How to Become a Massage Therapist in 5 Steps

Explore the career requirements for massage therapists. Get the facts about training requirements, salary and job outlook to determine if this is the right career for you. Schools offering Holistic Health Practitioner degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Does a Massage Therapist Do?

As health care professionals, massage therapists knead, stretch and stimulate muscles to reduce stress, relieve pain and rehabilitate injuries. Apart from manipulating tissue, they learn about the client's medical history, present condition and joint functionality. Massage therapists evaluate a client's range of motion and muscle strength before developing individualized treatment plans. They may mix and match techniques from over 80 types or modalities of massage therapy, such as Swedish, deep tissue, or sports massage. Their job duties also involve providing referrals and maintaining records.

By reviewing the table below, you can learn more about the responsibilities and requirements of massage therapists.

Training Required Postsecondary program of at least 500 hours
Education Field of Study Massage therapy
Key Skills Physical stamina, physical strength, problem-solving, communication
Licensure/Certification Licensure or certification may be required per state regulation
Job Growth (2014-2024) 22%*
Median Salary (2015) $38,040*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Is a Massage Therapist?

A massage therapist manipulates soft tissues and joints in their clients to help alleviate stress and pain and to aid in injury healing. This involves assessing the needs of an individual client, and using their hands and other body parts to knead muscles and soft tissue. There are several types of formal education a prospective massage therapist can pursue. These help prepare for certification, which is required in many states. Massage therapists can choose to specialize in one or more modalities, which will dictate the types of clients they see and what day-to-day work looks like.

Step 1: Graduate From High School

You'll need a high school diploma or equivalent to gain admission to a massage therapy program. Although training in massage typically isn't offered at the high school level, courses in biology, anatomy and physical education can provide a foundation for later training.

Step 2: Explore Massage Therapy Options

Before enrolling in a program, you'll want to consider the different types of massage therapy available. Some modalities you can specialize in include Swedish, shiatsu, deep tissue and hot stone massage. Your clients' needs will vary, so you may want to become familiar with numerous types of massage therapy. Pregnancy and sports massages are additional styles that provide health benefits to patients.

Step 3: Complete Massage Therapy Training

You can pursue an associate's degree or certificate program in massage therapy at community colleges and private academies. Such programs introduce you to a selection of massage modalities and cover such topics as palpation techniques, trigger points and orthopedics. You will also learn about medical terminology, kinesiology and nutrition.

Associate's degree programs, which usually take two years to complete, require you to take general education courses, such as composition and social sciences. If you're interested in starting your own business, courses in accounting, business administration and marketing may be beneficial. Certificate programs, which don't include general education courses, range in length from 1-2 years.

Step 4: Earn Voluntary Certification

After completing massage therapy training, you can demonstrate your skills to potential employers by acquiring certification. Some states don't require massage therapists to be certified, but you gain credibility with this credential. The National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork oversees two primary exams, the National Certification Examination for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCETMB) and the National Certification Examination for Therapeutic Massage. To be eligible, you must complete 500 or more hours of instruction from an approved massage therapy program. The exams cover six basic parts, each containing 160 multiple-choice questions (

Step 5: Become a Licensed Massage Therapist

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (, the District of Columbia and 45 states regulated massage therapy as of 2015. Many state boards require the completion of a program before passing a licensing exam. A state may have you take its own exam or one of the nationally recognized exams, including the NCETMB or the Massage and Bodywork Licensing Examination (MBLEx). The Federation of State Massage Therapy Boards developed the MBLEx, and eligibility requires you to either submit an application form or get approval from the state licensing board or agency. The test consists of 125 multiple-choice questions covering eight subject areas, such as anatomy and physiology, client assessment, pathology and ethics.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Massage therapists must enjoy interacting directly with clients, and offering therapeutic treatment. Other occupations to consider, with similar educational requirements and job duties, include athletic training and physical therapy. Athletic trainers specialize in preventing, diagnosing, and treating muscle and bone injuries and illnesses, often specifically sports-related. Physical therapy assistants work directly under a physical therapist to help patients manage pain and regain movement after injury or illness.

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