Less is More

A More Effective Way to Use Lubricant

By David M. Lobenstine

In my classes, I see the same thing over and over again: too much. Too much lubricant, which then translates into something even worse—too much effort. As a group, massage therapists are an incredibly varied, diverse bunch of people, yet the challenges we have are so similar! The more I teach, the more amazed I am by our profession.

As massage therapists, we have the best intentions in the world. But when we use too much lubricant, those intentions literally slip away. During our practice sessions, I watch a roomful of well-intentioned massage therapists slathering their practice partner with oil or crème or lotion. The massages look like what I call “pump and dump.” Or, if you prefer, “glide and slide.” In other words, the way we usually apply oil hinders our ability to do therapeutic work and causes us to work harder than we need to—and harder than the client needs.

Why Use Lubricant?

It is a deceptively simple question. You use lubricant, whether it is oil, lotion, crème, or gel to move across the client’s skin and into the client’s tissue. You use lubricant because otherwise you would never be able to do a full-body massage in an hour! You use lubricant because, well, body hair.

All those answers are true. But these answers don’t tell the whole story. More often than not we use lubricant out of habit.

Old Habits Die Hard

We use lubricant because our teacher, way back in our first semester of massage school, told us to use it. And we’ve been doing so ever since. My guess is you probably haven’t thought much about how and why you lubricate your clients’ skin.

Perhaps you experimented with different kinds of lubricant. Maybe you used gel for a while, and now you use lotion. However, you probably don’t think much about the essence of that lubricant as you apply it, session after session, hour after hour, back after back. Or perhaps you experimented for a few weeks (or a few minutes) with doing bodywork without using oil. But chances are, you eventually went back to your usual routine.

We all know how easy it is to get stuck in a rut—to do the same strokes over and over, mindlessly, without truly paying attention to the body beneath your hands. I think the same is true for how we use lubricant. It’s a rut we get stuck in, a habit we rely on, and, even worse, I think our habits actually worsen the effect of other counterproductive habits. In other words, the way you use oil or crème or lotion might actually accelerate other issues in your massage work, and may shorten your massage career.

There is, however, another possibility. There is a way to use lubricant that actually makes your work both easier on your body and more effective for the client.

Rethinking Lubrication Use

When I talk in my classes about the oil I use, everyone chimes in. We all have opinions about what is best: oil versus creme versus lotion. Scented versus unscented. Biotone versus Bon Vital’ versus Jojaba. But amid these opinions about which (or what type of) lubrication is best, there is rarely discussion about the why and the how of lubrication use.

Lubricant is often an afterthought, but I am going to convince you that your use of lubricant shouldn’t be an afterthought. It should actually be your first thought.

Lubricant is the gateway. That oft-repeated action—the pump, pump, pump of the oil bottle, the squeeze of the tube of cream, the dip and swipe into the tub of lotion—sets up everything that follows. How—and how much—you apply creates the conditions for the entire massage.

So, if we can clarify our intentions for using lubrication, then we can use it more effectively. I am proposing two small changes in how you use lubrication that will have an enormous impact on the quality of your sessions:

• I suggest you use less oil.

• I suggest you apply oil in an opposite fashion.

If you are willing to make these two changes, something amazing happens. You will work a lot less, and your clients will benefit a lot more.

What Is Lubricant?

The term lubricant comes from the 17th century Latin word lubricat, which means “made slippery.”1 Whatever kind of lubricant you use, the fundamental purpose is the same—to allow your point of contact to move more easily on and into the client’s tissue. But lubrication is a tricky thing. Lubrication is a double-edged sword—both a blessing and a curse.

All lubricants reduce the friction between two surfaces in one way or another, making a task easier and more efficient. An engine runs more efficiently with motor oil because there is less contact between parts of the motor. Frying an egg is better with butter because otherwise it sticks to the pan. The value of making something slippery is that you make it happen more efficiently and you accomplish the task—get to the end—more quickly.

In a massage, getting to the end is not necessarily a good thing. After all, if we are doing our jobs well, the last thing a client wants is for the session to end! What makes a massage amazing, is the opposite. Being immersed in the here and now, feeling like your body is extracted from the relentless rush of time (even just for a little while), enjoying a delicious and (seemingly) never ending present, that is bliss. But lubricant—specifically, too much lubricant—can actually get in the way of a successful treatment.

