Zero-G is short for Zero-Gravity and is a feature that a significant minority of massage chair models offer. Inspired by NASA, it’s a feature that sees the chair recline to a position where your knees are elevated slightly above your heart, which leaves you sitting in the chair with a genuine feeling of weightlessness.
Getting a massage in this position has a number of benefits, including the fact that it will help promote better blood flow, lower your blood pressure and promote faster healing after a surgery, but in a nutshell, it just makes for a better-quality massage that will leave you feeling better.
Typically, massage chairs that come with Zero-G seating options include either 1, 2, or 3 pre-programmed seating positions, available at the touch of a button.
Airbags are bladders embedded in massage chairs that, at the touch of a button, can be filled with air then deflated in pulses. Their presence in a given model gives that chair a secondary means by which a massage can be rendered (with the massage rollers being the primary massage technology).
Like a roller-based massage, most massage chairs that offer airbags allow the person sitting in the chair the opportunity to adjust the intensity of the massage rendered by airbags.
Air massage is compression-based and is rendered by squeezing, holding, then releasing the extremities targeted by the massage (typically the arms and legs, but some massage chairs have airbags that will give this type of massage to the neck, shoulders or feet).
Inflating and deflating the airbags slowly can simulate a kneading or rolling technique while cycling rapidly between inflation/deflation can simulate a basic tapping massage.
Note that the bladders described above are generally referred to as “first generation” airbags. Most companies have now moved beyond the simple bladder approach and have refined the design of their airbags, using either a series of smaller cells or airbags with multiple chambers, allowing the chairs to render a more precise and refined massage.
While we’re not aware of any company that refers specifically to these as “First” and “Second” generation airbags, we note the evolution in the technology in this way in many of our reviews.
Note that airbags also play a crucial role in the rendering of a body stretch, in massage chairs that offer that feature.
A human massage therapist is capable of rendering dozens of different types of massages. In fact, there are more than two hundred different techniques available. The vast majority of chairs on the market today, however, stick to a handful of basic techniques.
Here are the most common massage techniques you’ll find on the market today:
• Tapping – As the name indicates, a tapping massage utilizes the rollers (or, in some cases, rapidly inflating/deflating airbags) a bit like little-cushioned hammers, tapping specific points on your back. It’s a good massage technique to select if you’ve got stiff muscles or poor blood circulation. It can also be used to break up scar tissue, making it a solid choice for people who have undergone surgeries. Note that tapping is often called percussive massage.
• Rolling – Imagine a rolling pin laying against your spine, then rolling gently but firmly away from it, focusing on the muscles there, while simultaneously moving up and down the length of your spine. That’s a rolling massage. It’s a great warm-up for some other massage program and is ideal for loosening tight back muscles.
• Kneading – Kneading massage relies on a series of lifting and stretching motions to gently knead the tension out of the muscles in your back, neck, and shoulders. This is generally accomplished by the rollers moving in small circular motions up and down the length of your spine and along other pressure points in your body.
• Shiatsu – The three techniques described above are considered basic massage techniques and appear in virtually all massage chairs on the market today. Most high-quality massage chairs offer at least one advanced technique, and this is the most common of the advanced techniques.
It’s a Japanese technique, and the word translates as “finger pressure.” It works by pressing, then stretching and rotating and is remarkably effective at relieving muscle tension and can leave you feeling restored and refreshed. It not only works to relieve muscle pain, but can also be used to alleviate stress, anxiety, and depression.
• Swedish – This technique is only rarely seen on massage chairs but is always a welcome addition when it’s present. It relies on long, swirling massage strokes to break up muscle tension and improve circulation. Note that some chairs offer a “deep tissue” massage which is essentially a more robust variant of the traditional Swedish massage. This variant is ideal for people who suffer from chronic pain.
• Vibration – This was the go-to massage “technique” offered in the very first massage chairs. You’ll still find a few low-end chairs offering a vibration style massage, and once in a while, you’ll find a few mainstream brands that feature a vibration plate in the seat of the chair.
