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How Are Deep Tissue and Relaxation Massages Different?

People envision different sessions when they hear the word “massage” based on past experiences. Some picture slow, fluid movements from a massage therapist. For others, the image of rapid “karate chops” to the upper back comes to mind.

So, if you are considering a massage chair purchase—or even just planning to use someone else’s chair—it is important to know what to expect from different chair massage techniques.

Deep Tissue vs. Relaxation Massage

One of the most basic and important distinctions between massage chair programs is whether it is primarily for deep tissue or relaxation. Everything from the process to the goals is significantly different between the two. And people who expect one experience but get the other are invariably disappointed.

What Is Deep Tissue Massage?

Deep tissue massage refers to techniques focused on reaching and relieving muscle soreness and tension. It typically uses slow movements with deep, firm, sustained pressure in very specific locations. People who get deep tissue massages often joke about “taking pleasure in the pain” or the massage “hurting so good.”

And it is true: deep tissue massages can elicit a bit of pain. It should not be a sharp sensation, but it can be a deep, intense aching or burning. But the good news is that reaching that point is often an indicator that persistent causes of pain and tension in the muscles are being addressed.

You might say that deep tissue massage delivers “pain with a purpose.” It is not unlike high-exertion exercise. You expect to create discomfort, but you know the pain comes from muscle breakdown that ultimately drives muscle strengthening and growth.

Deep tissue massage is effective in addressing issues like pain and limited mobility that can occur as a result of injuries or just the accumulation of tension from daily activities. It can release muscle “knots” and break up adhesions (fibrous bands that cause soft tissues to stick together) and scar tissue. 

Athletes and other highly active people often get deep tissue massages to improve their physical performance. The deep, prolonged, probing pressure breaks up formations, which helps restore full muscle function and range of motion.

What Is Relaxation Massage?

A relaxation massage is designed to release stress from the muscles and deliver a sense of calm. The pressure used is much lighter than that in a deep tissue massage and is often applied to muscles in the direction of blood flow to the heart.

This type of session increases circulation to the area being worked, soothes muscles, and gently stretches tendons and ligaments. The result is a noticeable calming of the body, but also the mind.

Massage therapists have long understood the mind-body connection and how muscle tension contributes to mental/emotional tension and vice versa. Relaxation massages provide holistic, mind-and-body relief by way of the muscles.

These sessions are ideal for anyone experiencing high blood pressure, insomnia, or stress. And in today’s world, it is challenging to find anyone who does not experience a significant amount of stress!

Understanding Chair Massage Routines

Advanced massage chairs typically have several pre-programmed massage routines, each utilizing a different combination of techniques, movements, and levels of pressure. The routines available vary by chair model, so it is important to talk with an expert (like one of Furniture For Life’s Comfort Consultants) about what a particular chair offers. They can also tell you if a particular chair has a specialty or focus area.

For example, while models from two different companies might both have deep tissue and relaxation settings, one manufacturer may have more experience and a better reputation in the former while the other excels in the latter. Those characteristics do not have to be the final word on your purchase decision, of course, but getting that background information from the consultant helps you make a well-informed choice.

Relaxation vs. Deep Tissue Massage (or Both?)

It is important to remember that relaxation vs. deep tissue massage does not have to be an exclusive or lifelong decision! You might primarily want and enjoy relaxation massages at the time of your purchase, but then start a new workout routine that creates muscle tension best-treated by a deep tissue massage. Or you might initially need frequent deep tissue massages to treat pain or mobility issues, but then discover that a relaxation massage helps you wind down at the end of a busy day.

Fortunately, while any massage chair will probably be better at either deep tissue massage or relaxation massage, most advanced massage chairs can deliver both. It is not uncommon to hear someone say, “Oh, I’m a deep tissue massage fan!” or “Deep tissue massages hurt! I only get relaxation massages.” But the reality is that most people have times when each modality can be helpful.

Deep Tissue vs. Relaxation: Picking the Perfect Product

Needless to say, written product descriptions and comparison charts can only get you so far when researching massage chairs. Ultimately, to understand a massage chair, you must experience it. That means visiting a Furniture For Life showroom and taking several models for a “test drive.”

We encourage people to start their visit by talking with a Comfort Consultant. They can begin by providing an overview of the various models we offer from the industry’s most respected manufacturers: OHCO, Positive Posture, Panasonic, D.Core, KAI, KOYO, and Katana.

Next, they will try to understand what you hope to get out of a massage chair and if there are particular problems you want your massage chair to address.

Types of questions that might come up in this conversation include:

  • What do you do for a living?
  • What kinds of activities do you enjoy, and how often do you do them?
  • What is the primary reason you are looking for a massage chair?
  • Do you prefer a strong or relaxing massage, and why?
  • Have you used a massage chair before? If so, what did you like and dislike about it?
  • Are you experiencing pain? If so, where?
  • How well do you sleep? 
  • Who else will be using your massage chair?
  • What are the heights of the tallest and shortest person who will be using the massage chair?
  • Where in your home do you plan to put your massage chair?

The consultant is not being nosy, of course! They are simply trying to zero in on your massage chair wants and needs. That way, they can have you try the models and chair massage routines most likely to address the challenges you face effectively and improve your overall wellness.

Once they have an idea of the chairs that can best meet your requirements, they will have you try each of them so you can understand the differences. You’ll have the opportunity to use different pre-programmed chair massage routines and experiment with customization options to get a good feel for the breadth of each chair’s capabilities.

Beyond the Relaxation vs. Deep Tissue Distinction

This article is an overview of two fundamental massage styles, and determining your affinity for each is important. But you should also be aware that there are several other sub-styles of massage, including Shiatsu, Swedish, and others. And within each style, there are many types of movements to consider (kneading, tapping, etc.). 

None of this information is shared here to intimidate you! Instead, it is meant to point out that, regardless of your needs and preferences, there is a massage chair that can meet them. And the best way to “sort out” the features, functions, and types of experiences available from advanced massage chairs is to stop by a Furniture For Life showroom. In fact, trying chairs is really the only way to truly understand them.

In the end, whether you make a purchase on your first visit or decide to “sleep on” the information you have gathered, you will definitely leave the showroom with a wealth of knowledge about deep tissue massage, relaxation massage, and the many ways a luxury massage chair can invigorate you, relax you, and change your life!

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