I’ve heard variations on the following from so many clients now:
You can’t hurt me. Don’t hold back.
I have a very high pain threshold.
Don’t be afraid to really dig in there.
I don’t like Swedish, I prefer deep tissue.
There is an underlying assumption behind all these statements, and that is that deeper pressure will provide greater muscle release.
I get why people think this. A massage in which the pressure applied doesn’t meet expectations or even feels a bit insipid is probably going to disappoint, and probably won’t relax the client either who will instead feel like it isn’t doing them any good. This is why communication is an important part of massage by the way. If the pressure isn’t right it’s better to speak up than stay silent. If the therapist has good reason for applying lighter pressure then they will explain their reasoning to you. It may well be for a number of reasons:
- It’s the first time they’ve massaged you and they are starting gentle until they get to know the kinds of pressure you prefer.
- You may have a health condition that calls for lighter pressure.
- If the set intention of the massage is relaxation then lighter pressure may be more appropriate. Someone sticking their elbow into a trigger point is not very relaxing.
- The pressure you want is excessive in their view and may be counterproductive or cause injury.
That said, it may not even be accurate that a deeper pressure will provide a more effective muscle release. No pain, no gain, right? Well not necessarily.
When a muscle is tight it is because the nervous system is giving it instructions to be tight. When we want the muscle to loosen we need to communicate with the nervous system to get it to switch off that instruction. This is what massage therapists do when they manipulate soft tissues. Their touch stimulates or soothes the nervous system via receptors throughout the body and it responds accordingly.
Just pressing harder to coerce the nervous system into relaxing tight spots is rarely the right approach. It’s better to work with it, which is why my treatments always start with slow movements and gentle pressure. This introduces the muscles to my touch and warms them up, creating a sense of safety and letting the nervous system know it can relax. Were I to apply enough mechanical force to physically change someone’s soft tissues I’d probably be doing them an injury. It’s the message your muscles receive from your nervous system that governs whether they relax or not.
The notion that the deeper the pressure the more therapeutic the treatment really undermines the effectiveness of modalities such as Swedish massage. Unfortunately Swedish and deep tissue massage are usually presented alongside one another, with Swedish firmly in the “more superficial” class. Swedish massage can be firm. The strokes can penetrate to the deeper muscles. It does not require excessive force to do this. In fact, excessive force is not therapeutic and could leave you bruised or injured.
I should state that deep tissue massage in itself can be a highly effective treatment. The notion being called into question here is that the greater the pressure the greater the benefit. Don’t be disappointed if the pressure given wasn’t as firm as you’ve had in the past, or worse, because you aren’t sore when you leave the room. It doesn’t necessarily imply that there has been no progress, or that your tissues won’t respond. This is only likely to be the case if you’ve spent the last 60 minutes silently fuming that the treatment clearly isn’t getting anywhere. You need to mentally relax too to let your nervous system get the message. We want your brain to initiate a relaxation response.
I would like to say to anyone seeking massage that it doesn’t always need to be painful to be effective. The takeaway is that the therapeutic effect of the massage will be more profound if you are able to relax body and mind. We need to soothe the nervous system so that those “be tight” messages to your muscles can switch off.