How to Massage: Guide to Styles and Movements

Written by: Kevin Cash



Time to read 19 min

Wondering how a basic massage can help you feel better? Learning the art of massage helps remove stress, lessen pain, and provide relaxation.

This guide will show you important movements like rubbing, kneading, tapping, rubbing, and shaking. You'll learn how each helps the body, from calming and reducing stress to boosting blood flow and muscle healing.

We’ll discuss how those movements work together to form the different massage techniques and methods. Let’s dive in with the basics of massage.

The Basic Massage Techniques

Here's a straightforward guide to the essential approaches you need to know. We'll cover each technique briefly, giving you a taste of what to expect as you learn and practice.

1. Effleurage

Effleurage, derived from the French word "to skim" or "touch lightly," is one of the five primary massage techniques. It uses long, gentle strokes applied with the palms of the hands to provide a warming effect during the beginning and end of a massage session.

These delicate movements help the therapist transition smoothly from one technique to another. They also warm the body's tissues and improve blood flow towards the heart.

Effleurage is ideal for reducing stress, anxiety, and depression. It helps trigger the release of positive hormones like endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine that alleviate stress and improve mood.

Effleurage Technique

This gentle massage also stimulates the lymphatic system, a part of the circulatory system responsible for immune function and waste removal. Stimulating this structure can speed up healing and lead to improved recovery.

2. Petrissage

Petrissage is a therapeutic massage technique that works deep into your muscles to relieve tension and promote healing. Massage therapists knead, squeeze, and lift muscles to help loosen tight and tense areas. It is performed using the padded palm, fingers, and thumbs.

These strokes are beneficial for maintaining muscle tension, enhancing muscle function, and promoting skin health. They stimulate the vessels in the body, easing movement through them and aiding in the removal of muscle waste. That all adds up to your body healing better and faster.

Petrissage also helps improve movement and flexibility. The squeezing and kneading movements stretch and smooth out the muscle fibers, improving your range of motion.

Petrissage Technique

Since petrissage applies firm pressure, well-trained therapists must perform it to avoid any discomfort and ensure the desired therapeutic outcomes.

3. Tapotement

Tapotement is a basic massage technique that involves rhythmic tapping or patting on the body. This method energizes your body with lively rhythmic movements. It's one of the best massages for boosting blood circulation and getting your muscles ready for action.

Tapotement uses different hand shapes to tap the body. They're a perfect way to warm up your muscles before deeper massage work or more intense exercise. Some of the hand shape movements include:

  • Hacking - Hacking involves hitting the body with the sides of your hands, near the pinky fingers, with light pressure.

  • Cupping - Cupping is when you shape your hands into cups and gently tap the skin with them.

Tapotement Technique

The massage also helps stimulate the skin and activate nerve endings. The skin warms and turns slightly red during the process. This method triggers small muscle movements, which are good for both muscle and nerve health.

4. Friction

Friction massage uses fast, circular movements to work deeply into your muscles. This technique is performed quickly and with firm pressure, using the palms, thumbs, and fingertips to target tough spots effectively.

Friction is great for loosening tight knots and getting your muscles moving. It generates heat within the body, improving circulation and increasing flexibility. This makes it especially effective for relieving muscle spasms, reducing stiffness, and soothing sore muscles.

Friction Technique

Massage professionals often use this approach on areas over bones or where muscles begin and end. These are usually the parts that require more friction during a massage.

Keep in mind that friction is more intense than lighter techniques like effleurage and petrissage. That is why it's important to get a skilled therapist to ensure the pressure of this massage is both comfortable and effective.

5. Vibration

Vibration massage is a simple technique that involves quick, shaking movements of your fingertips to create a buzzing sensation in the body.

Have you ever experienced the rapid vibrations of a massage gun? They mimic the pulsating fingertip movements of this type of massage.

Vibration massage relies on forearm strength and benefits from short, limited vibrations in one area. Aim for more than 20 seconds to activate your nervous system, ease stress, and reduce muscle tension.

