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  • Writer's pictureKirby Clark, MMT

The Rule Of Three

Updated: Dec 19, 2023

Do you know the Rule of Three in Massage? Do you know that I consider there to be more than ONE Rule of Three? Why am I using so many numbers in massage therapy?

If you remember from a previous blog post, I teased you with the Rule of Three. Remember that the Rule of Three is a general rule of massage. The Rule of Three relates to the number of repetitions of individual strokes made during a massage. And yes, I consider there to be at least 3 Rules of Three; they are General/Specific/General, Light/Deep/Light, and Assessment/Treatment/Post Assessment (or Re-Assessment).

General Specific General

General, Specific, General is one of the first things I remember learning in Swedish Massage class during my training at Blue Cliff College in the fall of 2013. In the Rule of Three we’re making a series of three strokes on each muscle or body region. For General, Specific, General- you may have guessed, your first stroke is focused on being a general stroke, your second stroke is focused more specific, and your last stroke is a return to the general. Another way to think of it is imagining the client’s body region as a dark room. When you find yourself in a room with the lights off or dimmed, you search through it with outstretched arms. You try to identify large structures in the room (like a couch, a floor lamp, a coffee table, etc), until you find the specific thing you’re looking for in the room (let’s say you want to find a remote control). You’d start searching the room until you found the coffee table (a large structure) and then start searching the surface of the coffee table for a specific item (maybe there’s a box of tissues, a magazine or two, and finally a remote control). General, Specific, General is the same kind of idea. The therapist’s hands start with a general search through the body, identifying larger body landmarks (the spine, a shoulder blade, the hip bones, etc.) and then begins the specific search to find dysfunction (adhesions/knots, tension, asymmetry, etc.) and work on there until change occurs, then following up with more general work. Some therapists will also call this Macro, Micro, Macro.

Light Deep Light

In a similar fashion, Light, Deep, Light should follow a similar order. The first pass of a massage stroke should be light, the second pass deeper, and the third returning back to light work. You’d want the general search to be lighter pressure than the specific – otherwise how would the body determine which region with dysfunction is needing attention? If every stroke is deep pressure for the entire massage, how could the body prioritize any region over the other? This doesn’t mean that the therapist can’t use deeper pressure the whole time, but the specific work on dysfunction should be deeper than the rest of the work. If the general strokes start out with a “10” level of pressure, there’s nowhere else for the specific work to be deeper.

Assessment, Treatment, Post Assessment/Re-assessment

My last Rule of Three is similar to General, Specific, General. Assessment, Treatment, Post Assessment (or Re-assessment) can be thought of as testing the client’s body for those familiar signs of dysfunction, treating the area of dysfunction with massage techniques, and following up with either re-assessment or post assessment. After Treatment, if dysfunction remains, Frequency of the treatment should be increased. Of course, every rule of thumb like that has exceptions that make the rule worth breaking. Sometimes muscles or soft tissue just needs the treatment and time to think about the input it received. Remember, the Central Nervous System takes 30-60 seconds to focus on the sensory input of pressure. Connective Tissue, like Fascia, takes anywhere from 2-5 minutes to focus on the pressure experienced in massage. After 5 minutes of treatment on a specific dysfunction, the therapist runs the risk of overworking the region or over stimulating the nervous system.

All of this I’ve share in a hope to explain why massage therapists often make the same stroke a repetition of three times. It should also serve as a reminder to therapists who’ve been out of school for a long time why they were taught the Rule of Three in the first place.

Peace and Healing,

Kirby Clark, MMT, BCTMB

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