The concept of applied massage is an interesting and ubiquitous one in massage therapy.
When people think of deep tissue massage, they instinctively assume high pressure application.
One of the main things that is important to know about pressure is that it is subjective. The appropriate amount of pressure for one person may not work for all.
In order to understand pressure, we must first understand the concept of pain. Pain is not determined by a body input, but rather an output from the brain. There is a psychological, biological and a physical component of pain that varies from person-to-person.
In other words, two people can have the same stimulus of stepping on a nail, but they might feel the pain differently depending on their surroundings, pain tolerance, state of mind and past experiences.
Similarly, people can experience the same level of applied massage pressure and one may feel pain and one may not.
Finding the right pressure impacts the quality of the massage greatly.
Massage therapists should aim to bring clients to a place where they are experiencing the right level of pressure during the massage session. This touch should be perceived by the client as helpful and meaningful.
Ideally, this does not include pressure too intense as to throw you into a fight-flight-freeze response from your nervous system.
That said, no pain, no gain is a mindset for many clients. So, finding the right amount of applied massage pressure can be a tricky thing to parcel out.
What Your Therapist Feels During a Massage Session
This is how your massage therapist will tune into your nonverbal cues to see if the pressure they are applying might be too much:
Massage therapists should check in within the first five minutes of the massage session to demonstrate they are attentive and incorporating client feedback into the session.
Many massage therapists will simply ask, “How’s the pressure?” which can potentially limit the amount of feedback a client will give and is not inclusive enough from a response perspective.
Massage therapists should ask, “Would you like more pressure, less pressure, or is this about right?” a question which gives the client a choice. That way, client’s feel empowered to provide feedback, which in turn results in a better massage experience.
After the first check in, massage therapists are well-advised to check in another three to five times throughout the session (less is better for relaxation massages) or whenever the client is giving suggestive non-verbal cues.
While it is important for massage therapists to check in verbally for feedback, they also need to check on the client’s nonverbal cues.
Does it appear that the client is experiencing physical discomfort? Have they stopped breathing? Are their fingers curling? Are they very rigid? If so, the massage pressure might be too intense.
A good general rule of thumb and guideline for therapists is the ask yourself, “Is the client loose and relaxed with their body opening toward my touch, or is the client contracting (turtle shelling) against me?”
This fine line can be the difference between a highly satisfied and a disappointed client.
The Right Amount of Pressure
When massage therapists can master the art of combining a client’s verbal and non-verbal cues, they will master the art of finding the perfect amount of pressure.
The key is to find the right and meaningful amount of pressure and touch for each part of the body during the massage session.
Pressure preferences vary from the spine to the feet, so it is important balance verbal and non-verbal cues adaptively.
Where MTs Can Go Wrong
One of the biggest mistakes a massage therapist can make around this topic is not checking in about the right amount of pressure with the client.
I have experienced many massages where therapists don’t even check in once.
They either apply the amount of pressure they think they would want or whatever they assume the client needs, which oftentimes results on going over or under-board on pressure.
When an inappropriate amount of pressure during massage is administered, clients can end up with bruising, extreme soreness or worse, a fear of future massages, which can impact the industry at large.
Pressure is a subjective experience within a massage. As massage therapists, a key component of providing a safe therapeutic environment for our clientele is working within each person’s comfort level.
Pressure preferences vary from week to week, from person to person and even session to session, so it is important to be adaptive.
As massage clients, the most important thing is to maintain open communication with the massage therapist. When the therapist asks, “Would you like more pressure, less pressure, or is this about right?”—you should communicate back, “it’s too much,” “it could be more,” or “it’s just right.”
About the Author
Eric Stephenson is an innovative educator, consultant and entrepreneur. As the Chief Wellness Officer for Elements Massage, Stephenson has contributed to the brand’s growth in becoming one of the largest providers of massage therapy in the United States. Stephenson is a founding partner of Well World Group, a co-founder of imassage, Inc., and a board member of the International Spa Association. In 2016, he joined a group of international educators bringing medical massage as a health profession career track to India. Stephenson has worked with some of the biggest names in the wellness industry, including Wynn/Encore Las Vegas, Kamalaya Thailand, Sandals Resorts and Spas, Grove Park Inn Asheville, Glen Ivy Hot Springs Spa and Starwood Hotels and Resorts.