It's set up a lot like any other HIIT workout: There's a warm-up followed by a cardio segment, then strength work and a cooldown period. But I have never done a workout like this before—mostly because I'm not actually doing anything. Instead, my trainer is the one whipping, kneading, and sculpting my muscles, and rather than focusing on my body, she's targeting the 40-plus muscles in my face—muscles I have never consciously exercised before in my life.
I was at FaceGym, "the world's first gym for the face," a U.K. beauty brand that's finally bringing its services to the U.S. with a studio opening in Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City. FaceGym's Signature Facial (which costs $70 for 30 minutes) is a noninvasive treatment described as "fast-whipping strokes detoxify your skin while deep-sculpting tones and contours your face muscles leaving your skin re-energized and glowing". (Although, the trend of face workouts isn't exactly new stateside, as we reported a few years back in "I Tried a Workout Class for My Face.")
It's the company's unique "muscle manipulation" technique that makes it so effective, says founder Inge Theron. "We all know that to improve muscle tone in our bodies, we have to activate the muscles—and the face is no different!" she says. "We believe muscle stimulation is the holy grail, whether that be with unique hand-based protocols or technology. Day in and day out we see visible lifts in our customers' complexions from increased facial muscle tone."
In the warm-up and cardio phases of FaceGym's Signature Facial, the aesthetician (or as FaceGym calls it, the "trainer") delivers custom moves like "animal fingers," "caterpillar," and "barbering"—basically knuckling, high-speed hand whipping, flicking, and pinching—over the entire face and neck, releasing tension in tight muscles and stimulating circulation, explains Theron. "The cardio segment is all about detoxing and making your face sweat."
Then the trainer uses deep finger sculpting and lifting techniques around the masseter muscle in the jaw to release tension and redefine the jawline. After that, a micro-contouring technique is used to lift the jaw, cheekbone, and eye area. "We use a much gentler technique around the eye muscle to lift and sculpt the whole eye area, reducing any unwanted puffiness," she adds. And, of course, there's a cooldown, where the trainer uses a cooling jade stone to take some of the heat out of the face and "drain away toxins." (Related: I Got Botox In My Jaw for Stress Relief)
The whole procedure certainly felt good, in the way a deep tissue massage feels good when you're sore (i.e., sort of weird and painful in the moment, but you know it's worth it so you suffer through it). After the trainer kneaded the crap out of one side of my face, undoing knots I didn't even know were possible to have in my jaw and brow muscles (it sounded like Rice Krispies snap-crackle-and-popping as she worked out the kinks), there was a marked difference in how much more relaxed that side looked compared to the other. Was this something I should be doing all the time?
Facial exercises can make you look younger, according to a new Northwestern Medicine study that was published earlier this year in the journal JAMA Dermatology. The researchers found that in women 40 to 65 years old, 30-minute face workouts every other day (taught to them by professionals and then performed on themselves) over 20 weeks resulted in fuller upper and lower cheeks, giving them a younger-looking appearance.
The study authors claim that facial exercises bulk up the muscles in the face, which fills out any sagging that may occur due to aging. But sagging isn't exactly a muscular issue, says Tina Alster, M.D., founding director of the Washington Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery and a clinical professor of dermatology at Georgetown University Medical Center.
"Exercising the individual facial muscles could make them bigger, but they're not necessarily the reason for most of the aging that we have on our skin—as we age, the skin starts to sag and form wrinkles largely because of the reabsorption of your skeletal structure," says Dr. Alster—meaning, your bones literally wither and erode as you age. And that's not something you can do anything about.
Plus, most of the muscles in your face are functional muscles. "We blink, we smile, we masticate [chew], we talk; the muscles in our face are being worked out pretty regularly," says Dr. Alster. "It's hard to know what exercising them further would really do in terms of anti-aging."
And it's worth pointing out again that the Northwestern study took 20 weeks to show results. That's a long time—and potentially a lot of money, if you're going to a place like FaceGym. "We recommend going to the studio every seven to 10 days and doing at-home workouts daily," says Theron. "If you have a big event or occasion you are prepping for, you should up it to once a week and opt for a more intense facial option." FaceGym does provide YouTube videos on exercises you can do yourself with a face ball, roller, FaceGym Pro—an electrical muscle stimulation device—and a jade stone in-between trips to the studio. (The latter you can buy on Amazon for under 10 bucks, BTW.)
"Certainly, any time that you invest money in yourself, whether it's for a facial massage or a good hydrating facial or stimulating muscle, you will reap the benefits because any of these things will minimize inflammation by stimulating increased blood flow to the area," says Dr. Alster. "But from a cost/benefit analysis, I think that your money may better be spent on a really good skin-care routine, or other noninvasive procedures." (Related: Microneedling Is the New Skin-Care Treatment You Should Know About)
Dr. Alster suggests treatments like radio frequency facials, microfocused ultrasound skin tightening, or medical microneedling, also known as collagen induction therapy, or laser technology, all of which can firm the skin, reduce sagging, and generally help you look younger. "All those things have a faster outcome, and more long-standing improvement than a facial workout," she adds.
But not all workouts have to be about results; sometimes, it's just a matter of enjoying the experience during it and afterward, and there is an appeal to the noninvasive nature of FaceGym. I liked spending half an hour letting someone else massage the muscles in my face; I couldn't look at my phone or anything else, and it felt good. While the one session may not have turned back the clock on my face for any significant duration of time, my trainer definitely sent me back into the world a little glowier and more relaxed than I was when I met her.
Facial workouts are a luxury, sure—but one that could be beneficial in one way or another. So if you have the time and money, go ahead and treat yourself.