Is “No Pain, No Gain” the best way to go?

Over the years, I have worked with hundreds of massage therapy clients. Their goals in treatment have ranged widely; however, my practice has come to base itself around those who are either recovering from an injury…or trying to prevent one.

Many of my clients are athletes who live by the ‘no pain, no gain’ creed; however, my practice has taught me a lot about which type of work the body responds to best, and most effectively.

I cringe when clients come in, sharing tales of being bruised from a ‘deep tissue’ massage, or being crippled for days after a session with another therapist!

As I have learned more about the human body and its reaction to massage therapy, I have fine-tuned my techniques and begun working in a way that, as I put it, “allows the mind and body to relax, but gets the job done” – and rather effectively, at that.

How do I create this space? I approach it from several angles.

1.  “Therapeutic Discomfort” vs. Pain

I spend some time speaking with my clients about the difference between what I refer to as “therapeutic discomfort” and pain. When one experiences therapeutic discomfort, they may feel a change taking place. It may be a little uncomfortable, but it should never be that  “hold your breath / grit your teeth / try not to jump out of your skin” kind of pain – I feel that this level of discomfort only leads to the body tensing up, in anticipation of “the next attack.” Yes, my deep work can be intense at times, but one should be able to breathe through it and enjoy much of the massage as well.

 On my table, I always ask clients to let me know if and when we hit a 5 or 6 on a scale of 1-10 of discomfort; although subjective, I find that this is a consistently effective way of ensuring that we are working at a good, therapeutic level. Of course, I am also always paying attention to the non-verbal cues that present themselves (tensing up, holding breath, etc) that surface when someone probably SHOULD speak up but doesn’t, which leads us to #2…



The biggest thing that I stress when speaking with a client is the value of ongoing communication. I hate to admit, but even I as a massage therapist early on, have been on a table and wanted something (pressure, temperature, position) changed for comfort, but chose not to speak up. Why is this? I think there are several reasons: It could be that you don’t want to be considered a bother. It could be that you think the therapist knows best, even if it doesn’t feel right. Or it could even be ego saying “don’t be a wimp!” Whatever it is, let’s change our thinking! These days, I speak up and strongly encourage my clients to do the same. While working on a client last month, she commented “I love getting my monthly facial, but the table is always SO HOT that I sweat and am extremely uncomfortable.” I responded that it is as easy as flipping a switch to fix that problem, and that I would guarantee her aesthetician would LOVE that feedback. For her, however trivial this may seem, it was a revelation, and I was so happy that my strategy in upping the communication factor was going to help her beyond my treatment.

Your body needs varying pressure in different areas, and your body responds differently depending on the day. By checking in periodically, and also encouraging my clients to share this type of specific information as it presents, I am able to gather critical data regarding what is happening in their bodies so that I can best address it – and so that they are comfortable and happy. Particularly when working with an injury, each bit of feedback is like a piece of the puzzle underneath the skin; the more pieces I have, the better I can help to “put you back together.” It’s not to say that these check in’s are constant and get in the way of relaxation, but I strongly feel that this ongoing dialogue is one of the reasons that many of my clients have found ongoing relief through our work together, and have remained as regular clients over the course of years.


       3.  Making a Plan.

       When a client comes in for therapeutic work, it is often not a one-time fix type of situation. Like any type of treatment, massage therapy often needs to be used effectively in a series that has been mapped out by the therapist and client together to best create the desired change.

       When I started my practice, I was very hesitant to appear pushy in discussing future sessions with clients. The session would end, and I would exchange pleasantries, let my client lead the discussion, and hope that they asked to rebook. But as time has gone on, I have learned so much about how critically frequency plays a role in attaining the results that my clients need! When a session finishes, we discuss what I learned as I worked, what type of change I felt we achieved, what the client can expect to notice in their bodies, and – what I think is the most important piece – how we best keep things moving in the right direction! For example, I may ask someone who has come to me complaining of headaches due to extremely tight shoulder and neck muscles to schedule 3-4 sessions close together (perhaps every 5-7 days) to achieve the highest level of progress. After this initial series we reevaluate and determine the next phase of treatment, which is often a matter of backing off on frequency and keeping up with self-care, so that the progress continues and relief is obtained.

       Of course, every client is different, and every person requires a specific, unique blend of treatment methods; however, after years of working on all types of bodies I know one thing for sure: NO PAIN, NO GAIN is not the quickest way to relief. By remembering this, and integrating it as a part of my practice, I have been able to create a space in which clients are able to heal from injuries, keep their bodies in optimal shape for everything from Iron Man competitions, 12 hour a day desk jobs, and baby deliveries, and – best of all – ENJOY their time with me on the table.

Sarah is a Licensed Massage Therapist, and operates her practice Shanti Bodywork out of Salem, MA. If you or someone you know is in need of some relief, reach out – she would love to work with you to create a plan! Learn more about Sarah at her website,

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