Vibration Technique

This approach is also effective in speeding up muscle recovery after tough workouts according to research. It enhances blood flow and aids in regaining movement, making it a valuable tool for those seeking quicker recovery and improved well-being post-exercise.

Because vibration massage demands muscle power, it's important not to overuse it. Use this technique with good judgment and alternate it with other massage methods for different massage intensities.

Techniques for Self-Massage

Woman performing Self-Massage

Self-massage is a simple way to care for yourself anytime, anywhere. By using your own hands, you can relax, soothe aches, and feel better overall.

Let's discuss some easy self-massage techniques that you can start doing today. These methods are easy to learn and can make a big difference in how you feel.

1. Rubbing

Rubbing is often used to break down scar tissue. This helps create healthy tissue by realigning the fibers in tendons. It is an easy self-massage method that involves moving your hands in circles softly.

Here's a quick guide on how to give yourself a rubbing massage:

  1. Select the Massage Area - You have many options, from arms and legs to your back and neck.

  2. Warm Up Your Hands - Rub your hands together to warm them up before you begin. This step enhances the soothing effect of the massage.

  3. Begin With Gentle Pressure - Start by placing your hands on the chosen area and using soft, circular motions with your fingertips, palms, or knuckles.

  4. Gradually Increase Pressure - As your muscles start to relax, slowly apply more pressure. Make sure to maintain a gentle touch to avoid discomfort.

  5. Focus on Tight Spots - Pay extra attention to areas that feel particularly tight or sore. Apply gentle pressure to help release tension.

  6. End With Deep Strokes - Finish the massage by using long, flowing movements towards the heart. This helps promote relaxation and improves blood circulation.

A rubbing massage can last from a few minutes up to 20 minutes. It can be done daily depending on how tense you feel. Incorporating rubbing massages into your everyday routine can be an easy and effective way to manage stress and ease muscle tension.

2. Kneading

Kneading is a deeper self-massage method that helps relax your muscles. You use your knuckles and thumbs to press deeply into those target areas, untangling knots and easing tightness. This helps increase blood flow, reduces stiffness, and relieves stress.

Kneading targets deeper layers of muscle and focuses on areas that need more care. When you knead your muscles, you're also stretching and loosening the muscle fibers, improving flexibility and movement.

Here's how to effectively knead your muscles:

  1. Use your thumbs and knuckles to press more deeply and move across your muscles.

  2. Focus on tight or sore spots to help relax them.

  3. Keep your movements slow and steady to massage the muscles deeply.

3. Tapping

Tapping is a simple self-massage technique that can ease tension in your shoulders, upper back, and neck. Lightly tap these areas with your fingertips to promote relaxation. When paired with breathing exercises, tapping can further enhance your sense of calm.

You can try tapping with these steps:

  1. Find a quiet spot where you can focus without interruption. Sit or stand comfortably.

  2. Gently tap your shoulders, upper back, and neck in a slow, rhythmic motion.

  3. Pay extra attention to any areas that feel particularly tense or sore, tapping them a bit longer to help ease the tension.

Add breathing exercises to your tapping routine to feel more relaxed. Breathe deeply through your nose while tapping, letting your belly and chest fill with air. Then, breathe out slowly through your mouth, imagining stress leaving your body with each breath.

When combined with deep breathing, this massage not only eases muscle tension but also quiets your mind. It's a wonderful way to carve out a quiet moment in your hectic day.

4. Rolling

Rolling is an effective self-massage method that relieves muscle tension and discomfort. You can use items like foam rollers, tennis balls, or golf balls for rolling. It's a convenient way to experience the deep massage benefits in the comfort of your own home.

Items you can use for rolling and how to use them:

  • Foam Rollers - Foam rollers are perfect for larger muscle areas like your legs, back, and buttocks. Place the roller on the ground, lie on it targeting the desired muscle, and roll back and forth. This motion helps alleviate tension and muscle knots.

