Shiatsu vs. Kneading Massage: What’s the Difference?

Shiatsu vs. Kneading Massage: What’s the Difference?

If you asked people whether they prefer a kneading or a shiatsu massage you will probably get a blank stare because most don’t know the difference. However, there are significant differences between the two, and understanding these differences can help you decide which massage to choose. 

What is the difference between shiatsu and a kneading massage? The main difference between the two is that kneading is a massage technique that involves applying pressure to the tissues of your body. Shiatsu, on the other hand, is a form of massage where pressure is applied to certain specific points throughout the body in order to heal specific conditions.

For those who experience chronic back pain or other musculoskeletal conditions, the various types of massage are often not taken into consideration. Many will just tell the massage therapist what’s wrong, what part of the body needs attention, and whether the pressure feels good. They will often just let the therapist use their best judgment and take it from there..

As you become more and more familiar with massage you will learn that there are different techniques used, and which technique is applied will depend on a multitude of factors.

For instance, if you are feeling tired and just want to relax and snooze on the massage table, you will likely ask for a Swedish massage, a technique that uses a lot of gliding strokes up and down the body. If there is pain involved, the therapist may suggest either a medical-style massage, one that incorporates kneading, or a shiatsu massage. 

Shiatsu vs. Kneading Massage: The Differences

According to the American Massage Therapy Association, at least 47.5 million American adults had one or more massages in 2018.

If you are looking for the difference between kneading and shiatsu massage, here is a point worth clarifying. Shiatsu is a modality of massage. Shiatsu literally translates to finger pressure from the original Japanese words.

Kneading, on the other hand, is a massage technique. There are five basic types of massage techniques. Effleurage involves long and gliding strokes that help warm up the tissues and encourage healthy blood circulation. This technique will use massage oils to help provide a smooth glide over the skin. It also helps the therapist to pinpoint areas of tightness, as well as identify potential trigger points. The next most common technique is petrissage, which is another name for kneading. Petrissage works on specific soft tissue by using the hands to grab the tissues in a “kneading” type of fashion, helping to warm up knotted muscles and increase blood flow into the area.

You also have a technique called friction, which is used for those bound-up areas that need more attention. This stroke warms up the tissue or muscle with its circular movements. Friction strokes are applied in a transverse fashion, across the muscles and tendons rather than linear. This helps to break up adhesive scar tissue and realign the fibers.

These following two massage techniques are not often used in every massage session, but are still widely used to achieve optimum results:

  • Tapotement: A tapping motion is made on the tissues and muscles that the therapist is working on. The percussive effect of the tapping encourages circulation and neuromuscular stimulation. This technique is the technique you most often see being misrepresented in various comedy shows.
  • Vibration: This is when the massage therapist rocks or shakes your legs, hands, or your entire body to help you relax that area.

As such, comparing kneading and shiatsu is like comparing apples to oranges. Kneading is one of several techniques used in traditional Western massages. Shiatsu is a type of massage that is rooted in both traditional alternative medicine and Eastern healing philosophies.

Other Differences Between Shiatsu and Kneading Massage

For the most part, therapists will use massage lotion, cream, or oil when performing a massage with kneading techniques. However, oil is not used with shiatsu massage, as Shiatsu is performed fully clothed and on the floor or a mat.

What’s more, there’s the overall desired effect. Both kneading and shiatsu massage can bring help to facilitate pain relief, provide more flexibility, and help increase mobility in the affected areas, as well as help promote a general sense of well- being. However, shiatsu is often an active experience.

While focusing on the various meridians of the body, your shiatsu practitioner may move your body around. One minute you are on your stomach, the next you are contorted in a pretzel-like configuration. In addition, when a pressure-point (tsubo) has a blockage of essential qi (energy), the shiatsu practitioner may add additional pressure to those points in order to allow for efficient movement of qi, which can create a momentary “hurts so good” feeling. 

Depending on your therapeutic goals, shiatsu may or may not be relaxing.

On the other hand, Swedish massage, a massage style that incorporates kneading, is often pain-free and relaxing. You can probably sleep while being massaged. Most people like the feeling of kneading, as the tension held within their muscles slowly melt and relax. 

Finally, the effects of a shiatsu massage are cumulative. This means that the more frequently you go for a shiatsu session, the better you will feel. To delve deeper into the differences between kneading and shiatsu massage, let’s explore each one with slightly more depth.

What Is Kneading Massage?

Kneading is a common massage technique wherein you use your fingers or hands to compress soft tissues. Your fingers, hands, or knuckles will roll, lift, and squeeze and apply gentle pressure to the tissues. If you bake, kneading is what you do to the fresh dough to make it rise and have a stronger structure. Kneading in massages follows the same movements you make when you knead the dough.

Kneading is particularly effective in alleviating tight muscles. It is also a good way to relieve high muscle tone or low-level contractions that can happen unconsciously.

According to the website, high muscle tone can feel firm to the touch even when you are at rest, and it can often lead to muscle tension and tightness. It also increases the risks of injury. Tight muscles, on the other hand, can restrict your movements and may even be painful.

