Swedish Massage Therapy Benefits: More Relaxation & Flexibility

Swedish massage is the most recognized and most commonly used type of massage in the United States. Most massage therapists learn Swedish massage as their core massage practice, they may add on other modalities as they progress in the profession.

Swedish massage is generally used for improving relaxation, circulation, and range of motion. It has been used in research studies that found massage therapy effective for pain control, reduced anxiety, and other measures of well-being. (4)

Known as “classic massage” in Europe, Swedish massage is often credited as being based on the system of Swedish Gymnastics invented by Per Henrik Ling (1776-1839) in Sweden (4), although recent writings suggest that may be incorrect and that Ling did not utilize these movements in his “gymnastics” exercises.

Historians who researched the origins of massage generally give credit to Dutch practitioner Johan Georg Mezger (1838-1909) for adopting French names to denote the basic strokes and systemizing massage as we know it today, as Swedish or classic massage. (1,2)

Swedish massage uses five basic strokes:

  1. Effleurage (Gliding)

The term effleurage is derived from the French word for “touch” or “contact.” Also referred to as gliding strokes, effleurage techniques stroke along the length of a limb. It is generally the first and last stroke used in massage and is used to introduce touch, warm the tissues for deeper work, and to soothe and relax an area that has just been massaged.

Effleurage techniques can use no pressure (ethereal or aura strokes), superficial to light pressure (feathering or nerve-stroking), light to moderate pressure (superficial effleurage) and deep pressure (deep effleurage). In a typical Swedish massage, the massage therapist may use superficial effleurage to apply oil or lotion, and then gradually increase the intensity to warm the tissues before transitioning to petrissage (kneading) or other deeper techniques.

After an area has been massaged, the therapist often uses feathering effleurage to lightly stroke along the area, to “say goodbye” before transitioning to the next area. Ethereal or aura strokes are sometimes used at the end of a whole-body massage to ease the transition from being massaged to being back in the “real world.” In Swedish massage, effleurage strokes that are deep enough to affect fluid flow should be directed towards the heart. (3,4,5)

2. Petrissage (Kneading)

Petrissage is used on all fleshy areas of the body in a Swedish massage. Its purpose is to increase local circulation and may also reduce adhesions in muscles and fascia. Petrissage is accomplished by the hands working alternately as a unit, with one hand grasping the tissue and lifting it into the palm of the other hand, and then the process is reversed with the tissue being moved back to the first hand.

On smaller areas, the flesh may be held between the fingers and the heel of the hand or the thumb. (3,4,5)

3. Friction (Rubbing)

Friction movements involve moving more superficial layers of flesh against the deeper tissue. It presses one layer of tissue against a deeper layer to flatten, broaden, or stretch the tissue. Friction also creates heat in the tissue. This increases the local metabolic rate and also makes connective tissue in the area softer and more pliable.

Friction movements may be circular, where the superficial tissue is moved over the deeper tissue in a circular manner, or they may be directional. Cross-fiber friction moves tissues in a direction 90 degrees from the direction of the fibers of a muscle or tissue and is usually done using the fingertips.

The intention of cross-fiber friction is to broaden, separate and align the fibrous tissue. In longitudinal friction, the hand moves in the direction of the fibers. It is used to stretch and align the collagen fibrils within the fascia. (3,4,5)

4. Tapotement (Percussion)

Tapotement movements are stimulating to the body. They include tapping, slapping, hacking, cupping, and beating. Tapotement movements can be done simultaneously with both hands or by alternating hands. They use very little force, and their general effects are to tone the muscle being worked on.

With each strike, the muscles contract and then relax, which causes the toning effect. Tapotement should not be done on muscles that are abnormally contracted or over any sensitive area. Tapping is done with the fingertips and is used on sensitive areas such as the face.

Slapping is done with the flat palm of the hand and the fingers and is done sparingly, due to its highly stimulating effect. Slapping is often done on the feet. Hacking is done with the ulnar side of the hand (pinky finger side) and may be used on the back or the legs.

