certified massage therapist giving a head massaged

How to Become a Certified Massage Therapist


Massage therapy is a rewarding career that allows you to help clients relieve pain, reduce stress, and improve their overall health and well-being. As a certified massage therapist, you get to work hands-on with clients in a professional yet caring manner to assess their needs and provide customized treatment. It’s a meaningful career where you can make a difference in people’s lives.

Massage therapists manipulate the soft tissues and muscles of the body to provide therapeutic benefit. Sessions are tailored to each client’s needs and can range from relaxation and stress reduction to treating chronic pain and injuries. Massage therapists talk with clients to understand their health history and goals in order to determine the best massage techniques to use and the ideal duration and pressure.

There are a wide variety of massage therapy career paths to choose from. Many massage therapists work in settings like spas, resorts, cruise ships, fitness centers and private offices. Some specialize in certain massage modalities like deep tissue, sports massage or pregnancy massage. Others become licensed massage therapy instructors. No matter your specialty, massage therapy offers the reward of helping clients through caring touch.

To become a massage therapist requires completing an accredited training program, passing a licensing exam, and getting licensed in your state. The career outlook is excellent as massage therapy is a growing field. If you enjoy helping people feel better through therapeutic touch and are willing to complete the training requirements, a career as a certified massage therapist may be fulfilling and rewarding.

Education Requirements

Most states require a certified massage therapists to have a postsecondary education credential in order to practice. There are a few different education paths available:

  • Associate’s degree in Massage Therapy: An associate’s degree program takes about 2 years to complete and includes courses in anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, pathology, massage techniques, ethics, and business. Many associate’s programs will also include clinical hours.
  • Certificate in Massage Therapy: Certificate programs are shorter in length, usually taking 6 months to 1 year to complete. They focus specifically on massage techniques and hands-on training. Some certificate programs may be acceptable for licensing in certain states.
  • High school diploma or GED: In some states, a high school diploma along with massage therapy training through a private instruction program may be enough to qualify for licensing. However, most states require formal massage therapy education beyond high school.

When researching massage therapy programs, look for ones that are accredited by organizations like the Commission on Massage Therapy Accreditation (COMTA). Accreditation ensures that the curriculum meets industry standards.

Many aspiring massage therapists start by earning a certificate or associate’s degree. Then they can obtain their license and begin working as they pursue more advanced degrees. Overall, it’s important to check your state’s specific educational requirements before enrolling in a massage therapy program.

Licensing Requirements

To legally practice massage therapy in the United States, you must meet the licensing requirements for the state where you plan to work. Licensing ensures massage therapists have a minimum level of training and expertise.

Licensing requirements vary by state but generally involve:

  • Graduating from an accredited massage therapy program with a minimum number of hours of training (ranges from 500-1000 hours depending on the state).
  • Passing one or more exams:
    • The Massage and Bodywork Licensing Examination (MBLEx) is required by most states. This entry-level licensing exam covers anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, pathology, ethics, and massage and bodywork assessment.
    • Some states also require the National Certification Exam for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCETMB) or the National Certification Exam for Therapeutic Massage (NCETM).
  • Applying for and maintaining massage therapy credentials issued by the state. Common credentials include Licensed Massage Therapist (LMT), Registered Massage Therapist (RMT), Certified Massage Therapist (CMT), and Massage Practitioner or Therapist (MP).
  • Achieving a passing score on a background check. Most states run criminal background checks and some require fingerprinting.
  • Providing proof of liability insurance. Professional liability insurance is mandatory.
  • Paying state licensing fees which range from $25-$300 per year.
  • Meeting continuing education requirements. Most states require 10-24 hours of continuing ed per renewal period (1-2 years) to maintain licensing.

Some municipalities have additional massage therapist licensing requirements so check regulations for the specific city or county where you plan to work. Overall, plan for the licensing process to take 6-12 months in most states.

Finding a Massage Therapy Program

When searching for massage therapy programs, look for programs accredited by the Commission on Massage Therapy Accreditation (COMTA). This indicates the program meets certain educational standards.

Also consider the qualifications of the instructors. Check for instructors with several years of massage experience as well as teaching experience. Highly experienced instructors will be more knowledgeable about both massage skills and techniques as well as best practices for instruction.

