Massage Training Styles: it’s your choice!

Student in Class

You’d think, given licensing requirements, that massage training would be similar from one school to the next. And you’d be partially right. All massage training programs are going to cover anatomy and physiology, massage techniques, safety and hygiene, and ethics. One massage school might put a lot of emphasis on clinical reasoning, while another might include a robust business curriculum or instruction in spa techniques, but the basics will be pretty similar from school to school.

As a prospective massage student, you might already have an idea of the content you’d like to focus on. You may be looking into a shiatsu-based program, or one that will prepare you to start your independent massage practice on graduation. But just as important as what massage training you’ll receive in a program is how that training is offered, as well as how much tuition may cost you. No matter how enthusiastic or intelligent you are, a massage program that is taught in a way that is difficult for you to understand will be a continuous source of aggravation. It’s best to know what your options are before starting school so that you can make the choice that’s right for you.


Most programs will involve a certain amount of lecturing, and for good reason. It’s a simple way for someone who knows a lot about a topic (your instructor) to convey information to someone who doesn’t yet (you). Some people learn a lot from lectures, others not so much, but not all lectures are the same. Does the instructor lecture on the information covered in the textbook, so that you can go back and review it on your own if you need to, or are lectures on totally new material that you wouldn’t be able to get by just reading the book? Does the instructor take questions and encourage discussion during lectures, or would she rather you hold your questions for the end? Does the instructor use visual aids, demonstrations, or write on a whiteboard while lecturing? Some programs try to keep lecturing to a minimum, while others use it extensively. What helps you to learn in a lecture? Write it down to help you remember what to look for when you visit massage schools.

Demonstration and Practice

There are some kinds of training that are simply better suited to seeing than hearing, and massage is one of them. No amount of “standing to the left of the client, place the palm of your right hand just to the right of the sacrum, and with a moderate amount of pressure …” can replace actually watching someone do the technique. Just as with lectures, demonstrations may take many forms. Does the instructor show many techniques at once before allowing students to practice on their own, or does she take them one at a time? How much explanation is offered while the demonstration is going on? How often is the same demonstration repeated? What about if the students are struggling? How much time is given to this kind of training, as compared with lectures?

Independent Practice

At some point, your massage training is going to involve you practicing on your own, whether in a student clinic, internship, or as a homework assignment with friends or family. Some massage programs start this process early, assigning very new students to give simple hand massages. Others wait until students have acquired enough skills to give a full body massage. If independent practice makes you nervous, you might want to look for a program where you can regularly discuss your experiences and get feedback from an instructor. If you’re eager to get out into the world and give back as a volunteer, a massage school that places student interns with nonprofit organizations would be ideal. If you are working or raising children while in massage school, can the timing of required independent practice be adapted to your schedule, or is it non-negotiable?

Independent Learning

You only have so many hours in class, so independent learning will be an important part of your massage training, no matter where you choose to study. Ask for a copy of the syllabus to get a good idea of what kind of independent study is expected. How much textbook reading is required each week? Are students asked to watch videos, self-quiz, read articles about massage research, or keep a journal? Many schools (not just massage schools) now offer or require an online component as part of their training programs. Will you be expected to submit homework or participate in forum discussions, or even listen to lectures online? It’s up to you to decide how comfortable you are with both the technology and the independence required by online coursework.

Other Kinds of Firsthand Experience

Learning by doing need not be relegated to massage techniques. You might be asked to develop a business plan, write a case report, build a website, staff a reception desk, or participate in a cadaver study. These sorts of experiences are rarely required by legislation, so it is up to you to find the massage training that includes what you know will help you most, even if that means supplementing your basic training with continuing education courses.

Massage training is diverse – and that’s a good thing.

The choices can seem overwhelming, but the positive thing is that there’s a massage program out there for everyone. Finding a school that offers the content you want in a style that you find helpful may take some time. But a few weeks of research can save you a year or two of struggle and disappointment, and get you started on the right foot in your massage therapy career. It never hurts to be prepared!

Image shared with a Creative Commons Attribution license by Tulane Public Relations.