The topic of this article seems very trivial, but in our profession the important subject of the speed of massage strokes is very frequently misunderstood and even disregarded. The massage practitioner during treatment relies on a very limited arsenal of healing factors: various forms of pressure application, vibration, activation of temperature receptors, and variations in the speed of the massage strokes. All healing effects of massage therapy are the results of a combination of these four factors. This article will discuss how to correctly use and alternate the speed of massage strokes for the clients’ and practitioner’s benefit.
If we open any massage textbook we will find recommendations that effleurage strokes should be applies with a frequency of 40-50 strokes per minute or particular friction should be applied with the frequency of 60-70 strokes per minute. Interestingly enough, the authors rarely explain why they recommend this exact frequency and why it is supposed to be maintained within this specific range.
I don’t think that practitioners who read such recommendations, work on the clients keeping one eye on the clock. The only way this information is useful is to give the practitioners an approximate speed of application.
The situation becomes even more complicated when the massage technique is used with great speed (e.g. superficial friction, intense percussion or vibration). The measurement of the speed in such cases can be done only when using slow motion filming and this is not a way we can learn the application of massage techniques. From this point of view it will be more practical if I use three degrees of speed (slow, moderate, and fast) for each type of massage technique.
Why is understanding and the correct usage of various speeds, even the same massage techniques, so important? Basically any type of massage uses variations of speed as a cornerstone of its application. The main reason for that is that speed of the massage strokes is one of the major tools which the massage practitioner uses to balance the activity of the sympathetic (i.e. stress) and parasympathetic (i.e. relaxation) divisions of the autonomic nervous system. As we know, the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system is one of the key elements to good health.
In a simple statement, we may say that massage strokes with a higher speed stimulates the sympathetic nervous system while the slow pace of massage strokes inhibits the sympathetic nervous system and activates the parasympathetic division. However, the speed of the strokes is only one component as we need to take into consideration the nature of the massage techniques which are used with different speeds of the strokes. This is why we will discuss the issue of speed in correlation with various types of massage techniques.
Overall effleurage employs the slowest massage strokes and it links all applied techniques together during the massage of each body segment. Because every session, as well as a massage of each body segment, starts with effleurage the initial speed of application is slow. It allows the practitioner to spread the lubricant, test the tissue, and it helps to establish the first sensory contact with the client, especially if he or she is a new one. After the first two to three introductory strokes the speed of effleurage should be increased to the moderate level and maintained during the rest of the application on the segment. The video below shows the application effleurage strokes using slow and moderate speed.
The advantage of moderate speed is significant stimulation of the lymph drainage and desensitization of the peripheral receptors. The lymph drainage outcome of the effleurage can be enforced if the technique is used in correlation with the client’s respiration. Observe the respiratory cycle and try to fit the two to three effleurage stroked into single client’s exhalation while switching to the application of other techniques (e.g. friction) during his or her inhalation.
The practitioner may use very fast effleurage strokes at the very end of the stress-reduction massage session in cases when the client can’t go home and relax there but needs to come back to physical or mental activity after the message session. In such cases the fast effleurage strokes will slightly activate the sympathetic nervous system, making him or her more alert but still sustain the obtained level of relaxation (see video below).
The video shows the application of fast superficial effleurage strokes along the intercostal spaces on the lateral surface of the thoracic cage.
The same principles of effleurage and its speed variations are used during the medical massage session. The special effleurage technique called Effleurage With Unequally Distributed Pressure helps to reinforce lymph drainage from the tissue of the upper or lower extremities, especially in cases of peripheral edema or various sensory abnormalities.
The sports massage also uses effleurage with different speeds, but it specifically employs very fast effleurage strokes as a part of pre-event massage.
Friction is a faster technique when compared to effleurage. The variations of speed allow the friction to have different effects on the body. Friction is the technique which has the greatest impact on local healing in the area affected by the trauma or inflammation. This massage technique activates the fibroblast cells which deposit the major repair protein of the body, called collagen, in the place of injury or inflammation.
The speed of friction also depends on the length of the friction strokes. The practitioner may greatly increase the speed of friction when he or she uses the shorter strokes and vice versa. The longer friction strokes demand a moderate or slow speed of application. The degree of applied pressure during friction is also a factor which affects the speed of the technique.
