Your Massage Equipment: A Primer

By Anne Williams
[Classroom to Client]

Each piece of equipment in your practice represents an investment in your business and in your clients. When you purchase your equipment, do so carefully, after researching brands, understanding available options, and comparing products. Homemade or poorly made equipment may be unsafe and fail during a massage, causing injury to the client or therapist, while quality massage equipment undergoes extensive researching and testing. It’s up to you to choose wisely.

The Massage Table: Our Bread & Butter
Clearly, as MTs, our most important piece of equipment is our table. And many different manufacturers offer many different features and options. Tables may be stationary, hydraulically lifted, electrically lifted, or portable. They might include arm shelves, side extenders, sit-up features, and have standard to very plush padding.
Arm Shelf. An arm shelf can be attached to the front of the table to provide a place for clients in the prone position to rest their arms. This is useful because it allows you easy access to the sides of the client’s body. When the client is in the supine position, side extenders can be placed on each side of the table to widen the table and provide more space for the client’s arms.

Sit-Up Feature. Some massage tables allow the therapist to place the client in a sitting position. This is a nice feature if you plan to work with pregnant clients, if you offer reflexology, or if you are also an esthetician and offer facials. A cushion is often needed to support the client’s lower back because the steep angle of the upper portion of the table tends to create a gap.

Padding and Cover. The padding on massage tables varies from a single layer to multiple-layer systems. Multiple-layer systems are typically more comfortable because the deeper foam layers are firm, giving support, while the upper foam layer is softer and conforms to the client’s body. Padding comes in 1- to 4-inch thicknesses. Therapists who offer deep-tissue techniques sometimes prefer firm table padding (1½ to 2½ inches) because the client doesn’t sink away from the stroke. Therapists who offer energy work or relaxation massage sometimes prefer plush padding because the table feels more comfortable and nurturing.
The table cover should be durable and easy to clean. Oils and creams can break down the vinyl, so the table must be cleaned to ensure that it lasts. Wipe the table down with a suitable cleaning product between clients, and use diluted bleach solutions only if the table comes into contact with body fluids. Some therapists use antibacterial wipes to give the table a quick cleaning.

Face Cradle. The face cradle (also called a face rest) is composed of a wood, metal, or heavy plastic base and a crescent-shaped foam cover typically attached by Velcro strips. Some face cradles are not adjustable and simply hold the client’s head parallel to the table. Adjustable face cradles allow the therapist to find the ideal position for the client’s head to ensure comfort. Learning how to work with a face cradle and adjust it correctly takes time.

Massage Mat
A massage mat (sometimes called a shiatsu mat) is a large padded surface that rests on the floor. The mat provides a comfortable surface for the client and allows the therapist to use his or her body weight effectively for the delivery of certain techniques, such as Thai massage or shiatsu.

Bolsters are any cushions used to support the client’s body while on the table. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes and are usually placed under the knees and neck when the client is supine, and under the ankles when the client is prone. In the side-lying position, regular bed pillows are useful for supporting the client’s upper body and head, and a long, rounded bolster is placed under the knee and along the length of the lower leg. Pregnancy wedges can be used to provide support for pregnant women when resting in a semi-reclined position.

Carrying Case and Rolling Cart
A carrying case made of tough waterproof material protects the portable massage table during transport. Straps make it easier to lift and carry the case. Cases that completely unzip on three sides are easier to put on and take off the massage table.
Rolling carts make it easy to move the table and help prevent muscle strain while transporting it. Although the table must still be lifted up stairs or over curbs, a cart is a valuable investment for mobile therapists.
If you plan on doing a lot of on-site work, consider adding a massage chair to your equipment list.

Massage Stool
Massage stools usually have wheels so they can be rolled around the massage table. Sitting down at appropriate points during the massage helps rest your feet. Most stools can be adjusted to different heights, and some are available with back supports. Some therapists sit on a Swiss exercise ball during sessions, which can encourage good body mechanics.

Try This Yourself
Massage equipment is best understood through direct experience. For example, those who try different bolster sizes understand that some situations require a larger bolster while others require a smaller one.

Try This with a Friend
Place the massage table in a position that is too high and give massage for 30 minutes. Where does your body feel stressed? Which techniques worked well? Which techniques were difficult? Now, work with the table in a too-low position and ask yourself the same questions.

Now Try This
Lie on the massage table in the supine position using small bolsters. Feel the position of your joints and low back. Now lie on the massage table in the supine position using large bolsters. Try the same exercise in the prone position.

Suggested Massage Therapist Supply List
£ Massage table or mat
£ Face cradle
£ Massage chair (optional)
£ Bolsters
    £ Large  
    £ Small
    £ Pillows
    £ Specialized
£ Carrying case (optional)
£ Rolling cart (optional)
£ Stool
£ Step stool (to get on and off table)
£ Massage sheets
£ Washable blankets
£ Bath towels or bath sheets
£ Hand towels
£ Pillow cases
£ Face cradle covers
£ Bolster covers
£ Heat lamp (optional)
£ Table pad (optional)
£ Warm/cold packs (optional)
£ Client assessment equipment
£ Blood pressure equipment
£ Lubricants
    £ Expeller-pressed oil
    £ Cream
    £ Gel
    £ Powder
£ Lotion warmer
£ Forms
    £ Health intake
    £ SOAP forms
    £ Other
£ Massage tools (optional)
£ References
    £ Pathology reference book
    £ Medical dictionary
    £ Drug reference book
£ Clock
£ Closed storage
£ Wastebasket
£ Music system and music
£ Cleaning and sanitation products
£ Client mirror
£ Disposable combs
£ Container to hold personal items
£ Place for clothing
£ Antibacterial liquid soap
£ Alcohol-based hand sanitation gel
£ Vinyl gloves
£ Finger cots
£ Flashlight
£ First aid kit
£ Contact lens solution
£ Mouthwash
£ Washer/dryer (optional)

Anne Williams is the director of education for Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals and author of Massage Mastery: from Student to Professional (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2012), from which this article was adapted, and Spa Bodywork: A Guide for Massage Therapists (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2006). She can be reached at