The depth in deep tissue massage

Deep tissue massage therapy is one of those very confusing terms often used by massage therapists, massage schools and others. Refer to this updated article on deep tissue massage.

Learning deep tissue massage is one of the many things you can do to set yourself apart from all of the other massage therapists out there.  Having a good deep tissue instructor in massage school can help.  How will you know if they are good?  They will teach that it isn’t about applying more or deeper pressure using physical strength.  Good deep tissue won’t leave you bruised or feeling hurt the next day.  The other part of this is how people feel or what they are able to feel and what they want to feel in their massage.  I for one have really ropey back muscles from arthritis and scoliosis and find that I can’t feel it when most people say they are doing deep tissue.  I also have had years of structural integration (Zentherapy) where the goal was to create pain in some ways (more on that later).   I personally get better results when I can feel the pressure being applied.  The pressure doesn’t feel painful to me.  It feels good!  It helps be to feel better and feel more!  To me that is what all massage is really doing – helping people to feel more.

So in learning deep tissue in basic massage school, you will most likely be learning about connective tissue and the deeper muscles of the body like the psoas, piriformis and other muscles.  A good deep tissue massage therapist will learn to palpate the various structures and be able to feel the tightness in different layers of the muscles.  Just taking a weekend workshop or two in deep tissue is only just the beginning.  It really takes practice and developing your skills to go deep.  

As I said, I also took Zentherapy training in the 1990’s with it’s founder William “Dub” Leigh.  He combined his training with Ida Rolf and a Zen Master from HI and tried to teach that using “Ki” or “Chi” was a much more effective way of doing deep tissue.  The only problem is that most people were still having deep tissue forced on them instead of “using the force” and people were often screaming on the massage table.  When force is used it creates more resistance and tension usually.  People will tense up more rather than relax more.  It is also a matter of learning to work with clients using deep tissue and keeping in contact with them and keeping them in their bodies while you are doing deep tissue.  It is about engaging them in the process and teaching them about their bodies showing them how their bodies work and how they can learn to relax tight muscles with things like breathing and awareness.  Getting them to notice the change that occurs in their body when you are working on them can help to show them the value of massage and what it can do which will hopefully help you in getting regular weekly clients.

While the Zentherapy deep tissue is now too extreme for me now (in 2021 and for the last 10 years or so), I did learn some key things to doing deep tissue through their trainings.  One of them is to use your body and your breathing to apply deep tissue pressure instead of trying to use strength or force.   I first let my elbow or knuckle or fingertips touch the surface and then take a deep breath myself and allow my body to relax and ‘sink into’ the clients body gently yet firmly.

Most spas and massage franchises say that they are doing deep tissue massage but I have found to be the work and skills very inconsistent.  It also seems like many spas define deep tissue as just applying more pressure and don’t really know the difference.   So learning ‘real’ deep tissue can help you to make a difference in your job performance and help to set you aside from the other massage therapists at places like these.  There isn’t a clear definition of deep tissue massage that is understood even among massage therapists.  So when clients are getting deep tissue at one place and it is just deeper pressure, they don’t really get the full understanding of what deep tissue could really be like.  Things like this make it challenging for massage therapists to be in and stay in business and find jobs.  How a clear definition can be created and put into the hands of every massage therapist is the issue.

To explain further with an example:  I do deep tissue massage and triggerpoint therapy work.  I had a client come in a few weeks ago saying he had been seeing a MT at a local franchise weekly for over a year but he was in a significant amount of pain.  He had been getting deep tissue massage.  When I worked on him one time he said he had never gotten a massage like that and most of his pain was gone.

I used to even give clients a handout on getting deep tissue massage but now I just verbally talk to people about deep tissue work.

It is important if you are learning deep tissue to be worked on  people who are doing good deep tissue.  It is also recommended that you practice and learn. It takes a few years or more to be really good and proficient in deep tissue massage.