What Does A Massage Feel Like?

woman being massaged
Massage should be enjoyable. If you don't like what's happening, speak up!. People Images/Getty Images

What does a massage feel like? That all depends on the kind of massage you ask for -- and how well you can communicate with your massage therapist. It's important to have a little bit of knowledge about both of those aspects of massage so that you enjoy the experience. Ultimately, you are the one who has control over how much pressure the therapist delivers.

Swedish massage is a basic massage that is perfect for beginners or people who are concerned a massage will hurt. One of the primary goals of a Swedish massage is to relax the body, but it also oxygenates the blood, helps the lymph system remove toxins, improves circulation and increases muscle range and flexibility. If you have tighter areas where you want more focused attention, you can certainly ask for this in the context of a Swedish massage.  

Watch Now: What Happens During a Swedish Massage?

Deep tissue massage is similar to Swedish, but you can expect stronger pressure and a greater focus on releasing chronically tight muscles. The therapist might employ techniques like trigger point therapy that can feel uncomfortable, but you are always in control of the amount of pressure and can let the therapist know if it is too much. Sometimes even moderate pressure on very tight muscles can generate pain, so it truly is important to communicate with your therapist.

Start With Swedish

It is usually better to get familiar with massage (and the therapist) by starting with a Swedish massage. As your body starts to get used to touch, and relax, you might feel motivated to try deeper pressure and different modalities of massage, including sports, hot stone and trigger point therapy. Though they overlap, they all have their own techniques and specialities and the more you try, the more you learn what you like.

The second factor that affects how massage feels is the therapist.  Every massage therapist has their own style. A Swedish massage can be a slow, soothing massage with light pressure to a vigorous or a faster-moving treatment with firm pressure -- depending on the therapist. Again, you can ask the to adjust the pressure -- more or less.  With deep tissue, some therapists are very strong and use firm pressure throughout the massage. Others warm the tissue up and then apply pressure in a slow and focused way, coaxing the muscles to release.

No matter what kind of massage you get, or who the massage therapist is, the massage should feel good! A massage should never hurt. Even a deep tissue massage should feel good and be deeply relaxing. If a massage feels painful, it is probably more pressure than you can take. Listen to your body. Feel free to state your preference for pressure before and during the massage. Unless they are exceptionally gifted at reading a body, the massage therapist won't know if it's too much unless you tell them.

What Happens During a Massage

To put yourself at east during your first massage, it helps to know what happens. Generally you start face down, your face in a cradle so you don't have to strain your neck. You are usually naked underneath a towel or sheet, but the therapist only works on the part of the body that is uncovered. You are also free to wear underwear or anything else that makes you comfortable.

The therapist should non-verbally "cue" you that the massage is about to begin, and the first touch should be gentle, not a surprise. Their hands should be warm. They use massage oil so that their hands glide smoothly over your bare skin.

Massage therapists use a combination of classic Swedish massage strokes to work the muscle tissue:

  • smooth, gliding strokes, called "effleurage," warm up the muscle tissue. It can be done slowly or quickly, depending on the therapist. In general, a slower pace is more relaxing and quicker is more invigorating.
  • kneading the muscle tissue by lifting and pulling the fleshy muscle away from the skeletal structure. This is called "petrissage." This starts to work the tissue a bit more deeply
  • cross-fiber friction is when the therapist targets a particular trouble spot (called an "adhesion") to separate the tissues, restore circulation and make the muscle softer and more pliable. They might use their thumb or fingers...or sometimes even an elbow (the most intense). Cross-fiber friction might feel uncomfortable or good, depending on how much pressure the therapist uses and how you interpret the sensation.

Some therapists also use passive stretching, such as moving your arm over your head to mobilize the joint. The stereotypical "karate chop" move from the movies, where the therapist quickly "chops" your muscles with the side of their hands, is not very common anymore.

The best way to figure out what a massage feels like, and what style you like, is to try different therapists. And go back to the ones you like. That way you enjoy the long-term health benefits of massage.