Most people have waxed and waned with their exercise routine throughout their life. During specific periods, gym attendance is solid, and during other times it is non-existent. That's life, and that's ok. The important thing is being smart about how much exercise you do when returning from a layoff.

You've taken an important step in returning to an exercise program now; let's remember why you need to build a baseline of strength before going all out.

The human body continually amazes me with the adaptations it makes. From how it processes the chemically enhanced foods we eat to going from couch potato to running 6 miles over a short amount of time. When returning to exercise or trying a new exercise program, there are some things to remember so you don't get injured.

A baseline of strength can be gained in a relatively short amount of time. Plan on 4 to 6 weeks of strength-building exercises to give your body a good baseline before trying more intense or longer workouts. This might look like weight training sessions 2-3 times a week, including pushing and pulling exercises for all major muscle groups. If you already had a high fitness level and are returning from a relatively short time off (6-8 weeks), you could return to normal in 2 to 3 weeks. Everyone is different and has different circumstances. These timeframes are provided to give you a general idea.

Remember, weight training exercises don't have to include metal weights. Body weight or isometric exercises are practical for beginners and should be considered. Elastic bands also provide enough resistance to build a baseline of strength. Many people choose to have hand weights, 5lbs and under, at home to do some basic arm exercises. Consult a personal trainer to get a workout tailored to your specific needs.

The gym will have the widest variety of weight training options and is worth the price of membership. Personal trainers will also be available to hire for guidance, which is important during this strength-building faze.

The gym has machine weights, free weights like dumbbells and barbells, medicine balls, step-up boxes, and more. Machine weights have their place, but whenever free weights can be safely used, they are a better way to train the body for strength. The balance and kinesthetic qualities that come with lifting free weights are irreplaceable.

Why does the body need a baseline of strength?

The need for a baseline of strength comes down to ligaments and tendons. Every joint in the body has tendons that connect the muscle to the bone. All movements happen at joints. Think of getting into the car. This movement we do multiple times daily is a series of joint movements. Movement occurs at the waist, hips, knees, and ankles takes place every time we get in or out of the car.

It's often forgotten that tendons have tensile strength. Meaning they give a little. They don't contract and relax like muscle fibers but have movement. This movement is why injury happens when a load is applied to tendons and (ligaments) heavier than the area can handle. The tensile strength is the maximum stress the tendon can withstand while being stretched or pulled before breaking.

Lifting weights and explosive movements (think burpees and box jumps) require a baseline of strength. Lifting any amount of weight needs to build slowly but lifting large amounts before the muscles and tendons are ready is asking for injury.

An example of too much strain on tendons is a barbell squat with weight the body isn't trained for and without a dynamic warmup.
The overhead press with weights is another example where a baseline of strength is necessary. Shoulder and neck injuries occur. Build up overhead movements slowly by adding more weight gradually.

Now think of jumping. A jump off the ground requires some stability in the joints of the lower extremities, not only to leave the ground but to return safely. If the tendons that attach the calf muscle to the lower leg bone aren't strong enough or malleable enough, injury can occur.

Injury can occur in daily life activities as well as accidental falls. A baseline of strength prepares the body for unexpected movements and keeps a healthy balance of muscle tissue and tendon/ligament malleability.

Avoiding injury is the goal, so let's look at what exercises provide a baseline for massage therapists. (All exercises are demonstrated in the video)

Single arm row with dumbbell

The bent-over row builds strength of the back muscles, specifically the rhomboids and middle trapezius. Massage therapists with stronger back muscles keep a better posture overall, especially through a day of massage. Massage work tends to round shoulders forward, so building strength in the opposing muscle groups to the chest makes sense.


The plank is the most bang for your buck exercise for massage therapists. It requires shoulder strength and abdominal strength. Keeping correct form during the plank mimics good posture at the massage table. The plank even holds a neutral spine with cervical vertebra in line with the crown of the head. Just like proper head position at the massage table. Plank often and in various ways to get total massage therapist strength.

One of the main reasons massage therapists complain of back pain is a lack of strength. Whether it's upper back, mid-back, or lower back pain, the plank exercise targets muscles to help with them all.

Chest Press

The chest muscles are essential for massage therapists because they contract with each compression held for a client. The chest press exercise is a good start to build up to performing push-ups. Laying on a bench with a 10 lb dumbbell in each hand is a weight most people can lift. Effleurage also uses the pecs, but you may not notice because less force is applied. The pecs stabilize your arms while you massage.


The squat exercise is an excellent functional exercise to add to any baseline strength workout. The dumbbell squat is performed with a manageable weighted dumbbell held in each hand. Pick a weight you can comfortably perform 15 repetitions without losing good form. This will be a good weight to begin with as you complete 2-3 sets. Remember, body weight squats are entirely acceptable and beneficial if you are still getting ready to hold the weights. This squat movement keeps the ligaments and tendons around the hip joints mobile and strong. Getting into the car, which we mentioned earlier, uses the same joints as the squat exercise. Petrissage and lifting a client's limb at the massage table both require hip strength.


The lunge is a wonderful complex movement to include in your baseline strength workout. Think of all the cool stuff that has to happen simultaneously for the lunge to be performed successfully. Balance, mobility to allow forward movement while the back leg anchors, flexion at the ankles, knees, hips, and waist, but one leg has flexion of these joints while the other has some extension. I love exercises that give many joint movements in one exercise, and the lunge delivers this. Whether you do walking lunges, stationary lunges, or forward or reverse lunges, all varieties provide significant lower extremity joint movement and strengthen the ligaments and tendons.

The bow stance is used most widely at the massage table, and the lunge foot placement is similar to that of the bow stance. Weight shifting from the front foot to back foot while working around the massage table provides a strong base and fluid movement. The stronger your quadriceps are, the easier it is to hold a bow stance or support good posture during a long day of massaging.


The deadlift exercise builds good strength for the back of the body. Hamstrings and glutes benefit from the deadlift, and the low back becomes stronger, which helps massage therapists prevent back pain. Strong postural muscles are built in part with the deadlift. The single-leg deadlift without weights is a good place to begin. Then you can add a dumbbell in each hand and try the traditional deadlift with a slight bend in the knees. Hinging from the waist is critical during this exercise, and remember to find a personal trainer to help you if any of these exercises are new to you.

As a massage therapist helping people, knowing how to allow yourself to do the work you are trained to do is essential. A baseline of strength and mobility prepares your body to see many clients a week and not leave you feeling worse at the end of the day.

The six exercises presented here are picked for massage therapists to gain strength, but they aren't the only good massage therapist exercises.

Visit The Fit MT's other blog posts for more exercise ideas and for the popular core challenge.

Until next time

Be fit, be strong,

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