The Cookie Cutter Massage

How many times have you heard a phrase similar to this?

“I don’t give cookie cutter massages!” or “There’s nothing worse than a cookie cutter massage.”

Doing the same thing or same routine is often looked down upon in this profession. Some comments I’ve read in discussions:

“I never start a massage the same way.”
“I go where intuition takes me, so each session is different.”
“I would never go to a massage therapist who did the same thing all the time.”

I beg your pardon.

Confession: I do a massage routine. I provide a “cookie cutter” massage. I start most clients the same way every time. The massage begins on the same area of the body most of the time. Hot compresses are applied at the same transition period. Turn over time is always the same. I end most massage sessions in the same area. Almost every time. No, I’m not talking about counting strokes, counting minutes or not providing quality work. I mean this specifically: I start, transition and end sessions the same way. I go over the different areas of the body in the same order. For almost everyone. (There are always exceptions for when someone is there for an acute injury.)

It’s taken me years  to embrace the fact that I give what many would consider a “cookie cutter” massage. I embrace this fact because my clients do. They want the massage that I give them every single time. How do I know this? Because I ask.

I see the same people month in and month out sixty minutes at a time. Many clients visit more than once per month. Yes, most are there for pain relief but more than that they are there for general relief. My clients are looking for relief from the stresses of life, work, chronic pain, parenthood, retirement, etc. The people who have standing appointments with me have integrated massage therapy into their lives. They place value on all the many benefits that we know massage can provide. They invest money and time to take care of themselves. And they don’t want any surprises.

I have learned the hard way that if I learn a new technique or way to address a certain problem then I should ask the client before I change the way I do things. Many times I have changed up the way I do things to be met with anxiety, confusion and the question “why?” “Why didn’t you do abc like you usually do? I really like that.” “Why are you doing that? That’s not normal.” Or maybe they don’t say a word but just seem distant and unsettled when they leave.  I don’t know about you but I can certainly tell when someone leaves unsatisfied.

I have learned to ask at the beginning of each massage what they expect. I say something like, “Are you having any aches and pains today?” (they answer) “Just your usual problem area? Do you want me to do anything differently today?” (answer is usually “Do exactly what you did last time!” or “Do what you usually do, it works and I love it.” I have a few people who want me to try the new things with them but we always talk about it first. But in my practice most clients want me to do what I did before.

Clients who regularly receive “maintenance” massage return for consistency. They crave what they know. It’s comforting. Sometimes life is so demanding or confusing people turn to what they know for comfort.  Knowing what to expect is comforting, much like changing into comfortable clothes after work or turning on your favorite old TV show.  Why do you think television re-runs are so popular? Because people know what’s going to happen.

Doing mostly the same routine is comforting for me, too. I don’t think I can emphasize enough, though, that I am NOT going through the motions. I am not giving mindless massages. I am thinking the entire time. I am assessing the muscle tissue, the skin, the reaction pressure. I’m imagining the actions of the different muscle groups to best decide how to massage them. I’m re-creating in my head what they do with their bodies at work to figure out why they are hurting.  Just because I start with the back and shoulders doesn’t mean I do the same exact thing every time. I just start there. I don’t count strokes and move on. If a client’s problem area is the neck and shoulders I spend more time there than if it is the legs.

I do customize the massage to each person’s needs.  A lower-back client gets specialized lower back work based on what they tell me they need that day. But I know where I’m going next. I’m not massaging a leg twice, skipping an arm or back-tracking. I’ve already mapped out where I’m going and it makes the whole session easier. If I’m not trying to figure out what I’ve already done I can focus on what my hands are doing to give the best massage I can. I can move to the next area effortlessly thus providing a more controlled relaxing experience. It’s all about intent, right? If my attention is focused then my intention should be, too.

The therapists who work with acute injuries or in special settings won’t do things like I do. I’m cool with that. I just want to point out that a routine isn’t always a bad thing. I have recently learned a technique to work with Carpal Tunnel Syndrome symptoms. I have tried to infuse it into my massage routine but it just won’t go. The clients who tried it love the results but tell me to skip it next time because it “interrupted my massage.” Even though the results are positive most clients don’t like it because it isn’t “routine.” Therefore, I will offer to this as a stand-alone thing.

