With all the stresses of everyday living, most of us are tied up in knots -- or at least our muscles are. To get them out, we often ask our nearest and dearest for a massage. But here’s the rub: They don’t always know how and can sometimes even increase muscular pain. We asked Rick Sharpell, licensed massage therapist and proprietor of Relax, a massage-therapy center in New York City, and Adam Baritot, also a licensed massage therapist and massage instructor at Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, for their expert tips on how to give a truly awesome massage. So grab a partner to practice on (chances are that your friends and family will be more than happy to oblige) and give these techniques a try.
Before You Begin
When it comes to massage, set-up is key. Both Sharpell and Baritot agree that on the floor in a dark, warm room is preferable to a bed because it offers more support. Place a yoga mat or a blanket on the floor to provide a clean surface. For best results, have your “client” take off their shirt and cover them with a sheet (if they’re shy). To begin, have them lay facedown with a pillow under their head, turning their neck to one side. “Remember to turn the head to the other side every so often in order to avoid a stiff neck,” says Sharpell. Massaging with oils, creams or lotions can tone and invigorate the skin, but Baritot says it’s best to use one made from natural ingredients like sweet almond or sesame oil because they absorb into the skin more easily. “A good rule to go by: If you can eat it, you can rub with it,” he says. Apply a small amount on your hands (never directly onto the client, says Sharpell) and rub them together to distribute evenly. Start your massage with a light touch and then go deeper if the client wants. And remember: Too much pressure can cause injury. If your client’s breathing slows and they sink into the massage surface, they’re responding well to your massage.
1. Start With the Back
Kneel at your client’s head. To loosen the muscles supporting the spine, start at the top of the back almost at the shoulders and glide your hands along either side of the vertebral column, careful to avoid the vertebrae, says Sharpell. Work your way down to the lower back, then bring your hands back to the top of the back and repeat, gradually increasing pressure. Next, reposition yourself to the side of the person’s body just above the hips. Start massaging the lower back on the side closest to you, making large, wringing motions with your hands in opposite directions, toward and away from yourself, working up and down the back.
Related: Full Back Chair Massage Techniques
2. Move on to the Shoulders
Baritot says there’s a proper way to pull off “the boyfriend rub,” or rhythmic pinching of the upper shoulders. Instead of using one hand to rub each shoulder and shoulder blade, use both hands and focus on one at a time, firmly sinking your thumbs into the surrounding muscles and rotating them with your thumbs in a circular motion along the edge of the scapula.
3. Massage the Legs
When it comes to the legs, Sharpell says to start at the ankle and move up toward the hip. Grab the calf muscle, squeeze it and make a slight wringing motion, move up a few inches and repeat, working your way up the leg to the quads. Using open fists, make large circles along the sides of the quads, working your way to the front. “The quads can take a lot of pressure, so don’t be shy,” says Sharpell. One of the best ways to release posterior (rear) leg muscles (hamstrings and calves) is called cross-fiber sweeping, says Baritot. Using the palm of your hand, start on the inner leg and glide your palms upward toward the outer muscles of the leg, applying moderate pressure.
4. Focus on the Glutes
For gluteal work, Baritot suggests massaging one glute at a time, using long, gliding strokes (called effleurage) from the hip and sacrum toward the leg. “The downward compression of these muscles will lengthen their fibers and release a great deal of tension,” he says, recommending you conclude by using your thumbs to apply pressure along the upper glutes, from the hip to the sacrum. Sharpell says you can also add pressure and work out knots in this area by making a fist and gently pushing into each gluteal muscle with your knuckles.
Related: Reflexology & the Psoas
5. Don't Forget the Feet
Baritot recommends a few different moves to up your foot-massage game. 1. Centering point: As you work along the bottom of the foot, feel for a point at the front of the arch between the second and third toes. Allow your thumb to sink in and hold this point. Done right, this point can create release for the whole body, he says. 2. Piano keys: Your feet are the natural shock absorbers of your body and function best when they’re flexible. This technique helps to build your foot’s pliability. Place your thumb and index finger about an inch or two up the foot from your toe knuckles. Firmly wiggle the middle bones of the foot, as if you were wiggling the toes themselves. Repeat on the rest of the toe bones.
6. Back Up to the Neck
To work on the head and neck, have your client lie on their back and place the pillow beneath their knees to alleviate lower-back pressure, says Sharpell. Position yourself at the head facing the body and scoop both hands under the head, with the head on your palms and fingertips at the neck. Start near the skull and (while avoiding the vertebrae) gently push your fingertips up, tilting the head up slightly. Move your fingers along both sides of the neck, up and down, moving down in tiny increments toward the top of the back. You can tilt the head, extending the chin upward. Baritot recommends occipital traction to relieve neck tension: Run your fingers underneath your client’s head and neck until you reach the base of your client’s skull. The occiputs are the two bumps on the back of the skull on either side of the spine. Hook your fingers underneath these points and slowly but firmly pull the client’s head toward you, and then slowly release.
Related: Trigger Points & Chiropractics
7. Relieve Tension in the Head
Sharpell says to massage the head, use your fingertips to make circles around the skull. Press on the skull with your fingertips. Wiggle the head a little from side to side. Baritot says to release jaw muscles, place your middle fingers along the sides of the head and jaw and draw slow, small circles with your touch down from the side of the head (in the hairline) down all the way to the chin, gently squeezing the chin at the end. He also recommends ending the session with a good head scratch: Working slowly and deeply, manipulate the scalp and the muscles underneath in a circular motion. Use the tips of your fingers -- no nails!
What Do YOU Think?
What’s the best massage you’ve ever gotten? What made it so great? How did you feel afterward? Have you ever given a massage? Do you have any massage tips? Are you planning to try any of these tips? Did any surprise you, or had you heard these tips before? Share your thoughts, suggestions and questions in the comments section below!
Vivian Manning-Schaffel is a journalist, essayist, senior copywriter and rabblerouser who lives and works in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her work has been featured in Science of Us/New York magazine, The Week, DAME, US Weekly, CBS Watch!, Parents, Parenting, The New York Times and The New York Post.