“Deep Tissue” Massage Defined


If you have ever been treated to a 60- or 90-minute massage and were told that you received a full-body “deep tissue massage”, either you or your massage therapist may have been seriously misinformed. The term “deep tissue” is probably the most over-used and misused term in massage therapy. “Deep Tissue” implies that the therapist will be penetrating into your muscle tissue, working IN BETWEEN your muscle tissue fibers – something that is impossible to accomplish with broad, gliding massage strokes over relaxed muscles. In fact, a thorough, full-body “deep tissue” massage would take several hours to several days to accomplish, regardless of the technique being used, and is not recommended for beginner massage recipients due to the large volume of toxins released during such a lengthy, aggressive process.

Many will argue that true Deep Tissue techniqes aren’t really “massage” at all because the client doesn’t get to relax until after the treatment is finished. In many cases, the treatment more resembles Physical Therapy than Massage Therapy, as the client is often required to participate by doing a good deal of the work.

There are five primary techniques for accomplishing “deep tissue” between-the-muscle-fibers massage:

  • Active Motion: In this technique, the client is working with the therapist in order to flex and stretch the muscle being worked as the therapist is applying firm pressure on it. When the client flexes a muscle, the fibers spread and the therapist can wiggle in between the muscle fibers; when the client stretches or relaxes the muscle, it softens to allow the therapist to sink in a little deeper. The continuation of this alternating flex and relax/stretch allows for the most effective and painless penetration of the muscle tissue possible. Each muscle pair (the same muscle on both sides of the body) may take as long as 15-20 minutes to work efficiently, but can be adequately worked in as little as 5-10 minutes if worked lightly. Rolfing and Active Release are two examples of this type of deep tissue manipulation.
  • Passive Motion: This technique is similar to the Active Motion technique, except that the therapist is working the muscle with one hand and moving the body part being worked with the other hand. This technique is much more relaxing for the recipient, but is much more taxing for the therapist. A full-body treatment using this technique by a single therapist is nearly impossible, unless your therapist looks something like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Some conventional forms of Myofascial Release (not to be confused with the holistic John F. Barnes approach) are good examples of this type of deep tissue manipulation.
  • Static Pressure: In this technique, the therapist is using thumbs, fingertips and even elbows to apply firm pressure to individual points on a muscle. In order to encourage the muscle to relax and allow penetration in this technique, it is necessary for the therapist to move very, VERY slowly or not at all. One individual muscle may take as long as 20 minutes to cover sufficiently, and this technique often causes bruising and slight discomfort. Trigger Point Therapy is one example of this type of deep tissue manipulation.
  • Muscle Stripping: There are at least two variations of Muscle Stripping: Rapid and Slow. Rapid Muscle Stripping is the most aggressive and painful of the techniques discussed here, but may also be the most effective in extreme cases such as chronic pain conditions caused by incorrectly-healed or untreated past injury. In this technique, the therapist is using knuckles or elbows to firmly and rapidly “strip” the muscle while the client is breathing deeply and performing a rapid stretching movement with the body part being treated. It is recommended only in extreme cases, or when a rapid result is desired. In Slow Muscle Stripping, the therapist is using thumbs or elbows with very slow, firm, deep movements. The goal of muscle stripping is to actually reinjure the muscle tissue in order to allow for proper healing to occur. (As an example, in the case of a broken bone, when a broken bone has healed in an improper alignment, it must be re-broken and realigned in order to heal properly. A similar approach can be used for soft tissue injuries that have healed improperly or incompletely.)
  • Negative Pressure: This technique involves the use of suction cups applied to the body, which causes the muscle fibers to expand and separate, as opposed to traditional pressure-strokes used in mainstream massage which compress the fibers together. By expanding the muscle tissue, it allows for additional space within the muscle for lactic acid and other toxins to flow and be released from the tissue more completely and more rapidly than with traditional massage techniques. The suction that occurs also forces body fluid to flow through the tissue, which further encourages toxins to be “flushed” from the area. It also allows the therapist to more effectively re-align tight muscle tissue fibers, which relieves the proverbial “knot” that is created by tension and excess lactic acid buildup. The down-side of this technique is the potential for “hickeys” to occur, which can be very alarming to a patient who hasn’t been fore-warned about their potential for occurence. This technique is also known as Cupping Therapy or Massage Cupping. Using less pressure and gliding strokes with the suction cups, Negative Pressure may also be used as a relaxing “feel-good” massage technique.

Many people, including many misled or under-trained massage therapists, mistakenly believe that a Swedish-type massage (a massage consisting of long, flowing strokes) that is applied with very firm pressure is a “deep tissue massage”, but this is not an effective deep tissue technique, and this use of the term is inaccurate and misleading. Most commonly, deep tissue technique(s) are applied to one or two areas of the body during an otherwise relaxing, full-body, Swedish-style massage, which allows for a full-body treatment with focus to specific problem areas in a relatively short appointment-time. This may be what was originally referred to as a full-body “deep tissue” massage and may potentially be the origin of today’s misconception.


(article written by Chahna of Transformations Wellness Holistic Therapy Center in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Opinions discussed in this article may not be shared by everyone in bodywork professions. Please discuss your needs and expectations with your individual therapist to ensure effective communication with the individual you’re working with.)