How to use the best massage techniques.
Have you ever wanted know the best massage techniques in order to give someone a great massage because they’re hurting? Do you feel like when your significant other comes home from work you want to help them relax? How about a team mate on your soft ball league who pulled a muscle sliding into home plate? Many people are naturally drawn to wanting to lay their hands one someone else for the purpose of helping them feel better. This is a natural feeling. The power of touch is undeniable. We can see it in nature, when animals hold each other close, when monkey’s groom each other, when your dog or cat vies for your loving attention, they just want to be touched. Touch is also medical. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, was a massage therapist. It’s unfortunate that in this day and age many in our medical community eschew the power of therapeutic touch in favor of surgeries, pharmaceuticals, and expensive medical devices.
Today, very few people have the time to become certified massage therapists just to work on their friends and family. If you have been told that you have great hands, and great instincts for massage, then this post is for you! Try some of the best massage techniques outlined below and you may be surprised at how easy it is to make a huge difference on someone’s life with just a few moments of therapeutic touch. Let’s begin!
The best massage starts with proper breathing.
You’re breathing right now, aren’t you? Good. That’s a start, but are you breathing properly? It’s important to understand the difference between the mechanical action of breathing and breathing with intent. Have you ever watched a newborn baby breath? We’re born with the innate ability to breath properly, and we learn improper breathing as the stresses of life start to compound through the years. Newborns breath from the abdomen, which is no surprise when you consider that’s where they’ve been getting all their oxygen and nutrients for their entire lives through the mother’s umbilical cord. It’s not until we’re born that our lungs take over. Our diaphragms are muscle structures designed to pull the lungs downward, stretching them completely and creating a vacuum in the lungs that is naturally filled with air. The diaphragm is the ONLY muscle you need to use for breathing, however most people have taught themselves to use their neck and shoulder muscles almost exclusively.
It’s important to realize that the lungs are not muscles, and cannot breath on their own. When we use our neck and shoulder muscles to breath we only access about a third of the lungs capacity to process oxygen because only the top part of the lungs are pulled upward. Problems arise because these muscle groups are not designed to be involuntary, and can quickly develop pain and stiffness, especially during stressful periods in our lives when overworked like this. Stress causes us to breath quickly and shallowly, further straining these muscle groups, which then inhibits proper breathing further, which causes less oxygen to enter our bloodstream, which causes those muscles to be more starved for energy, and on and on until you’re suffering from horrible neck and shoulder pain. Sound familiar?
Proper breathing means keeping your shoulders relaxed and loose. Take your fingers and trace two straight lines from the tops of your ears to meet at the top of your head. Now imagine someone has attached a string to that point and is pulling it straight up into the sky. Now sit, or stand, and with your chin somewhat tucked in allow your shoulders to hang from your skull as this imaginary string pulls your head upwards. You shouldn’t be tilting your head backwards or sticking out your chest, which uses upper upper back muscles. If you’re standing, bend your knees slightly and allow your pelvis to roll forward, tucking your tailbone. When you lock your knees your pelvis naturally wants to tilt forward like the middle picture here. Think of it like a bowl of water. That water would be pouring out from just below your belly button. Keep the water in the bowl and maintain this relaxed posture. Don’t let your old habits interfere! Stay relaxed.
Whew! OK, are you ready to breath? Good. Start breathing by pushing your abdomen straight out as far as you can while you inhale through your nose. Air in equals belly out. Make it slow and deliberate. If you think you’ve reached the limit of how much air you can intake, try pushing outward further with your belly. I’ll bet you can breath even deeper than you thought! Do you feel a pull deep within your abdomen, right below your solar plexus? Congratulations, you just found your diaphragm! Now you can use it all the time, not just for yawning, shower opera, and the occasional sigh. Now release your breath slowly from your mouth and allow your belly to collapse back to normal. You have just likely tripled your oxygen intake! If you feel light headed, take a break. It takes a while for your body to grow enough new red blood cells to handle the increased amount of oxygen you’re feeding your system. Don’t worry, it gets easier.
What does this have to do with the best massage techniques? Well, if you follow these guidelines every day you’re not likely to even need a neck and shoulder massage as much because you just delegated the perpetual job of breathing away from those muscles! The best massage is one you don’t need give because someone’s in pain. Teach this technique to your friends and family, and have them do it when you’re massaging them and they will get much, much more out of whatever techniques you use.
The best massage is palpatory.
Palpation is the process of examining by touch for the purpose of diagnosing disease or illness. Palpation is a critical component of great massage and bodywork! Too often massage therapists are trained to use “recipes” for back pain, neck pain, sciatica, etc. Often these recipes are simply a training tool bodywork instructors use to teach how to transition from one technique to another smoothly, not to mention the techniques themselves. Make no mistake, however, there is no substitute for carefully feeling the muscle tissue to find trouble spots.
