Relaxation Massage and Deep Tissue: What’s the difference?

“What’s the difference between Swedish/Relaxation Massage and Deep Tissue Massage?” This is a very frequently asked question. The short answer: Each massage therapist has a different way of doing and explaining deep tissue massage.

My answer:

The “Deep Tissue” part has always confused me. When I first became a massage therapist deep tissue was all about the pressure. Dig in until it hurts and she’s squealing for me to stop. And then dig a little deeper. I never really liked that approach to pain relief. I also hadn’t taken very many continuing education classes or talked to experienced therapists to get the real story about deep tissue. This type of “push as hard as you can” massage was very painful to my hands. I was also not very good at it. After a while I just told people “I don’t do deep tissue. I take a more gentle approach.” This didn’t really do much for me, either, since people in pain don’t really understand a gentle approach, either.

And then I figured it out. For me.

In my massage practice deep tissue doesn’t necessarily mean deep pressure. If you schedule a deep tissue massage for 60 minutes and your focus area is your neck/shoulders it’s possible to get the full hour of work on your upper body. You can also get focused deep tissue work on your shoulders and neck combined with relaxation massage on the rest of your body. This is totally the best way to go. Relaxation is very important to prepare the muscles to be vigorously worked.

I always begin and end with relaxation massage. 

Neck massage
Neck massage

Your muscles are tight and in pain. You want relief. If I were to dig my elbow into your upper traps in the first 5 minutes your muscles would knot up and spasm, it wouldn’t feel good and you’d probably fire me! Instead I start with long slow strokes. I introduce myself to your muscle tissues. I prepare them. They are tense and fully engaged. They need to be coaxed into relaxing a bit before I can get deeper. Hot compresses applied to the muscles help loosen their grip on your bones and allow my hands to massage more fluidly with less pain. Will there be moments of discomfort? Maybe if I release a trigger point. Will I dig in as hard as I can go? Sometimes. Sometimes not. I will move your arms to shorten/lengthen muscle groups. I will use different techniques to release muscle knots and spasms. (Trigger point release, Neuromuscular Technique, Myofascial Release, Positional Release, Stretching and others.)

My goal is to administer the deep tissue techniques in a way that your body reacts as though I am using relaxation. I don’t want your muscles fighting back. I don’t want you holding your breath with your fists balled up. That is not helpful to your muscles or your mind. You should feel relaxed AND well-worked. You shouldn’t leave a massage in more pain than when you arrived. If you do then we need to talk about it so we can make changes to your treatment.

So which massage would you like to try? Swedish/Relaxation or Deep Tissue?

14 Replies to “Relaxation Massage and Deep Tissue: What’s the difference?”

  1. Excellent way of thinking. Personally I ease into deep tissue and educate my clients that deep tissue work doesn’t need to be painful. It is a matter of massaging the deeper muscles but you don’t have to dig in to get that.

    1. Even though I explain that the massage doesn’t have to hurt I still encounter a few people who think if the massage doesn’t hurt it doesn’t work. I try my best, though!

  2. The massage that you describe sounds lovely, I think the important aspect is being able to tailor the treatment to suit the client. And relaxation such a key aspect of healing aches and pains.

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