  • Tennis or Golf Balls - Tennis or golf balls are great for targeting smaller, more stubborn areas such as your shoulders, middle back, or chest. Position the ball between your body and either the floor or a wall, and apply pressure. Rolling the ball over these areas helps release tightness and knots, providing relief.

This technique not only feels good but also works to relieve discomfort in these key muscle groups. By targeting these areas, rolling can reduce pain, loosen tight muscles, and improve muscle function.

5. Cupping

Cupping is a self-massage style you can use at home to enhance your health. Through the application of suction on your skin, cupping provides deep relaxation and numerous health benefits.

Here are four advantages of cupping:

  1. Stress Reduction - Cupping promotes relaxation of both mind and body, effectively reducing stress levels.

  2. Pain Relief - Cupping alleviates muscle soreness and tension.

  3. Increased Flexibility - Regular cupping sessions can enhance body flexibility, reducing stiffness.

  4. Improved Circulation - The suction action of cupping enhances blood flow, facilitating muscle recovery and promoting overall health.

Cupping is particularly beneficial for athletes seeking quick muscle recovery, or individuals aiming to enhance their physical well-being. It's a simple, cost-free technique that requires only a few minutes of your time.

What Are the Different Types of Massage

Exploring different types of massage can help you find the perfect style for your needs. Each form of massage offers unique benefits, from relaxation to pain relief, making it easy to choose the right one for you.

1. Swedish Massage

Swedish Massage

Swedish massage is a calming and gentle type of massage, ideal for newcomers or anyone seeking a full-body relaxation experience. It involves long, gentle strokes designed to relax your entire body.

Massage techniques and strokes used in Swedish massage:

  • Kneading

  • Long, flowing strokes

  • Deep circular motions

  • Vibration

  • Passive joint movements

These techniques combine to help you relax, reduce stress, and improve blood flow.

You can choose to wear as much or as little clothing as you feel comfortable with during a Swedish massage. You will lie on a massage table covered by a sheet for warmth and privacy. Sessions usually last 60 to 90 minutes, providing a peaceful break from your daily routine.

2. Deep Tissue Massage

Deep Tissue Massage

A deep tissue massage is effective for addressing severe muscle pain and tension. Unlike more gentle pressure massages, this method focuses on deep layers of muscle and connective muscle tissue.

Deep tissue massage uses slow, firm strokes to target serious muscle problems. These movements help relieve ongoing muscle tension and aid in healing muscle injuries.

It's stronger than a Swedish massage and may feel a bit intense, but it shouldn't cause pain. Therapists will always adjust the pressure for your comfort and safety.

This massage is helpful for those with specific medical conditions causing chronic pain or muscle tightness. If you're looking for a more intense, focused massage, a deep tissue could be just what you’re looking for.

3. Trigger Point Massage

Trigger Point Massage

Trigger point massage targets specific painful spots in your muscles known as "trigger points." These spots cause pain and tightness, and can slow down your daily activities.

This type of massage isn’t only for relaxation; it's tailored to relieve specific pains such as sciatica and migraines. It's effective for individuals experiencing muscle tightness, joint pain, or discomfort from exercise, daily activities, or previous injuries.

Combining trigger point massage with other types like Swedish or deep tissue can offer targeted pain relief and overall relaxation.

4. Acupressure

Acupressure Points Massage

Acupressure is a simple type of massage that involves pressing specific points on your body to ease stress and improve relaxation. It is similar to acupuncture because it uses similar pressure points, but it does not use needles.

In an acupressure treatment, the therapist applies pressure to specific points on your body using their fingers, hands, or elbows to regulate your body's energy flow. The primary aim is to enhance your overall health.

Acupressure can also be combined with other types of massages like Swedish or deep tissue to give you thorough relief and care.

5. Shiatsu Massage

Shiatsu Massage

Shiatsu massage is a type of massage that uses hands-on techniques to help relax and heal the body. This method comes from Japan and is inspired by Traditional Chinese Medicine. It focuses on freeing up blocked energy paths in the body known as "qi" to improve health and balance.