I’m dangling somewhere in between “medical” massage and “spa” massage. My office is in a salon so I do see people who are there for pampering. Honestly, those are the minority. The bulk of my regular clients see me for different kinds of pain and stress relief. The massage sessions address each person’s specific pain complaints AND focuses on total body relief. The room is dim and quiet with soothing music. The ambience for relaxation is there. But the hands for pain relief are there, too.

Over the years I have changed things about the “routine.” My transitions are better, my speed is much slower and my communication has vastly improved. It’s the communication skills, listening and observing, that has helped me craft my “routine.” But Jen’s routine isn’t the same as Sue’s routine. And those change, too. They change with communications. If a client and I have figured out starting face-up works better for their massage then I change it. But if I just go around changing up how I start everyone then I’m left with confused and disoriented clients.

If changing everything every time works for you and your clients that’s good. I just really wanted to start the conversation that sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes the comfort and security of a routine massage is just what the client and therapist needs.

Image courtesy of Suat Eman /
  • Rick Merriam

    You touched on a lot of great points in this post Tracy! Even though I have not given a full body massage in over 10 years, I agree with you completely on everything that you wrote.

    Having the awareness to ask the appropriate questions is HUGE. But, the ability of a Massage Therapist to listen with more than just their ears is even more important to their success in this field. Then, their is a Massage Therapist’s ability to focus, that can be very powerful when combined with intent.

    (From that place, the time just flows so fast!)

    It is extremely difficult to measure how much a Massage Therapist’s intent, focus, and how much their ability to tap into a flow state changes the overall impact of their work (Read: Art!).

    In other words, some things in this field just can’t be measured!

    I believe the future success of a Massage Therapist depends on their ability to *specialize*.

    In order to do that, it is extremely important for Massage Therapist’s to put themselves in a position that allows them to gain a tremendous amount of career capital, now. That way, they will be positioning themselves for the future.

  • allissahaines

    I love this. Thank you.
    I work with many people who have depression and anxiety issue. The LAST thing they want is a different massage every time they come in. Sure, we may spend more or less time on certain areas to treat varying complaints. But much of the routine stays the same for many of my clients.
    Good for you, for attracting the clients who love your work, and for asking the questions to ensure it stays that way.

  • Tracy Bradley

    Thank you for reading! I believe communication is essential to a successful client relationship. There is always a time for certain changes but I’m just not into changing it up every time.

  • Trevor Chisman

    Thank you for writing this Tracy. It is wonderful.

    I’m one of those massage therapists that says “every massage is different/unique” but your wonderful post has made think a little deeper about what i do and why.

    Like you, I predominantly start each treatment in the same way, finish in the same area, and follow specific pathways around the body. I think you’re right, regular clients like knowing what to expect and what is going to happen during a treatment. I have clients who know when I touch the sheet in a certain way, it’s time to turn over. And, yes I’m sure they find this comforting on a subconscious level even if it’s not something they have ever noticed consciously.

    I have many techniques to call upon during a session but I do have favourite techniques I use during every session. I’m not adverse to adding in new techniques every now and then or re-introducing techniques I haven’t used for sometime.

    Often techniques will dwindle from my repertoire because they are a little less fluid, harder to perform or just not suitable for every client. When I eventually notice I haven’t done this or that technique for ages with anyone, it can be invigorating for both my client and myself to do something different, all of a sudden it’s fresh again. I adds a little sparkle to my – dare I say it – routine.

  • Lu Mueller-Kaul

    Wonderful. And why is my picture so weird??? But the post is great. AND IMPORTANT.

  • Jennifer Hess

    I agree with what you are saying but in my mind what you explained doesn’t fall in the cookie cutter category for me.

    I went to a certain therapist for several appointments and no matter what the complaint was or what I asked them to do I received the exact same massage. When I mentioned it to a friend that had also gone to this therapist she knew the routine because it was the same on the therapist used on her.

    So to me there’s a difference between finding a routine that works for a client and using a cookie cutter routine on every client every time they come in.