Cupping is done with the cupped palm of the hand and is sometimes effective for breaking up congestion in the lungs. Beating is done with a softly clenched hand and is the deepest form of percussion. It is often used on thicker, fleshier areas such as the gluteals. (5)

5. Vibration (Shaking)

Vibration is performed by putting the hand or fingers on an area of the body and rapidly shaking it. Vibration is stimulating when done over a short period but relaxing when done for long time periods. (4)

Other types of movements often included in a Swedish massage:

Touch – Light or superficial touch is used to soothe and to allow a connection between therapist and client. It is often used at the beginning and end of a Swedish massage or segments of a message. Deep touch or pressure may calm, anesthetize or stimulate the area being worked on. It is often combined with friction strokes, vibration or compression to release areas of tension or congestion. (5)

Joint movements – During a Swedish massage, a therapist may use passive or active joint movements to assess, stretch, or rehabilitate muscles and soft tissue surrounding a joint. Passive joint movements are done with the client relaxed and the therapist doing the work. Active joint movements are when the client is asked to move the joint. Active movements may be assisted or resisted by the therapist, in order to accomplish a therapeutic effect. (5)

A Typical Swedish Massage Session

Swedish massage is typically done with the client unclothed or minimally clothed and draped with sheets. It is a systematic massage, where the therapist will begin and end on one section of the body before moving on to the next. In a typical message sequence, a therapist will first uncover the section of the body to be worked on, then use long, gentle effleurage strokes to cover the area with lotion or oil.

Typical oils used include coconut oil, almond oil or jojoba, although some therapists use other oils or blends of oils. In addition to providing “glide” and helping the therapist work smoothly, lotions and oils are often infused with aromatherapy essential oils to aid in pain reduction and relaxation. Once the area of the body has been lubricated, the therapist may use petrissage to warm the muscles and increase blood flow to the local area.

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Friction strokes and deep effleurage may be used to work more deeply in areas that have congestion. The therapist may utilize joint movements to stretch the muscles and to check if there are any restrictions on movement. The therapist finishes working on the area with light effleurage, then re-drapes and moves on to the next section of the body.

Half of the message is done with the client supine (face up) and half with the client prone (face down). Massage tables generally have a face cradle that allows the client to lay face down without turning their neck, preventing injury to the neck or discomfort from being face-down for an extended time.

Tapotement is often used at the end of the message or at the end of working on a section of the body to energize the client. A typical full-body Swedish massage may take from 30 minutes to one and a half hours to complete. (4)

Important considerations for an effective Swedish Massage

An important rule in Swedish massage that differentiates it from other styles, is that one intention of the massage is to enhance venous blood flow and lymph flow. Therefore, most strokes are done in a direction toward the heart centripetal). Only strokes light enough that fluid flow is not effective should be directed away from the heart (centrifugal). (5)

In addition, to have a relaxing effect, Swedish massage strokes should be done at a steady rhythm and slower than the client’s normal pace. In a sports massage session, strokes may be faster and more vigorous. (5)

In general, a Swedish massage segment begins with light pressure, gradually increases pressure to the client’s tolerance, and then backs out to light pressure again. At no time should the pressure be enough to cause injury to the tissue. If the pressure exceeds a client’s pain tolerance, it should be reduced in order have a therapeutic effect. (5)

When Should Swedish Massage NOT be Done?

Clients who have fever, vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, pain due to unknown cause or jaundice may have some type of infection and should not receive any type of massage. Clients who have acute phlebitis, thrombosis or varicose veins should also not receive massage, as it could dislodge a blood clot.

Other conditions may require adjustment of pressure or avoidance of certain areas. This includes avoiding abdominal massage in clients with high blood pressure or heart problems, avoiding massage over chronic varicose veins, and no massage over a broken bone, bruised area, or contagious skin condition. (3,4)

Swedish Massage TherapyReferences:

  1. Calvert, RN. Pages from History: Swedish Massage. Massage Magazine Apr 24, 2014.
  2. Swedish Massage: Is Swedish Massage Really from Sweden?
  3. Ravald, B. The Art of Swedish Massage. 1982. The Bergh Publishing Group, Inc. USA-Switzerland-Sweden-Spain.
  4. Claire, T. Bodywork: What Type of Massage to Get and How to Make the Most of It. 1995. William Morrow and Company, Inc. New York.
  5. Beck, M; Hess, S.; Miller, E. Massage Basics: A Guide to Swedish, Shiatsu and Reflexology Techniques. 2002. Delmar. USA.

Carmen is an entrepreneur and content marketer. In a former life, as a corporate business executive, she relied on yoga, reflexology and other alternative practices to fight stress, anxiety and find balance. She’s on a mission to build healthy habits for a balanced, healthy life, connecting body, mind and spirit.