How Do You Knead Muscles Properly?

According to this study published in the Frontiers in Sport Research, kneading strokes are done by lifting the soft tissues vertically and then applying pressure before releasing them. The pressure is applied by rolling or squeezing the tissues.

The therapist will be using rhythmic pressures, alternating between compression and release. There are four variations for kneading:

  • Alternate hand
  • One-handed
  • Two-handed
  • Skin rolling

Benefits of Kneading

Kneading massages have a loosening and stretching effect on your muscles and tissues that will help with a variety of conditions. Research has shown that a kneading massage helps with denervated muscles and muscle atrophy. It can also fight fibrosis or the condition that produces shortening of muscles.

A roundup of studies showed that kneading is one of the most popular methods to relieve tiredness due to exercise fatigue in athletes. A massage that incorporates kneading techniques can help get rid of the metabolic wastes that deposit within the tissues. It also helps to bring new blood and oxygen into the tissues.

Kneading-style massages are also good for helping to manage lower back pain and other conditions that disable healthy movement, according to this study. In fact, kneading massages can actually be better than pulsating ultrasound in the long run.

But how exactly does it work to bring about these benefits? For one, kneading helps diminish exceedingly high muscle tone, which is caused by excitement, adrenaline, anxiety, or stress. Kneading the affected area will help warm and relax the tissues.

When it comes to muscle tightness, kneading helps to increase tissue temperature and blood circulation. Furthermore, it decreases tone and helps to loosen up your muscles.

When your muscles relax, you will experience more pain relief, which ultimately allows for more movement. Kneading is also effective in reducing fascial adhesion and knots by helping to align the muscle fibers back to a healthier form

This study found in PubMed illustrates the suggested benefits of kneading massage are as follows:

  • Helps to mobilize the skin, deep muscle tissue, and the tissues under the skin
  • Increase blood circulation in the area
  • Helps the blood flow back to the heartTaken together, there are several possible benefits that a kneading massage can provide:
  • decrease your muscle tension and your overall stress
  • reduce muscle painstretch your muscles, making them more flexible.

What to Expect with a Kneading Massage?

Kneading massages, such as the popular Swedish massage, tend to use oils for lubrication. You will need to disrobe and position yourself on a comfortable massage table.

The massage therapist will provide a towel or sheet for modesty and ask you to cover your body so that only the area being addressed will be exposed.

Swedish massages often involve a variety of massage techniques that we mentioned earlier, including the use of friction or gliding strokes.

What Is Shiatsu Massage?

Shiatsu is a type of massage that was first practiced in Japan. It takes its cue from traditional Chinese medicine but also has some Western therapeutic concepts mixed in. At the very core, shiatsu is very much like acupuncture without the needles and is said to reinforce the body’s natural healing abilities.

According to the Taking Charge of Your Health and Wellbeing website, which is maintained by the University of Minnesota, shiatsu means “finger pressure.” This non-invasive form of massage incorporates acupressure, where the therapist applies pressure on specific points along the 12 major meridians of the body.

How Does Shiatsu Work?

Traditional Chinese medicine relies heavily on the concepts of Qi and meridians. Qi is your body’s energy, and it governs your body’s functions. Qi flows through your body along the meridians. According to traditional Chinese medicine, every part of your body should have an abundance of Qi.

Dis-Ease is experienced when your Qi is blocked for some reason. To remove this blockage, a therapist uses a shiatsu massage, focusing on specific points along the meridian, called the vital points.

How do you know if your Qi is unbalanced or blocked? The signs can be something ordinary like colds and flu, headache, muscle pain, or body ache. Shiatsu helps to unblock your Qi and allows it to flow again freely and in abundance, thus restoring the balance of energy in your body.

Benefits of Shiatsu

People who like getting a shiatsu massage often report that it reduces their stress levels. A study done in the United Kingdom shows that shiatsu clients used the therapy for numerous conditions, including depression, anxiety, stress, arthritis, lower back pain, and neck and shoulder pain.

But probably one of the more significant benefits of shiatsu — and yes, basically all forms of massage — is that it can save patients a lot of money and offer relief to those who cannot afford a visit to the doctor or take medication.

For instance, this study shows that shiatsu, when combined with acupuncture and some changes in lifestyle, can help people suffering from angina. Shiatsu helped to drastically lessen the number of days the patients stayed in the hospital. The researchers also noted that it could help patients save $12,000 because of that.

What’s more, shiatsu massage is something you can do for some conditions where other types of massages are not recommended. For example, if you have lupus or rheumatoid arthritis flaring up, massage is often contraindicated because it can encourage your body to produce histamine and cause the inflammation to become more severe. With your doctor’s approval, you can have a shiatsu massage and likely feel a lot better.

