtonic.co.uk

Eresos active muscle therapy balm, 100ml

Best: Muscle lotion

Rating: 8/10

For those plagued by persistent soreness, consider this the ache-easing weapon of choice that unifies the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory qualities of CBD with carefully sourced and selected plant extracts that work in harmony with one another. Powered by inflammation-easing arnica, black pepper, sage and tea tree oil in an attempt to combat stiffness, you can choose between either 500mg (£45) or 1000mg (£55) of CBD.

We tried the 500mg version and loved how easy it was to pump directly onto the problem area. The texture of this muscle balm is much more like that of a cream or serum – so it’s no where near as sticky as some of the waxy formulas on this list. It feels immediately cooling. The result? Happy, calmed, relieved muscles.

Buy now £45.00, Eresos.co.uk

The verdict: Muscle rubs

Adding one of the above muscle rubs to your basket is pretty much non-negotiable for sporty, muscle-working folk in need. It is worth remembering that skincare is very individual and results will vary from person to person – so the balms that we found worked best for us, might do nothing for you (although they may offer a small placebo effect). There is, after all, no such thing as a magic cream that will completely eliminate your pain.

Our favourites? We really loved how easy, fuss-free and effective both Eresos active muscle therapy balm and This Works sleep plus massage relief were to roll on and soothe tired and achy muscles. We adored the relaxing and reliving smell of the Holistic Impact CBD body salve. And found Bloom and Blossom’s legs eleven was the best at quickly sinking into skin (with no sticky residue).

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For more products that will relieve muscle pain, check out our guide to the best at-home massage tools