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Learn how to become a massage therapist in 5 steps

woman having a massage with therapist hands on temples

Are you that person everyone goes to for knot-smashing shoulder massages and now want to explore making a living as a massage therapist? Or maybe you’ve been working in massage at a spa but want to pursue more therapeutic work.

Regardless of how you decided on massage therapy as a career, we’re here to help you navigate the process of finding the right school and the details you need to consider to start shaping your future.

Let’s start by establishing the journey from a prospective student to a practitioner.

Steps to becoming a licensed massage therapist

Graduate from a massage therapy program.

man and women students in massage therapy training class

To be admitted to a massage therapy program, you likely need a high school diploma or GED. Once enrolled, you can expect to dedicate 500 or more hours to your studies. Specific requirements vary by state, and some programs require 1,000 hours or more. Full-time and part-time massage therapy programs are available, which can make it easier to fit your education into a busy life.

Complete practical requirements.

students watch massage teacher practice on client

In most massage therapy programs that have been vetted by state agencies, you will complete the necessary training hours required by that state to apply for a license. If you are still short on hours, you may need to enroll in additional massage therapy classes or work at a school’s massage clinic to supplement your hours.

Pass any necessary licensing exams.

woman with pencil taking written exam

Most states require massage therapists to graduate from an approved program and pass an exam to apply for a license. Some states have developed their own licensing examinations, while others want you to pass a national examination such as the Massage and Bodywork Licensing Examination (MBLEx).

The MBLEx, which is administered by the Federation of State Massage Therapy Boards (FSMTB), is a 100-question, multiple-choice test that must be completed in under two hours. The test covers anatomy and physiology, kinesiology, pathology, benefits and effects of massage techniques, client assessment and treatment planning, ethics, and guidelines for professional practice.

Apply for a license.

male massage therapist in office

Every state has different laws and regulations regarding the practice of massage therapy, but all but five require professionals to hold a license of some sort. (In these states, certain cities and counties may impose their own regulations, so it’s important to check that you’re meeting the requirements before you begin work.)

Other licensure requirements may involve passing a background check, purchasing liability insurance, and becoming certified in CPR. Some states also require massage therapists to earn continuing education credits in order to stay licensed.

Consider certification.

towel and aroma and candles for massage therapy

After getting licensed, you can choose to pursue voluntary board certification through the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork (NCBTMB). Certification symbolizes a certain level of expertise and commitment by demonstrating that you’ve gone above and beyond the entry-level requirements.

Maintaining your certification involves a good amount of continuing education (CEU), so employers and clients know that you’re dedicated to staying on top of the latest advancements in the field. The good news: online massage therapy classes are available to meet CEU requirements.

The perks of a massage therapy career

With such job satisfaction rates, it may come as no surprise that massage therapy careers offer many perks that go beyond a paycheck.

Helping clients

Most massage therapists are motivated to help others, and one of the top rewards of the job is knowing you’re making a difference in people’s lives. After all, the Mayo Clinic says massage therapy isn’t just a way to get pampered, it can also:

  • reduce stress,
  • relieve muscle tension and pain,
  • and help treat a variety of injuries and health conditions.

When asked about the impact of their work, nearly 99% of massage therapists said their work has a positive impact on clients, and helping them to feel better is the #1 factor influencing job satisfaction.

Job security

It’s an exciting time to get educated to work in massage therapy. Through 2032 the BLS says a job growth of 18.3% is predicted and opportunities for therapists have rapidly expanded. Jobs are not only found in resorts, spas, and gyms, but are also increasingly available in medical centers and specialty standalone clinics.

“Hospitals will be hiring more massage therapists to aid with pain management, hospice care and comfort through massage, and therapy rehab,” says Lisa McNeil, M. Ed, CFSS-M, a licensed massage therapist at the Wisconsin-based Momentum Movement Clinic, who also provides manual therapy for U.S. Olympic team athletes and consults for wellness clinics and massage programs. “Gone are the days when massage was strictly found at a spa.”

Job growth through 2032 according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What’s more, although more and more jobs, in general, are being outsourced or eliminated through automation, it’s unlikely that robots will be able to replace the hands-on work of massage therapists in the foreseeable future. Investing your time and effort in a massage therapy career could offer a solid return for years to come.

Flexible work schedule

If a flexible schedule is important to you, a job as a massage therapist can be a great option. You won’t be confined to a traditional 9–5 workday, and if you choose to be self-employed, you’ll have a high degree of independence.