Some Practical Applications for Shiatsu Massage

If you can’t get your head wrapped around the mechanisms that make shiatsu effective, this page offers some practical insights on what this type of massage does, including:

  • For constipation: Shiatsu stretches and pulls the muscles and relaxes the colon and the intestines when applied to the abdominal area.
  • For migraines: Shiatsu relaxes your body, increases the blood flow, and promotes proper blood circulation. This can help with the quick constriction and expansion of blood vessels in the head.
  • For fatigue: Shiatsu massage restores your body’s energy.

What to Expect During a Shiatsu Session?

If kneading massages need oil for lubrication, which is the main reason why you need to shed your clothes during the session – shiatsu is different.

The shiatsu practitioner will not need to use massage oils. There is very little kneading required, and stroking is kept to a minimum. Indeed, if you are familiar with acupuncture, you will immediately see the parallels between acupuncture and shiatsu, but instead of pricking your skin with long and thin needles, the therapist will apply pressure using their thumbs, palms, or fingers as they run along the meridians. Each point recieves the application of pressure for a few seconds.

When pressure is applied, the points may feel tender and a slight amount of discomfort may be experienced periodically. You should always tell your therapist if you feel uncomfortable at any point during your session. This will help the therapist know if he or she needs to adjust the pressure.

In most cases, the therapist will apply pressure to a variety of vital points, which may be uncomfortable at some of the affected points. Your therapist will probably explain that the more problematic and out-of-balance that particular point is, the more discomfort that will be experienced. The therapist will move on and continue to do his or her work and may need to return to these stagnant points again throughout the session.

For instance, you might feel slight pain when a therapist presses down on a point on your arm. As the session comes to a close your therapist may find it necessary to revisit this point. If progress has been made, that meridian will be less blocked the second time and you will feel substantially less discomfort the second time around. 

A Final Word on Shiatsu Massage

Shiatsu is generally safe. However, it is always good practice to check with your doctor first before getting one.

For instance, Cancer Research UK points out that shiatsu massage has been shown effective in controlling cancer symptoms and the side effects of treatment. It could help cancer patients who struggle with:

  • Insomnia
  • Pain
  • Poor appetite
  • Low mood

However, they also caution patients to make sure that their therapists are properly trained. They also recommend it as a complementary therapy. A qualified shiatsu practitioner goes through months of advanced training in order to achieve proficiency in this advanced massage modality. Make sure to check your therapists credentials before booking your appointment.

Shiatsu vs. Kneading Massage: Understanding the Differences Can Help You

Some people will probably not give the differences between kneading and shiatsu massage a second thought. And that is understandable, as studies show that  66 percent of people who receive massage only do so to relax and reduce stress. Around half of those who get a massage did so because of muscle soreness, while 44 percent desire pain relief.

Both kneading and shiatsu massage can help with all of these conditions, so you can’t go wrong with whichever option you choose. However, the techniques involved with each of these modalities are quite different.

Kneading requires your therapist to lift and squeeze the affected area, while shiatsu requires them to apply pressure on specific points.

Kneading is also more general and can be used in a variety of massages such as Swedish massage and sports. Shiatsu is specific in its scope and needs a therapist with a thorough understanding of the vital points, Qi, as well as the meridians.

If you are currently in pain and have limited movements, a kneading massage may be your best bet. If you’re dealing with a range of physiological or psychological problems, such a digestive issues, tiredness, or insomnia, then you may want to consider getting a shiatsu massage.

If you have always wanted to try acupuncture, but you don’t like the thought of needles puncturing your skin, then shiatsu massage is a great choice for you.

Richard A. Lehman, LMT, CSCS


Compliment Your Body, LLC has been providing In-Home and Corporate / Event chair massage to New York City and the surrounding boroughs since 2004. With over 15 years of experience in this great city, our handpicked Corporate Chair Massage Team is the BEST in NYC!
Commitment, compassion, connection, and charity are the pillars of our company. Experience the CYBNYC difference!

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What makes Compliment Your Body rise above the rest?

– We don’t rely on ads to find our amazing team of therapists. Our in-house NYC therapist referral network guarantees dedicated, vetted, experienced and professional New York State licensed massage therapists, whose goal is to produce 100% customer satisfaction.

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Commitment, compassion, connection, and charity are the pillars of our company.

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Richard A. Lehman, LMT, CSCS, owner and CEO of Compliment Your Body, LLC has over fifteen years of experience in the health and wellness field. During his career he has worked in a multitude of settings, including spas, chiropractic offices, and on the field at IronMan competitions. Richard was hired in 2005 with the United States Tennis Association as a Massage Therapist and provided therapy to the professional athletes at the US Open Tennis Championships from 2005 - 2010. Richard graduated in 2004 from The Swedish Institute College of Health Sciences. He is a National Strength and Conditioning Association Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. He also completed the Plant Based Nutrition course at the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies and is a Level 2 Nutrition Coach with Precision Nutrition. Compliment Your Body has been providing corporate / event massage therapy, and in-home massage therapy to New York City and the surrounding boroughs for over fifteen years, and has been the corporate massage provider to the New York Times throughout this time. Commitment, compassion, connection and charity are the pillars of our business. Experience the CYBNYC difference!

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