Leveling Up: How to Build Massage Therapy Skills

A career in massage therapy opens up a world of possibilities to escape from behind a cubicle wall. These professionals perform meaningful therapeutic work in a variety of settings around the globe.

Working in massage therapy can empower professionals to be selective with their schedules and perform their work in a variety of locations. Since massage therapy skills are desired worldwide, they can choose to work in a diverse range of exciting domestic and international locations in day spa clinics, health and wellness centers, salons, franchised clinics, nursing homes, health and fitness centers, and chiropractic clinics. They can also be entrepreneurs in a home or office-based private practice.

There are several pathways to pursue a career in massage therapy. In the U.S., 45 states require licensure and some require candidates to complete an approved massage therapy educational program. These program prepare them to take a state-specific credentialing test or the Massage and Bodywork Licensing Examination (MBLEx) offered by the Federation of State Massage Therapy Boards (FSMTB). There are numerous massage therapy programs offered at community colleges and more than 265 accredited massage therapy schools can be found through the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA).

Before enrolling in an educational program, many people choose to explore the world of massage therapy through a variety of free or low-cost online courses and resources. Future massage therapy students can also jumpstart their studies by studying prerequisite course content. There are free online tutorials offered in massive open online courses (MOOCs) and free video-based tutorial websites.

Discover the career outlook of massage therapists and how to develop those skills below.

Fast Facts – Why are Massage Therapy Skills Important?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics cites massage therapy as one of the fastest growing careers in the United States. It boasts a projected 26 percent increase in openings nationally between 2016 and 2026—the addition of 42,100 jobs.

With the majority of states adopting licensure standards, an increasing number of patients and healthcare providers are understanding the physical benefits of massage therapy as a way to manage pain and maintain health and wellness.

Some health insurance providers are opting to include massage therapy as a benefit in some health insurance plans. As the number of people with health insurance in the United States continues to increase due to the implementation of the Affordable Healthcare Act, the demand for massage therapy to be included in health insurance plans is projected to increase.

Below is a list of reasons why health and wellness professionals prescribe massage therapy as a healing modality:

  • Chronic pain relief
  • Reducing stress and anxiety
  • Reducing muscle tension
  • Improving flexibility
  • Headache relief
  • Increasing immunity
  • Acute pain treatment
  • Increasing circulation
  • Improving athletic performance
  • Promoting relaxation
  • Healing from traumatic injury or major medical procedures

Earning a degree from a 500-hour massage therapy program provides new professionals with a foundational knowledge of massage therapy skills to specifically help promote the desired healing results listed above.

Specialization in a specific area of massage therapy can be explored during practical practicum hours or after completion of a program. The range of specializations in massage therapy are as unique as the patients and ailments they treat. Some of the commonly known massage therapy specializations are:

  • Deep tissue
  • Swedish
  • Shiatsu
  • Acupressure
  • Prenatal
  • Infant
  • Manual lymphatic drainage
  • Myofascial release
  • Reflexology
  • Spa therapy
  • Sports therapy
  • Stone therapy
  • Thai
  • Trigger point

Having a specialization can help massage therapists promote specific types of healing for their clients and create lasting career satisfaction.

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When learning about or beginning a new career, it is natural to wonder how currently established professionals came to be. Learning about the pathways of others can inspire emerging professionals as they consider pivoting into new careers. Here are the professional journeys of three massage therapy professionals.

Massage Therapy Programs

There is an abundance of massage therapy programs offered throughout the United States, including some hybrid programs that require a blend of online and in-person interaction with instructors and students. Here are five massage therapy programs offered in hybrid or in-person course delivery formats.

Fort Hays State University (FHSU)

The Department of Health and Human Performance at Fort Hays State University in Hays, Kansas offers a certificate in massage therapy for students who want to add a certificate to an existing degree or want to begin a career in massage therapy. This 500-hour program can be completed in two semesters in a hybrid or on-campus format.

Courses in core theory are offered online and clinical experiences are offered in-person on campus Saturday and Sunday bi-monthly. FHSU’s 32-credit curriculum is designed to meet national standards and students are prepared to sit for the national exam upon completion. The program costs $218 per credit hour and the online virtual program is ranked on the list of Best Online Programs by the U.S. News & World Report.