The friction during the therapeutic massage session is usually applied with slow to moderate speed on the tendinous part and bellies of the muscles. The practitioner should start with slow friction and after that increase the speed to moderate level. The video shows the application of friction with slow speed on the gastrocnemius muscle, and with moderate speed on the Achilles’ tendon.
During medical massage treatment the practitioner frequently applies moderate and fast friction. For example, the Cyriax’s procedure, which mostly consists of various types of fast friction, is used for the treatment of tendinitis, trauma of ligaments and soft tissue around the joints.
Another example is the superficial treatment which is used to treat the sensory abnormalities (tingling, numbness, etc.) locally. The slower friction is used to break scar tissue and various soft tissue adhesions. The video below shows short fast friction strokes along the medial edge of the scapula (strokes are similar to the periostal massage).
Another example of fast friction is superficial friction. The video shows this friction applied on the dorsal surface of the hand.
Sports massage employs a lot of friction in any of its applications. The original and most respected school of sports massage – Finnish Sports Massage – contributed greatly to the development of the friction technique and relies heavily on its application during the sports massage session. Depending on the nature of the sports massage session: rehabilitation, recovery, pre-event, etc. the speed of friction varies as well.
Overall the kneading (the same as effleurage) is a technique which has the slower pace of application. Still, kneading is used with the three levels o of speed: slow, moderate, and fast.
Kneading is the most energy consuming massage technique, but at the same time one of the most valuable. The application of kneading, especially using various speeds, demands correct body mechanics. If the practitioner doesn’t have this basic skill he or she quickly becomes exhausted without accomplishing a lot for the client.
Kneading with slow to moderate speed is used during therapeutic and medical massage sessions. The reason for slow to moderate speed of kneading is, it is necessary to stretch the muscle’s fibers and it is impossible to do this if the practitioner applies fast kneading. Kneading always starts with slow speed, which may be increased moderately later. The video shows the application of kneading with slow, and later, moderate speeds.
Fast kneading is mostly used during pre-event sports massage sessions. In this case kneading has a different goal: to open reserve capillaries in the massaged muscles of the athlete and prepare tissue for optimal performance. This is why kneading in these cases is implemented with use of fast speed but through applying short bursts (see video below). In all other cases of sports massage (post-event, recovery, etc.) kneading is used with slow to moderate speeds.
Compression is used with slow and moderate speeds. Use of fast speed does not provide any benefits of compression technique. Slow compression is used during the stress reduction of the therapeutic massage session, but the wide contact areas of the hand must be used. The video shows the speed of the compression. The best test for correct speed of the compression is that each compression stroke must fit into each client’s exhalation.
During the medical massage session compression is used as a part of a trigger point therapy in the slow regime. Another example is the inhibition of the H-reflex using repetitive compressions with moderate speed. The video shows this example of the compression when applied to the Achilles’ tendon during the client’s exhalation.
Careful and slow compression can be part of the sports recovery massage session.
Overall the percussion is a stimulating massage technique, and it may be used with both moderate and fast speeds of application. There are many variations of percussion, (slapping, hacking, whipping, etc). As part of the therapeutic and stress reduction session, percussion is better used with moderate speed and the hand relaxed. Further increase of the speed will decrease the relaxing impact of the massage session. The video below shows the application of the percussion in hacking form with the hands relaxed.
As a part of the medical massage fast percussion is used in the areas of sensory deficit, (i.e. tingling, numbness, etc.)
As part of sports massage fast percussion is part of pre-event massage while moderate percussion is used during the recovery session of sports massage.
Vibration is a massage technique applied with moderate and fast speeds. The manual vibration is very energy demanding for the practitioner. It must be applied with the correct body mechanics in order to reduce body strain and fatigue.
The video shows the application of the manual vibration with moderate and fast speeds. Please notice that vibration strokes originate from the practitioner’s shoulder rather than the hand.
Stephen Ryason was born in Seattle, WA, and currently resides and works in Scottsdale, AZ. He has been a full-time Massage Therapist since 1996. He practices medical massage in his clinic in Scottsdale. Aside from his passion for more knowledge related to his career, his hobbies include: golf, back country fly-fishing, and aviation. He is a licensed helicopter pilot. Stephen may be contacted through this website.
Category: Stress Reduction Massage