In addition, part-time schedules are commonplace for massage therapists, which can be beneficial if you have another part-time job or other obligations like raising a family.

In fact, half of all massage therapists worked part-time in 2018.

Career growth

As massage therapists build their client base over time, they may secure more steady work and increase their income, whether they’re self-employed or work for an employer. Massage therapists can also expand their clientele and differentiate their services by specializing in a specific type of massage, such as:

Another avenue for career growth is to move into a management role in settings like a massage studio, medical clinic, or resort.

Being your own boss

Many people dream of being their own boss, and becoming a massage therapist can allow you to achieve this goal if you choose to be self-employed and start your own practice. Being your own boss can give you more freedom, greater control over your day, and increased satisfaction in your career.

Staying physically active

While office workers are often sedentary for long periods of time, which can lead to a host of negative health effects, massage therapists get to move their bodies and be active on an ongoing basis. Physical strength and endurance are part of the job.

Challenges faced by massage therapists

hard working massage therapist practices on client

Wondering if massage therapy is a good career? While there are plenty of positive aspects of a massage therapy career, there are some drawbacks as well, beginning with inconsistent income.

Inconsistent income

As cited in the career satisfaction survey, the #1 factor that negatively impacts massage therapists is a lack of consistent income. Because the schedules of massage therapists are appointment-based, their work hours can vary significantly from day-to-day and week-to-week. In addition, performing massage therapy is physically demanding, and working 40 hours a week is not always possible or desired.

Part-time schedules offer the benefit of flexibility, but they also have the downside of inconsistent pay in many cases. For self-employed massage therapists, other non-billable tasks require their time and attention as well, such as marketing, documentation, and washing linens.

Physical burnout

Another challenge of the job is physical burnout caused by standing on your feet and doing repetitive motions with your hands, arms, and shoulders for extended periods of time. It’s not uncommon to experience painful physical symptoms as a result of working as a massage therapist. About 39% of respondents have had overuse injuries such as carpal tunnel, tendonitis, or arthritis.

Massage therapists can help prevent injuries by using appropriate techniques and precautions, such as making sure the massage table is the correct height and using the weight of their body to push down, rather than overusing their wrists and fingers.

Clients behaving inappropriately

Unfortunately, many massage therapists have experienced inappropriate behavior on the job: 64% of women and 56% of men have experienced unsolicited sexual advances from clients. When working alone, sexual misconduct is a real concern, even in a conventional spa setting. However, this can be even more of a risk if you provide massage therapy on your own or at a client’s home.

Setting boundaries with clients and speaking up to address inappropriate comments and actions can help prevent these issues from escalating further, but the problem is also part of a broader stigma that affects the massage therapy industry as a whole.

Frequently asked questions

What is massage therapy?

Massage therapy is the manipulation of soft tissues in our body to release tension and reduce pain. This is performed by a massage therapist. Studies have shown that massage therapy has many other benefits including stress reduction, increased relaxation, and immune system improvement.

What is a massage therapist?

A massage therapist is a professional trained in massage techniques or modalities to address a client’s somatic concerns. They work in a variety of settings and usually provide their massage services in sessions, which can vary in length.

How long does it take to become a massage therapist?

The length of a massage therapy program depends on the number of hours you train. Legal minimum hours for obtaining a massage therapy license vary by state, and these minimums range from 300 to 1,000 hours.

Depending on how your program is structured, you can obtain your license in a matter of weeks, or it might take you up to two years. Always check with your state’s health board to find out the number of hours you need to complete in order to become licensed.

How can you specialize in massage?

While you’ll learn the basics of massage therapy as part of the foundation of your education, you can also pursue specialized training in different areas such as sports massage, myofascial release therapy, prenatal massage, reflexology, infant massage, and many more. Through the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCBTMB), you can receive professional credentials in a number of these specialty areas.

What type of massage should I specialize in?

Massage therapy has played an important role in healing for thousands of years. Different techniques (called modalities) achieve different results, such as pain management, injury recovery, stress reduction, and relief from muscle tension.

And there are a variety of jobs and environments where you can practice these skills, from modalities based on Eastern medicine and energy flow to intense muscle and bodywork such as sports or medical massage. Recent growth in the industry is partly due to more customers seeking out massage both therapeutically and for relaxation.

The rise in the popular notion of “self-care” has also spurred an increased demand for all types of massage, expanding job opportunities whether you want to work in a posh spa, on a cruise ship, or in a more medical setting. If you want to focus on modalities that are medicinal or therapeutic, experts recommend you select a school and program with a heavy focus on anatomy and science.

