Q: “My husband loves massages because he develops a lot of knots from work. But, I’ve always been told I give terrible massages. What’s the secret? How do you give a good massage?” - Kimberly T.
A: I feel your pain, Kimberly. Or rather, I feel your husband’s pain! I’ve had plenty of really bad massages. I have an unstable spine due to some loose connective tissue, so I have a lot of back problems. I’ve had a lot of professional massages and I actually studied what they were doing very closely (and asked questions) so that I could teach others how to work on me.
I would strongly advise you get some professional massages so that you can feel what they are doing. Because of my experience getting massages, I actually became very good at giving them! I hate having to toot my own horn, but let’s just say that the comments I would get from people I massaged were quite extraordinary. Once you know a few secrets, it’s actually really easy.
Now, it should be noted that my instructions here aren’t enough to become a massage therapist (obviously). That’s not the goal. The idea is to be able to give really good, beneficial back and shoulder massages on the occasion that you need to. And if any guys are reading this, trust me, this is a great way to endear yourself to any girls you might be interested in!
Secret #1 – The Massage Zone
Take a look at the diagram above. The red shaded area is your workspace. Memorize this! As long as you stay in this area you will be okay.
The strip between the two areas is the spine (in case any strange alien invertibrate is reading this). You don’t want to spend any time massaging the spine. It’s made of bone so it will do no good, it will be painful for you, and definitely not pleasant for the other person.
The outside boundary of the red area “massage zone” (Not to be confused with the “red light district”. Very different!) follows along the inside of the shoulder blade, then inside the ribs. Technically the ribs go all around the back, but back muscles cover them until you get close to their sides. At this point the back muscles seem to end and you can feel the rib bones.
Again, the ribs and the shoulder blades are bones and thus don’t really need a good massaging. Leave that to the bone masseuses (I wouldn’t google that).
It should also be noted that the top of the “massage zone” does not roll all the way to the collar bone on the other side. It will suit you well to stay away from massaging anything on their front. It’s just not very comfortable and this way you’ll avoid a lot of lawsuits.
And finally, avoid the kidneys if you can. They can be painful to work around and you are better off leaving that to the professionals. I certainly don’t bother with them.
Focus on the borders
The borders of the massage zone are the most likely to get knots. For some reason, knots tend to form next to bone. Right inside the shoulder blade is the most common place. If you have the person place their arm behind their back, you’ll see their shoulder blade pop out. This will make it really easy to get access to those knots.
There are often some small knots along the edges of the spine, and I commonly find some really large knots just inside the ribs in the lower half of the zone.
Secret #2 – Press Hard and Release
What makes a deep-tissue massage feel good? Well, there are 4 parts to this.
- Firm pressure on the knotted areas causes pain, but pressure helps those knots dissolve as the tightened muscle areas relax.
- While the moment of pressure is painful, when you release that pressure the brain releases pleasure chemicals that make you feel really good and tingly. It’s like a drug and it happens every time you release pressure! It’s also relaxing as you feel that muscle area not being as tight as it was.
- Being touched causes a release of oxytocin, which is also pleasurable (and also why cuddling together feels neato).
- Working the muscles with your warm hands causes their muscles to warm up and more blood flows to the problem areas. This alone helps the muscles relax, and increased blood flow helps loosen up some of the knots (imagine a lot of water pressure flowing through a tangled garden hose).
The last 2 happen naturally, but it’s the first 2 which make the difference between a great massage and a bad one.
The more “press and release” that you do, the better the massage will feel. One of the greatest feeling sensations in the world is when you use your fingers to press and release repeatedly in a tight area. There are 5 common techniques to do this.
5 Press and Release Techniques
- Typewriter – Put 3 or 4 fingers of one hand on a large tight area and randomly press and release your fingers one at a time as quickly as you can all around the area.
- Footsteps – Use two or three fingers (could be one from each hand, or two from the same hand) to “walk” along a tight area of the back – like the area between the shoulder blade and spine. Take very small steps! You can do it slow or moderately fast. Sometimes it’s best to go slow, sometimes it’s best to go quicker. Just use your intuition. If you have a bad intuition, then do the opposite of what you think you should do.
- Single Finger Poke – (Okay, so I couldn’t come up with a good name for this one!) Use one finger to just press and release repeatedly in different places around a problem area.
- Press and Move - Use a finger or thumb to press deeply into the muscle, but instead of releasing you keep the pressure and slowly move your finger/thumb along a tight area of muscle. It’s almost like you are using a hoe to dig out a narrow trench in the dirt. Because you are moving, you are continuously pressing new areas and releasing the old ones. Don’t do this on bare skin without lotion!
- Press and Knead - This is what you will do the most of. Press your thumb or finger firmly and instead of releasing all the way, only release about 1/2 or 3/4 of the pressure before pressing again. Try not to do the same exact spot twice in a row, move around while you do it and use a little rubbing motion instead of just going straight in and straight out. If you are targeting a specific tight spot, stay in the spot but move as much as you can inside of it, hitting it from different angles. You can use both thumbs (or two fingers) in the same problem area, alternating pressure so only one is pressing at a time. Use lotion for this as well.
Regardless of which technique you use (and use all 5 at some point during the massage), the key to doing it right is the same. You must get as much pressure as possible before releasing. It will be painful, but it’s only for a split second so by the time their brain realizes the pain it’s gone and all that’s left is a dizzying shower of pleasure chemicals. If they aren’t used to this, it might make them giggle at first. Start slowly to get them used to it.
Bonus Tip – If you really want to give them goosebumps, do the “footsteps” or a “moving typewriter” up one or both sides of their neck all the way up the back of their scalp!
