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More often than not, when new clients come in for massage, one of their questions is, “I like deep tissue massage. Do you do deep tissue? I mean, can you go really deep?”

And every time I get asked that question, I ask the client this one, “Do you mean you like deep tissue or do you like deep pressure?” This usually results in a confused look as my answer. 

Most people think that deep tissue has to hurt and that it involves leaving you (and me) achy after the massage…you know, that whole “no pain, no gain” mentality…I’m going to say this in the most sweetest, most gentlest way possible: Those people are wrong. 

If I slam into your muscles with all the strength that I can muster from the start of the massage, all I’m pretty much doing is working unnecessarily hard for very little pay off. Without taking time to warm up the tissues, there is an increased chance of muscle guarding…and since massage is all about working with the muscles, muscle guarding is definitely not a part of the session goals. Trying to force past the protective guarding of the muscles will only result in injury. I’m pretty sure more pain isn’t what you had in mind when coming in for your massage, am I right? Right on!

So now that you know what deep tissue massage is not, let’s take a look at the difference between deep pressure and deep tissue. 

What is deep pressure?

Pressure is the amount of “push” or “force” massage therapists exert on the muscles. The thing about pressure is that it is very subjective, for both the client and the therapist. If you’ve ever had a massage from me, you may have noticed there is one question I always ask, “How is the pressure so far?” This question comes after I’ve warmed up the muscles and have increased to a pressure where I feel your muscles responding in a good way. The amount of pressure a client can take or likes can also vary by body part. Some people like deeper pressure on their quads (translation: quadriceps, the muscle group on the anterior thigh) while others’ quads are more sensitive. Sometimes deeper pressure is needed to access the deeper layers of muscles, but the amount of pressure tolerated varies by each person. There isn’t a standard perfect pressure – a light pressure can be just as beneficial as a deeper pressure depending on the person and his goals for that session. During the massage, clients are always encouraged to tell their therapists if the pressure needs to be adjusted. There are many times where people have come in and said, “I got a massage once, but I didn’t like it because it felt like s/he was just petting me” or “I didn’t like it because it hurt and I was sore for two days”. Trust me, us massage therapists want you to enjoy the massage, so we really (really!) appreciate when clients give us feedback that helps us make the massage more enjoyable for them.

What is deep tissue?

Deep tissue massage is exactly what it sounds like: working deeper into the tissues. It is usually performed with a focus of realigning the muscles, releasing adhesions or trigger points in order to bring balance to both sides of the body to help it function more efficiently.  The term “deep tissue massage” doesn’t actually relate to the amount of pressure used during the massage, but rather techniques used to manipulate the deeper layers of tissues (muscle and fascia) in the body. There are different techniques and modalities used to affect the deeper tissues and they can range from vigorous to very gentle. There are times where deep tissue can be uncomfortable or even painful, but it should never be unbearable. And there are times where the technique is so gentle, the client may not feel the unwinding of the fascia or muscle, until they get off the table and are able to move much better. 

In truth, people like massage therapy because they know that massage makes them feel good. What they don’t realize is that working with the beautiful and complex system known as the human body makes our job a unique blend of science, art, lateral thinking and intuition. 

And now that you understand the difference between deep pressure and deep tissue, next time we can delve a little bit into the science about how and why the body responds to different massage techniques, particularly deep tissue.

Yes, my friends, this does give me the opportunity to get my geek on, but I promise it won’t be scary!

Massage is the study of anatomy in braille.

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