Prior to becoming a massage therapist myself, I didn’t have all that much experience with actually getting massages. I got a massage maybe once a year, generally a gracious gift from my mother for some special occasion, and certainly not the integral part of my healthcare routine that it is today.
When I did get a massage, I always asked for deep tissue. The other option on the menu would usually be Swedish or something with fancy stones or muddy body wraps. My uninformed brain immediately assumed deep tissue meant deep pressure, which was clearly better in some inherent and inexplicable way, and I knew somehow that’s what my achy, overworked, service-industry-beaten body needed.
One time, I got an 80-minute deep tissue and it left me sore all over for at least two days, also subsequently feeling like uncoordinated jelly as the massage therapist had railed her elbow into muscles I never knew I had. I felt about like I would the day after a really, really intense workout…after a three-year hiatus from all forms of working out.
Another time, I got a deep tissue massage, and it hurt a bit during the massage but overall, the therapist left me feeling like I could conquer the world with my newfound loose and mobile muscles.
Another time, I recall getting a deep tissue massage for 90-minutes in which I slept through most of it, and at the end, hardly felt any different than I did when I walked in.
In all three of these experiences, I had explicitly requested “deep tissue,” not really knowing what that meant exactly but knowing my body hurt and I wanted them to make it not hurt. The approaches of the therapists, as well as what I felt during and after each massage varied enormously. So, which one was the “correct” deep tissue?
According to Elsevier Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, there really is no concise, commonly accepted definition for deep tissue massage in the scientific literature (1). That means it’s all based on the intention of the therapist and the will of the client. Super helpful, right?
A large conglomeration of techniques, approaches, and skills within the massage industry mean asking for deep tissue from one therapist in one place may vary significantly from a therapist down the road that was trained by a different school in a different era and gained experience working with a different set of clients.
When I attended massage school, my teachers actually taught me to dislike the term, “deep tissue.” Besides the fact that there isn’t an actual, concise definition of what exactly it is, it is grossly misleading to the untrained client.
When clients come in asking me for a deep tissue massage, they can mean one of two things: Either they want deep pressure or therapeutic massage, or some combination of the two.
Therapeutic massage is what most people are looking for who seek out deep tissue. This means you go see a massage therapist with a specific problem or goal, and the therapist uses their wide knowledge of anatomy and kinesiology to target specific muscles to accomplish the desired outcome.
This is opposed to a relaxation massage, or commonly known as a Swedish massage, where the main goal is more centered around relaxing and unwinding. I personally say fluff-and-buff, but they certainly have their benefits.
The pressure aspect is what is misleading. Therapeutic massage can be done with light pressure, and relaxation massage can be done with deep pressure, all while still accomplishing the client’s goals.
Even within the realm of therapeutic massage, there are many modalities and approaches one can use. There is trigger point therapy, cross-fiber friction, neuromuscular therapy, sports massage, myofascial release, and so on and so forth. Many times, these approaches overlap with one another and can be incorporated into a massage even when the desired outcome is just to relax.
Often, I have clients come in with no specific problems to speak of, but they still want me to dig around, find the tight, knotted, or dysfunctioning muscles, and work them out using the therapeutic techniques that I am most proficient in. It’s a sort of relaxation-therapeutic-deep-pressured-non-specific-massage, if we want to go with labels.
How to get what you desire out of a massage session, without using the convoluted terminology…
What it all boils down to is communication. Unless you are a seasoned massage therapy client, you may not know exactly what you are looking for nor what the therapist can actually do for you.
It’s a good idea to do your research before getting a massage. What do you want to accomplish with your massage? Do you have an injury you’d like rehabilitation from? Are you planning to run a marathon and want to perform better? Do you have high anxiety and have heard about how massage therapy can help reduce that?
“What kind of pressure do you like?” is a really subjective question, anyway.
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