Health & Wellness

What Exactly Is A Deep Tissue Massage?

September 10, 2022

Serenity Here
I devour health and wellness information, and love to share everything that works in my life, so you can use the same self care and lessons in yours!
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Breaking down this often misunderstood but highly sought after massage therapy type. 

If you’ve been in a session with me, it comes as no surprise the amount of information I convey upfront to explain how our time together will look. 

I do this for a few different reasons: 

  • To be mindful of trauma survivors, which I believe as a trauma informed therapist is vital and a non-negotiable when it comes to body work, 

  • To give a solid understanding of what to expect, including the importance of coming in slow and warming the body up to be invited in – opposed to fast and hard, which can trigger the body, and; 

  •  Educating you on why I do what I do.

When clients come in for a focused, often deep tissue massage, I often hear the words, “more pressure” right up front when checking in on specific body areas. And I get it, when your body is in so much pain, or you really start to feel the tension when someone starts to meld into it, that can sometimes be what we think we need. 

I’ve even had clients tell me that they know it will be painful, but they can take it. Or the complete opposite – that they don’t want deep tissue, because they’ve had other therapists and have been left feeling miserable after a deep tissue massage. This is where education is queen! And I am more than eager to jump in and provide my take. 

More pressure doesn’t always equate to feeling better. 

I’m pretty firm on my belief that massage should not be painful. Intense, yes, painful, no. I want the body inviting me, not telling me to hit the road. In order for the body to invite me in, pain is off the table – literally!

Something that has become abundantly clear to me after working with bodies holding thick, solid tension, is that it can be difficult for clients to feel the massage. When tension builds up, it’s easy to think we need really firm pressure if you can’t feel anything other than that. 

I always try to ensure I’m giving a combination of both, the firm pressure the asked for, and the work that I know is going to make the difference the body needs. I understand it can be difficult to gauge how a massage therapist is making a difference or helping, if you aren’t feeling much, and sometimes nothing at all. But rest assured, felt or not, light touch goes a long way!

So let’s start with what the heck “Deep Tissue” actually is, and what it means. Well, easier said than done, because it means different things to different people. I’d bet money if you survey ten people, you’d get different answers. However, I think there are some common themes so let’s make it simple. Let’s start by breaking down the actual words. We have deep, and we have tissue – simple, right?!


Merriam Webster says: not located superficially within the body. So this tells us we need to go further down past the superficial layers. 


Merriam Webster says: an aggregate of cells usually of a particular kind together with their intercellular substance that form one of the structural materials of a plant or an animal. Okay, so if we want to get technical, we’re not exactly a plant or animal but all the same, we have cells that function similarly, so let’s go with it. 

Fusing these two together leaves us with a massage focused on cells that form structural material past anything superficial. 

With that said, it’s easier to understand why this concept can mean different things to different people, and you may not get a similar deep tissue massage by two different therapists depending on their interpretation.

I’ve hinted throughout some of the approaches I take, but I’ll explain in more detail now that we have the definition better nailed down! A big confusion seems to be that deep and firm go hand and hand, but that’s not necessarily true. 

First and foremost, the intent and end goal of any type of massage is usually similar. We want the muscles of the body to relax (the mind is an extra bonus!), and we want our body to be pain free and balanced. Depending on what your body has or is going through can steer us in different directions. 

Any type of massage should be comfortable. 

When we live a high stress lifestyle, have certain trauma patterns stored in the body, or there is injury, the body may need some extra focused attention, more than Swedish strokes and relaxing massages. Swedish has its place, and the benefits are growing, but since we’re focusing on deep tissue, well, we’ll focus on deep tissue. 

The approach to deep tissue in my practice is slow and steady wins the race. Usually deep tension is covered with surface tension and that is where I want to start. This takes a light touch to warm everything up. 

I like to compare it to coconut oil. When it’s cold, it’s solid, but the minute it starts to warm it becomes liquid. If you want to get to the bottom, you have to start at the top and if everything is solid, getting to the bottom is darn near impossible, until you warm things up. 

Once the body is getting used to my touch and the muscles are warmed up, I can start to sink into the deeper layers. I start out on the surface, come in at an angle, and very slowly start to melt into the fibers and tissue found below, breaking up the fascia (connective tissue surrounding our muscles and keeping them in place). 

When muscles are tense and appear to have been for some time, this practice is much slower. The melting and sinking takes time, so patience is your friend. There is no forcefulness here, and the “force is strong with this one” need not apply!

Communication is key on both ends. I ensure I’m checking in with my client and making sure to remind them to let me know if we pass the line of intensity. Remember, intense but not painful. Think, am I inviting this in, or is the body screaming no. If it’s screaming no, we’ve passed the boundary of the body and need to ease up. 

It can be normal as the one receiving for the body to want to tense or often hold the breath, so breathing should be less automatic and more intensional. Slow and steady, just like the work. 

EveryBODY has their own timeline. 

Sometimes there is significant relief from one session and sometimes it’s only subtle. The body decides, and the mind supports it. Placing your mind in a calm state during deeper work is great for assisting the body to start letting go and can often help with the release. 

In the end I’m a fan of remaining open and allowing in what the body needs. Sometimes it’s light touch in one area, and deeper work in another. The body communicates, and even though we love jumping in with words, as a therapist it tells me what it needs through my touch. And I listen. 

Let us know about your experience with deep tissue below – friend or foe?

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