How do I pick a good massage school?

When researching schools, you’ll want to consider things like course content, faculty experience, graduation rate, the school’s pass rate for state/national licensing, and the cost of tuition. You should also take into consideration the focus of the educational program and your intended goals as a massage therapist.

“Regardless of the program, anatomy and physiology are important,” says McNeil. “The program should have a significant number of hours dedicated to the palpitation, knowledge and understanding of what comprises connective tissues, how it functions and where it is located.” A visit to the school can also help you understand the vibe of the campus. Do you feel welcomed and comfortable in the school environment? Does the school representative communicate how their program can prepare you for the profession?

“It’s also important to find out how long the massage school has been around,” says Taffie Lewis, director of membership outreach at Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals (ABMP), a massage therapy association. She also recommends that you ask for information about graduate success on any state or national exams that are required for licensing.

How much will massage school cost?

While tuition for massage therapy schools can range widely, it’s generally much less than a traditional two- or four-year education, with some programs as low as $5,000–$7,000. Most programs require between 500 and 1,000 hours of training, and it’s likely that tuition will be higher the more in-depth your curriculum is.

Keep in mind that as a massage student, you’re not just paying for tuition: There are books, supplies, and even potentially a massage table if that’s not included in your tuition price. (Be sure to ask!) Financial aid is often available, especially if your school is accredited.

How important is school accreditation?

When you’re deciding which school to attend, one of the many factors you’ll need to consider is whether your school is accredited. This is quality control of sorts that’s overseen by outside agencies that evaluate a program based on certain criteria and determine whether a school has met those standards.

Some experts say that accreditation is the number one consideration when sorting through schools. Others advise that many good schools are not accredited simply due to the length and complication of the process, nevertheless, it can come with some advantages when it comes to getting financial aid.

Can I study massage therapy online?

For many types of education, taking online classes can be a good solution for organized students who need to complete coursework on their own time or don’t have easy access to a campus. With the nature of massage therapy, however, and the hands-on training you need in order to graduate and become licensed, taking online classes becomes more complicated. You may be able to take some of your classroom coursework online but will still need to complete hands-on training in person.

How much can I earn?

As with most other careers, the salary you can expect to earn varies widely depending on factors such as where you live, what type of massage you practice, how much experience you have, and the setting in which you work.

There may be some discrepancy in salary due to the fact that most massage therapists work part-time (an average of around 27 hours per week) and, if self-employed, don’t get paid for the non-massage activities involved in running a practice.

Understand the work settings that tend to pay the most and, if they’re right for you, seek employment that takes you to these places. Massage therapists who pay visits to clients’ homes or work for resorts and cruise ships tend to make the most per hour, while those working in massage therapy franchises or chains make the least.

Is becoming a massage therapist worth it?

A massage therapy career is an appealing option for many people. Massage school is often more affordable and much quicker to complete than a traditional college degree. What’s more, after earning a massage license, many massage therapists find employment quickly—usually within a matter of weeks—and report high job satisfaction.

These are just a few of the benefits that draw people to the field, but it’s important to weigh all the pros and cons in order to decide whether massage therapy is right for you.

How happy are massage therapists?

A recent survey of nearly 1,200 licensed massage therapists points to strong job satisfaction rates: 88% of respondents reported feeling either “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their jobs. Only 7% selected “neither satisfied nor dissatisfied,” and 5% felt “dissatisfied.” A tiny proportion—just 1%—were “very dissatisfied.”

But how does the massage therapist satisfaction rate measure up to other occupations? It turns out that massage therapists are significantly happier with their jobs than many American workers. In comparison, only 51% of U.S. workers reported feeling overall satisfaction with their careers in a recent survey by The Conference Board.

What are working conditions like for massage therapists?

They vary by place of employment. Some massage therapists are self-employed and work out of their homes or private offices. They’re autonomous, set their own hours, and buy their own equipment and supplies. Other massage therapists find jobs in spas, health clubs, massage studios, or the offices of physical therapists or chiropractors.

Each setting has a different look and feel. A spa may offer a calm, intimate setting with dim lights and soothing music, whereas a medical clinic or sports facility might use bright overhead lighting and provide massage therapy in the same room as other patients receiving care.

Is it easy to get a job as a massage therapist?

The massage therapist job outlook is bright, and students who graduate from massage therapy school are often able to find a job quickly. In the survey, 57% of respondents “strongly agreed” that they were able to get a job easily after becoming a licensed massage therapist, and another 29% “agreed.”

