Deep Tissue – What it IS and what it ISN’T

Have you ever heard the expression “it hurts so good”? The expression alludes that sometimes opposite things can be true. For example, we use that expression when we do a really hard workout. Our muscles are sore, but we feel good about what we accomplished. I’ve also heard it come from clients on my massage table. Although I understand where they are coming from, I feel the need to clarify the difference between pressure and pain and debunk some of the biggest myths that surround deep tissue work.

Here are the 5 biggest misconceptions when it comes to deep tissue massage:

  1. No Pain No Gain

False! The biggest – and the most irksome myth – is that deep tissue massage needs to hurt to be working! Any massage is far more beneficial if the client is able to relax, and deep tissue is no exception. Although I will grant that sometimes in any massage there may be a moment of discomfort, that is the exception, not the rule.

True deep tissue takes time, which is why in DT massages the massage therapist often focuses only on one or two areas in a session. You start with techniques that warm up the facia (connective tissue that tends to build up around muscles and organs) before you move on to the muscles and you have to get one muscle relaxed enough to get to the deeper musclet.  Although deep tissue does use more pressure than other massages, the therapist should not heavily push past the body’s resistance and should not cause bruising!

  1. Any therapist can perform deep tissue massages

Super false! If you want a deep tissue massage, you should only go to a massage therapist who has been trained in deep tissue work. There are techniques and guidelines to performing a safe and effective deep tissue massage. Untrained massage therapists can cause damage if they are not trained in those methods.

I also feel that deep tissue massage requires the most input from the client. PLEASE feel free to speak up while receiving one. Working together will produce the best results and an educated client is a satisfied client.

When I do deep tissue on a new client, I take the time to explain what facia is and what it does (a topic for another blog). I also explain the ideal working scale. This scale measures pressure versus comfort. I explain that on a scale from 1 to 10 when I am doing the deep work, they want to feel it at a 5-7, whatever that means for them. Below a five and I’m not in deep enough. Over a 7 and I’m forcing it. Hitting an 8 means they go beyond reasonable discomfort to tensing up or not breathing deeply. COMMUNICATION IS KEY IN DEEP TISSUE MASSAGE! I also demonstrate the difference they will feel if I am sinking my pressure with the body and if I am forcing it. They are usually amazed to feel and understand the difference.

  1. Deep pressure gives you the most benefit out of any of the massage techniques

Deep tissue massage has a lot of great benefits, including rehabilitating muscles, breaking up knots and scar tissue, recovering from workouts, relieving chronic pain, and so on. However, it is not the only effective form of massage. I’ve had clients tell me they really want a relaxing Swedish-type massage but feel that since they have knots or chronic pain in certain areas that deep tissue is their only choice.

This is false! The bottom line is the body heals when it’s at rest, when it’s in a parasympathetic state. All types of massages have some benefit. What makes deep tissue stand out is it’s focus on releasing lactic acid buildup from the muscles and getting to the problem muscles that are deep. Other massages do this on perhaps a smaller level, but they still help. And the benefit of a relaxing massage goes far beyond getting rid of the kinks.

What I suggest to many of my clients is to alternate deep tissue with other types of massages, so they receive the maximum benefit.

  1. Deep tissue massage is not relaxing

After advocating for more relaxing types of massage, I do want to point out that deep tissue massages can be very relaxing! Although I often refer to deep tissue as one of the massages that I refer to as a “working” massage (right up there with sport medicine massages) it doesn’t mean they aren’t relaxing. There were many times as a student we would hear loud snoring during our deep tissue class. I was included in that! During a proper deep tissue massage, it is possible to be very relaxed.

However, sometimes the massage therapist also needs the client to participate by taking deep breaths or turning to different sides so the therapist can get to the intended muscle, and even by the massage therapist moving joints to test mobility. This may keep the client from completely falling asleep but can still be very relaxing.   

  1. One massage is all you need to feel better

Bottom line, it took time for your body to get in the state it is in and it will take time to get it back to homeostasis. Even acute conditions take time to recover from. Although you may feel great after one session, it is not going to solve all the issues. One reason is because of our habits. Daily routines, posture issues, overuse and over tired muscles all contribute to muscle fatigue, knots, and soreness. While deep tissue may address a particularly troublesome area, it’s not likely to be “fixed” in one session. Our bodies are amazing! Our facia (again, I can’t wait to write about that!) is there to protect our muscles and organs and is very obedient, even to our disadvantage.

An occasional massage is great for self-care but making massages a part of your overall health routine will have both benefits you can see and many you cannot. You’ll not only be doing your muscles a favor but supporting all the systems of your body: including those that support immunity, hormonal balance, brain and heart health. It’s one simple (and oh so nice) way to support your overall wellness.

Now that we’ve refined the definition of a deep tissue massage, why not try one out! If you are in the San Diego area you can book with me through this link.

You can also visit my website here for descriptions and prices of the types of massages I offer.

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