In Shiatsu therapy, the therapist uses their fingers, hands, elbows, and sometimes knees to apply pressure to specific areas of the body. Gentle stretching may be incorporated into the session.

A shiatsu massage can:

  • Relieve muscle tightness

  • Enhance blood circulation

The massage can also provide a deep sense of relaxation, similar to the effects experienced during a deep tissue massage.

6. Reflexology


Reflexology is a special massage technique that focuses on reflex points in your feet, hands, and ears to improve your health and induce relaxation.

During a reflexology session, the therapist applies pressure to reflex points using their fingers and thumbs. This action creates feelings of calmness throughout your body and supports healing. Unlike a conventional massage, this technique is aimed at regulating your body's internal functions.

If you're interested in trying reflexology, it's advisable to seek out a qualified therapist who specializes in this field.

7. Sports Massage

Sports Massage

The sports massage is specifically designed to meet the needs of athletes and individuals who have an active lifestyle. It targets the muscles that are most engaged during sports or physical activities.

This massage therapy plays a vital role in many athletes' training regimens as it offers several benefits:

  1. Increase Flexibility - By targeting muscles and surrounding tissues, sports massage enhances your body's flexibility, aiding in injury prevention and improving mobility.

  2. Prevent Injuries - Tight muscles increase the risk of injury. Sports massage keeps muscles relaxed, reducing the likelihood of muscle strains or tears.

  3. Ease Muscle Pain - In case of muscle overexertion or injury, sports massage provides relief by alleviating pain, promoting faster recovery, and restoring strength.

  4. Faster Healing - Incorporating sports massage into your recovery can speed up the healing process if you're injured. It can facilitate a quicker return to full functionality.

The massage employs various techniques tailored to meet your individual needs and the requirements of your sport. These methods can range from gentle stretching to deeper, more intense maneuvers. This ensures that the massage caters to your specific needs, ultimately enhancing your athletic performance.

8. Chair Massage

Chair Massage

Chair massages are a great way to quickly relax without having to change clothes or use oils. These massages are done while you are fully dressed and can last from 5 to 30 minutes. They are ideal for a short break to calm down and de-stress.

Few key aspects of a chair massage:

  • No need to undress.

  • Given without oils or lotions.

  • Sessions can be as short as 5 minutes, ideal for a quick relaxation break.

Chair massages are designed to be comfortable and safe for everyone, regardless of size or weight.

What Are the Benefits of Massage?

Woman getting a massage on the head

Massage provides many benefits, including making you feel good, and helping you stay healthy and happy. Listed below are some of the main benefits of massage.

1. Relieves Stress

Massage is a powerful tool to fight stress by:

  1. Releasing Happy Hormones - During a massage, your body releases endorphins, which are your natural happy hormones. This helps to significantly reduce stress.

  2. Lowering Cortisol Levels - Massage also decreases cortisol, a hormone that surges during times of stress. By reducing cortisol levels, massage effectively combats stress from multiple angles.

Many people believe in the power of touch to relieve stress. In the US, more than 42% of people use complementary and alternative medicine to improve their health, according to a study. Among these, 5-11% choose massage therapy.

There have also been studies showing massages can improve mood and help with depression. For generalized anxiety disorder, massage can be as effective as relaxing in a quiet place and practicing slow breathing. These make massage a beneficial treatment for both stress and anxiety.

2. Reduce Pain

Massage is an effective method for alleviating pain because it targets muscle tension to address the root cause of pain. This approach is backed by both experiential evidence and research, making massages a popular alternative to painkillers.

41% of American adults use massages to relieve pain (source). 43% of Americans also say they received massages for health and medical conditions, including headaches, arthritis, and injury-related discomfort (source).

Here’s how massage helps with pain relief:

  1. Relieves Muscle Tension - Massage targets and soothes tense areas, providing relief for stubbornly tight muscles. As your muscles relax, your pain diminishes.

