Basic is the New Advanced

Using Foundational Techniques to Create Purposeful Outcomes

By Cindy Williams
[Classroom to Client]

What makes a massage technique advanced? If you observe some of our most experienced, well-respected, expert instructors in the field, who are known for their therapeutic effectiveness with soft-tissue manipulation, you will find they are still performing foundational skills. Then, what makes these practitioners/instructors advanced?
I propose it is their ability to discern which foundational techniques to apply and how to apply them with great precision and purpose. This comes from a lot of practice with a variety of clients with individual needs, tuning into what makes tissue change, and noting the outcomes.

Advanced Versus Fancy

I have observed—as a client, instructor, and instructor trainer—an attempt to advance basic massage techniques with the addition of flair rather than through development of precision and purpose. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for creativity! Yet, when a student says, “Hey, check out this new move I made up,” I always say, “Cool! So what is the purpose of that stroke? What is its therapeutic value?”
Performing a stroke without intent will hold back your advancement as a therapist. It might look cool or feel different, but it’s important to ask yourself if it is serving a purpose that will benefit your client.

A Basic Review

Generally speaking, in-depth training of the effects of foundational massage strokes is a relatively new component of many massage trainings. There is also evolving terminology when describing these techniques. Following is an overview and refresher of foundational techniques using modern and traditional terminology, the effects of each, and how they can be purposefully used.


Definition: A long, gliding stroke usually applied toward the heart.

Effects and Uses:
• To begin and end a session and/or body region and transition between strokes
• To flush an area after static compression
• To align fibers after deep cross-fiber friction
• To lengthen tissue that is short (Note: This can be enhanced by anchoring the tissue at one end and gliding away from the anchor point.)
• To promote blood flow to ischemic tissue
• To reduce swelling in a tissue with mild edema
• To promote calm in hyperactive clients

Also known as (AKA):
• Gliding
• Elongation
• Tension


Definition: A rhythmic stroke that lifts the muscle off the bone and compresses it between the fingers.

Effects and Uses:
• To increase circulation and lymph flow
• To activate tendon receptors to relax muscles
• To further warm tissue and prep for deeper work
• To awaken proprioceptors (or perhaps to confuse them and make them question and reassess their typical position in space)
• To decrease adhesions and increase tissue pliability

• Bending (to bend tissue around an anchor point)
• Torsion (to twist or turn tissue around an anchor point)


Definition: A heat-producing chafing or rubbing stroke.

Effects and Uses:
• To stimulate and warm the tissue
• To increase blood and lymph flow
• To separate muscle fibers that are stuck together
• To break up adhesions and scar tissue

• Superficial
• Circular
• Linear
• Cross-fiber

• Shearing


Definition: When two or more structures are pushed together.

Effects and Uses:
• To dilate blood vessels and encourage local circulation (static)
• To release muscle spasm via interruption of the pain/spasm/pain cycle (static)
• To generally warm the tissue (broad)


Definition: A pulsating, tremor-like or oscillating stroke

Effects and Uses:
• To stimulate, then subsequently relax tissue
• To cause general nerve stimulation to a local area
• To decrease muscle guarding

• Shaking (vigorous)
• Rocking
• Oscillating

Joint Movement

Definition: Moving a joint through its available range (i.e., flexion, extension, adduction, abduction, rotation, etc.) either passively, actively, or against resistance.

Effects and Uses:
• To stimulate production of synovial fluid
• To increase range of motion
• To test for whether an issue is in inert or contractile tissue

About Pace

Many therapists tend to have their own natural pace. A student recently commented that one instructor leans toward a slower pace, while another instructor naturally applies massage techniques with a faster pace. I questioned my instructors (simply out of curiosity and experiment). Both independently noted that their pace “matches their personality” and is “what they prefer to receive.”
The most advanced practitioner has the ability and awareness to apply techniques at varied paces within the massage session depending on what the tissue needs. Does it need to be calmed? Does it need stimulation? Does it need strengthening? Does it need release? Pace is best chosen based on a client-centered experience rather than therapist personality.

Back to Basics

This is a general guideline intended to pique your interest in advancing your basic skills. When knowledge of the purpose of the foundational strokes, rather than just how to perform them, is thoroughly taught, absorbed, understood, and applied—with consistent practice and noting of change—perhaps we will come to find the foundational strokes we learned in school possess the exact therapeutic effects needed, and extra flair isn’t necessary to meet the goal. Keep it simple and opt to make your work advanced with precision and purpose.

Since 2000, Cindy Williams, LMT, has been actively involved in the massage profession as a practitioner, school administrator, instructor, curriculum developer, and mentor. She maintains a private practice as a massage and yoga instructor. Contact her at