Swedish Massage Techniques (5 Steps)

Woman with a flower on her hair enjoys a Swedish massage at a spa.

Swedish massage is one of the most difficult massage techniques to master. This type of massage uses five individual steps that are typically performed in a specific order. The combination of each Swedish massage technique makes this type of massage one of the most effective at relieving muscular tension, chronic pain, and emotional stress and effecting how the joints and muscles function.

Here’s a detailed look at the five steps, in the order they are usually performed.

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Effleurage

A Swedish massage tutor teaches pupil correct effleurage.

This massage style involves long, sweeping strokes applied to different areas of the body. Pressure varies between light and firm, and the massage therapist uses either the fingertips or palms of the hand.

Effleurage is usually the first step of a Swedish massage, primarily because it improves blood circulation, and the use of long, sweeping strokes increases the temperature of the skin, preparing the muscle tissue to get the best results for the duration of the massage. This also helps you get in the right frame of mind to enjoy the rest of this deep tissue massage. Effleurage is a relaxing technique that is extremely effective at relieving muscle tension so you can enjoy what’s to come.

Another time when effleurage is often used is post-injury. Because it stimulates blood and lymph flow, it’s believed to reduce swelling and help the immune system fight off infection. Increased circulation improves the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the affected tissue, which can help speed up recovery and reduce pain.

This massage therapy technique can be used on multiple parts of the body but is most commonly applied to the upper and lower back, arms, thighs, and calves. The main difference between effleurage and the next technique, petrissage, is that effleurage is almost always relaxing. Petrissage, on the other hand, is stimulating.

Petrissage

Hands of a Swedish massage student practicing petrissage technique

Petrissage usually follows effleurage and is deeper and more intense. The massage therapist uses their palms, knuckles, and thumbs to knead the muscles rhythmically, attempting to stimulate and manipulate them deep below the superficial layers of tissue. This technique is used directly over muscular areas and can be painful for some people. The massage therapist should check in with the client regularly to make sure they are comfortable, and the client should tell the therapist when and if the pressure is too much.

This technique is commonly performed without lubricant or massage oil because the massage therapist needs a certain amount of tension to grasp, squeeze, and roll the skin to perform this technique properly. That said, some massage therapists use modified techniques that can be done with lubricants.

Petrissage has many benefits. In addition to promoting deep muscle relaxation, it also improves circulation and oxygenation and can increase muscle tone. While kneading is the most common approach, other techniques used in petrissage include:

  • Skin Rolling. In this technique, the massage therapist lifts the skin methodically and rolls it between the fingers. In addition to being relaxing, this method is useful for assessing the tone of the skin. Partial skin rolling is often referred to as lifting. This is when the therapist uses only the thumb and the first two fingers, working in smaller areas with less intensity.
  • Wringing. This is a push-pull movement performed using the fingers of one hand and the thumb of the other. It’s most commonly done on the arms and legs but can also be done on the back, usually with lubrication.
  • Milking. Milking is similar to kneading. The massage therapist uses both hands to manipulate a large muscle group, squeezing with one and then the other, rhythmically going back and forth between the two. It’s commonly done upper arms, shoulders, and legs.

There are some situations in which petrissage is contraindicated. It should never be performed over recent injuries or varicose veins, and massage therapists should use caution with atrophied muscles or avoid them altogether.

Tapotement

Tapotement technique applied on a woman's leg.

The next technique is tapotement. This rhythmic tapping is usually performed by cupping the hands and making them into fists. The therapist then uses the sides of the hands to perform the technique. Tapotement may be done on its own, but is often combined with petrissage. There are other approaches to performing tapotement, too, including using the tips of the fingers or the edge of the hand. The palms of the hands are never used for tapotement as they cannot produce the tapping effect necessary to perform it correctly.

Tapotement is often used in Chinese medicine to loosen secretions in the airways in patients with bronchitis. It’s also extremely stimulating and is great for revitalizing sore muscles, which is why it’s often used for athletes. Tapotement softens and relaxes tired muscles and encourages increased blood flow, ideal for rehabilitating from a sprain or strain or to loosen up before a practice or game. Tapotement can also be used to relieve tension-related headaches and promotes relaxation, clarity, and peace of mind.

During this technique, the massage therapist must avoid bony areas, like the knees, elbows, and spine. Generally, the therapist continues this rhythmic pounding until the skin begins to take on a pinkish hue and then they move on to another technique.

Friction

Therapist doing applying the friction technique on a woman's right shoulder.

Friction is the next of the five Swedish massage techniques. This step creates heat in the tissue which penetrates deep down and helps to relax the muscles. The massage therapist rubs their hands together to warm them, and then applies the fingers or thumbs to the skin, compressing the tissue and moving in either a circular or perpendicular motion. Lubricant is not used because the therapist cannot get sufficient tension between their hands and the client’s skin if massage oil is used.

Because this technique uses precision and pressure, it’s ideal for treating specific areas that may be tight or painful. It’s particularly effective for treating joints, softening tense muscle fibers so they relax and realign. Massage therapists often use friction to treat tendonitis, like golfers or tennis elbow, and it works well in conjunction with vibration.

Vibration

As the name implies, vibration involves rhythmic shaking. The speed and severity of the vibration depend on the massage therapist, the client, and the goal of the massage. Vibration can be used to stimulate the internal organs, but it is also used extensively to relieve back pain.

Vibration is effective because it stimulates the nervous system, more so than other massage techniques. There are two main approaches to performing a vibration technique, each using a similar technique but on different areas of the body.

Jostling is primarily used to get the blood flowing and to stimulate the specific area the massage therapist is working on. The therapist pinches and grasps the muscles with their hands, and then vibrates them somewhat vigorously.

The other method of vibration is shaking. This technique stimulates the joints rather than the muscles and is used to loosen the ligaments to improve or maintain flexibility.

Jostling and shaking are usually used together. For example, the massage therapist might begin by shaking the knee to loosen the ligaments and then move on to jostling the surrounding muscles. This ensures that everything contributing to the motion of the joint is covered and is the best way to deliver positive results to the client.

Vibration can also be done using an electric vibrating massager. There are a lot of models to choose from, and some of them are extremely effective. Anyone who can’t afford a massage therapist or doesn’t have time to commit to regular sessions should consider investing in one of these tools.

Vibration is incredibly relaxing and usually performed as part of the cool down at the end of a Swedish massage session. Even if the therapist is only performing vibration on a small part of the body at a time, the relaxing effects are systemic.

Benefits of the Combination of Swedish Massage Techniques

Woman with a flower on her hair enjoys a Swedish massage at a spa.

Because of the unique combination of techniques used in Swedish massage, it benefits your body in a lot of ways. Not only does Swedish massage help you relax and reduce stress, but it’s also believed to release endorphins that improve your mood and can even help you sleep better at night.

There are a lot of physical benefits, too. Swedish massage elongates and loosens the muscles. Petrissage and vibration are especially effective at opening the joints, and effleurage can minimize swelling, the combination of which leads to increased flexibility. When these techniques are used on the back muscles, they may improve posture by easing tension and easing stress on the overworked muscles that are compensating for postural imbalances.

Effleurage, petrissage, and friction are effective at stretching the muscles and joints, improving range of motion. These techniques, along with tapotement, increase circulation, which delivers more oxygen throughout the body, improving energy and relieving or preventing headaches.

But the unique thing about the five steps of Swedish massage is how well they work together to deliver overall improvement to your health and well-being. Some of these Swedish massage techniques are stimulating, while others are relaxing. It is truly the combination that makes Swedish massage such an impressive skill to learn.

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