What is a Professional Massage?

Just like any service available in an open marketplace, massage therapy services run the spectrum from not-so-good to exceptional. If you’ve ever received a professional massage from more than one therapist, you’ll notice difference in their approach to massage, their training, and how effective the treatment is. A truly professional massage therapist delivers a truly professional massage.

So is your therapist a true professional? Are you getting the best massage therapy service you can get?  Here are ten signs, in no particular order, that you’re probably working with the best. Does your massage therapist measure up?

  1. Licensed & educated. Like any profession, massage therapy is regulated. There are education and testing requirements that vary by state. Working with a licensed and certified therapist ensures your therapist has the knowledge and skills to keep you safe, respect your boundaries, and work within their scope of practice. Look for a certificate posted in the place of business. It should be issued in their name, from a reputable certification body. In California, it’s the California Massage Therapy Council, for example. You can usually go online to your state’s licensing or certifying body and search for the name of your therapist to verify certification if you have a question.
    There should also be a business license present at the place of business. That license allows them to legally work in the city and/or county of the practice. In most cases liability insurance is also required, provided either by the company a therapist works for, or personally obtained by each therapist. If you ever have any doubts, just ask your therapist about their training and licensing. They will be glad to talk about their hard-earned credentials. If you get the runaround, go elsewhere.
  2. Clean and safe location. Massage therapy locations should be squeaky clean and in a location that is safe for clients. Linens should be disinfected and changed after every use. Massage creams, lotions and gels should be stored in clean containers and should be non-allergenic. Rooms should be dust-free. The only smells around are those of purposeful aromatherapy.
    If the therapist works outside of an office, at an event or they come to your home or place of business, they should have and use cleaning supplies before and after your session.
    And most importantly, no matter where you see your massage therapist, they should respect your personal boundaries. They should drape properly, maintaining modesty and comfort of the client. They never EVER make inappropriate comments or gestures (nor should you). They act in a professional manner at all times.
  3. Before the massage. A professional therapist will talk to you about your goals before the session begins. They will completely and carefully review your intake form (there MUST be an intake form!) and ask questions about things you have indicated on the form that are areas of professional concern. They will talk to you about their plan for the session and tell you what to expect. They will answer any questions you have about the session. Finally, they’ll explain, in as much detail as you need, how the session will start and what they should do first.
  4. Quality of touch and “flow”. Professional therapists develop the ability to sense what is going on with your body as they work. Their touch is purposeful and comfortable. The bodywork session flows smoothly with transitions from one are of the body to another logical and predictable. They are “present” (focused only on you) and their work shows it. You’ll notice several techniques used and the pace of the massage will very from slow to moderate speed depending on the techniques used and the goal of the massage. The touch of the therapist will indicate that they are completely aware of anatomy, kinesiology and the work that they do will have a solid foundation in that knowledge.
  5. Communication during the session. A professional therapist will keep lines of communication open during the entire session. You should feel free at ANY time to express massage related concerns, like an area that’s particularly sore or tender, or pressure that’s too heavy or light. In some cases, there will be a constant dialog between therapist and client, particularly if the work is targeting a specific concern, injury or condition. Sometimes your therapist will remind you to breathe, or coach you into mindful breaths to help you relax. Other times, you’ll just drift off to sleep as the therapist works. Either scenario is fine, but feel free to speak up with any concerns at any time.
  6. Communication after the session. A professional massage therapist makes sure to review the work done with each client and gets specific feedback about the effectiveness of that work. In some cases pre- and post-testing of range of motion or  postural measure are done. The professional therapist always talks to the client about how to prolong the good results of the session through good habits (like drinking plenty of water or watching their posture at they work) and recommendations for homework (like stretching or taking a assessing their pillow as a way to help them sleep better). Even though the therapist might have a following client, the therapist doesn’t seem rushed and spends the time they need to help you be completely happy with the session.
  7. Meet your goals. A professional therapist listens carefully to what you goals are and then meets or exceeds those goal for the session, where possible. If you come in stressed out and in need of relaxation, the session should leave you more relaxed and refreshed. If it’s a sore back or shoulder, you should feel better after the session. In any case, the therapist should show they listened to your goals by reminding you of them at the end of the session and making recommendations for further care in the instances where more massage therapy sessions are required to meet a goal.
  8. Check how you feel at the end of the session. In most cases, you’ll know right away how you feel. In general, you should NOT feel serious ached or pain after a massage. If you do, the therapist might’ve worked too deeply, which shows, in some cases, a lack of education and skill. Or, you should seek a physician’s care for an issue that is beyond the scope of the therapist. Even deep tissue sessions, when done correctly, should not result in pain; although there may be some “muscle awareness” for a while after the massage session. When you wake up the day after your massage, you will likely still feel the good effects of the bodywork. If you are very sore, make sure you tell your therapist so they can change their technique for the next session.
  9. Find out what others think. In today’s social-media rich world, listening to the opinions of others can be a strong indication of skill and professional competence. Massage therapy is a personal service, so the ratings on YELP, for example, reflect the satisfaction levels of an individual (usually). Of course, nobody is perfect, to there are likely to be a spectrum of reviews. Don’t let a single review sway your opinion, however. Look for overall patterns.
    “It was a very effective session.” “The therapist listened well to my goals for the session.” These tell you that the therapist did a great job. If you see lots of negative reviews about things like lack of common courtesy toward clients or people being sore after a session, go somewhere else.
  10. You want to return. Like any good service, when you are completely satisfied, you want to return for more. If you have a great session by a trained and qualified professional massage therapist, you’ll want to go back. Not because the session was just worth what you paid, but because it was worth receiving the body work because it met your goals so well. And guess what, if you return to see the same therapist time and again, communication will continue to improve, the therapist will get to know your body better, and the session will continue to get better every single time.

It pays to look around and get a professional massage form a qualified massage therapist. Ask your friends for a recommendation. Shy away from places that look sketchy or charge “amazingly low rates”. Would you shop for a physician because they are cheap? It takes time and effort to become a professional massage therapist and a significant chunk of change to run a professional business that provides a safe space and caters to the needs of their clients fully. Support your local massage therapist by honoring their education, wisdom and technique and not short-changing them. Get a professional massage from a well-trained, ethical therapist. You’ll be glad you did.

For more information on selecting a qualified therapist, visit: