Different Types of Massage Chairs Explained

Have you been considering buying a massage chair, either to combat chronic pain or just to be able to enjoy a luxuriant massage from the comfort of home, any time you want to?

If so, you may have done some initial research, only to succumb to “analysis paralysis” due to the vast number of massage chairs on the market.

Figuring out which one is right for you can be mystifying because, at first glance, there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme, reason, or logic behind the industry.

We know the feeling, and this piece was designed to bring the industry into better focus and help you zero in on the perfect massage chair for you.

The first step in doing that is to break down all the chairs in the industry by their types and classifications, and that’s exactly what we’ll do in the sections that follow.

General Classifications

Broadly speaking, there are two different kinds of massage chairs: Therapeutic and Hobbyist.

Different Types of Massage Chairs Infinity IT 7800 Model - Chair Institute

Therapeutic chairs tend to focus heavily on features designed to alleviate chronic pain, while hobbyist chairs tend to include more convenience features that appeal to users interests tastes, and preferences, so for example, a therapeutic chair might include features like:

  • Inversion Therapy
  • Body Stretching (and/or Waist Twist and Hip Swing)
  • Heat
  • Deep Massage

While a hobbyist chair will focus more on features like:

  • MP3 support
  • Memory Slots that allow you to save your favorite settings.
  • LED lights (Chromotherapy)

And the like.

Therapeutic vs Hobbyist Massage Chairs

Obviously, there is often considerable overlap here. It’s common to find massage chairs that slant heavily toward therapeutic features, while offering a couple of hobbyist-oriented features too and vice versa.

As a general rule, though, you can look at the features of any given chair and say that it favors one category over the other.

Different Types of Massage Chairs Infinity Iyashi Caramel - Chair Institute

This is important because the first thing you can do is decide what sort of user you are.

If you decide that you’re more interested in casual use, then that’s going to naturally lead you down the path of paying more attention to hobbyist chairs.

On the other hand, if your primary interest is in solving for a particular medical problem (sciatica, for example), or easing chronic pain, that’s going to see you gravitating toward an entirely different set of chairs.

This broad classification will only get you so far, though. To drill down more deeply into this world, we’ve got to further sort chairs by some other classification.

Track Design

There are three kinds of massage tracks in use today:

This is a stark division. Every massage chair on the market today is built around one of these frame types, so once you determine what type of user you are, the next thing to do is to identify which type of massage chair frame best meets your needs.

The Fixed Frame

Different Types of Massage Chairs Fixed Frame - Chair Institute

These were the very first massage chairs manufactured. The chairs are built around a rectangular steel frame in the back of the chair where massage rollers, massage balls, or fixed-position heads are mounted.

If there’s any movement at all, the massage mechanisms can only move along the X- And Y-Axis, although in practice, almost all the chairs made with a fixed frame these days use only stationary massage heads, so there’s no movement at all.

The pressure points in your back either align with the heads, or they don’t. If they do, you’ll get a decent massage. If not, your experience will be sub-par.

You don’t find many fixed-frame chairs for sale these days, and when you do, they’re invariably at the extreme low end of the market. The least expensive chairs, using the oldest (outdated) technology.

Different Types of Massage Chairs S_Track - Chair Institute

The S-Track

This is the current industry standard. The S-Track is a steel frame that’s bent in an S-Shape so that it follows the natural curve of your body’s spine.

Mount rollers onto this frame, and they’ll move in three dimensions, adding the Z-Axis at the points where your spine curves.

Of the different types of massage chairs for sale today, a solid majority are built around this kind of frame. They render a high-quality massage experience that starts at your neck and goes to the small of your back.

Different Types of Massage Chairs Hybrid L_STrack - Chair Institute

The Hybrid L/S-Track

This is the most recent frame innovation, consider this to be an S-Track on steroids.

The frame gets its name from its overall shape, because the track continues past the small of your back, curving under the seat to allow the rollers to massage your glutes and the backs of your thighs.

If you’re looking for a massage chair that gives something close to a full-body experience, then you want a chair built around a Hybrid L/S-Track.

Other Ways of Classifying Different Types of Massage Chairs

Even breaking the various chairs on the market today down by frame type still leaves you with a dizzying array of choices, though, so now, we have to drill down further still, and start talking about some specific subsets.

In other articles on this topic, we’ve seen people try to break chairs down by specific features, so you get things like:

Different Types of Massage Chairs BodyFriend Rex-L - Chair Institute
  • Heated massage chairs
  • Zero-Gravity massage chairs
  • Full-Body Massage chairs

And so on.

Unfortunately, this isn’t terribly helpful, because once you know what type of user you are (casual or therapeutic) and once you know the type of frame you want, you’re going to naturally look for chairs that have the features you’re most interested in.

In some cases, though, classifications like this are possible, because the feature in question is either astoundingly rare (not the case in any of the examples above), or it’s not a feature as much as it is a conscious design decision.

Here then, are some of the other ways to break down and classify different types of massage chairs:

Chairs Designed for Big and Tall Users

Different Types of Massage Chairs Merax Model - Chair Institute

Most of the massage chairs sold today are optimized for users ranging from 5’ to about 6’1”. If you’re taller than that, then you’ll have trouble getting the massage rollers to align with the pressure points on your back, and if you’re looking at a chair with leg massage ports, you’ll find that you just don’t fit into them very well.

Some massage chairs, however (about 25% of the ones on the market today) are built with extendable ottomans that automatically detect your leg length and adjust accordingly. These chairs will accommodate users up to 6’5”, depending on the manufacturer.

