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 manual therapist 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 much higher tolerance. Often accompanied with a strong desire for a more intense approach. Most people prefer somewhere in-between – therapeutic but relaxing. Medium pressure. 

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, no further discussion. 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.

Despite me breaking a sweat, using all of my strength and energy, still, their muscles weren’t letting go. The clients believed something was happening because it hurt. Meanwhile, I’m standing there trying to breath my way through this more aggressive approach, trying not to hurt myself, and their body hadn’t relaxed yet at all.

And yet, my inclination was to lighten up my pressure just a tad, and then watch for how the tissues responded to the slight variation. I modified my approah by trusting what I was sensing from my clients nervous system. Following the muscle fiber with precision. Staying on a tight spot long enough for it to fully let go. THERE it was! The tension evaporated. Melted like butter. 

The slower less invasive approach doesn’t always satisfy though, never mind that their muscles actually changed in texture. It wasn’t intense enough for what they believed was good for them. There attention never slowing down long enough to ever witness the gradual shifts. Or allow themself to get so relaxed, they fall asleep. 

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 understood, required a high degree of attention by the therapist.

Listening more astutely to each body, I became more focused on tracking the responses to my touch. This got me curious about why these clients believed they needed so much pressure. Was it because it feel good to them? It could be. I cannot really say for sure. But based on my observations, it seemed more likely that it is less about the pleasure or the quality 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.

Our intention is to release tension, not 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. 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!

In all my years listening to my client’s tissues as intently as I listen to their verbal and non-verbal feedback, I’ve come to hear their stories and get to know their personalities (yes, muscles have personalities). I get to witness them open up and drop their armor. It’s a dance. We sing the nervous system a lullaby, rather than try to force it into submission.

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.  

My process includes warming up the tissues while I assess. Then I go to the area that speaks the loudest to me. Even if it isn’t directly where the person says 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. Whilst never invogorating the nerves. 

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 is that you won’t achieve better results by getting roughed up. We can go anywhere you want to go, depth-wise. Down to the bones and into the viscera (the organs and their cavities). We can influence the flow of fluids and affect the very core of our bodies. We do it patiently and with pure presence and intention. Vigorous, invasive, pain-inducing bodywork is not going to help your muscles or nervous system relax.

But don’t take my word for it. Try having dialogues with your muscles too while you’re getting your next massage. Explore.  Really hone in your attention to the more subtle sensations experienced during your tratment. 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.