Use Less

The promise of lubricant—the whole purpose—is to decrease friction, tension, or the amount of contact between two surfaces using meaningful contact. But, as bodyworkers, we should also be wary of lubricant. Think about it in this way: lubricant actually goes against our most basic goal! If we are just slipping and sliding over the skin, we can’t create meaningful contact that is essential to our clients.

To be clear, I am not advocating we throw away our gallon jugs of oil. I love the coconut oil I use day after day. I think all forms of bodywork, whether lubricated or not, have value. But only if they are done with meaning, with intention, with mindfulness. I think too often, we get stuck and just go through the motions. We watch the clock, and we mindlessly muscle our way through the same routine in order to get to the end of the session. We are not immersed in the here and now.

If you are using too much lubricant, you are exacerbating this already acute problem in our profession. With too much lubricant it becomes too easy to just slide to the end of the stroke and start the next one. It becomes too easy to work mindlessly, and becomes quite hard to work mindfully. I would argue that the “here and now” is the only thing that matters in a massage—where your hands are on the client’s tissue in the present moment—and what your body is doing to facilitate change in the present moment. The end of the stroke, or the end of the technique, or anything beyond the here in the now is completely irrelevant—both for our therapeutic purposes and for the client’s experience of the massage. All the client wants is our presence. All the client wants is the here and now.

As a result, if we are going to use lubricant, we need to use it in a way that enhances our contact with the client, rather than diminishes it. We need to use lubricant in a way that deepens our ability to be in the here and now rather than just sliding us to the end of the stroke, the end of the body part, the end of the session. What’s the best way to do that? Just use less.

It is easy to think that if we could only find the right lubricant, all our problematic habits would go away, and we would magically become more mindful in our sessions. The longer I work, the less I am convinced that one particular kind of lubricant is better or worse than another. My guess is that the one you are using right now is probably just fine. So don’t try to find the perfect kind. Instead, just try using less of what you already use.

What does “less” mean? Whatever feels right. In my continuing education classes, I encourage therapists to start by using half the amount of lubricant they normally use. This is terrifying for some practitioners. But it is a valuable challenge. So in your next session, start small. Pick one portion of the body—the left posterior leg, for example—and use just half the amount of lubricant you normally do on that part of the body. Then, in the massage after that, choose a different body part and again use half of your normal amount.

If you experiment slowly, and in small bites, you’ll be less likely to overwhelm yourself and get frustrated. Perhaps even more important, you have the chance to compare, in real time, what happens when you use different amounts of oil.

Here’s my guess about what will happen. Using less oil will feel terrible. It will feel confusing and frustrating and make you feel like you are at the first day of your Swedish I class all over again. And then, it will feel great. Because when we use less oil, it feels easier for us and feels better for the client.

Here’s Why

Remember that the essential purpose of lubricant is to make slippery—to reduce the contact between two surfaces. Also remember that the client has come to the massage because they want that contact between your hands and their skin.

There is a contradiction here. Most clients don’t want you to just slip and slide across their skin. (And most of us can intuitively feel that the “slip and slide” approach isn’t really satisfying.) You already know what happens next. The client asks for more pressure. Sound familiar?

What do you do in response? You put the brakes on—you stop yourself from sliding across their tissue and you try to drill down with the muscles of your upper body, to prove that you can work as deeply as the client wants. (Again, sound familiar?) In these moments, you are essentially working against yourself. You have introduced lubricant in order to create more glide, and then you are working against that glide in order to push deeper into the client’s tissues. As a result, you are working harder than you need to, and you are creating conditions that make your work harder. Another way to put it: an excess of oil leads to an excess of effort.

This process—applying too much oil, and then using our muscles as brakes to stop the effects of too much oil—is so second nature that we don’t even notice it. Our forearms ache, our shoulders feel bunched in knots, or our lower backs tighten and spasm. Many of us just take for granted that this is part of the job. Aren’t these just symptoms, after all, of what it means to be a good massage therapist—someone who cares about their clients? No. You don’t have to ache in order to be a good therapist.

I believe a key to long-term success as therapists is learning how to use the minimum amount of effort necessary in every stroke we do. Too much oil does the opposite. Too much oil requires that we use extra effort just to maintain meaningful contact. In other words, you are working harder than you need to for no reason.

To make matters worse, the client feels your excess effort too. When we are just sliding over the client’s skin, it’s not satisfying for their skin, muscles, and nervous system. And yet when we dig in to stop from sliding, that’s not satisfying either. It just feels like the therapist is trying to force the body to do something.

