If you’re considering attending massage school, do you know what kinds of classes you’ll be attending? If you answered “massage classes,” you’d be right … but only partially so. Massage classes, which is to say, classes in massage techniques, are only one piece of the massage school puzzle. Are you curious as to what a massage therapy education entails? Then read on.
Anatomy and Physiology
Anatomy and physiology are the study of the parts of the body and what they do, respectively. From the molecular level to the level of entire body systems, you’ll be learning about the human body in great (some students might say excruciating) detail.
Naturally, muscles are a major focus of study for massage therapists. For each muscle, you’ll memorize the origins and insertions (starting and ending points), the actions that it performs, and the nerves that send it signals. You’ll also learn about the agonists, (muscles that cause the same movement) and antagonists (muscles that cause the opposite movements), and any muscle groups or compartments that the muscle belongs to. It might seem like a lot of rote memorization, but this knowledge is all to enable you to assess and work with these muscles once you’re a licensed massage therapist, so don’t skimp on studying!
Muscles usually attach to bones, and so you’ll be learning those in detail as well. Not only will you learn the names of the bones themselves, but you’ll also learn about their surface features. This will enable you to be really specific, so that you don’t end up saying things like “The deltoid muscle attaches on … that bumpy spot on the humerus.” It will also mean that you’ll be able to use bones as landmarks for searching for the muscles you want to work on in massage class, which is always helpful.
The more research that is done on massage therapy, the clearer it becomes that the nervous system is central to how massage actually works. You’ll learn about the brain, spinal cord, and nerves, what they do, and how they relate to massage. Some nerves are important in perception, which includes feelings like pain. Others are important for movement; when they aren’t functioning correctly, muscle weakness or spasm can result. Massage affects the central nervous system in ways that encourage it to slow heart rate, deepen breathing, and relax the muscles. Understanding the nervous system means understanding how to take a client from “fight or flight” to “rest and digest.”
Pathology is often taught as part of another class, sometimes with anatomy and physiology, sometimes in massage class, and sometimes it’s incorporated into both. But however you split it, you’ll be spending some time specifically focusing on pathology, which is the study of illness and injury. Pathologies range from minor things like acne, to major things like cancer. Some pathologies are “indicated,” meaning that they can be helped by massage, like arthritis pain. Others are “contraindicated,” which means that massage could cause harm to either the client or the therapist, like open sores. Learning pathology doesn’t mean you’ll be diagnosing things, which is the job of doctors. But it does mean that you’ll know the signs and symptoms of various problems in the body, what (if anything) you can do to help, and when you should refer a client to somebody who can provide treatment that you can’t.
Basic Massage Techniques
Massage technique classes are probably exactly what you envisioned massage school would be like. An instructor will demonstrate various techniques, and then you’ll have a chance to practice them on a fellow student while your teacher corrects and guides you. And yes, you’ll have a chance to be practiced on as well!
At most schools, basic massage classes focus on Swedish massage. Swedish massage incorporates a variety of motions, including long, gliding strokes, deeper kneading techniques, percussion, friction, and vibration. You’ll learn how to combine these different techniques to create a single, seamless massage experience for your clients.
Some massage schools focus exclusively on Asian styles of massage, such as shiatsu, and don’t base their education on Swedish massage. If this describes the school you plan to attend, your experience will be similar in that you’ll learn and practice individual techniques with an instructor, then learn how to incorporate them into a massage. The difference will be in the techniques taught and the theory behind how they work, which will be more likely to be based in an Eastern philosophy of medicine rather than a Western one.
Advanced Massage Techniques
Many schools offer more specific training after students have mastered the basic techniques in their initial massage classes. The techniques will obviously vary from school to school; if there’s a particular kind of technique you’re eager to learn, it’s worth asking around to see if any of the massage schools you’re interested in offers it as part of their educational program. Some examples of additional massage training might include:
- injury assessment
- neuromuscular therapy (trigger point therapy)
- cranial-sacral therapy
- stretching techniques
- pregnancy massage
The majority of massage schools have a clinic portion of the curriculum. This school clinic mimics the kind of massage setting you’ll experience as a licensed massage therapist, and enables you to practice all that goes along with it. This means that in addition to providing massage to clients, you may be asked to schedule appointments, set up and clean treatment rooms, take medical histories, maintain paperwork, or do laundry. If you’re thinking, “This is silly, I already know how to greet people professionally and fold sheets,” then congratulations, you’ll have two less things to worry about when you’re in your student clinic. And who knows? You might learn a trick of the trade that’ll make these everyday tasks even easier and more productive in your professional life as a massage therapist.
