How to choose a competent, experienced massage therapist

Updated 2023

If you are relatively new to massage or never had a massage before, how can you tell if your therapist is qualified, competent, experienced, professional and giving you value for money?

By the end of the session, you’ll obviously know whether you thought it beneficial, enjoyable and worthwhile, you were a bit dubious about the treatment (or lack of), or you never want to see that therapist again!

It’s possible the massage felt great at the time, but a few days later there’s been not even a slight improvement to your original aches and pains, so that massage and that therapist weren’t really what you needed. But don’t confuse those original issues with the possible very temporary soreness you may feel in some muscles a day or two later if the therapist had to use deep pressure to release some of your tight spots.

If you’re trying to find a good therapist in the first place, below are some things to look for. This information primarily applies to massage therapists, but much of it could also apply to other forms of hands-on physical bodywork therapy like physiotherapy, chiropractic or osteopathy.

  • Does the therapist have a website? If so, do they mention specific qualifications and experience? Are there reviews or testimonials from satisfied clients? Are they a member of a professional industry association (eg Massage & Myotherapy Australia)? How many years of massage experience do they have? Do they provide credit card facilities or health fund receipts/HICAPS? Professional association membership requires Continuing Professional Education (CPE) – also known as professional development. Check other websites that provide unsolicited reviews and testimonials (good and bad!) about various types of service providers and businesses in your local area to see if the therapist or firm is mentioned.
  • Do you know what sort of massage you want/NEED? If you have sore or aching muscles or joints or get headaches or migraines, you NEED a REMEDIAL massage, not a relaxation/Swedish/beauty massage. Eg. Beauty therapists generally aren’t also qualified to do REMEDIAL massage. If you are into sports/fitness/exercise, you probably think you need a Sports Massage. In most cases, you probably need a Remedial Massage for the best preparation and recovery some days ahead or afterwards. Sports Massage in its truest context is just five to 15 minutes on-site pre or post-competition massage and stretching. So check if there is any reference to the types of massage provided.
  • If you’ve just got a number off the internet or a phone directory and don’t have any other information about the therapist, simply ASK him/her about their qualifications. To be FULLY qualified these days, REMEDIAL massage therapists, for example, require at least a Diploma of Remedial Massage. This is required by most health funds for the therapist to become a recognised Provider.
  • Word-of-mouth referrals from friends are usually a good indicator. However, a massage that may feel good at the time may not necessarily be beneficial, so ask the referrer if the massage made a noticeable or lasting difference.
  • As with any trade or profession, having a university degree or other “piece of paper” that says you are “qualified” doesn’t actually mean you are competent. And vice-versa. Some “old school” therapists may not have the latest qualifications but are highly experienced and very competent. You’ll generally get a good idea during the massage whether they are competent. Without the relevant qualifications, however, they won’t be able to offer health fund rebates and they may not have insurance.
  • Don’t just assume the therapist will have credit card/EFTPOS facilities. Some will only take cash. Ask about those facilities if you ring.
  • Don’t assume if you make a booking for a one-hour massage that you will get an hour on the table. Some therapists/firms take bookings on the hour. That means that by the time you give them your information, disrobe and re-robe and the therapist allows time to change towels and prepare for the next client, etc, you are lucky to get 45-50 minutes on the table. So clarify the time on the table for the price you will be charged.
  • Price is usually but not always a reliable indicator. Keep in mind the old saying, “Pay peanuts and you get monkeys!” Would you expect to pay the same amount for a doctor/GP who has just graduated as for a highly experienced medical specialist? Someone who is fully qualified and highly EXPERIENCED can often save you a lot of time and money by knowing how to deal with your issues quickly and effectively and not require you to make numerous return visits. If you pay a really high price, are you just paying for exotic surroundings, or for the experience and competence of the therapist, particularly if you NEED a remedial massage?

Offering discounts for pre-paid treatments or bonuses, say pay for five upfront or 25 per cent off a fifth session, is a legitimate and cost-effective marketing tool for both therapist and clients. Reasonable time limits may be set with some of those packages but they are usually good value.

However, be aware of some physical therapists who may insist that you need a number of treatments and suggest you sign up and pay for, say, two or three sessions a week over four weeks or longer (perhaps even three months) to get a discount, with no refund if you can’t use those treatments or realise early in the treatment cycle they simply aren’t working and you don’t want to go back.

If you haven’t already checked out any of the above and simply phone and make a booking, once you get to the massage there are some indicators that separate a qualified, experienced and competent therapist who gives you top value for money from someone who may have had little or no training but has developed a personal style which feels fairly good at the time but is of little therapeutic value.

Having said that, any massage that makes you feel good – if only for a short time – is probably “therapeutic.” However, is it what you actually wanted and needed? Did you want a really firm and deep, thorough, full body massage but only received a light rub where you said you were sore? Or did the therapist spend all or most of his/her time working deep in just the areas you mentioned you were sore (which may make things worse!) and ignoring other areas?

