How to Stretch Your Back (While Doing a Massage)

One of the great things about relaxation massage is that you can go on automatic pilot. And when you’re on automatic pilot, you can still do a good job even though you’re thinking about other things. Not so long ago, I discovered another benefit when I’m on automatic pilot: I can work on my posture.

My Terms Didn’t Work 

For the first decade and a half of my massage career, I did massage on my terms. I used my upper body to deliver deep pressure and stuck my elbow anywhere I felt like it. But eventually, “my terms” caught up with me, and, well, kicked my butt.

Massage will hurt you until you decide to figure out why. Click To Tweet

As my body started to falter, I was forced to pay attention to how I was actually executing the massage. Over time I figured out massage strategies and techniques that didn’t aggravate the persistent conditions I had, like cervical radiculopathy.

These strategies and techniques often involved establishing a neutral back (neither flexed or extended). When I was implementing these techniques, I’d notice that I was sometimes struggling to maintain good posture. That’s when I started to experiment with ways to re-establish a neutral back while doing a massage.

Here are my 3 favorite improve-your-posture moves:

Back Stretch/Reset When Working the Occiput

One time a client wanted a ridiculous amount of pressure in his occiput. He was a big person and my thumbs weren’t cutting it. I was in the early stages of experimenting with leaning and had my table low. I decided to lean into his occiput with my knuckles (middle knuckle transmitting the most pressure).

It was a huge success. It saved my thumbs, and I could generate more pressure. Here’s what it looks like:

It works with a T-bar, too.

With a lot of deep pressure techniques I have two hands on the client, but with this move I couldn’t have two hands on the client. What was I going to do with the other hand? Stretch, of course!

Okay, so it’s a little dramatic. But I love this move because it’s a good stretch and a good reminder to stand tall when I can. Also, it feels like I’m getting away with something—like being paid to do yoga (a bastardized version of yoga) during a massage.

If I switch my leg position so that the forward leg is the same side as the hand that is pressing into the occiput, I can generate even more pressure. I do this by leaning back over the table and into the client’s occiput. I simply regulate my pressure by shifting my weight between the heels and balls of my feet.

Below is a picture of the back stretch from this position:

Low-In-The-Saddle Reset

There’s a challenge with setting a low table when working a specific area. It can be too low for other areas, like the neck. But there’s an easy solution—bend your legs instead of bending from the back.

Often times I will find myself in a stance where my feet are roughly parallel to each other and my knees are bent. I call this stance Low-In-The-Saddle. (High-In-The-Saddle is when my knees are locked).

In this picture I’m working the cervical erectors with double thumbs. My pressure is coming from my lean into the client’s cervical erectors. When I lean, my weight shifts to the balls of my feet and one or both legs lean into the table. The combination of being in a balanced stance and leaning into the table/client allows me to be in a well-supported position. In this well-supported position it’s easy to reset and maintain a neutral back.

Back Reset Breath and Lift

As I get absorbed in my work or get tired, I sometimes find myself bending from my back. When I feel my back flexing, I hit this reset move: I breathe in while lifting my rib cage up. Next I slightly suck in my stomach until I feel there is no rounding in my lower back, and then I relax my stomach.

Starting to slouch.

Raise rib cage.

Relax your back.

This move feels good and can be done in most any stance.

It’s About You Too

Twenty-five years ago, if you had said that I would be working on my posture while doing massage, I would have laughed out loud. For one, I thought I was indestructible and, two, I thought massage was all about the client.

What I didn’t know was that the massage was actually about me, too. If I’m hurt, I can’t do massage. And if I’m in pain, I don’t want to do massage.

When I was forced to face the bad habits that were contributing to my massage career demise, I discovered that I could save my body by minding my massage posture.  In addition, when my massage posture improved, the easier it became to do my work.

Here are three quick ways you can work on your posture during a massage:

  1. While leaning into the occiput with your knuckles or a massage tool, raise the other hand up and stretch.
  2. Step into a Low-In-The-Saddle stance, lean into the table/client, and then reset your back to neutral.
  3. When you feel that your posture is slipping, breath in, lift your rib cage up and on the exhalation allow your back to relax.

If you take of yourself, you can take care of your clients for a long time.

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