What happens when the body feels like it is being forced into something? The body’s instinctual protective mechanism is triggered. We tense up. We guard against anticipated pain or manipulation. This is the sympathetic nervous system at work. When the therapist works too hard, the client’s fight-or-flight response is activated—the result of millions of years of evolutionary instinct to protect against pain and injury. In other words, when we work harder than we need to, the client’s body does all the things we don’t want it to do during a massage.

Using less oil forces you to slow down, to let the stroke manifest itself, and to move as the client needs, rather than just forcing the stroke to go wherever you think it should go. This can feel like a big jump at first. But I promise you, the leap is worth it.

No client will ever be upset with you because you only did three effleurage strokes down the spine, rather than nine. None of your clients will be upset if you slow down. All of your clients want meaningful contact, not a race to the end.

Use It Differently

As you’ve probably guessed by now, I think a lot about oil. And I vary how much and where I use it. With some clients, I don’t use oil at all, and I do a whole session of what might be called myofascial release. With other clients, I do what looks more like a typical Swedish massage, and I apply oil to each body part that I work. With still other clients I do a combination: I use oil on the parts of the body that need more general work, and then I don’t use oil on the one or two parts where the client wants extra attention or needs extra help.

But within this variety, there is one consistency: every time I use oil, I use it in the same way. Which, chances are, is the opposite of how you use oil, or cream, or whatever lubricant you use. I apply oil from distal to proximal. What this means is that no matter what part of the body I am working on, I spread the oil starting at the part closest to the center of the body (in other words, the part farthest from where I am standing), and then I spread the oil toward the end of the body part I am working on (the part closest to where I am standing). For example:

• On the back, I start spreading the oil first on the superior aspect of the glutes and lower back, and then spread up the back, ending at the shoulders and neck.

• On the legs (both in prone and supine), I start spreading the oil at the hips and then come down to the ankles and feet.

• On the arms, I start spreading the oil on the pectoral musculature and the shoulder, and then spread down the arm to the hands.

• In addition, each time I spread the oil, it is with a very light touch. I am just spreading the oil, rather than actually doing any kind of effleurage stroke.

Why do I do this? Two reasons. First, applying lubricant from distal to proximal allows me to spread the oil evenly; second, it allows me to customize my session based on the specific needs of the client’s body.

Here’s Why

Therapists typically spread the oil in their first effleurage stroke. For example, you make your initial contact and slide down the back (from shoulders to hips) or up the leg (from ankle to hip). In my experience, this often means there is too much oil at the beginning of that stroke (the place farthest from the center of the body). That’s where the therapist, cupping a palmful of oil, started the stroke. The corollary is also true. By the end of that effleurage stroke—the part closest to the center of the body—there is not enough oil, because too much of it is left waiting at the beginning. In other words, the application of oil is uneven. This means the strokes, thereafter, will be uneven.

The second reason, however, is even more important. By taking a few seconds to just apply oil, without the client thinking that I am already doing a stroke, I can be as discriminating as I want about exactly where the oil goes. If the client has identified their lower back as a place that needs particular, as I apply oil, I am going to skirt around those areas and either apply no oil or a minimal amount of oil. That smaller amount of oil is essential. It lets me prioritize that specific area. Because with less (or no) oil in a specific area, my strokes will automatically slow down because the area is less lubricated. As a result, I can sink more slowly—and more deeply—into that area. Slowing down allows me to do more specific, focused work in the areas that need it most.

How would your sessions change if you challenged your lubricant habits? Experiment with using less and with using differently. I think you’ll find, with a bit of practice, that applying lubricant with intention and specificity affords you a wonderful flexibility in your sessions—both an increased ease and an increased effectiveness. Using lubricant differently, I believe, is nothing less than a great way to lubricate your whole massage career!


1. Lexico, s.v. “Lubricate,” Oxford Dictionary, accessed November 2019, www.lexico.com/en/definition/lubricate.

David M. Lobenstine has been a massage therapist, teacher, and writer for more than a decade. He is a graduate of the Swedish Institute and Vassar College. He has worked in a variety of settings—from luxury spas to the US Open Tennis Tournament to a hospice to now, exclusively, his own private practice. He teaches in person and online. His aim, with his clients and in his teaching and writing, is to enhance self-awareness, so we can do the things we love with efficiency and ease. Find him at davidlobenstine@gmail.com and www.bodybrainbreath.com.