Things I think about: How to get the most out of massage therapy

[alert type=”info” close=”false”] This is a sort-of guest post inspired by Monika Volkmar of The Dance Training Project. Monika is my sister-from-another-mother (I wish that rhymed better) who does some pretty amazing work teaching dancers how to make their bodies strong and resilient so that they can enjoy dancing for the long run. If you’ve read anything on this site before, you can see why I’m a fan of Monika’s work.[/alert]

Who doesn’t love a good massage? It feels great. It’s definitely relaxing—even if you get some deep tissue work done (and just about everybody seems to love deep tissue work these days), you still come out the other side feeling a little more blissed out than you did walking in.

And well you should—deep tissue massage or no—because there’s a lot about massage that’s good for you, the hard-working circus artist-athlete:

  • Muscles get some fluid squeezed out, which encourages new fluid to come in, hydrating the tissue. Hydrated muscles perform better.
  • More than just water, muscles get fresh, nutrient-rich blood and oxygen. Those are good for helping muscles to recover from exercise and even to recover from injury.
  • Unnecessary muscle tension is often reduced, promoting the aforementioned relaxation, not to mention better recovery from exercise and better muscle function. Normalizing CNS tone (tension) not only helps muscles perform better, but it can also help with improving flexibility.

Yes, indeed: massage—and soft tissue work, in general—is an important component of any athletic training program.

(And I am going to take just a brief moment for an important detour:

Yes, you, dear reader, who has fallen in love with circus …your long-term participation in circus arts hinges on you becoming comfortable with the idea that, if you didn’t consider yourself one previously, you are an athlete now and you need to train your body like one.

There. That was just in case anyone’s forgotten why we’re here. I feel better. Now, on with the show…)

The thing is, it’s possible—actually, I’m going to go with probable—that you’re just not getting as much out of your massage as you could.


I have a question:

Why are you getting a massage?

Because it feels good.

It relaxes me.

It helps with the aches and pains.

Because of all the reasons mentioned above.

All good reasons.

Sometimes, people get a massage because they have been told it will help them to move better (by loosening up a restriction or improving alignment).

What prompted me to write this was a Facebook post by my friend, Monika Volkmar of The Dance Training Project. She wrote:

[content_band style=”color: #333;” bg_color=”#ADD8E6″ border=”all” inner_container=”true”] What is the use of massage therapy? Some thoughts…

In my experience as a both massage therapist and personal trainer/movement coaching person, I am curious as to why I never see the same structural and functional changes in someone post-massage as I do post-movement.[/content_band]

(I love movement coaching person as a title)

[content_band style=”color: #333;” bg_color=”#ADD8E6″ border=”all” inner_container=”true”] For example, yesterday I did a session with a dancer in her twenties. After a full 90 massage, there were only small changes in her structure (position of her bones). However, after taking 3 minutes to go through one movement (suspension, for the AiMers*), her structure balanced itself out (leveled her pelvis, etc). Was that 90 minutes completely unnecessary? [/content_band]

*AiM: Anatomy in Motion

[content_band style=”color: #333;” bg_color=”#ADD8E6″ border=”all” inner_container=”true”]Another example from a few months ago, working with a yoga teacher. After a massage intervention, again, only marginal improvements in how she moved and static structure. Then, 10 minutes of movement practice later, her movement is different (quality and range become more ideal), and her structure has adjusted itself to being more centered.[/content_band]

Here, the “movement practice” she refers to could broadly be described as some form of corrective exercise.

[Perhaps this is pedantic, but here I’m interpreting structure to refer to alignment and posture all rolled into one.]

[content_band style=”color: #333;” bg_color=”#ADD8E6″ border=”all” inner_container=”true”]I recognize that in the big picture, structure isn’t everything, but it is a big part of why people get massage therapy: They sense (or have been told) their posture is distorted in some way and the resulting muscle tensions are causing them an experience of pain.

So… What to think of this. Maybe I’m just not an effective massage therapist (this is 100% reasonable to say), and I am better at working with movement as a tool. That could be true.

But what I think is perhaps more true, is that no externally applied therapy can compare to the experience of mobilizing one’s own system.

Since our brains are the things responsible for our intention and ability to move, it makes sense that creating an adaptation here will be more useful than someone poking your muscles. After all, it’s often not the soft tissue that is the problem (being too long or too short for example), it is the thing with the higher power to modulate the soft tissue that packs the most punch to reorganize it, and, if not also considered, the tissues may simply go back to doing what they were doing before therapeutic intervention.

Your tissues don’t become short or long for no reason. You and your brain did that through your choices to move/not move in particular ways.

What I find manual therapy does really well is open a nice window of opportunity to work with the brain and body through the effect it has on relaxing one’s system (tissues), providing awareness, and generally putting the body in a more restorative state in which changes can happen (more parasympathetic). But what I observe most frequently is that people are much more inclined to open the door and then stare at it and walk the other way- Getting massage therapy, and leaving it at that.

My personal sentiment is that what is more valuable than massage therapy on it’s own, is to provide an experience for one’s system to learn to reorganize itself. It is going to be more meaningful, comprehensible, and useful coming from your own brain, than it is coming from my hands.

Don’t think this is anything new to say. But it’s what’s on my mind today 🙂

Conclusion: Massage therapy is great. But only if you’re using your brain, too.[/content_band]

Now this whole line of thinking—that massage or movement-training might be a means of improving alignment and/or function—pre-supposes that you might be going to get a massage in order to improve something. That’s an important piece of the puzzle that deserves a moment of exploration:

A moment of exploration…

There is room here for us to go a bit beyond the surface level thought (I’m gonna get a massage because it feels nice and/or because my (insert muscle name here) has been feeling so tight lately).

Don’t get me wrong: it’s completely legitimate to want a massage because it feels nice. It is similarly legitimate to seek out a massage therapist because your (insert muscle name here) feels tight.

In fact, the idea that a massage might help you with your (insert muscle name here) is the very idea I want to explore.

I think it’s important for dedicated circus artist-athletes to develop not only a habit of taking care of their bodies, but going further, I think it’s important—nay, critical—for circus artist-athletes to develop a familiarity with their bodies and their own movement patterns: what’s working well, what needs improving…and to be taking steps to actually improve those things.

The door is open…

Very often, it’s possible for a corrective exercise (or sequence of exercises) to have an immediate and noticeable impact on movement. Manual therapy can often have a similar immediate and noticeable impact.

The question is whether or not it sticks.

Massage, as Monika points out, opens a door and creates an opportunity to change a funky movement pattern that has been causing your muscles some grief. The key to walking through the door becomes having your movement training build upon the changes in muscle tension that the massage made.

Just in case there’s any doubt: by movement training, I mean functional strength and conditioning, where your training plan is simultaneously working on your weaknesses and imbalances, but also making you strong and resilient.