Whether it’s the vacation splurge at the beach or the much-needed post-marathon rub down, a good massage is in order on more occasions than one. Tense muscles, weeks of stress and nagging aches and pains all seem to melt away under the touch of a skilled therapist. In fact, research shows that soft-tissue work can promote better blood flow throughout the body and faster post-exercise recovery. But while massage therapy can — and should! — be the epitome of relaxation and restoration, it’s not uncommon to leave the table feeling that the experience came up short. Perhaps you weren’t quite comfortable, or maybe you chose a sub-par facility or the wrong type of massage. To help you get the relief you’re looking for, follow these knead-to-know tips from our experts.
All Hands on Deck
“Most people think it’s a selfish need. It’s not. It’s a base need to keep your body in good health.”
When it comes to massage, not all hands (or elbows!) are considered equal. While it’s tempting to guilt your significant other into working on your shoulders after a hard week of work, licensed massage therapists (LMTs) offer some distinct advantages. First, they have undergone extensive training (total hours vary from state to state) and have had professional on-the-job experience perfecting their craft. They’re trained to recognize trigger points (small knots within your muscle) and know how much pressure to apply when relieving them. LMTs are also adept at working with (or around) various injuries in order to put the patient’s safety first.
Credentials aside, a therapist’s niche or background can factor in, too. To get the most specialized care, Sara Hunninghake, LMT at Finish Line Physical Therapy in New York, advises selecting a therapist who best aligns with your personal needs and goals. After all, it can be hard to explain your weekend 20-mile run or tough Crossfit workout to someone that isn’t active or well-versed in your chosen activities. A therapist who understands your favorite activities can be a blessing (or a curse, since they know exactly where you’re likely to hurt!).
As for certifications, make sure your therapist is board certified and licensed (the requirements differ by state), but extra certifications and training are simply more icing on the cake, Hunninghake says. Having the most acronyms after their name doesn’t necessarily make one therapist better than the next, she says.
Even after selecting a therapist, the experience of receiving a massage can be nerve-racking. LMT and teacher at the Massage Therapy Institute of Colorado, robin lewis* acknowledges that the fear of being judged can be hard for massage newbies. Just remember that the massage room is a judge-free zone. If the thought of lying naked under a towel gives you the creeps, leave your clothes on. According to lewis, most therapists will use the phrase “undress to your comfort,” meaning it’s completely up to you. Therapists can work around clothing; the key is making sure you feel comfortable on the table.
Picking the Right Massage Therapy
Most massage therapy modalities share similar benefits including a relaxation component that helps you de-stress. But it’s not all “oohs” and “aahs” — there’s also the occasional “ouch!” Certain forms of massage are more focused on releasing trigger points (which can feel less-than-comfortable), while others are geared towards serenity now. Here are the most common types of massage and the major benefits of each.
1. Deep Tissue Massage
Best for: Relieving deep knots and fixing movement patterns
If you’re looking for a calm and relaxing massage, this likely wouldn’t be your best bet. As the name implies, deep tissue massages typically involve digging deep within the muscle to release trigger points and improve mobility. Although the massage might not be comfortable the entire time, it shouldn’t be painful, says Hunninghake. If a massage is too unpleasant, you’ll end up just tensing up your muscles, which defeats the purpose. The key to getting it just right? Communicating with your therapist. Everyone handles pain differently. If you’re clenching your jaw while on the table, it’s time to ask them to lighten up!
2. Swedish Massage
Best for: Relaxing after a long, stressful week
Swedish massages are known as a lighter, more relaxing type of massage. But don’t think that makes them less beneficial — a massage can still be effective even if it doesn’t hurt. As opposed to deep tissue work, which zeroes in on high-tension areas, Swedish massages involve longer, more-fluid strokes meant to provide a relaxing sensation and create a beneficial hormone response. Research shows it’s effective as well: A single Swedish massage has been shown to reduce circulating cortisol (a stress hormone) and improve immune function.
3. Sports Massage
Best for: Dealing with sport-specific issues and nagging injuries
Sports massage therapists normally aren’t that much different from normal therapists. Their major advantage lies in their understanding of the particular sport in question alongside the demands placed on your body. Hunninghake, who frequently sees clients that are endurance athletes like her, often has clients mystified as to how she always finds trigger points. “They’ll often say, ‘How did you know about that spot?’” Her reply: “Well, that spot is my spot!” Though she’s careful to never assume someone has the same trigger points as her, she says her experience with endurance athletes gives her a special understanding. “I understand you because I am you,” she explains.
Best for: Treating chronic injuries with an integrated, whole-body approach
Developed by Ida Rolf in the early 1900s, Rolfing involves therapists poking, pushing and kneading your body to encourage better movement and blood flow. Because Rolfing specialists often hit on deep trigger points, the modality can be confused with other forms of massage, such as deep tissue. The main distinguishing factor is that Rolfing practitioners take a more full-body approach to the treatment using a technique called Structural Integration. In this method, therapists work on fascia, the connecting tissue between muscles, to promote better balance and alignment within the body. While the benefits aren’t conclusive, research has shown that Rolfing can be effective at reducing back pain as well as potentially useful for re-educating movement patterns and relieving muscle imbalances.
Best for: Encouraging healing throughout the body
You won’t find therapists using their elbows in this type of healing massage. The word itself (“Shiatsu”) actually translates to “finger pressure” in Japanese, indicative of how Shiatsu practitioners perform the massage. Using only their thumbs, fingers and palms, therapists move across the body, applying varying pressure at certain points referred to as Shiatsu points or “Tsubo,” with the goal of promoting healing and regeneration throughout the body. Shiatsu has been shown to improve pain threshold and improve sleep quality in fibromyalgia patients. However, more research is still needed on the benefits of this ancient Japanese practice.
Making It Last
So, you’ve had the best massage of your life. The relief should last for at least a few weeks, right? Not so fast. Both Hunninghake and lewis emphasize the importance of consistency. lewis likens massage to maintenance for your body (similar to an oil change for your car). “Most people think it’s a selfish need. It’s not. It’s a base need to keep your body in good health,” she says. Budget and time constraints certainly play a role, too, but as a rule of thumb, you’re best off trying to get one massage a month — at least. Hunninghake adds that if you can follow that frequency you’re already at an advantage.
A regular massage shouldn’t be your only weapon to combat muscle soreness and improve recovery. According to Hunninghake, “Receiving massages should be one tool in the toolbox when you look at your overall health and your overall training plan.” Other strategies should include regular foam rolling and mobility work, proper nutrition and hydration, and a well-planned training program. With all the right pieces in place, a regular massage appointment can ensure you’re functioning at your best.
*Name written in lowercase as requested by the expert.