Tense, sore muscles feel dense, like knots that slip and slide around under the skin. Take your thumb and try to lock one down. Give it a little press and your grateful receiver will let you know that you have found something. What you found is a muscle that has been strained, and the blood that it used to function is still in there, empty of oxygen but unable to escape the soft tissue. Don’t worry, you’ll squeeze it out like a tube of toothpaste in a minute. The point is to find these knots so that you’re not wearing yourself out massaging all over the place and getting no results. Let’s face it, massage is hard work! Palpate properly and work smarter, not harder. Once you have identified a trouble spot, it’s up to you to either target it now, or find the rest. Either way, you should always palpate, before and after you’ve massaged the area.
The best massage has focused intention.
Breathing? Check. Is your lucky recipient breathing? Check. Did you palpate the area and find all the trouble spots? Check. OK, now you’re ready to begin! Starting from anywhere, pick a knot and gently press down on it, being careful not to let it slip out from under your thumb. This takes some practice, but your spouse or whomever is receiving the massage will appreciate it very much. Losing control of a knot at firmer pressures is both surprising and painful for the recipient. Stay focused and hold that knot down at all costs, and breath…both of you! If you feel like your recipient is tensing up against your technique, release pressure slowly and gently explain to them that they can do this the easy way or the hard way. If they breath deeply the muscle will be flooded with oxygen and is much more likely to release quickly and painlessly. You can’t force a good massage, it depends just as much on the recipient as it does on the practitioner. Did I mention breathing? Breath.
Once you have the knot firmly under your thumb, or elbow, or finger, or whatever you’re using, press down until you feel the knot start to resist. Imagine it’s like knocking on the door to a great hall. Press until you feel resistance and hold that pressure while instructing your recipient to breath deeply from the abdomen. Upon their exhale increase your pressure slightly until you feel the muscle quiver and give way to a new layer of tension. Knock knock! Come in, says the muscle. It may sound silly, but this technique will yield amazing results. Press until resistance, recipient exhales, follow muscle to new layer of tension, repeat. This is called Deep Tissue massage.
One important note: pay attention to your own stamina and only follow the muscle for about half as long as you think you can keep up the pressure. When delving this far into a muscle structure, you never want to release the muscle abruptly. This can cause the muscle to tense up again, undoing all your hard work. When you feel like you are about halfway through your ability to maintain that pressure, slowly start to back out, on the exhale, and allow the muscle to close behind your fingers. Once you’re at the superficial layers of the tissue you can release completely. The beauty of this technique is that it’s all about how well the recipient is breathing. If they’re breathing right, you can completely disintegrate a painful know in a matter of seconds. If they’re shallow breathing, or talking, it will take multiple attempts.
The best massage is informed.
In order to do profound bodywork on someone, you have to know a little bit of anatomy. You don’t kneed to know all 850 muscles, but knowing where the biggest ones attach will help you tremendously in understanding where to focus your effort in order to relieve pain. Go to almost any bookstore or online and pick up a muscular anatomy chart like this one pictured on the left for about $11. Understanding where muscles are connected to the body’s skeletal structure will give you a much better understanding of not only what you’re affecting in the body with your technique, but also what repetitive movement might be causing your recipient pain in the first place! For example, people who use a computer mouse all day typically strain the levator scapulae muscle, especially if they’re not breathing properly…breath…
Once you have a decent map of the body’s muscles in your mind, you can then follow each muscle’s “grain”, or direction when rubbing, pressing, sliding, or grasping. You’re technique will be so much more effective, especially when you want to target deeper muscles under the big ones. By applying pressure across the top muscle grain to follow the grain of deeper muscles you’ll be amazed at how quickly you can make people feel better.
One more note about anatomy. In the picture to the right we can see that the levator scapulae attaches to the top blade of the scapula. To release it, you can press the attachment area, but be aware that you’ll have to press through a much larger muscle called the trapezius which completely covers the smaller levator scapulae.
The best massage is rich in techniques.
Now that you’re a qigong master, palpation and anatomy expert, and deep tissue wizard, it’s time to learn some of the most useful basic massage techniques. The techniques outlined below are by no means a comprehensive list, nor is there room in this post to discuss all the variations and applications of the various techniques that exist. If you follow these basic techniques you’ll stand out among your friends and family as their go to person for massage..doesn’t that sound just great? Don’t worry, soon they’ll be hooked and you can leverage their newfound massage addiction to get free stuff like babysitting, extra turkey portions at Thanksgiving, and exemptions from dish washing duty. Here we go.
