How to Give Your Partner a Decent Massage

I can't be the only one around here who gives bad back rubs. For as long as I've had girlfriends, I've had women ask me for back massages. Maybe I give off the impression of a man who knows what he's doing with his hands, maybe I gravitate toward women with back problems.

Whatever the reason, enough women have criticized my massage skills -- or lack thereof -- to the point where I've surmised that I'm bad at giving back rubs. Hey, if I had a quarter for every time someone told me I was bad at something, I'd have enough copper Washingtons to eternally fuel my debilitating gumball addiction.

Still, what harm is there in learning a new skill? To get to the bottom of my useless monster hands and why they're so bad at rubbing, I spoke to some professional masseuses and asked them how to use my hands for good instead of evil. When sourcing answers from a number of experts, it became shockingly evident that I have no idea what I'm doing and that my attempts at massages could be more closely compared to ritualistic torture than body rubs.

Step 1: Music and oil!

My first contact, Irene, took the time to address the topic of mood when giving a massage. She spoke about using oil, music, and lighting to set the mood… which is an aspect of massages I think a lot of guys don't take the time plan.

"If you use an oil, try to use a scent that they like," she said. "Or an unscented, water-based oil, because they can shower it off afterwards. Try soft instrumental music, because -- whether you like it or not -- you'll start going to the rhythm of the music, so if it's rock, you'll go too fast."

Ben Brown of Bliss Spa in New York had equally encouraging -- and highly specific -- words, too.

"You can and should set up ambience," insisted Ben. "This is a treat and you want her to feel special. Choose fragrances (lavender, rose, jasmine, sweet orange, for example) that appeal to her senses but are not overbearing. Use soft lights or candles but not so dark that you're fumbling. Some candles double as a massage oil. Please make sure you have the right kind, otherwise you have a waxy mess. Lastly, choose music that soothes and sets the right tone. However, you can be creative with your music choices, like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Diana Krall, Melody Gardot to Joep Beving, Max Richter, Chad Lawson, and Bremer/McCoy."

I thought about whether or not it was appropriate to bring up that most of my massages incorporate '90s hip-hop, but I decided against it. Next, my panel of experts talked to me about my form and style.

Be present and in the moment, and consider how what you're doing might feel if you were experiencing your own actions.

Step 2: Concentrate on your form

"Take your time and slow down... it's not a race," said Ben. "Check in for pressure, temperature, and other environmental impacts [during] your massage. Make sure your partner is warm and comfortable. Have a blanket nearby and keep body parts not being worked covered. Give her massages repeatedly over and over again. Be present and in the moment, and consider how what you're doing might feel if you were experiencing your own actions. Think about how she uses her body and what activities shape her day, then focus on massaging those areas. Work slightly beyond the area of discomfort. Here's some tips: tight glutes, hips, and hamstrings can cause low-back pain. Weak rhomboids and tight pecs can cause upper-back and neck pain."

Irene -- in so many words -- let me know that my form is garbage and I'm essentially going to ensure my girlfriend becomes paralyzed through my repeated jabs to her spinal cord.

"You're trying to stretch out and lengthen a muscle during a massage," said Irene. "To do this, you need to go in one direction. You want to rub the side of the spine, not on the spine. Using the palm of your hand is good, but using your whole hand is better. If your hands start to get tired, overlap one hand over the other and keep your fingers together."

Generally, I find that my massages start and end with both of my hands placed on different points on my girlfriend's back with my entire body weight leaning onto her muscles. This too, Irene noted, is not good.

You're not trying to cut someone with your hand. You have to keep your fingers apart and bounce on the muscle.

Karate chops are up to you

Next, we have the karate chop -- a massage staple. Shockingly, I found that my dueling masseuses were split on the topic of chopping a loved one's back.

"Avoid tapotement, you know, that choppy drum beating you see in most movie depictions of massage,” Ben said. "It has its place but often people are treated like human drums. Be gentle around the the low back. Watch the pressure here and along the spinal column. Never push directly against the spine, but work to either side of the spine."

"It's not a karate chop," said Irene, bursting the bubbles of millions of amateur karate enthusiasts out there. "You're not trying to cut someone with your hand. You have to keep your fingers apart and bounce on the muscle. It's more of a pulsing motion than a chop and you should feel your fingers clap together when you bounce off the muscle. I usually practice that on my steering wheel at the stoplight."

Whether you want to experiment with the (apparently controversial) chop is up to you.

Focus, practice, be serious

One thing Ben and Irene both agree on is the notion that practice makes perfect. The biggest thing people do wrong when trying to rub the back or feet of a loved one is trying to cover all the bases at once; rubbing in different directions, pinching, chopping, and rubbing different body parts at once. You don't want to give your girlfriend a buffet when all she wants is a piece of steak -- metaphorically, of course.

In the end, it's all about the same thing every major issue in a relationship is about -- communication.

"Listen to your partner's response, which just may include a moan as well as a verbal 'Yes, that's the spot,'" said Ben. "Watch her body language... make sure she's comfortable… don't talk unless she spurs the conversation as chatter is often a distracter and limits your ability to listen and respond to her body."

So, really, it's actually more along the lines of following the advice guys have been trying to follow for generations. Be attentive, be nice, be gentle, and don't talk. Piece of cake.

Thank you, Ben and Irene.

Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.

Jeremy Glass is a writer for Thrillist and can be found in a local neighborhood grocery store.