I Broke a Massage Rule—And I Liked It!

Rules are important. They form the foundation on which society is built. However, some rules are bad and need to be broken. In relaxation massage we have a doozy. It is: in order for a stroke to be relaxing, it must be continuous (no stopping and starting).

Don’t believe it for a second. And if you’re having shoulder and neck pain, take a look to see if you’re following this rule. It could be making things worse.

Following the Rule

I was taught that an uninterrupted stroke (e.g., gliding from the upper back to the lower back without stopping) is super relaxing to the client. I was completely convinced when it was my turn to be on the table. Continuous strokes felt incredibly relaxing! And that’s how I did my relaxation massage for about 15 years.

Pain Made Me Stop

But then I noticed that my chronic shoulder condition would become aggravated when I stood at the head of the table and glided with both hands to the base of the sacrum. Even though I knew this move hurt me, I continued to do it for a couple more years. Rules are hard to break once they’re ingrained.

Eventually though, as the frequency of pain episodes increased, I stopped doing the move and my shoulder stopped acting up. Hooray!

Back to Following the Rule Again

But right after my shoulder pain went away, I went back to following the rule using a new continuous stroke. Instead of standing at the head of the table, I now picked a side and did a continuous stroke (upper back to sacrum) using knuckles and a fist braced together.

Unfortunately, my other shoulder started to bother me—especially when doing that stroke with deep pressure.

An Evil Plan Evolves

I noticed that in both cases, the old continuous stroke and the new continuous stroke, shoulder pain occurred when I started to extend my shoulder (when my elbow and shoulder joint were not stacked over top of each other).

In order to not do this, I needed to move my feet. But if I moved my feet during the stroke, I would have to stop my stroke so that I could balance myself as I shifted my weight—and I would break the continuous stroke rule.

Waiting for the Lightning Bolt

Believe me, I cautiously broke this rule. I was sure that clients were going to walk. But to my surprise, no one did. This encouraged me. So I started to experiment with pausing during a back stroke as many times as I needed (sometimes 5 or 6 times) to stay in good form.

Again, I didn’t lose a client—and my shoulders felt great because now I could move my feet so that I could get in the best position to deliver pressure while gliding.

I tested the pause stroke out on MTs and got the same reaction. Both the continuous and the pause stroke were relaxing.

What Gives?

So if it wasn’t the continuous movement of a stroke that made the client relax, what did?
I don’t know for sure, but my guess is that it has to do with pressure. If the pressure is the same during the glide phase as it is during the non-glide (pause) phase, then the person on the table is probably less likely to notice or care that I’m pausing.

Additionally, pressure seems to trump stroke in this way: a client is more likely to put up with most any stroke if the pressure is spot on for relaxation. However, I don’t think the fanciest stroke in the world would ever cancel out pressure that is NOT relaxing to the client.

Pause Stroke Recipe

If you’re experiencing neck and shoulder issues try pausing during a stroke. Here are the steps that I suggest:

  1. Pick a side and choose the tool(s) (fingers, thumbs, knuckles, fists, elbows, forearms) that you are going to use.
  2. Start the glide, then pause when you start to lose your leverage.
  3. Next, maintain the same pressure and move your feet. In this rough-cut video I demonstrate moving with pressure.
  4. Start gliding again until you start losing your leverage.
  5. Rinse and repeat.

Think of You

We are givers. But ultimately for givers it eventually comes down to: what’s best for your client is what’s best for your body.

Pausing during a stroke saved my shoulders especially when doing a deep-pressure, relaxation stroke. It may feel odd at first, but it’s worth trying even if you don’t have neck and shoulder issues. If you get stuck, let me know. Post here or on Facebook, or email me at mark@makethemostofmassage.com.

I promise you that you can still do a great job—but now you don’t have to be in pain!

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