While not a true technique, we wanted to mention it briefly, given its presence in a few models being sold today. Some people swear by it, claiming that it helps to foster better circulation. On the whole, we’ve found that people either love it or despise it. It’s worth experimenting with to see which camp you fall into.
• Airbag (Compression) – If you have a massage chair with airbags (and most chairs sold today have at least a few), you can activate them to get an airbag massage. It’s rendered as the chair inflates and deflates the airbags in selected areas, which feels a bit like someone with giant hands gently squeezing and releasing the muscles. Its primary purpose is to gently relieve stress and improve blood circulation. It can also help stimulate your body’s lymphatic system, making it more efficient and effective at removing toxins.
Since the massage chair is basically a computer you can sit in, the airbags can be programmed to inflate and deflate rapidly, which can approximate a tapping-style massage, and some massage chair models offer this feature.
• Body Stretching – While not technically a massage style, some companies list it as such, so we’re including it here for the sake of completeness. Stretching is accomplished by the chair’s airbags holding you in place as the chair itself slowly reclines, holds, and then returns to its default position. This has the same basic effect that a chiropractic adjustment does and is a great way to warm up to another, more robust massage, or cool down after a hard day’s work.
Note that not all body stretching routines are created equally. If this feature is important to you, you’ll probably be very interested in chairs offering highly aggressive Thai body stretch routines or Kahuna’s outstanding Yoga body stretch (offered on just about every model the company makes).
• Reflexology – This isn’t a technique used by the rollers that move up and down your spine, but it is utilized by some companies that offer rollers in the leg massage ports. The idea is that by putting pressure on specific parts of the bottoms of your feet, it will relax other areas of your body, in addition to feeling incredible and relieving pain in your feet.
As with most questions, the answer here is going to be highly dependent on exactly what your needs are. Here are some general points to keep in mind though:
• No massage chair is ever going to surpass the skill and quality of a professionally trained massage therapist. You can get reasonably close if you invest in a chair with quad rollers, especially if those rollers are heated. Note that there are a few models available today that utilize six-roller arrays, and these come even closer to mimicking the feel of human hands.
• As good as massage by itself is, massage plus heat is going to provide a much better overall experience, and offer more therapeutic value, so lumbar heat should be high on your priorities list (the more extensive the heat, the better, generally, though again, if you don’t need heated footwells, don’t pay a premium for the feature).
• Related to the above, focus your attention on chairs that offer you some means of temperature control for the offered heat.
• Body stretching is another feature that provides tremendous therapeutic value, so put this high on your wish list too, especially if you suffer from chronic back pain.
The most important thing to keep in mind is what you plan to use the chair for, and that’s going to depend on your specific situation. If you spend several hours a day on your feet, then a chair with a good calf and foot massage (and preferably heated footwells) will serve you well, and it’s worth making sacrifices in other areas to get a superior massage in this area of your body.
In a similar vein, if you do office work, then finding a chair that gives a great head, neck and shoulder massage is critical. Unfortunately, this is an area that most chairs struggle with, and if that’s your primary need, it’s going to limit your options somewhat.
There are many other popular features (USB ports, Zero-G seating positions, space-saving design, etc.) and all of these are important in their way but come down to simple personal preference. Get as many of these as you’re interested in, but for most people, the presence or absence of these features won’t be a deal breaker.
There are no right or wrong answers here, beyond any warnings that may be included in the owner’s manual of the particular model you’ve purchased. For instance, on some value-priced models, you’ll see warnings about not using their product for more than thirty minutes at a time, with a thirty-minute cooldown, not for you, but for the chair!
There’s nothing harmful about getting a massage, so enjoy one as often as you like. The worst thing that will happen is that you’ll feel a lot more relaxed, and might get a better night’s sleep – that doesn’t sound so bad, does it?
Having said that, we will issue a general word of caution: If you’re in chronic pain, and if you have a massage chair capable of incredibly strong deep-tissue massage or especially aggressive body stretching, you’ll probably want to limit your use of those specific features.
The best advice we can give here is: listen to your body. A massage or body stretch shouldn’t leave you feeling worse after than you felt before. If it does, you’ve got the intensity settings cranked up too high and should give your body a rest before dialing the settings back and trying again.