How To Become a Massage Therapist

How To Become a Massage Therapist

Massage therapy is an ancient discipline that has been around for centuries. Today, it is one of the fastest growing occupations in the world. Massage therapists offer an escape from daily aches and pains through skilled hands and widely accepted techniques using their hands, fingers, forearms, elbows, and feet to knead the various muscles of the body.

Though a broad term, massage therapy is an exciting field that is full of versatile and passionate professionals from many different walks of life. If you’re interested in becoming a massage therapist, here’s an overview of the industry, how to become one, and what to look for in a massage therapy school.

What is Massage Therapy?

Massage therapy is a healthcare modality that’s performed by a licensed massage therapist. It entails using hands, arms, and even feet to manipulate soft tissue in various parts of the body for both medical and non-medical purposes. “It is facilitating people’s healing,” says Jan Frus, the director of education and lead instructor at the Costa Rica School of Massage Therapy.

Despite the misconception that massage therapy only exists in luxurious spas and resorts, massage therapists are healthcare practitioners who aid in their clients’ medical recovery. Massage therapy aims to make people feel better through an intensive study of the human body. This is done in a variety of clinical settings, including hospitals, fitness centers, health clinics, and chiropractic offices. In fact, “massage therapists know more about muscles and bones than a lot of physicians do,” says Frus.

How to Become a Massage Therapist

As healthcare professionals, massage therapists can make a positive impact in patients’ lives by relieving stress or facilitating physical healing. If you want to make a difference in peoples’ lives, here’s an overview of the steps every massage therapist must take to legally practice.

Fulfill Educational Requirements

The first, and most important step to becoming a massage therapist is obtaining the right education. While attending an accredited massage therapy school isn’t essential, it can give prospective students one metric to determine which program is right for them. For example, the Commission on Massage Therapy Accreditation (COMTA) is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a specialized accrediting agency. This means students enrolled in COMTA-accredited programs can expect a well-designed curriculum to prepare them for the various responsibilities in massage therapy. Schools accredited by COMTA allow massage therapists to apply for licensure in nearly every state, but it’s important to research your state requirements before applying to any school.

Massage therapy coursework often includes topics such as physiology, anatomy, and kinesiology. Massage therapy students are also typically required to complete some form of hands-on experience that works to improve massage techniques. COMTA-approved curriculum offers all of these, as well as theoretical approaches to client wellness, including the emotional and physical effects of massage therapy on clients.

Develop Top Massage Therapy Skills

The best therapists give more than a good massage; they bring all the right skills to the table. In addition to the coursework offered by a massage therapy school, the practical experience it offers aids in the development of the top skills needed in the field. Some of these skills include:

  • Confidentiality: Massage therapists are privy to confidential medical information about their clients. This is important in any medical profession, particularly in the field of massage therapy because patient privacy is a requirement of the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA)’s code of ethics.
  • Understanding of massage oils, lotions, and creams: There are several products available to a massage therapist. The type of product best suited for clients is often chosen based on the type of massage being performed. For example, low-friction massage techniques typically require thick oils, such as olive oil, while massage techniques that apply greater pressure need a light, fast-absorbing oil to prevent slipping. Cream products allow for better grab and feel when performing deep massage work.
  • Sales software proficiency: Massage therapists need to manage their clients with a reliable software platform. There are many options to consider, but it’s important to understand the basic structure of each.
  • Massage techniques: Massage therapists should have experience in several massage therapy techniques to ensure they fulfill their clients’ specific needs. Some of these methods include:
    • Deep tissue massage: This massage, often used to aid sports injuries, involves deep pressure movements on the musculoskeletal system. Instead of focusing on relaxation, this technique aims to alleviate deep-rooted ailments in the client’s body.
    • Swedish massage: Also known as the “classic massage,” this method uses a variety of techniques like percussion, kneading, and gliding. It is used to promote overall well-being and regulate stress levels. It’s a popular specialization within massage therapy.
  • Customer service: Open communication and professionalism are crucial elements to a client’s overall experience. This ensures your client is happy and comfortable throughout the process. Therefore, customer service is an essential skill for any massage therapist practitioner.
  • Management: Many massage therapists graduate from their programs, ready to become entrepreneurs. However, being a boss requires solid business management skills, which in turn creates an organized and efficient business.

Gain Hands-On Experience

Each state has different requirements for obtaining a massage license. Most states, however, require hands-on experience as a standard part of education. For example, students at the Costa Rica School of Massage Therapy must complete 75 clinical hours in a supervised setting.

Student clinics and internships are the most common sources of gaining relevant job experience while in school. “The process of becoming a massage therapist isn’t just about learning about the body,” says Frus. “It’s about finding out what you’re capable of and pushing yourself.” Gaining hands-on experience is one of the few ways students can take their newly acquired knowledge and put it to the test. The Costa Rica School of Massage Therapy offers a variety of experiential opportunities to provide their services to the general public in a supervised setting. These sessions are then documented through SOAP charting and revised treatment plans to better advise students in their educational journey.