  2. Increases Flexibility - Massage promotes greater joint flexibility, allowing for freer movement with reduced pain.

  3. Reduces Inflammation - Massage helps reduce swelling and inflammation in tissues, and relieve associated pain.

When considering the duration and frequency of massage sessions, it's important to recognize both short-term and long-term benefits. While many experience immediate relief from a single session, maintaining pain relief over time typically requires regular and extended sessions.

Massage therapy is a good option if you want to manage pain practically without relying on medication.

3. Improve Circulation

Massage doesn't just promote relaxation; it enhances blood circulation throughout the body. Proper blood flow is essential for reducing pain and speeding up the healing process.

Effleurage is particularly effective for improving blood flow, serving as both the warm-up and cooldown for your muscles. Starting and ending your massage with this massage maximizes the circulation benefits.

You can also perform self-massage techniques like tapping and rolling to stimulate your muscles and improve circulation on your own. These methods are great for maintaining muscle health between professional massages.

Regular massage is excellent for maintaining optimal blood flow. Improving circulation through massage, whether done by a professional or yourself, can enhance your overall well-being and comfort.

4. Improve Relaxation

Massage therapy offers benefits that extend beyond just muscle relaxation. It is an incredibly effective approach to achieving a deep state of relaxation.

When getting a massage, the body produces less of the stress hormone cortisol. Lower levels of this particular hormone allow your body and mind to fully relax.

Massage also boosts endorphin production, leading to improved mood and increased calmness.

If you’re feeling stressed or down, consider getting a massage. It’s a simple and effective way to improve your mood and relax your body.

5. Help With Constipation

Many people struggle with constipation because of stress, their diet, or not drinking enough water. A simple way to help with constipation is through self-massage by helping your body move things along naturally.

If you have constipation, your stomach muscles are probably tight. By massaging your stomach, you can help those muscles relax, promoting better digestion.

Massaging applies gentle pressure to your abdominal muscles and gently moves them around. Follow these steps for an effective stomach massage:

  1. Gently rub your abdomen in a circular motion.

  2. Pay attention to areas that feel tight or uncomfortable.

  3. Keep the massage gentle and avoid applying too much pressure.

Remember, self-massage isn't a quick fix for constipation or any digestive disorder. Incorporating it into your regular health routine can contribute to long-term benefits.

6. Helps With Recovery

Massage helps relieve pain, boosts blood flow, and reduces stiffness. These are all common issues after intense gym sessions or injuries. A good massage tells your body to relax and heal, leading to faster recovery, less pain, and better mobility.

Vibration massages are especially effective in speeding up the recovery process after intense exercise. They have a reputation for accelerating muscle recovery and reducing fatigue.

Regular massage sessions can also be beneficial for individuals experiencing chronic pain because that can significantly disrupt daily life. Getting a massage regularly can naturally manage this pain, ultimately enjoying more days without discomfort.

What Type of Pain Can a Massage Help With?

Woman having lower back pain

Massage therapy is effective in alleviating various types of pain. It aids in relieving muscle soreness following intense workouts and can also provide relief for ongoing conditions like arthritis.

Let's explore the various types of pain that massage therapy can address.

1. Back Pain

A quality massage can work wonders for back soreness. Applying gentle fingertip pressure to the painful areas of your lower, mid, and upper back can provide significant relief.

The petrissage technique is particularly effective for back pain. The kneading and rolling motions are ideal for easing soreness in your back.

Kneading your calves can provide relief if you're suffering from pain that spreads from your back to your legs, such as sciatica. This simple technique can ease the pain and discomfort in both your lower back and calves.

2. Neck Pain

Many people get neck pain from stress, sitting too long, or not sitting up straight. The good news is that massaging your neck can help a lot. It’s an easy and effective fix for tight neck muscles.

Self-massages can help reduce neck pain by working out the knots in your neck muscles. This way, you're able to move your neck more easily and improve your posture.

