Massage Tips & Techniques: Simple Tricks That Work Surprisingly Well

A Handy Gift

Inspired by our guide on how to pick gifts better than Santa, for Christmas Kim arranged one-on-one massage lessons with Maristha, an expert therapist at Elysium Massage Therapy here in Cape Town.

Over nearly seven hours of hands-on guidance, Maristha transformed us from clueless body-rubbers into semi-competent caressers. She corrected our many amateur mistakes and taught us a simple structure to follow and basic massage techniques. And we got massages from each other and from Maristha in the process!

We highly recommend massage lessons for any couple. (A new relationship hack!)

Meanwhile, here are the handiest massage tips we learned.

In This List of Handy Massage Tips

Massage Tips for Getting Ready

How to set your massage up for success.

✓ Set the mood right

Make sure it’s comfortably warm, and play some relaxing music.

…If you can.

Realistically, Kim and I will continue giving each other lots of massages while watching mindless stuff on TV.

Using just the right amount of oil is less than your think for a massage
With less oil, you have better traction on your partner’s tissue, as demonstrated by Maristha on Kim’s back.

✓ Don’t use too much oil, and don’t pour it straight on them

Massaging isn’t oil wrestling. Too much oil is messy and makes for too much slipping and not enough pressing. You do need more oil if you’re massaging a hairy person, but less than you think.

And rather than pour cold oil onto your partner’s bare skin, rub the massage oil between your hands to heat it up before applying it.

An important massage tip we learned is to massage on the floor instead of the bed.
Kim giving me a massage on the floor, which allows more pressure and more control than a bed.

✓ Don’t do it on the bed

Giving massages on a bed, which Kim and I used to do, has three downsides:

  1. Strain on the massage-giver. You can’t get in the right position to comfortably give massages and moving around is harder.
  2. Strain on the massage-getter. A too-soft surface puts the spine in a bad position that’s made worse when applying pressure.
  3. It’s less effective. You can’t exert as much pressure and control it as well when someone’s on such a soft surface.

A massage table is ideal, but also a bit of an eyesore and space-taker at home. Do leg massages lying on the floor and back and shoulder massages on a chair (facing it, Britney Spears-style, with a pillow between your chest and the backrest).

Kim neck massage - massage tips and techniques
Kim’s seated facing a chair here, with a pillow for padding, allowing easy access to massage her neck.

Planning

How to structure your master medley of massage moves.

✓ Don’t face each other to start

Start giving your massage with the receiver facing away from you—either on their stomach or on a chair. Not facing each other helps the receiver close their eyes and relax. And it shuts them up so you can focus on the job at hand.

✓ Start big before going small

Massage the big muscles and body parts first (back, thighs), then move to the smaller ones (neck, calves, arms, hands, feet).

✓ Don’t ignore the extremities

Most at-home massages Kim and I gave each other focused on the shoulders, back, and legs. Maristha showed that massaging the feet, hands, and head feels just as good or better. Plus they’re easier to do.

Maristha giving Chris a proper back massage using compression techniques.
Maristha applies compression with her elbow to get into the knots in my back.

✓ Follow this order of massage techniques

Maristha gave us a simple order to follow so that Kim and I don’t have to think too hard anymore about what technique to do next while massaging each other.

We just pick one or two of our favorite moves within each of these basic massage techniques, do each in threes (see the next massage tip) then move on to the next.

  1. Effleurage (Stroking)
    • Two hands, then supported one hand, to warm up.
  2. Petrissage (Kneading)
    • Rhythmically grasp muscle and squeeze it with alternate hands.
  3. Friction
    • Supported finger or thumb or forearm presses.
  4. Compression (Deep pressure)
    • Static thumb, knuckle, or elbow for any knots.
  5. Tapotement (Percussion)
    • Loose wrist fists and pinchies.
  6. Vibration and Shaking
    • Vibrate with your hands in one place or pick up a limb, pull it a bit, and shake it.
  7. Effleurage Again
    • Like a cool-down in a workout.

Note: You don’t have to do each massage technique for every part of the body and you don’t have to follow this exact order. This structure just makes it easier to decide what to do next.

