Marissa Higgins
Updated August 08, 2016 9:24 am
Getty Images/Adam Pretty

If you tuned in to watch the Olympics last night, I’m willing to bet you found yourself watching Michael Phelps dazzle audiences around the globe with his swimming. If you looked closely, though, you might have noticed something else: What are those spots on Michael Phelps’ body?

The large circles are visible both when he is inside and outside of the water, appearing either as brown, red, or purple, depending on the light. So, what gives? Thankfully, there appears to be a reasonable explanation for these strange circles. It appears cupping is the culprit behind Phelps’ spots, rather, bruises. Yup, bruises.


Now, I’m no Olympian myself, but allegedly some Olympic athletes use the “cupping” techniques as a way to increase blood circulation in their bodies. While the bruises look pretty intense, the actual process of “cupping” seems mild enough. Someone places small, beaded cups onto your skin, which applies a suction-like pressure and results in the bruises. While some people allege that cupping is painful, others claim that it is a painless, safe procedure. I’ve never “cupped” myself, so I can’t attest to the pain level, but I will say that those bruises definitely look painful. It’s worth noting that Phelps isn’t the only Olympian with them.

Getty Images/VCG

For the curious, cupping is an ancient Chinese tradition that combines natural medicine with acupuncture. Some describe “cupping” as the opposite of a massage, where instead of pushing in on the muscles and applying pressure to them, you’re pulling them “out” through suction.

Even if you, like me, are not training to be a high-level athlete, there are other benefits to cupping such as relieving back and neck pains, anxiety, fatigue, stiff muscles, and headaches. Many people will try cupping alongside acupuncture, though you can do cupping on its own. Personally, I’m not sure if I’ll get on board, but I can say I’m definitely intrigued! For now, I think I’ll leave the cupping to the Olympians.