While you don’t need to become an anatomy expert to learn how to give a great massage, many people find it useful to know what muscular tension is, how to find it, and what to do when you find a knot.
A brief anatomy lesson on how muscles are built: There are approximately 639 muscle groups in the human body, that all work in elaborate cooperation for even the smallest of movements. And there is no such thing as a “completely relaxed” muscle – that only occurs in death and full anaesthesia – muscles must maintain a certain level of tension to keep the body in shape, literally, hold the joints together, support the organs and blood supply. The optimal muscle state when not working is referred to as “tone” – and it is neither too relaxed nor too tense.
Each muscle group attaches to two or more bony surfaces via tendons. The hamstring, for example, has tendons that attach at the ischial tuberosities, or sitz bones, and to the shin bones, just below the knee. This is important to know because one of the general guidelines for a great massage is to find bony landmarks, and then dive off the bone into the muscle belly. This almost always feels good – the place where the tendon gives way to muscle fiber is often where extra tension is stored. More on this later!
Let’s talk about tension for a moment. Everyone always asks us – what is a knot in the muscle? Why is it there? Why does it hurt when it is touched?
Muscles are groups of long cells, all organized in one direction – a good visual would be a rope woven of smaller threads. Muscles only work in one direction – they contract, creating force, and then relax. This “on-off” cycle occurs throughout the day, most obviously when you are moving but even when you are sitting still. Every muscle cell has a companion nerve cell that communicates with the brain – this nerve cell tells the muscle to fire. Muscles get the energy to contract from a substance called ATP – which is normally made through a chemical process involving oxygen and glucose. A normal healthy muscle will fire when signalled, then relax back into a state of “tone” as we discussed.
When a muscle is distressed – which can happen through a number of causes such as trauma, repetitive motion, stretching beyond capacity, or constricted blood supply – groups of fibers in the muscle stay contracted. They lock up in this position and refuse to return to a state of “tone” – the rest of the muscle continues working around this constriction, compensating for the impaired movement – which can, in turn, create more chronic constrictions. Here is the kicker – this contraction is constantly using energy to stay contracted, literally draining your body of energy. When the contraction gets so severe that it cuts of the capillaries and thus a supply of fresh blood, the muscle goes into anaerobic production of ATP- it has to create energy without oxygen. The byproduct of this is lactic acid. Thus, when you massage a knot in the muscle, you release some of that lactic acid – and that is the burn you feel when chronic tension is released along with the sensation of blood returning to cells that have not seen blood in a long time.
When you are giving a massage, you can feel knots in the muscle – once you know what to look for they are hard to miss. They can range in size and in intensity. As you glide along the muscle, you will notice a textural change in the flesh. It may feel chunky, gritty, knotty, hard. Your partner will probably also notice when you come across one – notice if your partner breathes sharply, grunts, groans or stiffens. As a recipient, when you notice an area that feels particularly tender or sore, say so – it is helpful to begin matching the experience of what the giver is noticing to what the recipient is feeling.
It is important in massage to differentiate between slight soreness that precedes the relaxation and release of chronic tension and the sharp pain of an injury or way too much pressure. This is why it is always a good practice to begin with light to moderate pressure and gradually add pressure, rather than digging in right away. This gradual approach supports the body in relaxing and also allows plenty of time to communicate with your partner and notice the non-verbal cues of pleasure.
In our massage video guides, we teach you easy techniques to effectively release muscular tension and get rid of knots in your lover’s muscles. Sometimes, there will be a dramatic release and you will feel the knot melt away. Other times, there are incremental changes. Very rarely does one massage release all of the tension – which is one more reason to learn massage and do it at home – you can help one another over time!