Obtain Licensure and/or Certification

The AMTA offers an extensive breakdown of licensing requirements, but since licensing is issued by the state you want to work in, it’s important to double check your state’s requirements. In order to obtain licensure in most states, students must have a diploma from a massage therapy program as well as a passing grade on the licensing exam. The Massage & Bodywork Licensing Exam (MBLEx) is the most commonly used exam for massage therapy licensure in the United States. Once you pass the MBLEx, you can apply for your license. This may entail a background check depending on your state, and verification of your education.

Licensure isn’t the only certification massage therapists can acquire. For example, board certification, while a respected qualification in the field, is often an optional step after state licensure. Therefore, it’s important to know what is required. Massage therapists seeking board certification should take a board certification exam like the one offered by the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork (NCBTMB).

Similar to other health-oriented board exams, there are built-in fees to all massage therapy licensing exams. According to the Federation of State Massage Therapy Boards’ website the MBLEx costs $265, and approximately $275 for the NCBTMB board certification exam. This is particularly important to keep in mind if you want to work in more than one state. Board and license certification don’t allow you to practice freely outside your state, so if you decide to move, you’ll need to go through a separate licensing process. Even if you work in the same state throughout your entire career as a massage therapist, most states also require continuing education credits in order to keep your license active.

Acquire Additional Qualifications

Massage therapists need several qualifications on their resume to ensure long-term success. If you’re worried about meeting prospective job requirements, here are some of the most important qualifications licensed massage therapists currently possess:

  • Massage Therapy License: This is the single most important requirement to becoming a massage therapist. If you attempt to practice without a license, your state has the authority to take disciplinary action against you.
  • Basic Life Support (BLS) Certification: This certification, offered by associations like the American Heart Association or American Red Cross, qualifies you to provide CPR and other emergency, life-saving support to clients in your care.
  • Board Certification in Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork: Many massage therapists choose to become board certified in massage therapy by the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork. Becoming board-certified tells prospective employers that you have the highest form of educational credentials in the field. The NCBTMB certification has its own set of requirements, but most require at least a state license and passing a board exam.
  • Massage Therapy Specialty Certification: The great thing about massage therapy is how diverse the field is. Just as specialists exist in medicine, the same goes for massage therapy. There are many certifications where you can gain specialized skills and knowledge in a number of different fields. Despite the NCBTMB no longer offering specialty certifications, many accredited schools provide these. All of Costa Rica School of Massage Therapy’s programs are NCBTMB-approved certificate courses that are worth exploring during and after your massage therapy education.
  • Valid Driver’s License/State ID Card: To obtain state licensure, you need to submit proof of residence, often with a driver’s license or other form of identification. A valid driver’s license is also required for massage therapists who travel to and from appointments since some clients prefer at-home services.

What To Look For in a Massage Therapy School

There are many things to consider when choosing a massage school. The best options typically offer a variety of courses in subjects like kinesiology, anatomy, and physiology, with an additional focus on the business aspect of massage therapy. Some of these topics include business administration, laws and regulations, and management.

Confirmation Your Education Is Accepted Where You Want to Work

Even though accreditation isn’t essential, prospective massage therapists need to confirm that their education will lead to licensure in the state they hope to work in. Many therapists have a preconceived notion that attending school close to where they hope to work is the best way to ensure licensure, but this approach to choosing an institution can be incredibly limiting.

Students don’t have to receive their education in the United States, let alone the state they live in. There are several options available for studying massage therapy abroad, but finding the right one may require some research. “A lot of the state websites will have frequently asked questions about licensure, as well as an email or phone number to contact for additional information,” says Frus. So even if information isn’t readily available on a state’s website, Frus recommends reaching out by saying “Hey, I’m looking to go to massage school and I’m thinking about going somewhere outside of the states to do it. Do you think this education would work for me?”

Education that Matches Your Personal Values

A fresh, innovative mission statement is also something to look for on a prospective school’s website. You want a school that speaks to your core beliefs in a great massage therapy education. “Look for a school that aligns with your philosophies,” says Frus. For example, the Costa Rica School of Massage Therapy’s mission is to provide an internationally recognized educational experience that inspires and promotes awareness of holistic medicine and wellness practices and gives students the tools necessary to share their gifts with the world. This typically “attracts students who aren’t thinking about working a nine-to five-position. They’re thinking about becoming an entrepreneur, working with athletes, and discovering new modalities.”

Aligning values doesn’t just guarantee a fulfilling education, but also a more positive educational experience that fosters creativity, curiosity, and learning. If research doesn’t provide enough information on this topic, consider contacting the admissions office to get a feel for the school’s approach to massage therapy education.

Take the Next Step Toward an Exciting Career

If you want to empower others’ health and be your own boss in a growing industry, enrolling in a massage therapy program might be the first step toward your dream career. The Costa Rica School of Massage Therapy is a COMTA accredited school that offers a non-traditional, immersive experience for those who hope to become a successful massage therapist. “The pathway to this school is led by a spirit of learning, growing, changing, and exploring the possibilities,” says Frus.


The Costa Rica School of Massage Therapy is the world’s premier study abroad program for massage therapy and yoga. We offer both a 600 hour and a 700 hour COMTA Endorsed Curriculum Massage Therapy course which satisfies the licensing requirements for massage therapy in most of the United States. Additionally we offer continuing education for massage therapists and yoga teacher training.

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