Ask LH: How Do I Give Better Massages?

Ask LH: How Do I Give Better Massages?

Dear Lifehacker, Every time I give my girlfriend a back massage, I give up early because my arms get tired and I’m not sure if I’m doing it right. I’d like to get better at it, though, and I also have my own tension (especially in my shoulders) I’d like to massage out. Do you have any massage tips I can use? Thanks, Amateur Masseuse

Photo remixed from an original by Adam Gregor.

Dear AM,

It’s an interesting predicament, isn’t it: Few of us are born with innate massaging skills, yet virtually all of us love to give and receive good massages. Because of the many benefits of massage — relieving pain, removing toxins, and reducing stress — learning to give a better massage to yourself or your partner can be profound, and everyone can do it. I spoke with expert masseuse and founder of Elements Therapeutic Massage, Michele Merhib, to gather some tips for increasing your massage-fu.

Giving A Better Partner Massage

Use your body weight so you don’t get tired. One of the biggest complaints Michele says she hears from clients is that their partners only massage them for a few minutes and stop because their hands or arms hurt. That’s the fatigue you mentioned, and it most likely has to do with your positioning. Good massage is less about your grip and more about your stance and the use of gravity.

Rather than trying to massage your partner when she’s standing next to you or sitting beside you on the couch, have her sit on the floor on a pillow while you sit on the couch or in a chair while you stand behind her. She could also lie on the floor on some blankets or a mat, but when sitting she can get some extra stretching in by leaning forward as you massage her back.

Don’t forget the oil. To prevent uncomfortable friction and help your hands glide easily, use some lotion or a little bit of olive oil when massaging. But don’t just pour it on her back like she’s a salad. Use the oil on your own hands and warm them up.

Do no harm. Avoid pinching or grabbing muscles. You can prevent this by keeping your fingers together and using your whole hand in the massage. Michele likens massaging to sculpting: When working with clay, you need to spend some time softening it at first. Likewise with a massage, use soft strokes to warm up the muscles before you try to knead them.

At the start, ask if the pressure is enough. She should feel pressure, but not pain. Adjust as needed: If she wants a deeper massage, lean in further, using your body weight. You can also use your knuckles to target really stiff muscles.

The Massage for Dummies book has a cheat sheet for giving a massage, including vulnerable areas of the body you should stay away from, which include the front of the neck, upper inner arm, and abdomen.

How to massage the neck and shoulders: Make a soft (loose) fist and use the base of your hand to apply pressure on her left shoulder, running your hand up the side of her neck until you get to the base of her skull, then go back down. Without breaking contact, repeat on the other side. Do this a couple of times.

Here’s a video demonstration from Educating Hands School of Massage on giving a shoulder and neck massage using a squeezing technique.

How to massage the back: With the base of your hand and the pads of your thumbs, rub circles up and down along her spine to warm up the muscles. Be careful not to press on the spine itself.

She can lean forward as you move down. Press your hands into her back and lean in slowly to apply pressure with your body weight.

Finally, use a kneading motion — using your whole hand to gently squeeze and knead the muscles along the spine.

Here’s a video for a full back and neck sitting massage (a bit long, but relaxing to watch too).

Giving a Better Self Massage

Michele offered several tricks for getting rid of tension and massaging your own muscles.

Shoulders: Use the hand opposite the shoulder you want to work on (e.g. your right hand to massage your left shoulder) and bring it across to your shoulder. Gently press into the shoulder and run your thumb up against the neck. Repeat on the other side. Go ahead and try this now. Ahhhh . . .

Hands: Now fetch a pencil with an eraser. With your palm turned up, press the eraser into the fleshy parts of your hand (especially the thumb pad), moving in circles and going deeper as needed. The reason why the soft pencil eraser is better than just using your hand, by the way, is because your brain can confuse the signals when it feels sensations in both hands, Michele said.

One technique for relieving wrist pain is to push your hand back towards your elbow. You should do this several times a day and also stretch out your hand and fingers on your massage breaks.

Back: Those therapy balls or exercise balls are great for massaging your back. Lie on one and just roll around; this is great for aligning the spine.

Feet: Athletes are familiar with this trick: Roll your foot on a tennis ball or golf ball, moving side to side and from toes to heel. Spend more time in the sensitive foot arch area.

Just one massage session might do wonders for your health, and at the very lease you and your partner should feel more relaxed and refreshed thanks to your new and improved massage skills. You can keep learning massage techniques with these free videos at


PS Do you know how to give a killer massage? Share your tips with us in the comments.

Got your own question you want to put to Lifehacker? Send it using our contact tab on the right.

Michele Merhib is the founder of Elements Therapeutic Massage, one of the fastest-growing massage therapy franchises in America. She is working closely with massage schools across the country to ensure the successful employment of massage school graduates. As a massage therapist herself, Merhib has contributed greatly to Elements’ mission to be the Employer of Choice for massage professionals.


  • Also try to keep at least one hand on the subject at all times, even if reaching for oil or changing your body position*. If you keep withdrawing and replacing the touch erratically then it makes the subject unsure of what is going on and may also tickle them. This is especially true if massaging feet: constant firm motions are needed.

    *This doesn’t include when you’re doing a rapid chopping or pummelling stroke with alternating hands.

  • One thing that I’ve noticed is that you can feel the knots as you knead the different body parts. These are the locations you need to concentrate on but you shouldn’t exclusively knead those areas. You need to apply a greater amount of force, I like to use my elbows for those spots because it is hard and pointy, to knead that part and then after 30 to 60 seconds of focus there, move above that spot in the direct of the knot and use a little less force there for 5 to 10 seconds, then move below the knot and repeat, gradually moving away from the knot with the lesser pressure. Then return to the knot and see if it has reduced a little.. rinse and repeat.

    Different people like different types of massage, so start off gentle but firm and gradually increase the pressure always keeping the lines of communication open to ensure it doesn’t become tortuous. My finacee likes it to be quite hard, as do I, but before I got into receiving proper massages, I couldn’t handle more than a firm massage.

    Also remember that the more you massage a single spot, the more it will feel like the pressure is increasing even if the pressure is constant. Think about it like friction… if you rub your hands together gently but firmly, at first it’s fine but then after a while the friction begins to heat up your hands.. it’s the same with massaging.

    “She should feel pressure, but not pain.” – It depends on the person.. but this is a good place to start.

    • Additionally, don’t ignore the different parts of the body. Just because it is traditionally “Neck, shoulders, back” doesn’t mean you should only ever do that. At my last massage session the masseuse found some knots in my forearms. And in previous sessions I’ve had them massage my legs, thighs, even my stomach! There are muscles all over your body not just in your neck, shoulders and back.. so often a sore/tired/tense muscle in another body part may actually be the cause of the tension in other parts of the body.

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