What is she doing to me? Many times I have clients that really, really try to figure out what I’m doing: Is that an elbow? Why is she moving so slowly? That feels GOOD but what is she doing? So I’m writing up a little series about massage technique to help you understand my magic. HINT: This is a GREAT time to ask me questions. I’m really very happy to answer any question as honestly as I can. Yes, I get strange questions because massage is a strange business. Don’t fret; I will protect the identity of the innocent.

I’m starting off Part One of the series by discussing what you’re feeling when I’m massaging you. Later in the series I’ll entertain you with some history, and go into more detail about the styles of massage, but today we are going to do a tutorial on massage strokes. As usual, I could write forever, but I’m keeping these brief. This series isn’t intended to be instructional (please don’t do tapotement down the spine of anyone – no matter how much you hate them). Want more information on a particular technique? Just ask. 🙂

The Strokes of Massage

Effleurage – French meaning “to flow or glide.” This is the stroke therapists use to apply lotion or oil to your body. It is light in pressure, helps warm up the muscles before deeper work begins, and soothe muscles after deeper work. It is also used to transition between body parts so you feel connected and grounded.

Petrissage – French meaning “to mash or knead.” This is one of my favorite techniques. You know this one – it’s your favorite too. This is what people do when they walk up to you while you’re groaning at your desk and they rub your shoulders. Kneading, wringing, rolling, squeezing: it’s all a form of petrissage. Just a few benefits of this technique include softening superficial fascia, reducing muscle soreness and stiffness, relaxing and lengthening muscle, and relieving general fatigue.

Tapotement – French meaning “to tap.” Yep, this is it. The movie scene with Helga karate chopping the s%#t out of the protagonist’s back. This technique can be done with the seemingly cliche karate chop style hands, loose fists, cupped palms, finger tips or a combination of any percussion rhythms. For a long time I didn’t use tapotement. On some clients I still don’t. I try to read their temperament, how relaxed they are, if I need to wake them up (yes – we use it to wake you up when you’re snoring, and don’t want to turn over – uh huh, I said it), and most importantly if their body needs it. Recently I’ve started adding it back into the mix. Honestly? It feels GOOD. If you see me regularly and don’t like it – TELL ME. You like it and want more? TELL ME. What else does tapotement do besides make good comedy in the movies and wake you up when you’re drooling? It increases blood circulation, helps tone flaccid muscles, and stimulates nerve endings. So yes, it does have a purpose.

Vibration – Latin term meaning “shaker.”  I use vibration a lot. Sometimes you may not even feel me doing it. I’m using it in those moments when I’m holding your muscle and moving very, very slowly (perhaps you feel I’m not moving at all). This technique reduces trigger point activity, accesses deeper structures, and stimulates muscle spindles. I’ll also use this technique as my silent cue to relax when you’re “helping” me. Many clients will stiffen an arm when I’m getting ready to work on it, so with a quick jostle I can tell the arm to relax so I can work on it. I typically only takes seconds and is very effective.

These are just some of the basic techniques used in Swedish massage. While there is logic and order behind the application of the techniques (you aren’t going to do deep petrissage work until you’ve done some effleurage) each massage I do is different based on what I find in your body on any given day. I dig into my mental tool box and pull out the technique that is going to give you the most relief in the most efficient, pleasurable way possible. So to answer a rather common question: yes, I did go to school for this. I actually graduated with honors (excuse me while I pause to pat my back). Most importantly, I do a LOT of continuing education. I love to learn and am always researching and taking courses. This April I’ll be taking a “hands on” class in relieving neck and back pain, so I expect to have some new moves for y’all.




Definitions and benefits derived from: Salvo, S. Massage Therapy Principles and Practice Third Edition (2007).

Yes, I know this isn’t a proper foot note, but my college days are kinda far behind me and I couldn’t figure out how to do a superscript in WordPress and I wanted the author to have credit, so TA-DA!!!