Is it deep massage or deep tissue?

Ever wonder what the difference is between a deep massage and deep tissue massage – or soft tissue versus deep tissue?

Most massage therapists and instructors don’t use these terms properly. Even worse, you may be paying extra for the training and skill-set required to achieve the desired results of deep tissue while only getting randomly applied strong massage.

First of all – what is soft tissue? Soft tissue includes the skin, muscles, nerves, blood vessels, tendons, ligaments and other connective tissue (fascia).
By now you should realize that bones and cartilage are not soft tissue.

I will use the term “massage” rather than “bodywork”. The difference between these terms is a topic for another day – suffice it to say that there is no agreement within the profession and to the general public, massage involves some type of manipulation of the muscles (soft tissue) and bodywork is what your car needs after an accident.

Massage can use a light, medium or strong touch. In my experience, most people want “strong hands with a gentle touch” ™, a motto of my practice – a firm massage that feels good. Some say it “hurts so good” but I prefer “turns hurts, tension, knots into pleasure and freedom of mobility in the body”.

How much pressure is appropriate? I think of it in terms of driving a car – some people rarely if ever exceed the speed limit. Others have the proverbial “lead foot”. I personally tend toward speed in my car and deeper touch in my massages and find that most people want a firm touch.

Interestingly, I find some new clients these days asking for a light massage, but as they realize that a firm massage can be gentle, they ask for deeper pressure, ending quite strong.

So then what is “deep tissue” massage? In my world, deep tissue affects the deeper layers of soft tissue. It can actually be accomplished with a light touch is applied accurately.

Healthy muscle fibers lie more or less parallel to the others in the same muscle. As the muscle contracts, fibers spread allowing oxygen and nutrients to enter the cells and waste products to exit. Healthy tissue has a minimum of adhesions where fascia surrounding one muscle is “stuck” to the adjacent muscles’ fascia, resulting in trigger points. These areas of restriction result in muscles that no longer contract properly or pull on other muscles that needn’t be involved in the actions of the neighboring muscles.

Releasing these trigger points and adhesions is the goal of true deep tissue work.

Thing about a tangled up ball of yarn or fishing line. Would you dig in your elbow and expect to release the knots? Unlikely. What about gently spreading the individual strands (fibers) around the core of the knots? Much more successful, don’t you think?

Now to the body. Would you rather a massage therapist dig an elbow painfully into a knot, or gently spread the fibers? That’s true deep tissue in a nutshell. It can be accomplished with any amount of pressure as long as the tissue superficial (above) it is secured accurately to allow effective release.