Constant Fluid Contact

Your Massage Therapist's Secret Skill

By Cindy Williams, LMT

Have you ever wondered why a session with certain massage therapists stands out as exceptional, but you can’t quite put your finger on what they are doing that makes their work so great? Perhaps you’ve noticed that once your massage therapist begins the hands-on portion of the session, you melt into an altered state that remains consistently soothing until the very last stroke is completed. 

I’ve heard blissed-out clients describe thisexperience as “the massage therapist performing a fluid dance around the table” or “a master musician playing my body like an instrument.” That secret ingredient your practitioner has is constant, fluid contact, also known as effleurage.And it is intentional.

Effleurage Defined 

In massage school, the first massage stroke students learn is called effleurage. A French word in origin, effleurage is defined as a long, broad, fluid, gliding stroke that can be applied at different depths and paces, and 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 (see “Swedish Massage Strokes”) typically progress in the following fashion: begin with effleurage, transition to more specific and focused strokes that address parts of muscles that are tense, painful, or immobile, then 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. 

Constant Contact from Start to Finish 

When switching between types of massage strokes, or completing one body part and moving to the next, what’s important is not only that your massage therapist get from Point A to Point B, but also how they 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 the therapist not effectively communicating through touch where they are leaving and going, can cause clients to stay in sympathetic nervous system response (an activated state of being) rather than settling into the parasympathetic (a restful state of being). Constant contact through effleurage is the key, and the quality and application of your therapist’s effleurage strokes from the beginning of the session through to the end of the session can greatly affect your experience.  

Initial Contact 

Imagine for a moment that you are beginning to receive a massage. The therapist undrapes your back and immediately begins applying deep, specific, fast, friction-producing strokes. 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 you a sense of wholeness. The entire length of the body part—whether it be your back, arm, or leg—is touched, welcomed, and warmed. How your massage therapist guides your transition from being out in the world doing, to being on a massage table receiving, charts the course for the rest of the session. This initial contact can communicate intent, assist you in relaxing into your 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. 

Contact Between Massage Strokes 

Therapeutic strokes that are applied to specific areas of tension, pain, or immobility are typically short, jostling, and/or deeply engaging to the muscles and connective tissues that surround muscles. 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, your system settles and resets before the next short, specific stroke is begun. The resulting experience for you, the receiver, is fluid and soothing. 

Since the specific strokes mentioned above are believed to stimulate circulation and break up connective tissues that are stuck together, it makes sense to “rinse” the area that has just been stirred up. Although research has yet to confirm it, we believe this movement of metabolic wastes happens through longer, smooth effleurage strokes.  

Additionally, we believe that these quicker, specifically directed strokes can be stimulating to the sympathetic nervous system (remember, the activated state of being); therefore, your massage therapist can counteract these strokes with one or two transitional effleurage strokes, inviting a parasympathetic, or restful, pause. This translates into a balanced and well-rounded session for the client.

Final Contact 

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 element, 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 might notice yourself automatically releasing a deep exhale after this final, soothing stroke is applied and the body part is re-draped. It’s as if the body is naturally saying, “Ahh, yes. Sweet relief!”

Secret Ingredient Revealed 

Now that the secret ingredient is revealed, you can comfortably talk about it with your massage therapist. The purpose of client education is to help you know what you are receiving, as well as empower you to ask for what you want and need if you aren’t fully satisfied. The more you know, the better equipped you are to take your self-care experiences to the next level! 

Swedish Massage Strokes 
Now that you’ve learned about effleurage and how it connects your massage experience, here are some other things to consider during a typical Swedish massage session.  

One of the most commonly taught and well-known massage techniques, Swedish massage is a vigorous system of treatment designed to energize the body by stimulating circulation. Five basic strokes, all flowing toward the heart, are used to manipulate the soft tissues of the body. The disrobed client is covered by a sheet, with only the area being worked on exposed. Therapists use a combination of kneading, rolling, vibrational, percussive, and tapping movements, with the application of oil, to reduce friction on the skin. The many benefits of Swedish massage may include generalized relaxation, dissolution of scar tissue adhesions, and improved circulation, which may speed healing and reduce swelling from injury.1

Cindy Williams has served the massage profession as a practitioner, school administrator, instructor, curriculum developer, and mentor since 2000. She enjoys the challenge of blending structure with creative flow to provide balance in her classroom, bodywork practice, and life.


1. “Swedish Massage,” Glossary of Massage and Bodywork Techniques,, accessed September 2017.