What’s the Difference Between Swedish, Deep Tissue, and Sports Massage?

The Difference Between Swedish, Deep Tissue, and Sports Massage

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One of the questions I get asked most often as a massage therapist is, “What’s the difference between Swedish, Deep Tissue, and Sports Massage?”  Most people tend to think the difference is how much pressure and pain is involved in the massage, but it’s not quite that simple.  In fact, if you ask 10 massage therapists this question, you’ll get 10 different answers, ranging from simple to technical.  Swedish Massage is the grandparent of almost all modern massage techniques, and, therefore, deep tissue and sports massage draw most of their techniques directly from Swedish massage.  The main difference between these modalities is how focused the work is and what the client hopes to achieve with the massage – relaxation, reduced muscle tension, or improved athletic performance for example.

Swedish massage is what most people think of when thinking of massage.  It is a relaxing, therapeutic, rejuvenating massage that generally uses medium pressure* and encompasses work on the entire body instead of just one or two focus areas.  Swedish massage eases muscle tension, reduces pain, relaxes the mind, and promotes many other health benefits.  This type of massage is good for someone who doesn’t have any major areas of tension, pain, or injury and who wants a relaxing tranquil massage.

Most people assume deep tissue massage is the opposite of Swedish massage.  Words like painful, intense, excruciating, and hard-core are often said when referring to deep tissue massage, but this doesn’t have to be the case and isn’t always true.  Deep tissue massage is any massage work that is intended to address any of the muscles or tissues in the body that aren’t the most superficial layer of muscle and usually uses firm to heavy pressure*.  This type of massage is typically more focused on problem areas of pain, tension, and/or injury and can be uncomfortable or even painful** depending on how tight or injured the muscle is, however, if there is no acute injury or presentation of significant muscle tightness, deep tissue massage can be achieved with medium to firm pressure and little to no discomfort.

A common misconception of sports massage is that it is the deepest massage of them all, and this couldn’t be further from the truth.  Sports massage is the most focused of the three types of massage discussed here, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the deepest.  The techniques used in a sports massage vary greatly and depend on what issues the client needs to address.  Sports massage techniques are geared specifically towards helping improve athletic performance, whether that be improving range of motion, increasing flexibility, preventing injury during training, helping with recovery after an event or injury, or warming up before an event just to name a few.  These goals don’t always call for aggressive, deep massage which can often be counterproductive.

The differences between Swedish, Deep Tissue, and Sports Massage are far fewer than what makes them alike.  The amount of pressure necessary is much less indicative of the type of massage performed than most people think.  It all comes down to the particular goal of each client and in turn, the intent and focus of the work the therapist will do.  If you have any questions about the style of massage you would like to receive, make sure to discuss them with your massage therapist, as each individual therapist will have a different interpretation on the differences between massage modalities.  To insure you get the most out of your session, clear communication is essential and a good therapist should welcome feedback at any point before, during, and after an appointment.


*Swedish massage on healthy muscle tissue often tends to also delve into the deeper layers of muscle, technically becoming a deep tissue massage even when only medium pressure is used.  The opposite is also true when working on extremely tight muscles.  Sometimes a muscle is so tense that no matter how much pressure is used it becomes impossible to truly work the deeper layer of muscle.

**Even if injury or tightness is presented, deep tissue massage still doesn’t have to be excruciatingly painful.  If approached with patience and a skilled progression of pressure, much of the discomfort often associated with deep tissue massage can be eliminated.

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