This technique is pretty self explanatory. You find the muscle and you grasp in a sewing-like movement, always rhythmically with moderate pressure. The key to good grasping technique is to make sure that you’re actually grasping the muscle and not just skin. Grasping the muscle feels great, grasping skin…not so much. Don’t be afraid to grab a muscle belly and isolate it with your grasping. If this is too much for your lucky recipient, either they’re not breathing or you can lighten up your technique a bit. Don’t let your recipient become a hero and try to fight through the pain. That’s not good massage. Find their tolerance and maintain it until they master breathing a bit more. With proper breathing and relaxation, no massage technique is too hard.
Pressing massage technique:
Unlike the deep tissue method described above, pressing is rhythmic and somewhat fast. The key is to use your whole body in the motion and press from your center. Confused? Imagine kneading a dough ball. If you use only your arms you’ll get fatigued quickly. Use your whole body to maximize the pressure and you’ll not only go deeper, but you’ll be able to do it for longer as well. This technique is highly effective everywhere on the body.
Often as you are using this technique you’ll palpate other soft tissue knots you may have missed. It’s a good idea to listen to what the receiver is saying as well as their body language. A quick gasp of air through the teeth is a good indication that you found something. You can either stop and apply deep tissue techniques, or you can come back to it later. Just don’t forget about it, because your receiver won’t.
Rubbing massage technique:
Rubbing is just like pressing, only there is a circular motion involved. In traditional Chinese massage, clockwise, light, and quick is used to stimulate and deep, counterclockwise pressure is used to sedate. For example, if someone is feeling under the weather, or just overworked, a light, quick massage may be just the thing they need such as lymphatic drainage. On the other hand, if someone is having a muscle spasm from overexertion or is extremely excitable, you may want to use deeper, slower compression.
This technique can be done with the fingers, palms, elbows, knees, and feet. When done with the flat of the palm it’s extremely invigorating along the spine and shoulder blade, as well as the thighs and is highly therapeutic for marathoners or anyone who is on their feet all day.
Sliding massage technique:
You may think that this technique requires the use of oil or lotion to be effective or comfortable, but actually it isn’t necessary. When sliding with the elbows, for example along the spine, you must be aware of your balance so that you can keep a constant firm pressure in the direction you’re heading. If you’re sliding through clothing, hold the trailing edge of the shirt or pants so that it doesn’t bunch up in front of your technique. Slide your elbow, or hand, along the muscle tissue in the direction of the muscle grain using deep, slow strokes. If you’re using the deep tissue techniques the rule of stopping when you feel resistance and having the receiver breath you through the next level still applies. You might take a full five minutes to on one side of the back if you go that deep, and your lucky friend or spouse will definitely feel that you accomplished something. Remember, massage is a powerful medical tool and the goal is to affect change in the body right away.
The best massage is compassionate.
It is so important to be compassionate when giving your time and energy to someone in the form of massage. If you’re having a bad day, or you’re tired or stressed out then don’t even think about massaging someone else! The best massage is from someone who is relaxed, and happy. Therapeutic bodywork can bring up long suppressed emotions and memories in people through a process called armoring. Although there is little science regarding armoring, you will know when you have experienced it. A good example of armoring is people who hold in anger tend to have pain in the upper middle back in the rhomboid muscle. This is due to the fact that the rhomboid is one of the muscles used to retract the arms. Imagine wanting to lash out in anger all the time, your rhomboid keeps you from physically doing that while your mind rationalizes all the reasons not to.
There are many anecdotes of therapists working on someone who will impulsively start crying, or laughing during a session. Someone who feels trapped by their job, their family situation, or an abusive relationship may hold those feelings in their legs. The feeling of wanting to run away is very powerful indeed. Be compassionate and don’t judge if your receiver is having an emotional outburst. You are helping them release these feelings in a very real way. People who are excessively ticklish, for example, have armored themselves against the very sensation of touch! It may have been from when they were children someone tickled them mercilessly. Go slowly, gently, and make sure they breath.
The best massage is today.
Don’t wait to help someone you love feel better. You may not think you have what it takes to heal someone through touch but you do. If you feel like this post isn’t enough information for you then we have done our part, like any great therapist, and we were a stepping stone on your quest for more knowledge. Take time to find a great therapeutic practitioner in your area on this site. If you don’t see any near you, don’t despair! We’ll be there shortly. In the mean time if you have found an excellent, outcome based therapeutic practitioner then don’t hesitate to let us know who this person is. We are always looking for the best massage therapists to add to the site. Therapists are like musicians, the very best ones have years of intensive practice and can play the most intricate melodies. Find someone great to work on you.