Look for a program with a wide-ranging curriculum that will prepare you for licensing exams and professional practice. Coursework should cover anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, pathology, business skills, ethics, and hands-on massage techniques. Clinical experience with real clients is also essential.

Examine the program length. Most full-time programs take 600 or more hours to complete. While shorter programs may be appealing for their compressed schedules, longer programs allow more time to thoroughly cover coursework and gain skills.

Consider the costs involved with the program. Tuition, books, supplies and licensing exam fees can add up. Make sure the program is a good investment by researching program graduates’ licensing exam pass rates and job placement rates.

Choose an accredited program with experienced instructors, a comprehensive curriculum, adequate program length, and a good track record of graduate success. This will put you in a strong position when you complete the program and start your massage therapy career.

Paying for Massage Therapy School

Paying for massage therapy school is a major consideration when deciding to pursue this career path. Massage therapy programs can be expensive, often costing $10,000-$20,000 for the entire program. Here are some options to help pay for school:


There are a variety of scholarships available specifically for students enrolled in massage therapy programs. Professional associations like the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) and Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals (ABMP) offer scholarships up to $2,500. Schools also may have scholarships or grants available based on financial need or academic merit.


Federal student loans like Direct Subsidized Loans and Direct Unsubsidized Loans can be used to pay for massage therapy school. These loans have lower interest rates and more flexible repayment options than private bank loans. Private student loans are also an option but generally have higher interest rates.

Cost Estimates

Massage therapy programs can range widely in total cost based on factors like public vs. private school, length of program, and location. On average most full-time programs run around $10,000-$15,000 including tuition, fees, books, and supplies. Part-time programs spread over 1-2 years tend to cost $8,000-$12,000. Research costs for specific schools carefully during your selection process.

Getting financial aid and scholarships can greatly reduce out-of-pocket expenses for massage therapy school. Thoroughly explore all available options to make this education realistically affordable.

Choosing a Massage Therapy Specialty

Certified massage therapists have several common specialties to choose from, which allow you to focus your practice and skills. Some of the main specialties include:

Sports Massage – This involves working with athletes before, during, and after sports events to help prevent injuries and enhance performance. Sports massage therapists have training in biomechanics, physiology, assessment, and techniques tailored for athletes.

Clinical Massage – Clinical massage therapists work in medical settings like hospitals, clinics, physical therapy offices, and chiropractic offices. They focus on treating specific conditions, working alongside doctors and physical therapists. Extra training is required in pathology, pharmacology, and assessment.

Spa Massage – Spa massage therapists provide general relaxation massage services to clients at resorts, cruise ships, salons, and spas. Softer techniques like Swedish massage are common. Spa therapists create a relaxing environment through music, aromatherapy, heated tables, and more.

When choosing a specialty, consider your professional interests, desired work environment, additional training requirements, and career prospects. Also research the massage laws in your state, as they may restrict certain specialties or techniques. With the right specialty, you can find your rewarding niche as a massage therapist.

Passing the Licensing Exams

Before being able to practice massage therapy, you will need to pass an exam to get licensed. The two main licensing exams are the MBLEx (Massage and Bodywork Licensing Exam) and the NCETM/NCETMB (National Certification Exam for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork).

The MBLEx is accepted for licensing in most states and contains 100 multiple choice questions relating to anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, pathology, benefits, ethics, and business practices. You will have 2 hours to complete the computerized exam.

To prepare for the MBLEx:

  • Study the content areas covered. Focus on your weak areas.
  • Take practice exams to become familiar with the test format and identify knowledge gaps.
  • Review the detailed content outline on the website to know what percent of the exam covers each topic.
  • Read the MBLEx Candidate Handbook for policies and procedures.
  • Get a good night’s sleep before the exam and eat a healthy meal.

The NCETM consists of 100 multiple choice questions and 125 Outcome Based questions where you determine the effectiveness of a massage session. You will have 3 hours to complete the exam.