Here’s a good intro video (with questionable music and a horrible tattoo) of some of these techniques. Not the absence of the ineffective amateur at-home classic shoulder hand-pinch:

✓ Three’s a charm

Doing the same massage technique over and over gets boring for both the massage giver and getter. So we learned to repeat each move three times, from three different angles when possible, then move on.

For example, put your fists together kind of like a rolling pin and massage up the leg three times on the inside, three times on the middle, and three times on the outside. Then repeat that cycle three times

Maristha kneading Kim's neck with her knuckles
Maristha kneading Kim’s neck with her knuckles, one of our favorite moves she taught us.

Technique

How to give the impression you have the hands of the angel and not feel like hell doing so.

✓ Keep constant contact

When giving someone a massage, try to keep your hands in contact with their body as much as possible. You don’t always have to apply pressure; even a light touch is fine.

This continuity of touch creates a soothing sensation.

✓ Don’t go too fast

Kim and I had a misguided tendency to massage each other as if we were scrubbing pans: too hard and too fast. Generally speaking, the deeper the massage, the slower you should move.

✓ Don’t break your back giving someone a back massage

Maristha was a big stickler for posture when giving someone a massage (something the Alexander Technique folks would certainly agree with).

Whenever possible, she advised widening your stance to get lower, even sometimes getting into a full-on lunge position, rather than bending over and straining your back.

✓ Don’t bend your arms too much

Keep your arms just slightly less than locked when massaging. Let the weight of your body and legs to the work rather than your arms.

Maristha demonstrating some techniques to save your fingers during a massage on the back.
Use your forearms, knuckles, and elbows instead of overworking your fingers.

✓ Don’t overdo it with your fingers

For most of us amateurs, the go-to massage move is to squeeze with our fingers, especially on the top of the shoulders. It feels good to get but:

  • It’s super tiring. Within no time your forearms and fingers start burning.
  • Other things feel better! Like your knuckles, for instance…

✓ Don’t be a knucklehead; use your knuckles

I never dared lay a fist on Kim (and vice-versa) until Maristha told me to. She showed us a few techniques that honestly feel even better than the classic squeezing move we used to always tire ourselves out with.

Here are a few basic massage techniques using the knuckles:

  • Monkey Hand: Bend your wrists to use the back of your hands and your first knuckles for a not-too-hard knuckle massage.
  • Cat Walk: With your hand in a claw-like shape, use the knuckles closest to your fingertips to knead tissue in a circular motion, one finger at a time.
  • Knuckle Grating: Form a loose fist and use your second knuckles to knead out tougher tissue like the shoulders, back of thighs, palms of hands, and soles of feet.

✓ Reinforce your movements

For more pressure, more control, and less strain, massage with one hand at a time while using your off-hand to support the wrist of the working hand.

You can do something similar with your fingers, too. For instance, if you’re running your index finger along the spine of the person you’re massaging, cross your middle finger on top of it for support.

✓ Don’t karate chop them

The reason Kim and I didn’t like it when we attempted to do the classic karate chop massage move on each other was we were too stiff.

Maristha told us to soften our hands and loosen our wrists instead. She also showed us that a loose side fist (so lightly curled fingers) can feel better than an extended chop-style hand.

And it really feels good! Once we learned this massage technique, “tapotement,” the fancy word for chopping and hitting, became one of the best-feeling moves.

✓ Shake ‘Em Up

Another silly-feeling but effective massage technique Maristha taught us that we’d never considered before was simple shaking.

If they’re lying on their stomach, pick up their leg by the ankle, pull it gently towards you, and give it a shake. Or, if they’re sitting on a chair, hold their wrist with their arm in a 90-degree angle as if they’re waving hello, and shake.

Give These Massage Tips a Try!

Give these massage tips a try to impress your partner with your professional pressing and earn yourself some brownie points. (Or subtly send them the link so they can up their game.) And let us know in the comments if you have any questions.

Better yet, see if you can’t find an expert like Maristha in your area to give you some in-person massage tips.

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Massage tips we learned from an expert masseuse with techniques and tricks you can use at home. #massagetips #massagetricks #couplesmassage

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Chris and Kim

Kim and Chris started The Unconventional Route in 2018 to share their adventures fighting complacency to win at life. Today, over 150,000 people a month visit the site and thousands more explore a dose of uncomplacent ideas with them every 10 days in their free newsletter, Consider This.

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