zero gravity position
Rollers vs. Airbags
The two primary ways a massage chair works are by rollers and airbags. Rollers are used in the backrest, and sometimes in the arm or leg/foot massage assemblies and simulate a masseuse’s hands. Airbags provide compression therapy and are usually used for massaging the calves, feet, hands, arms, shoulders, and hips. Airbags are more prominent in full-body massage chairs. Spec sheets typically say how many individual airbags the chair has, and a higher number generally means more focus on compression therapy over roller techniques.
Rollers come in many varieties. They may be stationary or mobile, and may allow the user to set different width preferences. You’ll see terms like 3D and 4D, Swedish, Shiatsu, kneading, tapping, and so on. Let’s break all this down so you know what everything means.
“3D” and “4D” refer to the range of motion of the rollers. A “1D” roller would only be able to move up and down along the track inside the backrest. “2D” would add in left and right motion, “3D” rollers are able to move in and out using jointed arms, also typically offering motions like kneading and tapping, discussed next. “4D” rollers add a time element, with variable patterns and multiple joints that can very accurately recreate the motion of a human hand. 4D rollers are uncommon, and typically only seen in the very upper price range – close to $10,000, though some can be found cheaper than that. For the most part, you’ll see massage chairs advertised as 3D, and this is pretty standard.
In a massage chair, the rollers themselves are usually wheels or knobs that are attached to multi-jointed arms and are able to rotate or extend to provide the massage motion. The rollers themselves typically run up and down the back of the chair along a solid rail which has a certain curvature. The rail determines the full range of motion of the rollers along your back. You’ll see massage chairs using either the S-track or L-track.
The S-track holds the shape of, you guessed it, the letter ‘S’. It’s meant to follow the average user’s spinal curvature and typically only allows the rollers to go from the tailbone to the lower neck. The moving arms of the rollers compensate for any variance among users. Typical length is 30 inches along the backrest.
An L-Track has more of a ‘L’ shape, in that the bottom of the roller rail extends beyond the tailbone, into the seat allowing the rollers to massage the buttock and hamstring area. This is generally considered a premium feature, since an S-track can’t reach that area and the only other method of massaging a sore behind requires a romantic partner. S-track massage chairs have to rely on compression airbags, seat vibration, and heating pads to take care of that. Keep that in mind when deciding on what type of butt massage you like.
Also consider the number of rollers the chair has. Most will have two or four rollers that move along the track and potentially more stationary sets. With multiple rollers, it’s possible to achieve the effect of real human hands grasping and kneading your muscles.
Most massage chairs offer multiple programs or styles of massage, which probably mean nothing to you if you don’t know what the terms mean. Here’s what you need to know:
Swedish massage is the most popular and established method. It consists of a variety of techniques, such as kneading, tapping, clapping, and rolling. For the most gentle massage, this is probably where you should start. Swedish massage generally addresses only the outermost layers of muscle. Most massage chairs allow the user to adjust the intensity or strength of the rollers, so if you’ve never experienced a massage chair, starting on the lowest intensity may be a good idea.
Shiatsu is a massage style originating in Japan and focusing on use of the masseuse’s fingertips, palms, and feet, and incorporating some stretching. Shiatsu typically penetrates a bit deeper than Swedish. It’s more precise in its movements; in fact, where human Shiatsu practitioners frequently make use of acupuncture, Shiatsu massage chairs use what’s called acupressure, following the same “meridian” lines that are used in acupuncture to manipulate “chi,” or “life-energy,” but manipulating them with pressure points rather than needles. Don’t ever buy a massage chair that has needles.
Some people argue that acupuncture, and therefore Shiatsu, is based off of pseudoscience and is not an accepted medical technique. While this may be technically true, users of Shiatsu massage chairs almost never complain after a session.
Other programs on massage chairs are usually just combinations of these styles or focus on individual techniques applied all over the body. It’s impossible to cover every program available on different massage chairs, but those would be better explained by the manuals of whatever chair you decide to purchase.