Secret #3 – Working the Shoulders
Think of the red area in the diagram above as a big slab of massage meat (don’t google that). It’s a big chunk of tight muscles that need to be worked on.
Place your hands on their shoulders in the stereotypical “I’m giving you a massage” position. One common mistake people make when they give massages (usually when they are just trying to mimic what they’ve seen other people do) is using their fingers to apply pressure just above the collar bone (or sometimes actually on the collar bone itself!). When in this typical shoulder massage position, don’t use your fingers on the front, just use your thumb on the back.
Your thumbs should be able to reach most of that “slab”. Now, if you were a professional massage therapist you wouldn’t want to use your thumbs because your thumb wouldn’t be able to handle several massages in a single day. But, if you are just going to be giving one, you’ll be fine.
Use your thumb to put deep pressure on all the tight spots in that area (use primarily the “Press and Knead” technique). You can use your thumb to do some nice press and release, press and move, or work on all the knots you find. In the diagram you’ll notice an “X” near the bottom of the red area. There is a pressure point between the spine and shoulder blade just about an inch or two from the top of the traps. You can find it with your thumb. You might need to ask the person to tell you when you are on it. Put as much pressure as they can stand and slowly rub over that spot
At the top of that area there is a muscle that goes from the top of the neck down to shoulder. I’ve marked it with a dotted line. This is almost always a really tight muscle and you can feel it really easily. You can place your fingers along that line and do the “typewriter”, or you can do “footsteps” along the line, like walking a tightrope. I also recommend using your thumb to “press and move” along that line all the up to the bottom of the scalp.
Bonus Tip – Take your hand and grab the back of their neck, with your thumb on one side and your fingers on the other. The spine should be under your palm. In this position you can use your thumb and fingers to use the “press and knead” technique on that tight muscle on each side of the neck.
Secret #4 – How to Get Firm Pressure
Many women (and smaller men) complain about not being strong enough to get firm pressure. Believe it or not, it’s not about how big or strong you are, but about technique. I’m not the strongest person in the world, but I put a crazy amount of pressure.
The key is to put your entire body into it, not just your fingers. To do this, use the tips of your thumb or fingers instead of the pad. You want your thumb/finger stiff so that there are no “buckle” points between your arm and the point of contact.
Try this: Attempt to do a “girl pushup” (keeping your knees on the ground) but instead of having your palms on the ground, only have the tips of your thumb and fingers in contact with the floor. To do this, your thumbs and fingers must be stiff so they won’t buckle. What’s happening is the entire weight of your upper body is being pressed into the floor. That’s a LOT of pressure!
Do the same thing when digging into someone’s back. Keep your wrist and thumb/finger stiff and push with your arm. But, be sure and get feedback from the person you are massaging to make sure you aren’t putting too much pressure. Everyone has different amounts of pain tolerance.
For really hard knots you can also use your knuckle or even your elbow. Just be really careful!
Secret #5 – Knots
Recognizing knots can be kind of tricky at first. Muscles should be springy and soft. You need to feel for areas where the muscles feel a little tighter. These tight spots need to be worked on.
If you pay attention, you’ll also feel some really small little knots that almost feel like a little rubber pea. When you try put pressure on it, it tends to slip out from under your thumb. They can be tricky to pin down. You’ll almost certainly feel some right inside the shoulder blade.
Then there are also bigger knots that can at times feel almost as hard as bone! They can be round knots, or they can be long and thick like a tightened muscle. They key is knowing where bones are supposed to be so you’ll know where bones aren’t. If you aren’t sure, ask them. “Is this a bone?”
The best way, I think, of getting the feel for knots and tight areas is to have professional massages done on yourself. Pay attention to what they are doing and how it feels. Then try working on yourself. Working on your own back isn’t easy, but you can do it. Just reach around as best you can. There’s no substitute for being able to feel the knot both in your back and with your fingers at the same time!
Working on the knot
The key to working on a knot is to get right on top of it. It’s really tricky, because knots try to slip out from under your thumb as you increase pressure. You don’t want knots to slip out. That’s very uncomfortable! You have to find that exact point right in the center where you can slowly start to increase pressure without it slipping out from under you. Put as much pressure as you can (as much as they can tolerate) and hold it.
Once you’ve put some pressure on it, try moving or rocking your thumb back and forth while still staying on top of the knot. You’ll probably have to do this a few times on each knot (depending on the severity of the knot). Knots vary in terms of which direction their grain goes. So, change up which direction you rock back and forth.
Bonus Tip – Strangely, a person’s pain in one area can be caused by a knot in a totally different area. So, be sure and work on all the knots, not just the ones in the area that is tender!
- Have them use a heating pad and/or a “thumping” massager on their back before the massage. This will warm up the muscles and increase the blood flow, making the massage much more effective.
- Do not do any rubbing on their bare skin without using lotion! Dry skin being rubbed is very unpleasant! Lotion also allows you to feel the muscles a lot better.
- Make sure they are in a very comfortable position while you do the massage, otherwise they could be creating more knots in their back just trying to hold an unstable position while you work on them.
- Instruct them to drink plenty of water after working on them. If they don’t, their knots can swell and become even worse! I can personally attest to this. It’s not fun!
Well, there you go, Kimberly. Everything you need to give amazing massages! Of course, if he has a serious problem with his back he should definitely go to a good Physical Therapist. But, when he just needs a good back massage, you’ll now be up to the task.
Just beware. Once word gets out that you give amazing massages, you’ll be asked all the time! I can personally attest to that, too!