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4 Things I Wish I'd Known Before My First Massage

Here's what your massage therapist wants you to know before your first massage.

tips for your first massage appointment

Like so many others, I got my first massage at a Massage Envy chain. My friend had an extra credit from her monthly membership and she knew I'd never tried massage before, so she shared it with me.

From the moment I walked into the spa, it was like another world. There were charts of pressure points and meridian lines on the wall. The front desk gave me a long form to fill out, including a checkbox section asking if I wanted massage on my arms, my neck, my pecs, my glutes (???). I remember feeling nervous and excited.

But in the end, I hated the massage.

The pressure was either too deep and it hurt, or too light and it was ticklish. I could never relax. The whole thing felt awkward, especially the nudity. When it was finally over, she told me I had to drink a bunch of water after my massage to flush the toxins out, which was a whole new thing to worry about (no one told me I was going to have toxins after?!).

I found the whole experience kind of alarming and frustrating, and when I left, I thought I would never get a massage again.

Until 10 years later, I got my second massage, and it was so good that it changed my life. I literately went to massage school because of that, and now I've received hundreds of massages and given thousands. I can't imagine a life without massage therapy now - that sounds so joyless, lonely, and painful!

There's a couple clear reasons why my first massage sucked and my second massage was so life-changing.

Here’s what I wish I’d known back then:

Tip #1 - Intention is everything

There's all types of massage therapy including relaxation massage and medical massage

People get massage for all sorts of reasons, and as a result, there's many different types of massage therapy. (So many that it can be overwhelming!)

Once you know WHY you’re craving a massage, you can choose the right place and massage therapist.

You need to destress? Book a hot stone massage at a spa with complimentary sauna, steam room, and tea.

Struggling with back pain? Find an experienced massage therapist with advanced myofascial certifications. No bells or whistles, just expertise.

There's no one "best massage," it all depends on your desired outcome.

This was a big part of where I went wrong with my first massage. I just wanted to try anything, so I just booked wherever. There was no intentionality. If I could go back in time, I would have REALLY asked myself what I was hoping to get out of it.

With my second massage, I was having neck and shoulder pain, and my friend insisted that her massage therapist was the best for that and I needed to see her. When you've been in a lot of pain and someone reads your body and gives you immediate, incredible relief, that is an experience that stays with you. My massage therapist and I were on the same page, which made her touch so easy to receive and relaxing.

Start with the outcome you want, and then find a person who does that.

Pro tip - once you find somewhere that looks promising, you can call or message to explain what you're looking for, ask some questions, and start to get to know your massage therapist.

Tip #2 - Get more benefit with neuroplasticity

People love massage therapy as a way to slow down, get out of their own head, and back into their body.

But even if you don't care at all about lowering your stress levels (as if stress doesn't negatively impact your health), you will get longer lasting benefits from your massage if you give yourself the time and space to integrate it.

This is what that looks like:

Your first massage is just the beginning of something wonderful

Pay attention to your body before your massage. Try to scan from feet to your head and see what you notice. You might ask yourself questions like:

  • Does my back hurt?

  • Where does my weight fall on my feet - on my heels or toes? Inside edge or outside edge?

  • How heavy do my shoulders feel?

  • How easy is it to turn my head?

  • Can my crack your spine? Where? With what motions? Is there anywhere it feels like it wants to pop, but won't?

  • How long can I stand/walk without pain?

  • Is it worse in the morning or at the end of the day?

After your massage, take a minute to lie there and take a mental snapshot of all the good feelings you have.

Then, once you're up, check in with your body again just as carefully as before. You'll be surprised at all the differences, big and subtle.

As you focus on these new sensations, you rewire your brain away from the tightness, pain, and limited mobility you felt before, so that this ease, relaxation, and freedom of movement can last longer.

This is taking advantage of neuroplasticity, your brain's ability to reshape itself.

On the other hand, when you ignore your body after your massage and go right back to doomscrolling on your phone with your neck at a 90 degree angle, you're reinforcing stress and dysfunctional muscle patterns, and basically flushing the massage out of your system.

So please carry your massage with you by remembering the physical sensations of bliss, ease, and relaxation as vividly and as often as you can.

Tip #3 - Learn to love the pre-massage chat

Intake consultation between a massage therapist and client

Alright, you've done your research, you've listened to your body, and now you're here in the massage room and so, so close to your actual massage.

But first, your massage therapist wants to chat.

I know you're excited to get to the good stuff, but this conversation right here is actually what makes or breaks your massage.

You need to tell your massage therapist everything you figured out in #1 and #2 so you can get on the same page.

