It's a common misconception that "deep tissue" massage MUST hurt to WORK. It doesn't, and furthermore, I don't think it should. Here's why...
#1: PAIN ISN'T GAIN
I am not from the school of thought that "pain is gain" within the massage therapy context.
Inducing pain will typically create conditions where the nervous system feels under treat, and consequently your muscles contract and guard to protect you from such a treat. Our goal with massage therapy should be just the opposite. We want tissue to relax and feel great, not tense up and feel sore.
I often tell clients that's not a matter of if you can "take it" - it's if we want the massage therapy to be effective or not. For me, to be effective means relaxing the muscles, and causing pain normally does not achieve that result.
Especially in cases of chronic or persistent pain, the central nervous system is likely hypersensitive in terms of its reaction to information received from that area. So going in "elbows blazing" may only serve to make that system that's already on high alert go to Defcon 1.
Depending on what and where we are focusing on, massage may cause minimal soreness or mild discomfort - sort of that "it hurts in a good way" feeling. However, the massage therapy should never be blatantly painful.
My thinking is, when a client comes in with pain, they should leave with some level relief from it, and tools to achieve less of it in the long-run.
#2: PRECISION OVER BRUTE FORCE
When most people think of deep tissue massage, some images may come to mind: the massage therapist's elbows pressing firmly into the client's ribcage as they silently contort their face in horror.
While that type of technique is not necessarily wrong, it's rarely the best choice for most clients, and most conditions. Instead of "deep tissue massage," I practice what I call "deep ENOUGH tissue massage."
Everyone's bodies respond differently to various pressure. I typically start with a "medium" pressure, and along with asking the client how things feel, I continue to observe results and changes in the tissue itself. If the tissue doesn't change in tone or malleability, or the subjective feeling from the client doesn't alter, I may opt to gradually apply more pressure.
But, more likely, that is a sign that a different tool or approach is needed. I may opt to apply localized heat, or a topical muscle relief gel/cream, or some dynamic stretching to get movement in the area and get the nervous system on our side - instead of fighting against the therapeutic goals.
All those strategies are part of my professional massage therapist "toolbox." And it's rare that simply applying brute force is the smart (and effective) go-to strategy.
Learn more about how heat effects muscles...
The old cliche "work smarter, not harder" comes to mind. And I will always opt for precision and results over brute force.