We have all heard of, and likely experienced a ‘deep tissue’ massage.  For some it may have been a pleasurable experience, while for others it may have been agonizing.  “No pain, no gain” they said…

Cambridge dictionary defines deep tissue massage as the following:

“A type of massage in which the person giving the massage presses hard on areas of the body where the muscles are very stiff or painful.”

While it is absolutely correct that deep tissue massage will accomplish this, there are 2 main misconceptions here that seem to be embedded within the consciousness of the general population:  One, is that ‘deep tissue’ automatically means that the pressure will be ‘hard’ and two, a deep tissue massage automatically means that it will be ‘painful.’  Although these two statements can be true, deep tissue massage can also be accomplished through the opposites of those 2 assumptions:  via a light pressure, that is not experienced as painful.

How one may ask?  A lighter touch to the body is often experienced by the body as a safe, non-threatening pressure.  Under these conditions, where the body feels safe, the body will generally allow further access to greater tissue depth, resulting in a release, classified as ‘deep tissue.’  From Stanley Rosenberg, bodyworker for over 4 decades, Rolfer since 1983, and author of ‘Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve’:

“Massaging trigger points deeply or with a lot of force is usually painful, and can be counterproductive. Under excessive pressure, the body does not feel safe, and the autonomic nervous system is put into a state of sympathetic activation or dorsal vagal withdrawal.  This is not harmful, but it is inefficient because it takes time for the body to settle down again.”

(Source:  Rosenberg, ‘Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve,’ p. 205)

Rosenberg also states,

“The ideal of tai chi is to use “a force of four ounces to deflect a thousand pounds.”  This concept has become an integral part of my body therapy.  Some people doing massage and body therapies push hard into their client’s body, with the intention of going deep.  By contrast, I try to find the exact centre of tension and the exact angle for me to push to increase the tension, and then use the minimum amount of force necessary to get the body to release itself.  I often use no more than a few grams of pressure.”

(Source:  Rosenberg, ‘Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve,’ p. 22)

So, a light touch when applied correctly and skillfully can not only produce the desired release, but does not compromise the ideal relaxed state of the nervous system during a massage therapy treatment.  A question to consider:  what does deep tissue mean to you personally?  Does it mean hard pressure?  Does it mean a painful massage ?  Does it mean that the tissues being treated are deeper and/or less superficial?  Something else?  


The big takeaway from this as a patient receiving massage therapy is:  although it is true that firmer pressure applications are effective for soft tissue release, it is also true that a skilled, light touch can often be just as effective if not more!  Again, the state of the nervous system must be considered here:  ideal pressure is that which creates an experience of ‘non-threat’ to the body, thus allowing a soft-tissue release… minus the bruising!

If you would like to book an appointment with Andrew Burchell, our RMT at Evolve, please send an email to info@evolvevancouver.ca

DISCLAIMER: These posts should not be used to self-diagnose or self-treat any health, medical, physical or psychiatric condition. Information shared via posts does not replace professional healthcare advice specific to your condition and needs. If you are unsure whether you would benefit from implementing tools discussed in these posts, please contact your healthcare provider.