Essential Effleurage

The Key to Smooth Transitions

By Cindy Williams
[Classroom to Client]

Transitions are a significant component of a skillfully executed bodywork session. When switching between types of strokes, or completing one body part and moving to the next, what’s important is not only that you get from point A to point B, but also how you get from point A to point B. Fluidity is essential to inviting and maintaining a client’s sense of peace, relaxation, and trust. Abrupt beginnings and endings, and not effectively communicating through your touch where you are leaving and going, can cause clients to stay in sympathetic nervous system response rather than settling into the parasympathetic. Effleurage is the key, and the quality and application of your effleurage strokes can greatly affect your client’s experience. Following are vital components to making fluid transitions at every stage of a massage, resulting in an effective, safe, and flowing session.

Effleurage Defined
While the term effleurage might seem elementary in terms of massage knowledge and skill, it is not to be taken lightly. As is the case with many basic skills, without mastery of it, everything that is built on it runs the risk of being faulty.
Effleurage, a French word in origin, is defined as a long, broad, fluid, gliding stroke, which can be applied at different depths and paces, and is used to begin, end, or transition between strokes and body parts. It covers the entire length and width of the body part to which it is being applied and assists in maintaining continuous contact with the client throughout a massage progression.
Full-body, Swedish massage sessions typically progress in the following fashion: begin with effleurage, move to petrissage, friction, vibration, tapotement, and joint movement (as appropriate), and finish with effleurage. While the strokes between effleurage can be applied in a variety of ways, progressing from general to specific and back to general without the hands leaving the body is an important factor in creating peaceful fluidity.

Essential Effleurage—The Beginning
Imagine for a moment that you are the receiver of massage. The therapist undrapes your back and immediately begins applying kneading or friction strokes to your upper back. How might that feel to you? Would you feel relaxed and ready to receive? The likely answer is no.
There is a purpose for always beginning with effleurage. Since effleurage strokes are long and broad, they offer the client’s body a sense of wholeness. The entire length of the body part, whether it be the back, arm, or leg, is touched, welcomed, and warmed. How a client transitions from being out in the world doing to being on your table receiving charts the course for the rest of the session. This initial contact can communicate intent, assist the client to relax into her body, and suggest a shift from a thinking state to a feeling state. The nervous system is signaled that it is time to rest and receive.
For the therapist, this is a great time to assess tissue quality, increase warmth and circulation, and prepare the tissues for deeper, more specific work. Much information can be gathered during this simple stroke. It is recommended that an effleurage stroke be performed at least three full, continuous times before moving to petrissage.

Essential Effleurage—The Middle
While the details of applying petrissage, friction, vibration, tapotement, and joint movement aren’t included here, suffice it to say they are most often applied to specific areas of a body part. They can and should still be applied to the entire length of the muscle or muscle group that is being worked, but they are typically short, jostling, deeply engaging, and/or stir the tissue and surrounding fluids. These strokes are often applied at a quicker pace (with the exception of joint movement). When too many variations are applied in succession, the experience can feel jumbled to the client. If, instead, one or two effleurage strokes are incorporated between each of these stroke variations, the client’s system settles and resets before the next short, specific stroke is begun. The resulting experience for the client is fluid and soothing.
For the therapist, understanding why strokes are applied in this fashion will deepen the quality and purpose of the work. Since strokes such as petrissage and friction stimulate circulation and lymphatic flow, separate muscle fibers, and break up adhesions, it makes sense to “rinse” the area that has just been stirred up. Although research has yet to prove it, we believe this movement of metabolic wastes happens through longer, smooth effleurage strokes.
Additionally, we believe that vibration, tapotement, and joint movement can be stimulating to the sympathetic nervous system; therefore, counteracting these strokes with one or two transitional effleurage strokes invites a parasympathetic pause. This translates into a balanced and well-rounded session for the client.

Essential Effleurage—The End
Applying effleurage upon completion of a body part brings all the pieces together, smooths out the edges of shorter strokes, and offers a gentle message of closure. Without this, an ending can feel abrupt and segmented, rather than incite a sigh of relief.
One client used to tell me, “I just love when you do that [final effleurage stroke]! It’s like you are taking all that stuck stress that you stirred up and pulling it right out of my body!” You’ll notice clients often release a deep exhale after the final effleurage stroke is applied and the body part is re-draped. It’s as if the body is naturally saying, “Ahhh, yes. Sweet relief!”
Some experienced therapists might come to dismiss the significance of effleurage over time since it is such a basic stroke. Let’s not forget that foundational skills are the framework for more advanced skills. Effleurage is the cornerstone of smooth transitions and satisfying massage sessions from beginning to end.

Since 2000, Cindy Williams, LMT, has been actively involved in the massage profession as a practitioner, school administrator, instructor, curriculum developer, and mentor. She is the school education manager for ABMP and continues to maintain a private practice as a massage therapist and yoga instructor. Contact her at