Massage careers can range from one year to, for some massage therapists, 30-plus years. The sad truth of those one-year careers is most often, they are cut short due to burnout, often combined with physical injury. Deciding on a different path after working for a year is acceptable.
What’s not good is finding your body with aches and pains from overwork and having to leave your dream career.
Many longtime massage therapists have stayed in this career by stretching and strengthening the body for massage work. This article will provide the foundation and inspiration for stretching your body to lengthen your career.
I chose to provide stretches for the three main areas in which massage therapists tend to have problems:
1. The hands and forearms
2. The neck and shoulder girdle
3. The low back.
This will allow us to focus the stretching on massage-specific muscles that tend to get overused.
Stretching is the best way to promote and maintain flexibility. As we age, flexibility naturally decreases, and the habitual way we hold our bodies during massage can also reduce flexibility. This results in a lack of muscle use, tightening those muscles.
Along with muscle tightness, the tendons, which connect the muscle to the bone, are not given the full range of motion and begin to tighten. This reduces flexibility, restricts range of movement and can lead to muscle imbalances.
Regular stretching can counteract these restrictions, resulting in increased suppleness and improved coordination. Daily stretching helps massage therapists decrease the risk of injury as stretched muscles work most effectively.
How to Stretch
Here are some stretching guidelines to follow to fully experience the benefits of stretching:
Stretch regularly, three days a week minimum. It is recommended full-time massage therapists stretch daily.
Perform each stretch slowly and gently. Stretch to the point of mild tension, not pain. Don’t overstretch, bounce or jerk. Overstretching and bouncing can cause muscles to tighten rather than relax.
Each stretch should be gradual to elongate the connective tissues and muscles. Once you feel the stretch, hold it for 10 to 60 seconds.
Repeat each stretch three times, gradually moving further until you feel a slight tension. Feel for what might be described as the edge of discomfort. If you go beyond that edge to where you feel pain or your muscles tremble, ease up. Aim for a slow, steady, relaxed stretch you can sustain without overexertion.
Remember to breathe. Exhale as you go into the stretch, then breathe slowly and rhythmically. Deep inhalations and exhalations may increase the stretch by bringing oxygen to the muscles.
Now we’ll go over stretches for specific areas of your body.
Hands and Forearms
A massage therapist’s hands are their greatest asset. Stretching the palms and forearm flexors is the most beneficial way to keep healthy hands.
Kneeling Palm—Forearm Stretch
• This stretch begins with taking a kneeling position on the floor.
• Next, sit back on your heels.
• Reach your arms out before you, placing your palms on the floor.
• Next, turn your arms so the fingertips are pointed towards your knees.
• Goal: get palms flat to the ground and lift off your heels, leaning forward until you reach the desired level of stretch.
Palm-up Forearm Stretch
• Stand with one arm extended out in front of you and rotate the palm to face up toward the sky.
• Next, take your free hand and gently pull the fingertips of the outstretched arm down toward the ground.
• Keeping your arm outstretched, you should feel the stretch in your palm and forearm. To increase the stretch, raise your outstretched arm to shoulder height.
• Hold, breathe, then switch arms.
Neck and Shoulder Girdle
Massage therapists often have neck and shoulder pain due to looking at their work with a tilted head while working with raised shoulders.
Part of good body mechanics is keeping the head in a neutral position and lowering the shoulders down, away from the ears, whenever they creep up. The rounded shoulder and forward head posture are what we want to counteract with these following stretches.
Reverse Shoulder Stretch with Forward Fold
• This stretch is done in the standing position.
• Reach both hands behind your back and interlock your fingers.
• Roll your shoulders back and down as you pull the shoulder blades toward each other while slightly pushing your chest out.
• Lift your hands away from your lower back until you feel a stretch in the shoulders and chest.
• To take this stretch to the next level, forward fold from the waist (slight bend in the knees) while lifting the clasped arms toward the head.
Neck: 6-Way Stretch
This stretch is so simple but rarely used. The neck six ways stretch refers to the six movements available to the neck. The six movements comprise flexion, extension, lateral flexion and rotation in both directions. We will be moving to assess tightness and holding at each endpoint.
The first two movements are flexion and extension of the neck:
• Flexion can be done seated or standing.
• Lower your chin toward your chest to flex the neck, stopping to hold at the first sign of discomfort. Breathe while you hold, then take it a little further.
• Return the neck to your neutral starting position and flex again.
Continue this stretch until no discomfort is felt.
• Next is neck extension, which may also be done seated or standing. Try lengthening the cervical vertebrae skyward as you look up at the sky.
• Move slowly and breathe as your head falls back to look upward.
• Stop and hold at the first sign of tightness.
• Don’t force this movement. Instead, note where the range of motion is limited and strive for improvement over time.
The next two stretches are lateral flexion of the neck:
• These can be done seated or standing.
• With a straight spine, slowly lower your left ear toward your left shoulder.
• Stop and hold at the first sign of resistance. Breathe.
• Return the head to neutral and lower the right ear to the right shoulder.
• Stop, hold and breathe at the first sign of pain or resistance.
• Repeat left and right lateral flexion until there are no signs of discomfort or tightness.
• Placing your hand on your head can take this stretch to the next level.
• Caution: Do not pull your head. The weight of your hand is enough.
The last two stretches are rotations left and right.
• This can be done seated or standing.
• With a straight spine, turn your head to look as far as possible to the left.
• Notice tightness or restrictions in this movement and hold the stretch in the first place of resistance. Breathe.
• Next, turn your head and look as far as possible to the right.
• Hold where you feel tightness.
• As you continue to look left and right, try to increase the pain-free range of motion so you are looking farther behind yourself.
Lower-back pain makes it hard to continue giving massages. Aside from needing strength, the lower back and surrounding muscle groups must be stretched to no longer give you problems.
Here are two helpful stretches that will make your lower back feel better.
Knees to Chest with Happy Baby Variation
• Lie on your back and hug your knees to your chest.
• Hold and breathe.
• You can rock forward and backward a little if that feels good.
• To try the Happy Baby variation, grab the outsides of your feet and let your knees fall wide.
• Open your knees as wide as your shoulders and flex your ankles.
• While holding your feet, rock side to side as you massage your lower back into the floor.
• Breathe and rock or hold until you reach 30 seconds. Do as many times as you need to release some lower back tightness.
• Modification: Use a towel or belt over the soles of your feet to hold onto if you can’t comfortably hold your feet.
Supine Spinal-Twist Stretch
• Lie on your back.
• Bend your right knee to hug your knee to your chest.
• Next, take your left hand to help the right knee cross the midline of the body and rest on the floor to the left side of your body.
• The spine will be twisted here, and you can breathe while turning the head to look right.
• Hold at a comfortable place while breathing.
• Then do the other side.
Feel Better, Massage Longer
After trying these few stretches for the areas massage therapists need most, I hope your body will feel better and massage longer. Stretch as often as possible, and watch the length of your career stretch too.
Photos courtesy of Angela Lehman
About the Author
Angela Lehman is a massage therapist of 25 years turned online educator, promoting fitness and nutrition for massage therapists. She runs The Fit MT. With her kinesiology degree specialized in nutrition, she trains therapists in healthy eating, exercise and body mechanics to prolong their careers.