Science doesn’t know that hands can shriek, but we, massage therapists, do. In fact, it happened to me the other day. Mr. Universe walked into my office looking for a deep pressure massage. AAAHHH!, screamed my hands. (Only dogs could hear it). Then I said, Relax, hands. Remember, we know how to massage a bodybuilder pain-free. Use deep, precise pressure on the tight spots and drop down to firm pressure for the glide.
You Lost it Bro
I know what you’re thinking: Mark, you’ve lost it. You’re talking to your hands AND you’re telling me to work deep on tight spots. That deep, precise pressure is going to kill my hands!
I’ve only half lost it. I do talk to my hands, but the advice I’m giving is not crazy. Let me explain.
How Not to Massage a Bodybuilder
Here’s how Mr. Universe can hurt your body.
As you try to sustain deep pressure throughout the entire massage your body never gets a chance to recover. Your neck, shoulders, arms, back and hands get overworked and bad body mechanics ensue, like reaching too far in a deep pressure glide stroke.
Trying to sustain deep pressure throughout the entire massage is what I believe to be at the core of many MT pain conditions and injuries.
Interestingly, I used to be an advocate of sustained pressure.
Challenging Sustained Pressure
When my wife, Lisa, and I started our hotel massage business I created a training manual for MTs who worked for us.
And guess what I taught them?
Yep, sustained pressure.
Why I Changed
Years later, I changed my mind because of pain issues from using sustained deep pressure on clients like Mr. Universe.
After some experimenting I came up with this formula for working on Mr. Universe: firm pressure for the general massage, but deep pressure for tight spots and areas of requested focus.
It was a success.
My body felt a heck of a lot better and Mr. Universe loved the massage.
He loved the massage even without killer deep pressure everywhere?
My guess is that I scratched the itch. I provided pain relief for his tight spots and areas of concern with deep, precise pressure, and I relaxed him with the firm pressure everywhere else.
This brings us back to the concern of killing your hands doing deep, specific pressure on tight spots.
How to do Deep and Precise Pressure Pain-Free
It won’t happen if you:
(1) put yourself in the best position to lean with your body weight.
That means you have your work in front of and below you. In this position you can generate your pressure through leaning which is ultimately easier on your body than pressing.
(2) combine body parts to make it easier on your fingers.
Think of all the ways you can brace and support fingers. In the picture above, most of the pressure is being directed through my middle finger of my left hand. The other hand is there for support.
(3) use a massage tool.
See how my hands are relaxed? Here’s how you do that: Massage Tools Can Save Your Hands.
This is going to sound as crazy as me talking to my hands, but when you’ve got all three things working right, applying deep/precise pressure to tight spots is actually a rest for your body.
And don’t be surprised if you find yourself actually looking forward to working on tight spots.
Alright, here’s my 3 step version of how to massage a bodybuilder.
Massage a Bodybuilder Step-By-Step
Step #1: Note Mr. Universe’s requested areas of focus.
Let’s say Mr. Universe wants full body, deep pressure with a focus on traps and neck. Traps and neck should be tops on your parts-to-do list.
Step #2: Find the tight spots and pain areas within the requested areas of focus and use deep, precise pressure on them.
Remember that your hands should feel fine when doing deep and precise pressure because you’re going to use good body mechanics, combined body parts and massage tools.
Step #3: Use firm pressure with your glide strokes, but when you find a tight spot go deep.
Here’s a hypothetical. I’m starting on one of Mr. Universe’s requested area of focus, his left trap, and I’m going to glide down to his sacrum.
a. First I find a tender spot in his trap and press with deep, precise pressure until I feel it’s time to move on.
b. Then I lighten my pressure to firm pressure and start my glide.
c. At T1, I find a tight spot, so I pause and ramp my pressure up to deep.
d. I rinse and repeat all the way down the spinal erectors.
This video should help you out with gliding and ramping your pressure up to deep:
How to Massage a Bodybuilder Line Graph
Another way to visualize “deep pressure for tight spots” and “firm pressure for the glide” is to think of a line on a graph.
The tight spots where you apply deep, precise pressure are the dots (the data points) on the graph.
The moving with firm pressure is the in-between (lines connecting the dots).
You start with deep pressure on dot 1 (e.g. upper rhomboid), then glide with firm pressure until you get to dot two (e.g. lower trap).
You apply deep pressure on dot 2, then glide with firm pressure until you discover dot 3 (e.g., a tight spot in T12 erectors) and on and on…
This is the what the entire length of the stroke looks like on paper.
You can see that you’re covering more distance with firm pressure (the lines) than you are with deep pressure (the dots).
That should make your neck, shoulders, elbows, wrists and hands happy.
Hans and Franz Short Version
If you were short on time and read the opening, then skipped down here to the wrap-up, here’s how I massage a bodybuilder in the fewest words possible: Firm on the glide. Deep on the tight spots.
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