Good massage chair are generally considered a luxury item, but if you’re in the market for one, it would be prudent to familiarize yourself with terminology and features commonly included on massage chairs. It can quickly get confusing when having flashy and fancy sounding words like “acupressure” or “white glove service” thrown your way by a salesperson. If you’re worried about not understanding what features you’re legitimately paying a premium for, or what is legitimately a rip-off, this is the article for you.

Four Terms You Need To Know

Zero Gravity

Let’s start with the most common question we get about our massage chairs: Why are they called “zero gravity” massage chairs? Is this some cheesy sales gimmick?

No, it doesn’t magically shield you from the Earth’s pull on your body or make you literally float in the air. Nor is it “just a cheesy sales gimmick.”

“Zero gravity” refers to the reclining position of the chair, with the body cradled, legs elevated above the heart, and the full weight of the torso supported by the backrest of the chair. The concept was developed by NASA as a way to minimize spinal compression for astronauts during the intense gravitational force of a shuttle launch. This position lets you feel totally weightless and also allows the massage chair rollers to give you a deeper and more effective massage. The massage chair can work with or without the zero gravity position enabled, and it’s very possible to achieve a high level of relaxation with only the zero gravity position and no massage action. It’s the best way, outside of being in a swimming pool or actually going to space, to feel weightless.

Speaking of swimming pools, many lawn lounge chairs are designed to be zero gravity. This feature alone should not be a selling point on a professional massage chair. It should come standard on even the most basic reclining models. Conversely, some chairs on the high end don’t even advertise this feature because it’s so basic.

good massage chair

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.

Track Shape

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.

Massage Technique

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.