While most manufacturers offer at least one model built with taller users in mind, Kahuna massage chairs get a special nod in this category, because most of their models feature extendable ottomans, and they’ve even got one chair that’s custom designed for big and tall users, the SM7300.

Different Types of Massage Chairs Human Touch Novo - Chair Institute

Stealth Massage Chairs

These chairs were designed and built for people who place lots of importance on aesthetics. They want a massage chair, yes, but they don’t want it to stick out like a sore thumb in whatever room they’ve put it in.

Unfortunately, most massage chairs have leg massage ports, which some people view as a bit of an eyesore.

Some chairs, though, utilize a “hideaway ottoman,” so when you’re not actively using the chair to get a massage, you can fold the leg massage ports into the ottoman where they’re invisible. At that point, the chair looks like a typical piece of living room furniture.

Human Touch gets a special nod here. A majority of their models feature the hideaway ottoman, and the company is known for their stylish, striking designs.

Inversion Chairs

Different Types of Massage Chairs Daiwa Legacy Model - Chair Institute

While this is technically a feature, it’s such a rare one that it deserves its own classification. There are only a handful of massage chairs on the market today that offer inversion therapy. If you’re specifically looking for, or in need of this feature, then your choices will be limited.

The best of the bunch is the Daiwa Legacy, but there are a small handful of other models that offer similar functionality.

The next step then is to determine if your needs fall into any of the categories referenced above. If so, then those considerations will be your primary guide.

Once you’ve answered that question, the last piece of the puzzle is to decide what feature or features are most important to you and begin narrowing your search further, slowly zeroing in on the best chair for you.

These aren’t really different types of massage chairs in the most technical sense, but you do want to make sure that whatever chair you ultimately get has all the features you find more important. The most common are:

Core Technologies

Different Types of Massage Chairs Kahuna LM6800 Core Technologies - Chair Institute
  • Roller type (current industry standard is quad rollers, though you will find some value-priced chairs using tri- or dual rollers, and in a couple of instances, you’ll see a six-roller array).
  • Number of Advanced Massage Techniques (most massage chairs offer Shiatsu, but some also offer Swedish, Thai, and others).
  • Air Massage (the more airbags the better, although bear in mind that airbags are now in their second generation, so for instance, a chair with 30 Second Gen. Airbags will give you a better massage than a chair with 40 First Gen. Airbags, so it pays to ask questions about the technology if this feature is important to you).
  • Roller Adjustments – There are two options here. Most chairs use an Automatic Body Scan. Before your massage begins, the chair will take a scan and make automatic adjustments to the position of the rollers and the width of the massage field.

That works 95% of the time, but if it doesn’t, it will leave you with a substandard massage.

Some chairs skip the Body Scan-Tech and simply provide buttons on the remote that allow you to tweak the roller positions and massage field width. This takes a bit of tinkering, but guarantees that the rollers are always in the right place.

An increasing number of models are now offering both (currently found in nearly half of the massage chairs sold).

Therapeutic Technologies

  • Calf and Foot Massage (standard implementation is air massage for calves, dual rollers for the soles of your feet – look for “extras” in this department if the feature is important to you, like heated calf or foot wells, the ability to set the massage intensity of the foot rollers, etc.).
  • Body Stretch (and/or Waist Twist and/or Hip Swing – these are powerful therapeutic features that provide almost immediate pain relief).
  • Heat (about a quarter of the chairs on the market today offer heat, mostly in the lumbar region, though you’ll find a few chairs that also offer heated leg massage ports, seat heat, whole back heat, and so on).
Different Types of Massage Chairs HumanTouch Novo Therapeutic Technologies - Chair Institute
  • Deep Tissue Massage (you’ll see this listed one of two ways. A manufacturer will either call it a “Deep Tissue Massage,” or it will be listed as 3D/4D Technology..
  • Spot/Partial massage modes – This allows you to interrupt any massage program and focus the rollers where your back hurts the most.
  • Zero-G Seating (about a third of the massage chairs sold today offer this. Most only offer one seating position, though you will find some chairs that offer two, or even three positions).

Hobbyist Features

Different Types of Massage Chairs BestMassage Curved Music - Chair Institute
  • Music Support - Three possible implementations here: SSD card (worst), USB port (standard), or Bluetooth compatible (best).
  • Space-Saving Technology – Massage chairs typically require a lot of room to use. You’ve got to set them 18-24” away from whatever wall you set them near if you want to be able to recline fully.

Chairs designed with Space-Saving Technology minimize this. By pivoting on their base as they recline, only about 4” of wall clearance is needed, and that’s a big win for home users for whom space is at a premium.

  • Chromotherapy - These are LED “running lights” built into the chair. If you dim the lights in the room before your massage begins, it supposedly helps you relax.
  • Air Ionization – Another technology designed to help you relax, by blowing cool, ionized air on your face.
  • Memory Slots – Quite rare, unfortunately. This feature provides a limited number of “slots” that allow you to create a customized massage routine using your favorite settings, and save it for reuse later.

Types of Massage Chair Conclusion

As you can see, there are many different types of massage chairs and lots of different ways to classify them.

If you'd use the method we’ve outlined above though, i.e. determine the type of user you are, determine which frame type works best for you, and then think about whether or not you have any special needs (big and tall, aesthetic, inversion) we talked about, you’ll be well on your way to finding the perfect massage chair for you.

From there, it’s simply a matter of deciding which features you care most about within the context of the answers to those earlier questions, and you’re all set!

Happy hunting! Your perfect massage chair is out there!

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