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What Education Do I Need to Become a Massage Therapist?

There are many different types of massage therapy programs available, as well as opportunities for specialization in this fast-growing field.

massage therapy teacher instructs student on proper technique
Home » Massage Therapy » Education

To practice massage therapy, you won’t need a four-year college degree, but you will need a certificate or diploma that reflects your training. Most programs provide anywhere between 500 and 1,000 hours of training, which can take about six months to a year or longer to finish. Once you complete your training, you can branch out and explore the many massage therapy specialties out there. In most states, you’ll need to take a test to get a license to practice.

What Is a Massage Therapy Certificate or Diploma?

Massage therapy school programs vary by state regulation, but a typical education generally consists of learning how to use massage to support client health goals and improve balance, flexibility, and fluidity.

You’ll learn anatomy and physiology, plus there will be hands-on training to practice different techniques or modalities. You can earn a massage therapy certificate or diploma at career training schools, community colleges, nonprofit programs, and private schools.

A typical massage therapy education provides between 500 and 1,000 hours of training.

Curricula vary widely, but educational programs typically offer a diploma or certificate in massage therapy. Both types of programs usually take about six months to a year or longer to complete, depending on how much advanced training is included and whether you attend full time or part time. Some community colleges also offer a two-year associate degree in massage therapy.

Prerequisites:

Most schools require a high school diploma or GED to begin training.

Curriculum:

In most cases, students will learn anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, and symptoms that make massage therapy inadvisable. According to ABMP, students learn 2,500 anatomical terms and massage concepts that they need to be able to define in their own words on a licensing exam.

Time to Complete:

Six months to a year, depending on whether advanced training is included and whether you attend full or part time.

Educational Requirements:

You’ll be doing a combination of in-class studying and hands-on training to practice what you’re learning. Requirements vary by state. For example, Washington state asks for 130 hours of anatomy, physiology, and kinesiology with a minimum of 40 hours of kinesiology; 50 hours of pathology; 265 hours of theory and practice of massage (a maximum of 50 of those hours can include time spent in a student clinic); and 55 hours of clinical/business practices.

Skills and Traits:

If you want to help people reduce their pain and stress by working with your hands, this could be the career for you. Even more, says Lisa McNeil, M.Ed, LMT, CFSS-M, a therapist at Brookfield, Wisconsin’s, Momentum Movement Clinic, certain specialties may speak further to your strengths and interests.
 
“With rehab or orthopedic massage, sympathy is important, not empathy,” says McNeil, who has worked with professional and Olympic athletes. “You need to take the information a client gives you and objectively come up with a plan that will help them achieve their goals. If you have too much empathy, you get too emotionally involved to be objective.”
 
On the other hand, “If you are a therapist that deals more with relaxation and spa treatments, it is important that you stay present in the client’s session,” McNeil says. “If a therapist is thinking about a grocery list or what is happening at home, it affects the quality of the massage and level of relaxation.”

Are Online Massage Therapy Programs Available?


Massage therapy is a hands-on job, so it’s probably not surprising that there are no programs that offer 100% online training. What is available, however, are online programs that also include an in-person component. And that can be convenient.

Online, you can learn about the more academic portions of the work, such as anatomy and nutrition. Then you’ll complete several weeks of hands-on training in technique work, supervised by massage therapy instructors. This provides the practical experience every massage therapist needs to begin their career.

According to McNeil, the only way you can learn quality palpation is by doing it. In-person learning is also a great way to begin building your network with other professionals.

Because of this in-person requirement, most massage therapy programs are offered in the classroom, although many schools have adapted their programs to embrace more online learning. Any curriculum’s online component will mainly focus on basics such as anatomical terms and diet and nutrition information rather than massage techniques. 

A growing percentage of massage therapy schools are, however, offering continuing education classes online, which build on the skills of therapists who have mastered the basics of massage techniques. 

What to Look for in a School

Narrowing down your school options begins with looking at a school’s website and reading any available reviews. Find out if financial aid is available. Schools that offer it are required to post exam pass rates for students, along with other information. These can help you assess the program’s quality.

Look for institutional and programmatic approval. The Commission on Massage Therapy Accreditation (COMTA) endorses and accredits institutions and programs for massage therapy, so check to see whether a program you’re interested in has been vetted by COMTA.

Make sure the massage therapy program and school you’re pursuing is vetted by the industry.

Check to see if the program will qualify you to work in the state you will be in after graduation. In 2020, the Federal Department of Education made this easier by requiring that schools disclose whether a program will qualify you to apply for a license or certification in your state, so you can make an informed decision about the school.

Also helpful? Visit the school. There, you can see what the atmosphere is like and talk to people directly to get a feel for whether it would be a good fit.

Is Financial Aid Available?

The best place to check for financial aid first is the school. There can be various local, state, and federal options available. Massagetherapylicense.org has a few additional places to look.

Licensing and Certification

Licensing requirements to work as a massage therapist once your education is complete vary by state. Most, but not all, states require licensing, which you can earn by taking the Federation of State Massage Therapy Board’s Massage and Bodywork Licensing Examination.

States that don’t mandate licensing usually have other rules that must be met before massage therapists can practice. They could include minimum education standards, fees, or completion of specific classes.

Requirements vary by state, but most require massage therapists to hold some sort of license to practice.

Becoming Board Certified in Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (BCTMB) with the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCBTMB) is voluntary, but many massage therapists pursue it. Certification can prove your expertise and commitment to the trade. Furthermore, many employers look for it on a resume.

Specialty Certificates

There are a variety of specialty certificates (not to be confused with “board certification”) that you can earn on top of your regular massage certificate. The NCBTMB, for example, offers courses and certificates for sports massage, pain and palliative care, integrative health care, and others.

Earning a specialty certificate can help you explore other massage therapy modalities.

McNeil says they’re well worth it for a career boost. “Massage school qualifies a therapist for relaxation and general therapy. While many programs advertise medical or therapeutic massage, it typically doesn’t get you the jobs that require advanced training,” she says. “For me, my additional training includes orthopedics, post-concussion management, neurokinetics, and varied fascial training. Without the additional training, I would not have the opportunity to work with professional and elite athletes or complex orthopedic clients.”

Massage Therapy Jobs

As a massage therapist, you can learn and use techniques such as Swedish massage, reflexology, or Shiatsu, as well as work with specialized groups such as seniors (geriatric massage) or pregnant women (pre- and post-natal massage).

A few places you can practice include:

  • Spas
  • Fitness centers
  • Chiropractic offices
  • Massage therapy studios (boutique or chain)
  • Hospitals or doctors’ offices
  • Private practice

Salary and Job Outlook

Your salary as a massage therapist can depend on where you work as well as your specialty. Demand can also vary by location and by how many massage therapists there are in an area to handle demand.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of massage therapists is projected to grow 32% from 2020 to 2030—that’s much faster than average for other jobs. Some of the anticipated growth is due to recovery from the pandemic-related shutdowns and recession, with people returning to massage therapy services. Additionally, more people, including healthcare providers, are recognizing massage as a real health benefit, which leads to more demand.

“As a whole, we see healthcare and society looking for alternatives to opioids and management of chronic pain,” says McNeil, “and (massage) therapists will need more understanding and training on how to deal with various conditions.”

niki stojnic

Written and reported by:
Niki Stojnic
Contributing Writer

lisa mcneil

With professional insight from:
Lisa McNeil, M.Ed, LMT, CFSS-M, Structural Integrationist
Momentum Movement Clinic