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  • Writer's pictureKirby Clark, MMT

Massage Strokes & Forces

Updated: Dec 19, 2023

Does your massage therapist use all five massage strokes during your massage? How about all five mechanical forces? Do you even know what I'm talking about? Let's get into it!

In massage therapy, there are five traditional strokes and five mechanical forces employed during bodywork.

Massage Strokes

Effleurage stokes are best described as gliding strokes. Effleurage stokes can create a compressive, shear, or tensile force during a massage. Effleurage is often the first stroke introduced in massage schools and the first mastered by pre-licensed students. Palms, forearms, and elbows are the most common tools massage therapists use to create the effleurage strokes.

Petrissage stokes can be thought of as kneading strokes. Petrissage strokes are any stokes/motions that lift the soft tissue (skin, muscle, fascia) from its natural state. Petrissage creates a bending and/or a torsion force during massage. One of the earliest forms of petrissage that I was taught is skin rolling- done by lifting the client’s tissue between the therapist’s thumb and first two fingers and rolling the tissue down the length of the back. Some clients have soft tissue that makes petrissage easy to use, others have tissue that is “stuck” in dysfunction. Petrissage can help both.

Oscillation or Vibration strokes often create a shear or torsion force in the body during massage. Oscillation strokes can be very large and systemic- like rocking a client’s entire body, or they can be very small and fine- like making fast, tight circling stokes. Oscillation can even be somewhere in between those two- like jostling a client’s ankles back and forth.

Friction strokes can create shear forces in the body during massage. Friction strokes are mostly created with fingertips. Friction strokes can be linear, meaning they follow the direction of the muscle fibers, or they can be cross-fiber, meaning the strokes are applied against the muscle fibers. Friction stokes are common in deep tissue to help bring local circulation to the region being treated and hopefully break up adhesions (knots).

Tapotament or Percussion strokes are some of my favorite. The practice has lost a lot of popularity by massage therapists by the time they get out of massage school and start working with the public in a professional capacity. Tapotament strokes create a rapid compressive force in the body. Tapotament employs rapid, repeated, blows to the client’s body and can help confuse sensory nerves- I find tapotement to be great for client’s struggling with fibromyalgia. There are at least six common ways to apply tapotement strokes- hacking, slap/splat-ing, tapping, pounding, cupping(not to be confused with vacuum cupping), and diffused.

Mechanical Forces

Mechanical forces are often used as engineering terms. But the five mechanical forces also have use in massage.

Compression force is any technique that presses or pushes directly into the soft tissue of the body. Compressive force is simply sinking down into the tissue.

Bending force is created when tissue is bent in two different directions. This is often achieved by pinching the tissue or by lifting the tissue up- like with petrissage.

Torsion force used in massage is when tissue is twisted around- I like to think of it like wringing out a wet washcloth. Torsion is easiest to achieve on client’s limbs- the arms and the legs.

Tension force stretches tissue by pushing one end of a muscle away from the other end of it. Any time your massage therapist is pushing your tissue in opposite directions simultaneously- chances are tension force is being created.

Shear force happens when soft tissue is stretched in opposite directions creating a “S” shaped twist in the tissue. While tensile force is created in a linear direction, shear force can be applied cross-fiber.

If you're a massage therapist, take inventory of your work; how many of these strokes & forces do you use in your day-to-day bodywork? A well-rounded massage, in my opinion, employs a good combination of all ten in some way or another. And if you're a client, start to take notice, how many different strokes and forces can you now identify during your sessions?

Peace and Healing,

Kirby Clark, MMT, BCTMB

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