What methods are there are to perform a massage? This isn’t really a ‘how-to’ guide: by far the best way to learn massage is by watching somebody else do it, and having them teach you in person.
A little experimentation can be no bad thing, but attempting to teach yourself massage can be confusing and potentially even dangerous. I’ve tried to indicate which strokes could cause damage if performed incorrectly.
Above all: if it hurts, stop! Massage isn’t about contorting your body in unnatural ways, and if you’re hurting somebody you’re probably doing something wrong. With that, on to the strokes.
Effleurage is the most common stroke used in massage. It is a gentle sliding of the hands over the skin. For the most part, effleurage strokes are pointed towards the heart.
Commonly, effleurage is used at the beginning of a session, to enable the therapist to get a sense of the customer’s body: its sensitivity, the placement of the muscles, and so on. It is also used at the end of treatment as a gentle ‘wind-down’, and as a filler to move between different strokes. Simple as it is, effleurage increases blood flow to the skin and to some muscles.
Variants on the basic pattern of effleurage include:
- Shingles. Otherwise known as ‘alternating hand massage’. This uses the gliding of both hands to massage an area of skin, one hand in front of the other
- Bilateral effleurage. This is a back-rub technique, in which one hand is placed on either side of the back, and both are used for effleurage.
Tapotement is a massage by hitting. It’s a general term, covering a number of more specific techniques many of which are described in more detail elsewhere in this text. Tapotement is used particularly heavily in warm-up massage for athletic events, but is generally an important part of Swedish massage. It may draw some of its effects from the way in which air is compressed against the skin by each blow.
To keep tapotement comfortable, it is important to make sure that the blows are made at equal strengths and intervals. It can be quite tricky to get the level of force right. Making the blows too heavy can be uncomfortable, and hence cause a ‘tensing up’ reaction which isn’t ideal. However, a certain degree of force seems to be beneficial.
Tapotement is best performed on areas of the skin which do not have bones or particularly sensitive spots just underneath. Which areas of the body this includes will depend on the person being massaged if you are skinny and bony, you may benefit less from tapotement.
Hacking isn’t a very descriptive term for this technique put away those images of woodsmen with axes! Hacking is a form of very light, rapid tapotement, in which you hit somebody with the fingers of each hand alternately. The force comes from the wrist rather than from the arm not least as a protection against accidentally hitting too hard.
Cupping is something like slapping with a cupped palm. If the hand is not kept bent enough, the result will be as unpleasant as if you simply slapped the patient.
Beating lets you use your fists on the patient. Make each hand into a fist and gently beat on the patient’s skin with the bottom of each fist alternately. As with other tapotement, the trick is to avoid getting over-enthusiastic and hurting the patient.
It may help not to concentrate fully on making contact with the patient. Instead, imagine that you are tugging on ropes or ringing a bell, and think of the impact of your fists on the patient’s skin almost as a side-effect.
Pummeling is a ‘punching’ type of action, done rhythmically and evenly with both hands. Since it can feel more intensive than most massage strokes, it is generally only performed on areas with a good covering of flesh.
For the same reason, pummeling isn’t usually performed on easily-harmed patients such as children and pregnant women. It is supposedly good for breaking down fatty deposits under the skin.
Petrissage techniques consist of short, circular strokes that pick up and squeeze the muscles. This improves blood flow to the muscles, and can also help the muscles to eliminate their waste products.
Plucking involves gently lifting a spot of skin, and then letting it slowly slide back through the fingers. Think of your hand as being like the beak of a bird, opening and closing.
Raking is a way of massaging the back and sides by following the contours of the ribcage
Shiatsu massage places great emphasis on the use of the fingertips. The counterpart to this within Swedish massage is the ‘nerve stroke’, gently running the fingertips across an area of skin.
This stroke gets its name because an area of skin is bent into the shape of the letter C. You place your two thumbs next to each other on a patch of skin, and grasp the skin with your fingers. Then you push the thumbs gently into the skin, and pull back with the fingers. The result is that the skin gets distorted into a ‘C’ shape.
Another stroke named because it makes a shape like a letter. With all these letters, there’s a whole world of massage poetry waiting to be explored! Anyway, this stroke is made with the knuckles of a clenched fist, pressing quite deeply into the skin and moving in a J shape.
Friction is one of the strokes aimed at the muscles, and so the practitioner should ignore the skin itself as much as possible. As well as the usual benefits of increased circulation, friction strokes can break up knots of muscle. Variants of friction can use different parts of the hand, and they are mostly performed quite quickly. Friction can be performed:
With the palm
With the knuckles
With the fingertips
With the thumbs