Along with this, they'll probably review your health history with you so they can learn about major injuries, illnesses, and surgeries. After all, your body went through all that stuff too, and it might still be relevant for how your body feels today.

For example, constipation can have a huge effect on back pain. It might feel weird to talk about digestive problems with your massage therapist, but it could make all the difference in actually getting you some relief.

I have a specific piece of advice here.

I really encourage you to talk about yourself: how your body feels, and what you want to get out of your massage today.

I don't recommend writing the massage plan for yourself.

So, it's great to say: “I’ve been having low back pain that I want to focus on.”

Don't say: “I want a back massage.”

Because the truth is that back massage is a pretty ineffective or even harmful way to treat low back pain. Depending on your situation, people usually get much more relief by releasing related structures in the hips, legs, and abdomen. Basically, the muscles of the low back are tight because they're the only thing holding you together, and relaxing them can destabilize your back and increase pain and injury.

If that was too complicated, that's OK. You don't have to be a back pain expert yourself. Just rely on your massage therapist's expertise.

Here are some more good examples of what to say to your massage therapist:

  • “I just want to relax today. I especially enjoy massage on my feet and scalp so I'd like extra time there.”

  • “I want a full body massage to help with my circulation.”

  • "My neck has been hurting lately. In the past, pec massage has helped with that the most. If there's time, there's this weird thing going on with my knee too, but that isn't as important."

  • “I had surgery last month and the doctor recommended post op massages, so whatever you think would be helpful.”

So share information (your the expert on your body) and then let your massage therapist lead (they're the expert on massage). This is why it's so important to find a really good massage therapist that you can trust.

Tip #4 - During the massage, don't be afraid to speak up.

So we're here. The massage has begun. It's amazing and would be perfect with a little more pressure.

You can just ask for more pressure.

You'll ask for more pressure in just a second.

Oh, wait, they moved on, you'll ask for more pressure if this area needs it--

Yeah, it does, you should ask--

Why is it so hard to ask?

It surprises a lot of people how hard it is to break the silence and ask for an adjustment during a massage. Even if you are normally pretty good about advocating for yourself, it's different when you're naked and lying face-down. It's easy to think "Well, they're the expert, I guess I'll just lie here and endure it..." It can even feel awkward to ask, like you're insulting your massage therapist's skills.

How to get the most out of your massage

But that's no way to feel during your massage!

Please, find the strength to ask for what you need.

This is a time and place where your body comes first.

Your massage therapist won't be offended; it's perfectly natural to need a bit of calibration, especially if this is your first massage (over time, a good massage therapist will remember you and learn your preferences).

Actually, I think one of the hidden benefits of massage is the opportunity to set boundaries around your body and advocate for yourself. It's a safe environment to practice in. See: Cultivating Self-Love With Massage Therapy.

Here’s some helpful phrases to try during your massage:

  • “Oh, that area is a little tender, can you use less pressure just on my calf?”

  • “Can I have an extra pillow under my knees?”

  • “I’m getting a little cold, can it be warmer?”

  • “Wow, I think that’s exactly what I need, that’s helping my shoulder a lot. Can you spend extra time in this area?”

  • “That pressure is OK right now, but that’s my max, no more than that please.”

  • “You know, I forgot to tell you that I don’t really like my legs touched, can we skip this part? Thanks.”

  • “My nervous system is kind of agitated today, would you be able to slow down your strokes? I think I just need something really slow and predictable so I can relax.”

  • “That feels really good, you could do that for the next 40 minutes and I'd be happy.” (Implied: do that for at least 5 more minutes)

If you feel like your massage therapist isn't listening to you, you can end the session early. The magic phrase is "Hold on, I need to get up, please leave the room so I can get dressed." Then you have privacy to get yourself together and decide what you want to do/say next.

I don't want to intimidate you... Sometimes you find a massage therapist who's apparently a mind reader and everything is exactly perfect from the very beginning all the way through to the end. Sometimes. Other times, you speak up and ask for what you want. Just know that your massage therapist is grateful to hear your communication and will work with you to make it better!

Most of all... Actually go get your massage!

It really comes down to intention and communication. When you know what you want and how to advocate for yourself, you will get infinitely better massages.

Sometimes you have to try a couple different therapists until you find one that you click with. If you’re like me and didn’t adore your first massage, don’t give up! Something is out there that will make you feel like a relaxed, happy noodle, and you deserve to find it.

If you’re trying to find a massage therapist in Seattle, we would love to see you at Sage Bodywork. Book a massage online or message us with any questions.

Life is better with massage in it!

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