no pain no gain

Every now and then, a new client will come in and request a really deep massage for their session. Some of them tell me, I can’t go hard enough.

Let me preface that manual therapists work with a wide spectrum of pain thresholds. Some clients can only handle a very light, gentle touch. While others are on the other extreme – with a much higher tolerance for pain, often accompanied by a strong desire for a more intense approach.

Most people prefer somewhere in between. Therapeutic but also relaxing. Medium pressure.

Back when I was newly certified in massage therapy and was first witnessing the effects of massage over time, I’d occasionally come across a client such as this and I would willingly give them what they requested, no further discussion.

I’d dig deep with an elbow, squeeze as hard as I could. Push and pummel with all of my weight. However, it didn’t take me long before I noticed that their muscles weren’t relaxing. I’m there trying to breathe my way through this more aggressive approach, attempting not to hurt myself. Only to find their body hadn’t let go at all. In fact, their muscles were resisting surrender and their nervous systems were pushing back despite me using all of my strength and all of my energy, breaking a sweat. Still, they were NOT relaxing.

But because it hurt, these clients believed something therapeutic was happening.

And yet, my inclination was to modify my approach. Trusting that what I was sensing from my client’s nervous system was to lighten up my pressure just a tad and then wait and watch for how the tissues responded to the slight variation. I followed the muscle fibers with precision and various angles and then stayed on a tight spot long enough for the tension to release. And THERE IT WAS! Melted like butter!

Months later, I would come across another person who made the same request for crazy deep pressure. And the SAME darn thing!

I became curious and began exploring this phenomenon, consulting with the muscles themselves. I went back to the basics of my deep tissue training – to the principles of the work. Which I understood required a high degree of attention from the therapist.

Listening more astutely to each body on my table, I became more focused on tracking the responses to my touch and gauging the effects when they return the next time. Still not understanding why these particular clients believed they needed so much pressure.

A slower, less invasive approach doesn’t always satisfy them. Never mind that their muscles did actually change in texture. It wasn’t intense enough for what they believed was best for them. Their attention never slows down long enough to ever tune into the gradual but significant shifts. The softening and disarming that occurred. Or even allowing themselves to get so relaxed they fall asleep.

Was it because the pain feels pleasurable to them? I cannot really say for sure. My guess is that this is not quite what it is for them.

Physically, it could be that their superficial muscles are hardened, perhaps caused by chronic ischemia from constricted blood flow, because of chronically tight muscles, mineral deficiencies, dehydration, or even a soft tissue condition. Creating a shell thick enough that there is some deadening of sensation.

Or perhaps they believe that pain equals results. That more is better, “no pain, no gain”, or that you get more bang for your buck when massage is more vigorous.

In all my years of listening to my client’s tissues as intently as I listen to their verbal and non-verbal feedback, I’ve come to hear the stories and many muscles and I’ve gotten to know their personalities (yes, muscles have personalities). I’ve gotten to witness many bodies drop their armor and open up. I’ve watched these bodies transform. And can certainly say that there is a fine line between therapy and causing further injury.

The truth is, extreme and forceful bodywork does not create better results. In fact, it can do damage and, furthermore, do the opposite of rejuvenating you. It can turn up inflammation instead of helping the tissues to repair. Our intention is to release tension and gently realign the misalignment, not exacerbate them. Ripping through your muscles over and over as aggressively as I can create better results for you. The nervous system doesn’t like being roughed up.

Slowing down and sinking in, melting the tissues in a befriending fashion. That is the name of the game! It’s more effective to sing the nervous system to a restful state rather than try to force it into submission. And that all 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 at 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 intentions.

Therein lies the answer. Pain is not an indicator that therapy is happening.

This approach has made significant improvements in the quality of life of many of my clients and had long-lasting results for those who entrusted me with their care. 

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 until I reach a barrier. Then, I wait until the tissue softens 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 invigorating the nerves. 

The outer more superficial layers of soft tissue (our armor) are the most grumpy, stubborn, or numb of all the layers. 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, and by this point, you are far more aware). Keep in mind, we don’t always reach those deeper layers during the first treatment working on an area. (See How Often to Get a Massage.)

What I also want to convey is that 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. 

But don’t take my word for it. Try having dialogues with your muscles, too, while you’re getting your next massage. Tune in and explore. Really hone to the more subtle sensations experienced during your treatment. Bodies are truly magnificent! And communicative!

Now when I come across someone who asks for REALLY invasive bodywork, I know that it is my job to help them understand why that approach does not create better results. I do this by inviting them to tune in with me to a spot and then explain what I am doing. 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.

After that, it is up to them to decide. If they don’t agree, that’s okay too. We know we aren’t a good match. Besides, there are plenty of therapists out there, who will give them what they want.

I do not believe that the “No Pain, No Gain” mindset will serve you in bodywork. But presence, patience, and precision will. Here’s 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.