To prepare for the NCETM:

  • Purchase the NCETM Study Guide which covers all the content areas in detail.
  • Take the online practice exams which mimic the real test.
  • Focus your study on areas like anatomy, physiology, and kinesiology.
  • Review sample case studies and practice evaluating massage therapy scenarios.
  • Arrive early on exam day and be well rested.

With focused study and practice, you can pass the massage therapy licensing exams and start your career!

Getting Licensed

Once you have graduated from an accredited massage therapy program and passed the licensure exams, the next step is to get licensed in your state. The specific requirements vary by state, but there are some common steps:

  • Submit an application form to your state’s massage therapy regulatory board. This will require documentation like transcripts from your massage program and proof you passed the exams.
  • Pay licensing fees. This includes an initial application fee and then annual license renewal fees. Costs range from $50-$500+ depending on the state.
  • Pass a background check. Most states will want a criminal background check to ensure you don’t have convictions for illegal or unethical conduct.
  • Provide fingerprints. Some states require this along with the background check.
  • Get liability insurance. You’ll need proof of professional liability insurance to get licensed, usually at least $1 million per incident/$3 million total coverage.
  • Send passport photos. Most states require 2 passport-style photos for your license.
  • Take jurisprudence exam. Many states require an exam on massage therapy laws and regulations in that particular state.

It can take 6-8 weeks to get your initial license after submitting the application. Requirements do vary by state so check your state massage therapy board’s website for the specifics on documents needed, fees, and timeline to get licensed. Some cities may also require a local massage permit. Once licensed, you’ll need to renew it periodically by paying a fee and meeting any continuing education requirements.

Finding a Job

After completing your massage therapy education and getting licensed, the next step is to start applying for massage therapy positions. There are many different settings and environments that employ certified massage therapists. Some of the top options include:

  • Spas and resorts – Many luxury spas and resorts hire massage therapists to provide services for their guests. Working at a spa can give you exposure to a variety of clients. The environment is usually tranquil and therapeutic.
  • Health clinics – Massage therapy is increasingly offered in conjunction with other health services at clinics, hospitals, physical therapy offices, chiropractic offices, and more. As massage becomes more mainstream, these types of facilities are hiring more therapists.
  • Private practice – Some massage therapists prefer the autonomy of managing their own business and building up a regular client base. This requires business savvy and marketing abilities.
  • Sports and fitness facilities – Providing sports massage and other specialty techniques to athletes and clients at gyms or fitness centers. May travel with sports teams as well.
  • Corporate settings – More workplaces are offering chair massage and other services as employee perks and to improve workplace wellness.

When searching for a massage therapy job, look for openings on job boards, check individual facility websites, and network with other therapists. It’s also a good idea to keep your resume updated and have a professional online presence. Recommendations from teachers and mentors can also lead to job opportunities. Be prepared to interview and highlight your training, techniques, specialized skills, and professionalism. Consider doing some volunteer massage work at community events to gain experience and build your reputation. With dedication and perseverance, you’ll be ready to launch a rewarding career in massage therapy.

Continuing Education

In most states, certified massage therapists are required to complete continuing education credits to maintain their license. The specific requirements vary by state, but generally range from 12-24 hours per year. Continuing education allows therapists to expand and hone their skills over the course of their career.

There are many ways for massage therapists to fulfill their continuing education requirements. Many choose to attend hands-on workshops, seminars, or conferences that provide direct instruction in new modalities and techniques. For example, a therapist could take a weekend workshop to learn pregnancy massage or hot stone massage. Online courses are another option that allow more flexibility in therapists’ schedules. Massage therapy schools and private companies offer a wide range of online continuing education courses. Subjects like ethics, business practices, and research literacy help therapists gain useful knowledge outside of hands-on skills.

Reading articles in massage therapy journals and trade magazines can also count toward continuing education credits in most states. Writing articles or conducting research related to massage therapy may qualify as well. Some therapists choose to study for and obtain advanced certifications in specialty areas like sports massage, craniosacral therapy, or neuromuscular therapy.

Continuing education allows massage therapists to provide better service to their clients by expanding their knowledge and skills over time. Maintaining licensure also requires a commitment to ongoing learning and professional development. With the wide variety of continuing education options available, therapists can find subjects that interest them and fit their schedules.