The survey also indicates that massage therapy graduates don’t have to worry about long periods of unemployment and job searching: 84% were offered a job in 1 month or less after getting licensed. Another 5% said it took just 2 months to land a job.

Unlike some types of college graduates who have few marketable skills, massage therapists are often well-prepared for a specific career path that’s in high demand.

Massage therapy resources for staying informed

No matter where you are in your career, it’s important to stay on top of the latest massage techniques, philosophies, and changes in the industry to keep current and competitive in order to offer massage clients a full spectrum of services.

Once you begin working as a massage therapist, you’ll also want to consider networking with your peers at workshops, conferences, and online. Attending these types of events can help you connect with other professionals, build your reputation, increase your expertise, and boost your job opportunities.

Leading massage associations

Massage therapist organization

What it does

National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCBTMB)

As the only board certification body for massage therapists in the U.S., the NCBTMB provides a wealth of information regarding finding non-accredited and accredited schools, becoming certified, and earning credentials in specialty areas of massage.

American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA)

This organization offers a variety of support to licensed or certified massage therapists, and students can join as well. The AMTA provides updates on the latest research and news, lists sources for continuing education, offers insurance to practitioners, and promotes the benefits of massage therapy to the public.

Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals (ABMP)

The ABMP focuses on building massage businesses and offers a bimonthly Massage & Bodywork magazine as well as marketing and web support. It also specifically provides support to students by offering testing and job aids as well as technique videos.

American Medicinal Massage Association (AMMA)

This association centers around massage as an allied healthcare profession in terms of promoting it as a growing profession, protecting practitioners, and expanding the field. 

Popular industry journals and magazines

Journal / magazine

What it offers

Massage & Bodywork Magazine

Bimonthly journal for massage, bodywork, and somatic professionals as part of their membership. It includes articles on the latest trends, research, techniques, business information, and practitioner health.

Journal of Pain and Symptom Management

Focusing on the relief of pain and symptoms related to chronic or life-threatening illness, this peer-reviewed journal covers palliative care, pain or symptom control therapies, end-of-life care, and therapeutic models.

The American Journal of Sports Medicine

The American Journal of Sports Medicine is a peer-reviewed publication featuring papers focused on the field of sports sciences, including the latest research and developments. Topics range from orthopedics to massage therapy.

Why you should stay connected

Resources and groups that are tailored for massage therapists provide valuable access to current industry information that can help you expand your knowledge, support your business, prevent practitioner injuries, and improve your service and techniques.

Expand your knowledge base 

Taffie Lewis, director of membership outreach at Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals, always advises students to join at least one association. 

“I definitely recommend that students become members of an association because they can tap into so many avenues for expanding their knowledge around the different types of bodywork and massage available,” she says. “It also can offer information on different types of venues for working.”

Build relationships

Lisa McNeil, M. Ed, CFSS-M, a Wisconsin-based licensed massage therapist at the Momentum Movement Clinic, who works with athletes for the United States Olympic Committee, says she likes to network with related professionals who can offer referrals.

“It’s my opinion that massage therapists need to go outside their peers and build relationships with clinicians in modalities that complement their practice,” she says. “That can be achieved by attending workshops and seminars that have a diverse group of clinicians as well as reaching out and meeting people locally.”

McNeil is a big believer in attending these events in person rather than online, so that you don’t miss out on the opportunity to build recognition through face-to-face meetings. She also recommends choosing the events you attend wisely by doing some research first so that you’re more likely to meet individuals aligned with your goals.

Utilize the experience of others

“Contact professionals who have already completed the course and discuss the pros/cons, what they liked/disliked, how much they’re using the material, and how they market it to their clients,” McNeil adds. “That helps weed out events that aren’t compatible with your practice.”

In fact, she recommends creating a strategy to help you stay focused when networking, reading, watching videos and participating in other activities. “The big questions are: Will this help me achieve the goal for my practice?” McNeil says. “Will this allow me to be the therapist I want to become? How can I use this for my clients?”

Becoming a massage therapist in your state

Find comprehensive information about becoming a massage therapist in the top states for the field. Read about required education, exams, licensing and find resources to help you thrive as a massage therapist.

kendall upton

Updated: October 21, 2021.

Written and reported by:

Kendall Upton
Staff Writer

lisa mcneil

With professional insights from:

Lisa McNeil, MEd, CFSS-M

Sports Massage Professional, Momentum Movement Clinic

Taffie Lewis

Director of Membership Outreach, Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals (ABMP)