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Swedish Massage and What to Expect

  • Swedish massage is typically referred to as a classic, full-body massage targeted at relaxation.

  • During Swedish massage, therapists typically start on the back, move to the legs/feet, and then work up.

  • Swedish massage many health benefits including reduced anxiety and improved sleep and mobility.

Swedish massage, also known as classic massage, was developed in Sweden over two centuries ago. It is a form of massage therapy that involves long strokes and friction motions to improve circulation and blood flow, relieve tension, and promote relaxation.

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Swedish massage differs from other types of massage, such as deep tissue massage or sports massage, because the main goal is to achieve a sedative effect through mental and physical relaxation, says Chris Minehan, LMT, founding owner of Reclaimed Being Therapeutic Massage.

"A proper Swedish massage should be slow-moving, rhythmic, and address only the superficial tissue, not go into deeper muscle work," says Minehan. "It is great for someone with high stress levels or constant responsibility that makes it difficult to take the mental pause that is so necessary and restorative for our minds, bodies, and souls."

Learn more about what to expect from a Swedish massage and its many health benefits.

What does a Swedish full body massage include?

During a Swedish massage, a client lays unclothed (underwear optional) on a massage bed, draped between two sheets, says Amy Montia, PhD, LMT, and medical-massage practitioner at Physio Logic. A therapist needs to know all of the client's medical conditions, medications, allergies, and injuries, past and present, to individualize a session for pressure and focus.

While there's no standard order for a Swedish massage, Minehan says a therapist might begin with the back, move to the legs and feet, followed by the shoulders, arms, and hands, ending with the neck, head, and face. During a Swedish massage, the therapist directs their glide to move from the extremities toward the heart and lymph nodes, says Montia. The massage pace and pressure may vary depending on the therapist's style and the client's needs.

"I begin my session with light, broad compression to the whole body to activate sensory receptors and get the blood and lymph fluid moving," says Montia. A signature Swedish massage style uses "thin, slippery oil and lighter pressure to glide along the skin, and gently knead and chop muscles and connective tissue," she says.

Sessions are typically 60 minutes for the full-body, although a 90 or 100-minute session allows more time spent on hands, feet, or a target area. The client turns over halfway through the session. Variations depend on schedule, finances, and how long it takes you to fully relax.

Swedish massage can relieve tight muscles, direct blood flow, and flush out the lymphatic system, which helps to minimize the effects of sluggish circulation. According to Montia, poor circulation can cause a variety of different health complaints.

There are a plethora of studies around Swedish massage and its many benefits, including: Physical benefits Mental health benefits Swedish massage vs. Deep tissue Related Article Module: The benefits of deep tissue massage and why it's not for everyone

"The most important difference between Swedish and deep tissue massage is the depth of pressure," Montia says. "Swedish uses a lighter touch and the strokes glide across the skin. Deep tissue focuses more specifically on [knots] in the muscles and fascia." Deep tissue techniques use less oil, often feel more intense, and may elicit discomfort.

Medical term: Fascia is the layered bands of fibrous connective tissue that hold your muscles in place.

Swedish massage is a good option when someone is new to massage, says Montia, because the strokes are calming with minimal pain or discomfort. She also recommends it for those with muscle soreness, who are feeling run down, have low pain tolerance, or are sore from an intense work-out.

Swedish and deep tissue also have different goals, says Minehan. The former focuses on relaxation, while the latter is more appropriate for pain relief and recovery.

"Someone with higher levels of stress and more responsibilities should opt for a Swedish massage," he says. "Someone who is experiencing targeted areas of pain or tension or who has injuries in need of recovery should [choose] a deep tissue or sports massage."

Swedish massage techniques

Most experts list five key Swedish massage techniques, including:

  • Effleurage. The main Swedish massage stroke. It's a light, gliding, soothing stroke that's performed slowly, in long seamless motions using a thin oil and causing no discomfort.

  • Tapotement. A swift percussion or drumming stroke, similar to tapping bongos or chopping using the palms or pinky-side blade of the hands.

  • Petrissage. Kneading of the muscles and fascia to enhance circulation.

  • Friction. Fast, short movements in a circular motion, which heat the skin and bring blood flow to specific areas.

  • Vibration. Typically a fine, trembling movement applied in an "up and down" motion with the fingertips or palms of the hand.

Montia says Swedish massage frequently uses two other techniques:

  • Compression. When the therapist leans into the client's body, usually over the draping, with their forearms, elbows, palms, or fingers.

  • Stripping. Gliding the thumb, hands, elbow, or forearm along the length of a muscle in the direction of its fibers, from one attachment point to the other.

Insider's takeaway

Swedish massage is a therapeutic practice employing long strokes and friction motions to improve circulation and blood flow, relieve tension, and induce relaxation. This classic massage works on superficial body tissue without getting too deep into muscle work.

Montia says all massage therapists should have a current license, and most US states require a licensing exam that needs to be renewed every 2-3 years. Wyoming, Vermont, Oklahoma, Minnesota, and Kansas don't require a license, but you can trust a therapist has passed an official level of training for Swedish massage if they are indeed licensed.

Swedish massage can be an antidote to skin hunger, or touch hunger, Minehan says. This condition may result from touch deprivation and is reportedly exacerbated by the pandemic, causing depression due to a lack of hugging, handshakes, and other forms of social touching.

"Be sure to take the time and do your homework when finding a therapist," says Minehan. "Throughout your massage, remain communicative. Go to someone who will make adjustments to best serve your needs."

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