A strong core not only guides every single movement the body makes but protects the back too. The low back specifically, tends to be a common site of injury for massage therapists. We are going to cover three main benefits of a strong core—but there is no doubt others will make themselves known once you put core-strengthening into daily practice.
Let’s first go over the reasons every massage therapist should have a strong core.
This is Why You Need a Strong Core
The abdominal muscles including the obliques and erector spinae work together like a girdle to hold the trunk of the body upright. The trunk is our center. Our solar plexus, the third chakra, our center of gravity, or however you like to think of this center portion of the body. When this center (the core) is weak, injury happens and when it’s strong a wide variety of movements become effortless.
The massage school I attended taught tai chi to beginning students along with learning massage strokes at the table. At the time I saw the similarities between the weight shift and holding a grounded center. It wasn’t until years later I realized how brilliant the tai chi concept was in helping students not only move fluidly around the massage table but maintain a center-of-the-body focus no matter where the arms and legs were placed.
Think of massaging a client’s back using a bow (archers) or split stance. If your stance is too narrow (like walking a tight rope), your balance is thrown off. Or if you stand on one leg and do big arm circles in different directions, your balance is thrown off. Now, if you come to both of these scenarios with a contracted core, everything becomes more stable. You may still lose balance but your core is creating a strong center for the movements.
Contract the Core Before Any Movement
Have you ever lifted a dumbbell at the gym or picked up something heavy to move and contracted your abdominals before the lift? This is taught in weight lifting and is the correct idea for lifting a client’s limb during a massage session too.
If during a sports massage, for example, you need to take the client’s leg through a range of motion, you probably set your feet in a split stance and pick the leg up. The key part of this action is to contract the abdominals first and then lift.
A Strong Core Equals Strong Massage Strokes
A contracted core helps not only lifting but any movement to become more stable. A deep tissue stroke benefits from a contracted core before the stroke begins. A long, slow myofascial release stroke is “stronger” or more supported with a contacted core.
If “stronger” isn’t the right word to describe some strokes, try “connected.” Think of how it feels to lay hands on the client’s back. You can do this with one hip cocked and put them down anywhere OR you can ground your feet, sink into your knees, contract your core, lift your arms from below (not the upper trapezius) and place your hands with intention.
This takes practice. Contracting the core muscles throughout your massage session is something that requires awareness and then takes practice until it’s second nature.
A Strong Core Makes Massage Movements More Fluid
Have you ever received a massage when the therapist kept bumping the table? Or have you received a massage that was so excellent, but you can’t really put your finger on what made it so great?
It is fluid movements throughout the massage that make it great. A client shouldn’t feel when you change from a split stance to a horse stance. They shouldn’t feel the transition as you use a forearm over the back and then a hand on the neck.
Think of movements around the table like a dance. Effortless and smooth. Balanced and strong.
A strong core allows these things to happen. A strong core provides better balance which makes movements more fluid.
You may be able to feel this by standing on one foot and bending forward at the hip (straight spine) like a teapot pouring out tea. Now, do it again with a contracted core and it should be easier to keep your balance.
Keep those clients coming back again and again with core-supported sessions they love but aren’t sure why.
A Strong Core Allows for Massage Endurance
Massage endurance is simply the ability to hold the quality of massage throughout the day. That last massage of the day should be as good as the first.
I’m sure you’ve caught yourself leaning against the table as fatigue sets in on a long day. Or noticing your body mechanics getting lazy after massage number four. A strong core allows for greater endurance.
As your core becomes stronger, every movement becomes more supported and easier. It’s a wonderful thing! Train the core for strength and use that strength as a basis for every step you take, every massage stroke you perform, and every stance change around the table .
Fatigue will set in later which means you can do more massages.
Five massages in a day aren’t draining as long as the core muscles are strong enough and engaged. One extra client a day is $400 more a week. How’s that for giving yourself a raise? Essentially, you’re getting paid to get strong abs.
A Strong Core Protects Your Back
The second most reported area of overuse injury for massage therapists is the low back. Being on our feet all day coupled with poor posture or poor body mechanics puts the low back at risk.
The low back is susceptible to injury unless the core is strong. The girdle-like hold the core muscles create for the back allows for supported movements.
You know that client who came to see you because their back “went out?” When they tell you it happened as they were leaning over to pick up a pencil . . . they probably need to strengthen their core. There are many examples of back pain starting for no apparent reason but it always comes down to a weak core.
Massage therapists have a physical job that is best performed with a strong core. A strong core means better chances for a pain-free back.
Exercises for a Strong Core
What’s the best way to go about getting a strong core? Just start with ONE exercise! Consistency in exercise is proven to last longer when goals are simple and realistic. Don’t write “gym” into your schedule five days a week if you aren’t ‘t already going that often.
Pick one core exercise and start with that. It could be a basic crunch, a crunch machine at the gym, or even a Pilates class.
Plank for a Strong Core
If there is one exercise that gives massage therapists the most bang for their buck, it’s the plank. This exercise is amazing for the core as well as upper body strength that’s necessary for massage therapists. You get bonus strong shoulders and arms while you are shaping up that core.
A plank can be done on knees to begin and then progress to toes and even further progress to a one-leg plank. It can be done on hands or even elbows if your wrists bother you.
The plank is easy to make more difficult by raising one arm, one leg, hopping your feet for plank jacks, and even picking up dumbbells while in the plank. Its versatility makes it a good exercise to start with if you need that one exercise to get you going on your strong-core journey.
General Core Strength Guidelines
To increase core strength, you need to pick abdominal-specific exercises and then add variations with twists for the obliques. The posterior core muscles need to be strengthened as well so don’t forget those.
Depending on how much you are already doing to strengthen your core will determine where you begin within these guidelines.
Group 1 – “I don’t do anything with my core.” Start with one to three beginner core exercises and practice them three days a week. For each exercise do 12 repetitions, rest, and repeat for three sets. This will take 10 to 15 minutes.
Group 2 – “I have some core-specific exercise already in my routine.” Start with one of your favorite core exercises and add two new ones. Complete three sets of 15 repetitions for each of the exercises. Two days a week do this set of exercises and another two days a week complete a different set of three core exercises so You are getting a total of six different core exercises, four days a week. Each day the exercises will take 15 to 20 minutes.
Group 3 – “I strengthen my core regularly three to five days a week.” If you’re in this category I’ll bet you have lots of core exercises you’ve done but tend to stick with your favorites. Your job is to change it up and mix in some new oblique and back exercises. Maybe hang from bars and do leg lifts with a twist and weighted supermans.
Go with your current level of strength and challenge it. Three sets of three to five exercises targeting all areas of the core is a good goal.
I hope you see the benefits a strong core brings to your massage practice and life outside the massage room. Your body is the most important asset for your massage career and the time you put into it will bring returns 10-fold.
About the Author
Angela Lehman is a massage therapist of 25 years turned online educator, promoting fitness and nutrition for massage therapists. She runs The Fit MT. With her kinesiology degree specialized in nutrition, she trains therapists in healthy eating, exercise and body mechanics to prolong their careers . Read another of her articles, “The Fit MT: This is How Gut Health Can Super Charge Your Immune System.”