Chair massage can incorporate many different styles of massage, but is generally taught separately from the regular massage classes because of its unique challenges. Chair massage requires different body mechanics from massage provided on a table, and so techniques need to be adapted accordingly. The fact that chair massage is often performed in a public place is another factor. Additionally, chair massage clients are fully clothed, which is different from Swedish and many other massage techniques. Chair massage class is usually taught in a similar manner to other massage techniques (with demonstration and practice), but may have an additional outreach component since most massage school clinics do not have many (or any) chair massage clients for students to practice on.
Sometimes taught under the name “hydrotherapy” thermal treatments include the therapeutic application of both hot and cold. You may learn to work with ice, cold packs, hydrocollators, and contrast baths, or paraffin dips. Some schools may also include popular techniques such as the use of hot, warm, and cool stones. You’ll also learn when to use heat treatments versus cold treatments, and when to avoid thermal modalities altogether. Both can be very effective when used in conjunction with massage, so it’s good to have these techniques under your belt.
No matter where you live, there are some kinds of laws surrounding the practice of massage. In your law class, you’ll learn about your scope of practice (the limits on what’s defined as massage therapy where you live), rules about draping, business regulations, laws about ensuring client privacy when it comes to their medical information, laws about getting and renewing your massage therapy license, and anything else your state, county, or city deems important. It may seem boring, but it’s also essential if you intend to maintain a good reputation and a viable business.
Sometimes the law is incorporated into an ethics class, although they may be taught separately. While the law emphasizes the legal thing to do, ethics focuses on the right thing to do, regardless of whether it’s punishable by law. Because of the many gray areas inherent in the topic, ethics is most often taught as a discussion class. Topics that are often covered in ethics classes include issues of payment, personal and professional boundaries, marketing, providing and withholding information, privacy, and any topics that students are struggling with as they do increasing amounts of work with the public. Not sure how to handle an awkward situation? Ethics class is the perfect time to bring it up.
Most massage therapists will either work for themselves at some point or be responsible for finding and keeping their own clients, which is why business skills are such an important part of massage education. Topics covered in business classes may include the different types of businesses, record keeping, finances, marketing, and professionalism. You may be asked to develop a business plan, design marketing materials, write a cover letter and resume, give a short “elevator speech” about who you are and what you do, or appear for a mock interview. In general, business classes come towards the end of your massage education, when you probably already have an idea of what kind of specialties or settings interest you. This is the time to focus on where you’d like to be professionally, and make sure you have the skills you need in order to get there.
While still not the most common massage therapy class, it’s becoming increasingly common for massage schools to offer training specifically in research. Some schools focus exclusively on research literacy, and making sure you know how to read and interpret studies done on the effectiveness of massage therapy for different conditions. Some go further and teach massage students how to conduct research of their own. Case studies are often one of the first kinds of research that massage therapists try, and may be a part of the curriculum at a school that puts a lot of emphasis on research skills.
Many (but not all) massage schools have an internship or outreach portion in addition to the student clinic. This gives you the opportunity to get outside of the school environment and give massages as a volunteer in another setting. This could be in a business (like a chiropractic office or spa), in a medical setting like a hospital, clinic, or nursing home, or in an organization that doesn’t normally provide massage, such as a shelter, school, or other service provider. This gives you additional opportunities to explore different career paths, make valuable professional connections in the community, and gain some work experience for your resume. So choose your internship site well, but don’t panic if it’s not all you dreamed it would be. It’s only temporary, after all. The important thing is to learn from the experience.
While most classes you’ll see have been covered here, each school has a different focus and may offer additional coursework. One school might teach spa techniques, such as wraps and scrubs. Another might offer cadaver studies as a supplement to anatomy lectures. A number of schools offer optional licensing exam prep classes that take place after graduation. Oftentimes one instructor will have special expertise in one area (say, pediatric massage), and so their specialty will be added to the curriculum. Many of these sorts of classes are commonly offered as continuing education programs, so if your school doesn’t offer them, you can most likely find someone in your region to learn from.
Tying it all together
Does this seem overwhelming? It can be at times. But massage schools have been successfully teaching people like you for many years, and have learned how to put it all together in a way that makes sense. Trust in the process, study hard, and keep your eye on the prize: your massage career. Put all that together with your classes, and you’ve got a strong recipe for success.