To effectively self-massage for neck pain, follow these steps:

  1. Use Slow, Gentle Movements - Treat your neck with care by using slow strokes. That can also help your muscles relax more effectively.

  2. Focus on Tight Spots - Identify areas of tightness and concentrate your massage there for optimal relief.

  3. Try Petrissage - Incorporate petrissage, which involves deeper kneading and pressing.

As you massage your neck, remember to breathe deeply and consistently. Deep breathing promotes relaxation, enhancing the benefits of your massage.

3. Headaches

When you get a headache, you don't always need to take medicine. Self-massage is a natural way to relieve the pain.

Give yourself a massage focusing on your head, neck, and shoulders. This simple technique targets areas where stress builds up, helping to alleviate tension and decrease headache pain.

Deep tissue massage is also great for headaches. It uses strong pressure and slow strokes to reach the deeper muscles. This method helps release knots that may be causing your headaches.

4. Constipation

Massaging your abdomen relaxes stomach muscles and can help get your digestion moving again.

Massage increases the blood flow to the digestive organs, and stimulates the digestive system. This collective effect improves digestion and effectively relieves constipation.

Try it whenever your digestion feels slow and needs a gentle push to improve.

5. Shoulder Pain

Shoulder pain can affect everyday activities, but massage offers significant relief, improving your arm mobility and range of motion.

When shoulders ache, the usual causes are tight muscles, limited blood flow, or inflammation. Certain massage techniques can help alleviate these issues.

Here are effective massage techniques for relieving shoulder pain:

  • Effleurage - Effleurage involves gentle, sweeping strokes that enhance circulation and relax shoulder muscles. It ensures increased delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the affected areas.

  • Petrissage - Petrissage incorporates kneading and lifting movements that help alleviate tension in overworked shoulder muscles.

  • Vibration Massage - Vibration massage accelerates muscle recovery by stimulating the muscles and preparing them to function without pain.

  • Deep Tissue Massage - Deep tissue massage addresses the root of shoulder tightness and pain, working out the knots.

  • Trigger Point Massage - Trigger point massage focuses specifically on areas of tight muscle fibers that can develop in your muscles after injuries or overuse.

6. Foot Pain

When your feet hurt, it can ruin your entire day. A good massage can relieve foot pain by relaxing tight muscles, improving blood flow, and increasing flexibility.

Simple rubbing and kneading techniques, like effleurage and petrissage, are excellent for relieving tight muscles. Methods such as friction massage and deep tissue massage enhance blood flow, resulting in improved circulation.

Another method to try is the heel-of-hand massage that uses the hand's heel to apply pressure to massage the sole of your foot.

Safety Tips When Performing a Massage

Massage bed

Before beginning a massage, it's important to ensure safety. Here are some tips to help your massage session run smoothly and without injury:

  1. Equipment Check - Before you start, make sure your massage table and tools are in good shape. This keeps accidents at bay and ensures your client's safety.

  2. High Standards of Hygiene - Clean and disinfect your gear after each use to maintain cleanliness. Make sure all equipment, towels, and sheets are changed and sanitized between sessions.

  3. Create a Safe Space - Ensure your massage area is safe and accessible to everyone, including those with disabilities. Keep pathways clear and surfaces non-slippery for worry-free massages.

  4. Client Consultation - Discuss the client's medical history, including any existing injuries or areas of pain. Knowing their goals will help you tailor the massage to their needs and avoid exacerbating any pre-existing conditions.

  5. Start Softly - Ease into the massage with gentle pressure, and adjust as per your client's comfort. This approach wards off the discomfort.

  6. Listen and Adapt - Pay attention to your client's reactions during the massage. If they show signs of pain or discomfort, be ready to change your technique or stop if needed.

  7. Post-Massage Tips - Drink plenty of water and do some gentle stretching after the massage. A warm bath can also help provide more relief.

By following these steps, you ensure a safe and enjoyable massage experience for yourself and your client.