Painless deep tissue massage. Some people think it's an oxymoron. Many clients and therapists alike believe that in order for a massage to be therapeutic is has to be painful, that harder means deeper and better and more effective. They believe that the only way to affect deeper muscle tissue is to use a lot of pressure. I once thought this myself.

I am here to deliver some good news: massage does not have to be hard and painful to be effective and one does not have to inflict pain on the client in order to effect the deeper muscle tissues. In fact, the opposite is true. Too hard of pressure creates resistance in the body and pain only causes a stress response. I thank my Russian Massage teacher Zhenya Kurashova Wine for teaching me how to work effectively without causing discomfort to the client and how to do painless deep tissue massage.

I met Zhenya in 1994 and she completely convinced me that this commonly accepted idea of "no pain, no gain," was completely mistaken when it comes to massage therapy. Zhenya had very sound physiological reasons for avoiding causing discomfort to the client. When we cause pain to the body there is a stress response. Even if it is subtle, stress hormones are released, blood vessels constrict, muscles tighten, and the body resists our efforts. The effect is exactly the opposite of what we want to achieve. So how does one affect the deeper muscle tissue if not with hard pressure? Zhenya taught me to work with the body's processes rather than try to impose myself on the body. When I began to follow her instructions, I found that I was able to get better results more quickly without undue stress on my hands or the client's body.

How is it possible to affect the deeper muscle tissues without pressing hard into the body? When one understands exactly how the strokes affect the physiological processes of the body, this is quite easy. Two strokes in particular become very useful. One is friction, the rubbing stroke. Some of my clients have called this the "scrubbing" stroke because the motion reminds them of scrubbing a floor. One said she felt like I was scrubbing the "ickyness" out of her body, which I thought was very cute. Friction creates warmth in the muscle tissue and helps the muscle to relax. As the more superficial fibers of the muscle relax and soften, one can "reach" the deeper layers of the muscle with much less pressure. We cannot force the muscles to relax by imposing ourselves on them with great pressure, we can only coax them to relax with strokes that allow them to relax naturally. When the tissue is soft, we can press into it more easily and the body gives up its tension naturally.

Another very useful stroke for affecting the deeper muscle tissue is vibration. You can experience this for yourself. Sit on a chair with your feet flat on the floor, your bottom near the edge of the chair, and your thighs relaxed. Grasp your thigh with your hand and shake it. Notice how your shaking goes all the way through your thigh? That vibration travels all the way to the bone and you cannot get any deeper than that. Is this movement uncomfortable? Is it hard? No, it feels very gentle. Yet its effect is as deep as one can get. I use this to illustrate that "deep" does not mean "hard." If I pushed too hard into your muscle, your muscle would tighten up to resist. But with this gentle shaking motion, I can move even the deepest muscles. Well, vibration is actually a very relaxing stroke, one that calms the central nervous system and the muscle both. So, by using vibration, it is possible to relax very deep tissues, even ones that are too sore to touch very much or ones that are too deep to access easily. Amazing!

When I ask my clients how their experience of my Russia Massage techniques are different from other massage they've had, one of the most common comments I hear is, "You can work deep on me without hurting me." This, in my opinion, is a good thing to hear. Is it still effective? My clients tell me that it is.

Some people become accustomed to the sensation of pain and will miss it at first. I have to remind them that we cannot force the muscles to relax and that pain will create a stress response. This makes sense to them. When they find this approach helpful and they do not have to suffer from soreness the next day, they lose their attachment to painful massage. Soon they are letting me know when I am inadvertently working too hard.

Remember, painless deep tissue massage is not only more comfortable for you, the client, but it will also be more effective and easier on your body.

Author's Bio: 

Alice Sanvito is a full-time licensed professional massage therapist practicing in St. Louis, MO, since 1991. Trained in both the U.S. and Europe, her focus has been on evidence-based modalities for pain relief and improved performance. Follow Massage St. Louis on Facebook or check out the website at