Sports Massage: How Your Hands and Fingers Can Help You Get Back in the Game

Relieve soreness, ease pain and recover after workouts with sports massage techniques from STACK Expert Jim Carpentier.

If you can't afford a professional sports massage, fear not. You can apply some basic massage therapy techniques on yourself—the same ones that massage therapists use to warm up and/or loosen tight muscles.

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Sports Massage

If you can't afford a professional sports massage, fear not. You can apply some basic massage therapy techniques on yourself—the same ones that massage therapists use to warm up and/or loosen tight muscles.

Some of the most versatile massage techniques

  • Kneading (Petrissage): Massage movement using deep pressure on the underlying muscles by either kneading, wringing, rolling the skin or lifting and squeezing the skin using fingers and hands. Effectively loosens tight muscles and alleviates soreness.
  • Stroking (Effleurage): Either a soothing circular movement or a firm movement along the muscles using the palm of your hand or fingertips. Excellent for warming up and/or relieving tight or sore muscles before or after sports or exercise, and for lowering mental stress. If it's performed on bare skin, an oil or lubricant (e.g., olive or mineral oil) helps provide smoother strokes over the muscles.
  • Jostling (Vibration): Shaking a muscle with the hand or fingertips to enhance blood circulation and warm up the muscle before exercise or sports, or to ease tight muscles.
  • Compression: Laying hands or fingers atop muscles and slightly pressing on the tissue, lifting the hands and repeating. This increases blood circulation and helps muscles warm up before intense exercise, practices and games.
  • Friction: Using firm pressure with index and middle fingertips or pads, or thumb pads, in circular movements in a localized area to alleviate muscle or joint stiffness, or eliminate adhesions from an old injury and restore pain-free muscle and joint range of motion. Friction movements are generally a deeper-tissue massage technique used particularly to erase muscle and joint soreness before, during or after workouts or sports.

Self-massage guidelines

  • Do not massage swollen or inflamed muscles or joints, open wounds or recently injured areas.
  • Only massage over muscle and around a joint, not on bones or the spine.
  • Be patient. Sometimes massage provides immediate relief and pain-free range of motion. Other times, the pain disappears the next day or in a few days. Chronic issues require a longer therapeutic protocol with repeated massage, ice and/or moist heat applications and stretching.
  • To erase muscle tightness, "knots" and trigger points causing pain and limiting joint and muscle range of motion, use your thumb or index and middle fingers and apply firm pressure for 10 to 20 seconds and repeat three or four times.
  • Use broad strokes with your thumb to break up adhesions causing discomfort.
  • Use all your fingers and your entire hand to massage hard-to-reach areas (e.g., upper back, rear deltoid, back of neck, hips and lower back).
  • When massaging your arms, rest them on a table, desk or counter top for better stability.
  • Effleurage strokes (with palm of your hand and fingers) should be performed up toward the heart for optimal blood circulation.

Self-massage approaches

  • Lower-body warm-up. Perform massage standing or seated. Start at your right ankle and do an effleurage stroking movement up and over your leg muscles three or four times. Vigorously jostle your upper right leg with both hands for 10-20 seconds. Repeat effleurage/jostling movements with your left leg.
  • Upper-body warm-up. Grasp your right wrist with your left hand and perform effleurage stroking movement up over your right forearm and upper arm and around your lateral deltoid, top and front of your shoulder and down your back toward your wrist. Repeat effleurage strokes three to four times, then rub your forearm and upper arm vigorously with palm and fingertips for 10 to 20 seconds. Next, perform effleurage strokes with your right hand for left arm/shoulder muscles three to four times, followed by rapidly rubbing your left forearm and upper arm for 10 to 20 seconds.
  • Relieving knee soreness. Massage the muscles around and behind the knee (not the kneecap) using your second and third fingers for deep tissue transverse and circular movements.
  • Relieving tennis elbow. Rest your arm on a table or counter and apply broad deep strokes with your thumb around the outer elbow (not on the joint). Also press firmly into the crease of your arm (where the upper and lower arm meet) and hold for 10 to 20 seconds. Repeat three to four times.
  • Relieving shoulder soreness. Rest your arm on a table or counter top. For front deltoid issues, press deeply with your thumb over painful trigger points for 10 to 20 seconds, then vigorously rub into the muscle in circular motions with your index/middle fingers for 10 to 20 seconds. Search additional tender spots with your second and third fingers in your trapezius muscle and rear deltoids. Also, use your second and third fingers for the lateral deltoid head, pressing deeply on tender spots.
  • Relieving shin splints. Firmly press with your index and middle fingers along the muscles in the front lower leg (not on bone), focusing on tender areas for 10 to 20 seconds. Repeat three or four times.
  • Easing lower back stiffness. Apply firm pressure with your index/middle fingers on the hamstrings and continue toward your hips, searching for painful trigger points. Continue using your second/third fingers or thumb and press firmly along the right or left lower back area, massaging sore areas.
  • Relieving tension headaches. Headache relief often comes after massaging behind the neck. Probe deeply with your fingers over tender spots commonly found in that area and repeat until tenderness subsides. Use all your fingers and make firm circular movements along the front (forehead) and sides of your head to reduce tension.
  • Relieving stiff neck. Apply firm pressure along the sides of your neck and at the base of your neck, connecting into your trapezius muscles. Reach across your body and press deeply with both fingers into the trapezius muscle on the right side. Hold for 10 to 20 seconds. Repeat three or four times and use your right arm to reach across your body and massage your left trapezius muscle deeply. Combine with gentle static neck stretching downward, backward and laterally toward shoulders holding stretches for 10 to 20 seconds to reduce stiffness.
  • Relieving sore, tight chest. Use deep circular motions with your second/third fingers along the top, lower, middle, inner and outer pectoral muscles, concentrating particularly on tender spots.
  • Relieving groin pulls/tightness. Sit on the floor and probe your inner thigh, seeking tender areas with your second/third fingers. For especially sensitive areas, use your thumb, press firmly and hold for 10 to 20 seconds. Release and repeat three or four times.

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