no pain no gain

Every now and then, I come across a client, who wants a really deep massage during their bodywork treatment. They want it as deep as I can give it. Some tell me, I can’t go hard enough.

Let me preface that I work with a wide spectrum of pain thresholds. Some clients can handle only a very light gentle touch, while other’s are on the other extreme and have a high tolerance. Sometimes with a strong desire for a more intense approach. Most people prefer somewhere in-between.

Back when I was newly certified in massage therapy and was witnessing the effects of massage for the first time, I’d come across a client such as this, and I would willingly give them what they requested without question. I’d dig in with an elbow, with all of my weight. I’d squeeze hard, and push down, and pummel with all of my might. However, it didn’t take me too long before I noticed that their muscles were resisting surrender and fighting back.

Despite me breaking a sweat, using all of my strength and energy, still, their muscles weren’t letting go. The clients thought something was happening because it hurt. Yet while I was standing there catching my breath, nothing was happening. My inclination was to lighten up my pressure, just a tad and then wait and watch to see how the tissues responded to the slight variation. And THERE it was! Melted like butter.

This didn’t always satisfy them, never mind that their muscles actually did change in texture. It wasn’t fast or aggressive enough for what they thought was good for them. Then, months later, I’d come across another person who made the same request for crazy deep pressure. And the SAME darn thing!

So, I began exploring this phenomenon. Consulting and dialoguing with the muscles themselves. I was hearing one thing (the client’s request) but seeing something with less than optimum results. So, I went back to the basics of my deep tissue training – to the foundation and the principles of the work. Which I found required a high degree of attention on my part. Listening more astutely, I became more devoted to tracking their response to my touch.

This then also got me curious about why these clients believed they needed so much pressure. Was it because it really does feel good to them? I cannot really say for sure, but based on my observations, it seemed more likely that it is less about the pleasure than it is their belief that pain equals results. That more is better, that “no pain, no gain”, or that you get more bang for your buck when massage is deeper.

But wait, our intention is to release tension, not initiate or exacerbate it. And the truth is, extreme and forceful bodywork does not create better results. In fact, it is doing damage, causing inflammation instead of helping the tissues repair. That’s not therapeutic.

What I’ve Learned from Muscles…

In the 17 years, I’ve spent learning to speak fluent ‘Muscle’ I’ve learned to listen to my client’s tissues just as intently as I listen to their verbal and non-verbal feedback. I listen to the stories their body is telling, get to know their personalities (yes, muscles have personalities), and witness them open up and drop their armor. It’s a dance and our intention is to RELAX your nervous system, to sing it a lullaby. To allow it to finally turn off.

In other words, ripping through your muscles over and over as deep as I can, won’t create better results for you. There is a fine line between therapy and injuring.  Slowing down and sinking in, softening the tissues in a befriending fashion. That is the name of the game!

My process includes warming up the tissues while I assess the current situation. Then I go to the area that speaks the loudest to me. Even if it isn’t directly where the pain is. Once I hone in on that area, I follow the muscle in until I reach a barrier. Then, I wait until the tissue sort of melts and opens up, inviting me to come in further. I continue following it in, layer by layer until it is time to move on to the next area.

The approach that has the longest lasting results happens just below your threshold of pain. We call that the “hurts-so-good” zone. That’s the sweet spot. It is more about the speed in which we enter the muscles and then the patience to sit and hold the spot until it releases.  We can go extremely deep when we get there gradually – with clear intention. And therein, lies the secret. Pain is not the indicator that therapy is happening.  

The outer more superficial layers of soft tissues are the most grumpy, stubborn, or numb of all the layers. It is our armor. Once we start getting in the middle to deep layers, that’s the good stuff. But we are actually more sensitive when we reach the deeper layers (there is more sensation, perhaps because we are now more hyper-aware). But also keep in mind that we aren’t always able to reach or access the layers beyond the armor after only one treatment. (See How Often to Get a Massage.)

What I am conveying on behalf of muscles, is that vigorous, invasive, pain-inducing bodywork is not going to help your muscles or nervous system relax. You aren’t going to achieve better results by getting roughed up. We can go anywhere you want to go, depth-wise. We can get down to the bones and we can go all the way into the viscera (the organs and their cavities). We can influence the flow of all the bodies fluids and affect the very core of our bodies. We do it patiently and with pure presence and intention. 

But don’t take my word for it. Try having dialogues with your muscles too while you’re getting your next massage. Explore.  Really pay attention to the more subtle sensations. Bodies are truly magnificent! And communicative.

Now when I come across someone who asks for REALLY deep bodywork, I know that it is my job to help them understand why painful massage does not create better results. I do this by explaining how the muscles and nerves respond best, and inviting them to tune in with me to a spot and then explain how it works. I know that the place for us to start is to engage awareness, helping them to reconnect their minds with their bodies, and to learn to respectfully listen to their most loyal companions.

The “No Pain, No Gain” mindset won’t serve you in bodywork. But presence, patience, and precision will.

Cheers to embodied living!

Enjoying contemplating the applications of bodywork? If you’re curious and want to explore this topic further, read more blogs like it.