Sometimes it’s an early, fundamental principle so simple, it becomes invisible—taken for granted—as a massage therapist’s career evolves. Other times, it’s a new technique that busy professionals simply haven’t had time to learn and practice. Most often, it’s the static rut massage therapists find themselves in after years of repeating “what works.”
Whatever the cause, the tendency to overlook or underuse certain massage techniques is an unfortunate but common professional pitfall. It becomes more unfortunate when considering many of them are extremely simple, efficient and effective.
Breaking free of this technique trap requires a conscious evaluation of subconscious habits, a willingness to learn (or relearn) underutilized tools, and a commitment to stepping out of one’s comfort zone—if only for moments at a time. Here, three massage therapists share their thoughts on which forgotten techniques deserve a renaissance.
No. 1: Rocking
What: Subtle, rhythmic, back-and-forth movement applied concurrently with traditional massage strokes to increase efficacy. Unlike linear massage, which applies pressure directly to isolated spots, rocking distributes pressure over a larger area.
Overlooked because: In a discipline that disproportionately favors the upper body, rocking operates via the hips and knees. “We have a blind spot to our own lower bodies,” says David Lobenstine, LMT, owner of Full Breath Massage in New York City. “It starts in school and those first years of practice, when you’re so microscopically focused on where your hands are contacting the client’s body.”
Years go by, and without even realizing it, massage therapists remain stuck where they started. Lobenstine, who also provides continuing education through his business Body Brain Breath, finds it ironic. “Integrating our clients’ whole bodies is a core mission of massage,” he says. “But we’re not integrated into our own whole bodies.”
Due to its gentle, low-impact application, rocking also is often mistaken as a “soft” technique. “I think many massage therapists feel like they need to work physically hard in order to do a good job,” says Lobenstine. “We use our elbows and thumbs to barrel down into the client’s body, almost trying to force it into submission.”
Bring it back because: Approaching the body with such consistent pressure can backfire. “The massage therapist and client get into this tug of war where the therapist is pushing more and more, and the client is resisting, and their muscles are actually tightening more,” says Lobenstine.
Rocking, on the other hand, convinces muscles to relax. “I notice I can sink really deeply into areas that normally would be too painful or intense,” he says. “With that subtle back and forth movement I am showing the client’s nervous system that my movements are safe.”
Rocking also makes a massage therapist’s work easier. “That’s one of the reasons therapists burn out so fast and injure themselves, because they try to do everything just with their hands, arms and shoulders,” says Lobenstine. “In rocking, your hips are the driver of it all; your hands are just the conduit.”
No. 2: Slowed tempos
What: Slow-to-no movement of a massage therapist’s fingers, hands and arms throughout a massage.
Overlooked because: For the same reason most massage therapists adopt an aggressive application of hands and pressure, they tend to be similarly aggressive with the speed at which they apply it. “The assumption is that within the timeframe of a single session, clients want as much of the body covered as possible, as intensely as possible,” says Lobenstine. “We as massage therapists equate that with speed and pressure.”
Bring it back because: As it turns out, much of massage’s real magic occurs under the work of the slowest, softest hands. “The word I like to keep in mind as I’m working is ‘melt,’” says Ian Harvey, LMT. “If you want something to melt, you don’t apply a ton of speed or friction; you don’t attack it. You apply your touch softly and slowly, and you wait patiently.”
Harvey, who offers online education focused on helping massage therapists slow down, likes to apply soft touch to muscles—and then hold.
“You’ll find that the tissue changes under your hands,” he says. “The muscle’s tone is reducing, so it’s becoming more slack, and we’re increasing blood supply locally, so there’s some vasodilation.”
As the muscle changes texture underhand, the massage therapist may exert a slight increase in pressure before slowly passing to the next muscle. This approach is especially critical when working on clients with scar tissue, bruising or any sort of past physical trauma, whether from surgery, injury or assault. In her work with injured, ill or traumatized clients, Sheila Mae, LMT, often incorporates brief breaks throughout her sessions. “Give them a chance to breathe and compose themselves before moving on,” she says.
“Think of allowing change rather than trying to cause change,” continues Harvey. “And to do that we need to slow way, way down.”
No. 3: Intra-oral work
What: Slow, methodic, gentle massage applied to the muscles inside the mouth, specifically the masseter and pterygoid, typically in conjunction with external head and neck massage. Intra-oral massage is most applicable in the treatment of TMJ dysfunction and pain.
Overlooked because: Intra-oral work represents one of massage therapy’s only internal applications. It carries with it, therefore, a certain degree of hesitation among clients and massage therapists alike. In the early years of her
career, Mae was excited to practice the intra-oral techniques she learned in school. After encountering repeated resistance from clients, however, she was forced to set it aside. “I think there’s a stigma that it’s a little invasive or weird,” she says.
That resistance, in turn, can dampen a massage therapist’s confidence. “Part of it was my not having the correct verbiage to explain what it is or why it can help,” says Mae, who practices both independently and with Massage Envy in Charleston. “And if you come off as nervous about something—especially something invasive like intra-oral work—no client is going to be open to it.”
Intra-oral massage is also awkward and messy, stimulating excessive salivation and periodic discomfort. “You have to be prepared with a towel or handkerchief and take brief, periodic breaks.”
Bring it back because: Intra-oral work, when done within scope of practice, can be an effective technique to address TMJ issues, one of the upper body’s most debilitating and underestimated roots of pain, tension and misalignment. “People don’t realize how many muscles there are in the head and how many things they affect, from toothaches to headaches to jaw and neck aches,” Mae says. “It is some of the most profound work I’ve done as a massage therapist. Some people cry from the relief.”
Having abandoned the technique for years after her initial negative experiences, it was a client’s chronic headaches that prompted Mae to try again. “I had been working externally on her, which would provide some relief but only for a few days,” she says. “Finally I said, ‘Listen, are you willing to try some intra-oral work?’ She’s been almost headache-free for months now.”
No. 4: Tapotement
What: Rapid, repeated striking of the hands to the body as a massage technique.
Overlooked because: Perhaps the result of its loose depiction on television, in movies and across popular culture, tapotement has a reputation for being a bit hokey. “It’s something we associate our friends or kids doing on us for fun, as opposed to a serious technique,” says Mae.
Due to its percussive, “striking” method, some therapists and clients also assume tapotement to be rough or painful. And even therapists willing to set aside these misconceptions may find themselves ill-prepared to practice it. “Tapotement as a whole is sort of glossed over in school,” Mae says.
Bring it back because: Tapotement is excellent at stimulating blood flow and softening muscle tissue, making it an ideal warm-up for exercise, sporting events and massage sessions in general.
Mae came to appreciate the benefits of tapotement outside of her work while caring for a loved one with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). “It is incredibly effective in breaking up built-up mucus in the lungs,” she says.
“Cupping” is the specific technique used in respiratory applications. One of five sub-categories beneath the tapotement umbrella, it involves tapping the area around the rib cage with the sides of cupped hands. “You start slow, and if you’ve been doing this for a while, you can feel where the mucus is built up and when it begins to break up,” says Mae. “Begin to increase tempo when that happens.”
Cupping to relieve respiratory build-up is a messy proposition—another reason therapists and clients might be hesitant to try it. But with confidence and preparation, a therapist will quickly convert wary clients. “I have clients sit up for this part of the session,” she says. “The relief they feel is instant and intense—they can breathe.”