If you haven’t already established the therapist’s bona fides and don’t want to directly ask him/her about their training and experience, here are some tips to help identify a qualified and experienced masseur.

If it’s your first massage with that therapist, he/she should get information about your medical history, lifestyle factors, pain areas and other aspects that could influence the type of massage and areas to be treated. For example, deep pressure should not be applied over a recent injury. Some conditions may contraindicate massage.

The therapist will discuss your needs and expectations from the massage, techniques to be used and areas of the body to be massaged. If you want a massage just for relaxation, the techniques will be different to those used if you need to specifically alleviate muscular or joint pain, headaches and migraines, or if you feel run down and your immune system needs a boost.

Genuine therapeutic massage is not sexual and does not include the genitals. If you ask for a full body massage, the genuine therapist will want to clarify the areas to be massaged.

If you haven’t had massage before (or it’s what you’ve become used to with particular therapists), your idea of “full body” may be only the entire back of the body from head to toe. This is what many therapists limit the massage to because that is where you usually feel sore.

A qualified and COMPETENT therapist should assume you also mean muscles in the front because he/she should be trained to know the vital interaction of muscles between the front and back of the body.

The therapist will be careful to keep you properly draped and only uncover areas being worked on, to avoid causing you embarrassment or discomfort.

A variety of light, firm and/or heavy techniques (depending on the style of massage) will be used in a systematic, sequential and coordinated way.

Any massage – from the very gentle manual lymphatic drainage (MLD) to deep tissue remedial work where elbow pressure may be used – requires fluency and energy, not just a careless, “wishy washy” movement of hands over the body. You can sense the difference.

During a firm but gentle relaxation (Swedish) massage, a therapist also experienced in Remedial massage will know if there are problems with deeper muscle tissue. Even though you are just there to relax, some therapists may recommend if they think a future deep tissue massage is advisable. Otherwise, it never hurts to ask the therapist if they found any problem areas.

If you mention particularly sore or tight areas and any massage or other physical therapist focuses only on those areas, you would be entitled to question their competency and qualifications in many cases. Just focusing on the pain or injured area without taking into account the compensatory effects from those areas can actually prolong the problem and lead to chronic pain (after three to four months).

If the massage is causing you significant pain, tell the therapist. The old saying “no pain, no gain” is true, but only to a certain extent. Generally speaking, if you let the therapist take you up to 7 out of 10 on your personal pain scale (where it’s fairly uncomfortable, but you can still handle it), that’s highly productive. If it’s 8/10 (where you’re brain is screaming back off, even if you’re not telling the therapist), that is counter-productive. With 7/10, the brain releases natural chemical muscle relaxants to the pain site. With 8/10, the brain causes muscles around the area to spasm to try to protect that area.

The hips are the structural centre of the body and any misalignment in that area due to tight hip flexors and “gluteus” (buttocks) muscles will cause compensatory effects throughout the body. Any remedial massage or other physical treatment for common muscle pains or post injury/surgery should include realigning the hips by releasing those muscles.

If you need a massage for COMMON muscular pain like sore backs, necks, shoulders, legs, headaches, migraines, etc (as distinct from things like immediate post-surgery pain or from major tears in muscles, ligaments, etc) and any type of physical therapist wants you to sign up for a number of sessions, you should get them to explain and justify why. Put on your “Suspicious” hat.

Areas of common pain are often just SYMPTOMS of a problem elsewhere, not the real CAUSE. A qualified therapist should give you a postural assessment and also look at all other areas that may be causing or contributing to your problem, and keep you informed as to why. This includes checking your feet, hips and jaw.

You will feel more at ease if you know why particular muscles may need to be massaged to alleviate a problem when those muscles have not previously felt sore. For example, your headaches may be due to your feet and/or hips being out of alignment.

Patient feedback during a massage is useful, but if you just want to totally relax, close your eyes and be quiet, an experienced therapist can usually assess muscle tone, problem areas and your comfort levels by touch alone.

An experienced REMEDIAL massage therapist should be able to tell you – even BEFORE you get on the table – virtually every muscle in your body that may feel sore or tight when massaged. A competent therapist would do a quick postural assessment (which can take less than a minute), particularly on a first-time client, that would provide sufficient information. In some cases, more comprehensive assessment may be required.

And lastly, but certainly not least: Some therapists also sell a range of products (often the pyramid or multi-level marketing type) that form part of their income and may or may not be of benefit in your circumstances. Be wary if the therapist uses you as a captive audience while you are on the massage table to try to sell those products. If they are concentrating on a sales pitch, are they focusing on giving you the best possible massage? It is different if they have a range of products and posters on display that prompt YOU to ask THEM about those products.

David Hall ©


Mount Louisa-based Townsville remedial massage therapist for all types of muscle and/or joint aches and pains, headaches and migraines and preparing for or recovering from sporting, exercise and other fitness activities, including Defence fitness tests. Guaranteed best value for money remedial massage in Townsville. CALL NOW on (07) 4774 6973 or 0438 774 819 to book an appointment.