Green Mountain Massage School

Featuring a blend of hands-on and online learning environments, Green Mountain Massage School is a nine-month program which covers 630 hours of massage and bodywork training. The program can be completed in two semesters with the approximately half of the time spent on learning and practicing massage techniques and the other half spent on didactic classroom learning. The program is certified by the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage (NCBTM) and graduates of this program are prepared to sit for its national board certification exam.

Lotus Education Institute

A member of the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA), the Lotus Education Institute offers a 500-hour hybrid massage therapy program. The institute offers a range of courses for beginning and seasoned professionals, including massage therapy classes, massage therapy training, and continuing education courses for current massage therapists.

Offering a blend of Western and Eastern healing methodologies, classes are delivered in-person and via online learning management systems. Course options also include online and in-person teacher training courses for current massage therapist who want to learn more about training future massage therapists.

U.S. Career Institute Massage Therapy School (USCIMTS)

Accredited by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC), the four-month massage therapy program at USCIMTS is offered in a hybrid learning environment.

The program is divided into two sections: a self-paced online academic course covering the basics of massage therapy or the full enhanced course includes the academic course and 200 hours of hands-on massage therapy training in Colorado. The full course prepares students to sit for the national exam and is taught by credentialed massage therapy instructors.

Whatcom Community College

Approved by the Washington State Department Massage Board and accredited by the Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges, Whatcom Community College offers online and hybrid courses towards a certificate in massage therapy. The program includes eight core courses and are delivered in both online and hybrid formats. Students taking the hybrid program option can expect the lecture portions of class delivered online and the laboratory classes are in-person.

Graduates from the Whatcom Community College massage therapy program have a 92.4 percent first-time pass rate on the Massage & Bodywork Licensing Examination (MBLEx), which is a required exam for massage therapists wanting to practice in the state of Washington. The program can be completed in one year and is designed for full-time students.

DIY Massage Therapy Skill-Building

For those who want to dabble in massage therapy coursework before fully committing to an professional program, there are numerous free or low-cost online training options. Here’s a list of some do-it-yourself resources to explore the field of massage therapy.

Coursera offers a course in preventing chronic pain taught by medical professor Dr. James Fricton, DDS, MS at the University of Minnesota. Students can audit the course for free and can pay money for an electronic certificate to share on a LinkedIn profile. The beginner-level course is divided into four weeks and takes approximately 34 hours to complete.

edX offers a foundational course in human anatomy. It covers the major organ systems and their functional relationships within the human body. This course is one part of a four-part course series and is taught by three instructors from the Division of Anatomical Sciences at the University of Michigan. The course takes four to eight weeks to complete and students can expect to spend two or three hours per week studying. A certificate is available upon completion of all course material and costs $176.

Khan Academy with a mission to provide a free, world-class education to anyone, anywhere, the Khan Academy features free video tutorial explanations on essential core educational subjects and standardized test preparation. Useful for massage therapy students and instructors alike, one course focuses on how lymphatic vessels move fluid and students can ask questions in an interactive comments thread.

Skillshare features free video-based tutorials for professionals focusing on bodywork, business, technology, and lifestyle. The courses encourage students to take action by sharing their final projects demonstrating competencies in the targeted skill.

Udemy offers 96 courses in massage therapy. It is a low-cost option for those wanting to learn video-based techniques in an online environment. With courses taught by approved continuing education providers through the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork, over 72,000 students have chosen to learn massage therapy techniques through this online course option. Course prices range from $49.99 to $199.99 and a certificate is provided upon completion.

Rachel Drummond, MEd
Rachel Drummond, MEd

Rachel Drummond is a freelance writer, educator, and yogini from Oregon. She’s taught English to international university students in the United States and Japan for more than a decade and has a master’s degree in education from the University of Oregon. A dedicated Ashtanga yoga practitioner, Rachel is interested in exploring the nuanced philosophical aspects of contemplative physical practices and how they apply in daily life. She writes about this topic among others on her blog (Instagram: @racheldrummondyoga).

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