Massage Involves More Than Just Rubbing Muscles

By Cindy Williams, LMT

Every stroke or technique that a massage therapist applies within a session has a purpose and is used because of something the therapist saw in your posture, heard through your words, or felt as they touched your muscles.
You are probably familiar with most strokes your therapist applies because they are commonly used to warm the tissue, knead the muscles into a softened state, or break up scar tissue caused from previous injury or overuse. But what about that age-old, but less-commonly-used technique where your massage therapist “beats” on your body with their hands? Have you ever wondered what that is and why your massage therapist is doing it?

What Is It?

The massage stroke I’m referring to is called tapotement. Tapotement comes from the French word tapoter, which means “to tap,” and is a technique used in Swedish massage since the late 19th century. The technique is very literal to the word origin in that it simply involves tapping the body with hands, soft fists, or fingertips. It is a fast, rhythmic, percussive technique, typically alternating between hands, with the intention of bringing blood to the surface of the skin, stimulating the nervous system, and softening hardened muscles (think of tenderizing meat not with a meat-tenderizing hammer, but with soft, relaxed hands that feel good!).

How Is It Applied?

Tapotement can be applied in five ways: cupping, hacking, beating, tapping, and plucking. The difference in these strokes lies in how the hands are positioned.


When I refer to cupping as a form of tapotement, I am not referring to the popular form of cupping that uses suction to lift the tissue. Rather, I am referring to the use of the massage therapist’s hands in the form of a cup, like when you cup your hands to scoop up water. The cupped hands strike the body with the palms face-down, in a quick, rhythmic pace, resulting in a hollow sound as the hands contact the body.


This form of tapotement involves the use of the sides of the hands in a “karate chop” type of position. You have likely seen this technique used in movie scenes of people receiving massage. It is, again, applied with a quick, rhythmic pace.


While beating sounds like something you would not want your massage therapist to do to you, it actually feels really good! The massage therapist’s hands are held in a soft fist while applying the characteristic quick, rhythmic, repeated striking of tapotement massage. As with cupping, hacking, and plucking, the therapist’s wrists are soft rather than stiff, which allows the stroke to feel gentle and stimulating instead of hurtful or forceful.


Tapping is the same as cupping, hacking, and beating, except the massage therapist applies the technique with their fingertips.


Plucking is somewhat the black sheep of the tapotement family. Instead of using a downward striking force onto the client’s body, the therapist uses fingertips to gently “pluck” at the skin, as if to slightly raise it from underlying tissue. It is not, however, intended to be a deep stroke that engages the underlying tissue. The action simply mimics a lifting motion, but lightly, with thumb and fingertips, as if easily plucking something small off the floor. 

Why Do It?

So why on earth would a massage therapist want to strike their client’s body? There are many known benefits to this approach, some of which can vary per client. Following are some of the benefits.

Warming the tissue

If you have ever slapped a part of your body, you’ll notice a red mark quickly appears. Slapping, tapping, beating, hacking, and cupping all produce the same result. Pink or light red skin indicates that blood flow has raised to the surface of the skin, a circulatory benefit of tapotement.

Revitalizing and/or relaxing sore and tired muscles

Our skin and underlying muscles contain a lot of nerve endings. The rhythmic pace and light striking action of tapotement are stimulating to these nerve endings and can have the effect of soothing and relaxing tired muscles, as well as invigorating them. Depending on the needs of the client, either outcome is possible. Both are positive results.

Loosens areas of fluid buildup

When tapotement is applied to the back over the area where the lungs are, it can stimulate the removal of built-up mucus, especially after having a cold or bronchitis. Similarly, in areas where muscles are tight, blood can have a hard time flowing freely. Application of tapotement to these tight muscles can loosen them enough to create space for blood to flow anew.

Will a Mechanical Device Suffice?

These days, there are a lot of mechanical massage devices on the market to encourage people to massage themselves when they can’t or won’t receive a massage. While these mechanical devices can indeed support you with the benefits outlined above, caution should be taken when using them.  
First, these devices don’t have the ability to adapt their pressure or intensity like a human massage therapist can. Often, they are too intense, and even the lowest settings are not gentle enough.  
Second, you can overuse a mechanical device to the point of causing overstimulation of the nerve endings, resulting in numbness or tingling. This may not cause permanent damage, but in some cases it can. If you use a mechanical percussive device, please use it in moderation and listen carefully to the signs your body gives you when it has had enough. You should see pink skin, not red skin. Also, percussive techniques, whether received from a mechanical device or a massage therapist’s hands, should never be done over bony structures (like the spine or knee cap) or sensitive, unprotected organs (like the kidneys).  
Finally, there is truly no replacement for human touch. When a skilled massage therapist touches you, they are exchanging energy with you. They are also feeling your tissues, and adapting their approach based on what they feel. No mechanical device can sense a human being like another human being can.

A Positive Beat

Hopefully, knowing a bit more about tapotement, and how and why it is applied, will encourage you to relax into it. It’s an age-old technique for a reason, and the benefits are many. If your massage therapist doesn’t apply this stroke very often, feel free to ask for it by name. Every massage therapist is trained in this basic approach. So, go get your beat on, and feel the goodness! 

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.