Learning muscles in massage training

When I first learnt massage, I passed the theory exam absolutely by rote, learning and repeating in parrot-fashion. So when I wrote about muscles in the exam, I had little idea of what the descriptions meant – in fact, although I’d learnt the names of many muscles, I didn’t even know where some of them were. And I met other people who’d filled in detailed muscle charts in their exams, but this ‘knowledge’ “didn’t stick”, because it had no connection to the actual hands-on massage that they’d learnt.

In the first years of massage, this didn’t particularly bother me as I focused on delivering relaxation massages. But I began to be curious as I felt things under my clients’ skin, and attended study sessions, picked the brains of knowledgeable colleagues, and found helpful books. 

What should learning muscles cover for massage students?

As I later gained experience as a massage trainer, I developed my sense of what would have helped me when I first entered this new world of muscles without any prior knowledge or experience. So, in this article, I want to describe what I think are the necessary elements that need to be covered to really teach massage students about muscles. I think this is important, even if your focus is primarily going to be on giving clients a relaxing massage – if you have more knowledge of muscles, it can help your effectiveness in locating and releasing the common tensions that the average person carries. And obviously, it’s a necessary foundation for sports massage.

Learning to palpate muscles, relaxed, in action and tensions

The most critical thing is learning to feel muscles. Firstly to palpate (identify through touch) the muscle both when it’s relaxed and in action, and on a range of different bodies (all of which needs considerable time and lots of individual coaching). This will help you to think about a muscle’s attachments (if it pulls this bone towards that one, where does it need to anchor onto them to do this? and therefore what is the direction of the fibres of the muscle?). Then to learn to identify tensions within the muscles, including working out which layer of muscle you feel the tensions in (e.g. between the shoulder blades, is it in trapezius, rhomboids or erector spinae?).

Learning muscle names while feeling the muscle

It’s important to learn muscle names, as long as that learning is attached to the felt experience of the muscle. Knowing the name enables you to communicate with other professionals, Or at least, be familiar enough with names that you can recognise what professionals (or knowledgeable sporting clients) are telling you, or to help you clarify for clients who have been told technical information that they don’t understand. Even if you don’t remember the names when you’re not regularly using them, your training should give you a feeling for muscles and tensions, and prepare you to look up information about what you felt under your hands in a session.

The derivations of muscle names

When learning the names, it’s useful to understand what the name means or describes (which can be helpful in remembering the name and maybe also help for your understanding of the muscle). For example, names can describe the shape (e.g. trapezius, deltoid, rhomboids), the position (e.g. the abdominals, tibialis anterior),  the main action (wrist flexors, finger extensors, adductors, erector spinae) or combinations of these (e.g. gluteus maximus, splenius capitis).

(And it’s also a useful challenge to think about a common language way of describing a muscle for your average client – e.g. the big chest muscle, rather than pectoralis major.)

What massage techniques suit the structure and actions of the muscle?

For me, there’s a further important step in this process of learning muscles. Once you’ve got a sense of the muscle – its position, shape and actions – what sort of massage techniques will be most fitting to encourage release? So, even out of a basic massage ‘toolkit’ of techniques, you obviously need to approach a long, narrow muscle (e.g. a strap muscle such as levator scapulae) differently than working on long bulky muscles (e.g. biceps or the hamstrings) or a broad flat muscle (e.g. the rhomboids) or a broad bulky muscle (e.g. gluteus maximus). 

So, for me, addressing all of these elements is the necessary preparation for students to really ‘know’ muscles (way beyond just filling in a chart, or learning the names of muscles).

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