ISRM Courses

Which School? Which Course? Making an informed decision

There is currently a wide range of courses in ‘Sports Massage’ across the country, with significant differences in terms of quality, depth, duration, format (e.g. full or part time), level, and of course cost.

Most people considering undertaking some form of adult education are about to make a significant time and financial commitment, often involving considerable additional juggling of priorities, life pressures and ‘sacrifices’. They will also usually entertain high expectations about the course envisaged, particularly if contemplating vocational training for a potential career change.

It is therefore vitally important to carry out adequate preliminary research into the various courses and training providers available, to ensure that an informed decision is made.

Courses in ‘Sports and Remedial Massage’, by contrast, are few and far between. These are designed to equip students, on successful completion of their course, with a comprehensive range of sound clinical skills, knowledge, and know-how. This aims to enable them to provide effective assessment and remedial treatment for a wide spectrum of ailments, from minor soft tissue injuries to more complex musculo-skeletal problems, as well as symptom relief and help with certain medical conditions – even in the absence of any known ‘cure’ (chronic conditions).

Sports massage ‘only’ courses generally fall in one of two category levels:

–  NVQ Level 3 courses, which are pitched to meet the fairly elementary corresponding criteria

–  NVQ Level 4 courses, which are required to satisfy higher standards of training.

Level 3 courses

On the positive side, Level 3 courses such as for instance ITEC courses, are usually subsidised, and therefore very affordable. They are mostly conveniently run part-time, usually taking place either on a weekday evening, or at weekends. More rarely, they take the form of an intensive full-time weekday course over a number of weeks.

On the negative side, they can vary widely in quality, duration, curriculum content, and therefore learning outcomes. They are only self-validated (i.e. they carry no external validation), which inevitably results in significant discrepancies in quality. In addition, not all Level 3 courses include formal coursework submissions and/or practical assessments, let alone final examinations. Hence the unreliable, widely differing level of competency achieved on successful completion of these courses.

Level 4 courses

In contrast, Level 4 courses tend to be of longer duration, with a wider and more in-depth standard core curriculum. They comprise set learning outcomes, and usually comprise external validation, guaranteeing that appropriate standards of theoretical understanding and practical skills are met for students to achieve qualification. In addition, They also place a greater emphasis on safe and effective therapist working posture, aiming to safeguard students from potential overuse injury. This in turn reduces working fatigue whilst enhancing therapeutic efficacy.

Level 4 courses are invariably part-time, most often taking place at weekends at several weeks’ interval, to ensure that students have plenty of study and practice time in between each stage of learning. For this same purpose, they must be of a minimum duration of six months.

 Sports and Remedial Massage courses can be of:

–  NVQ Level 4 – similar to above, but with a strong emphasis on remedial therapy outside/beyond the context of sport

–  BTEC-accredited ‘Level 5’ courses – these provide students with a significantly broader and more in-depth level of training, and are currently only available from Institute of Sport & Remedial Massage (ISRM)-accredited training providers. While Level 5 courses obviously require a higher study and practice input outside of the classroom, to achieve the learning outcome benchmarks, they clearly equip successful graduates with stronger all-round knowledge and hands-on skills, which present a key advantage in today’s competitive world.

With the exception of external lecturers on specific subjects (e.g. exercise physiology, sports psychology, sports nutrition), all level 5 tutors are experienced practitioners bringing a wide range of expertise to the classroom, and share a common passion for excellence in the profession. Senior/lead tutors in particular have completed extensive post-graduate training/CPD and/or research, and have developed specific expertise in a field of particular interest to them – Fascial Release and Structural Integration in my case. The normal ratio of tutors to students for practical sessions is 1 tutor for 4 treatment couches (i.e. 8 students), with a maximum class size of 24 students.

Not surprisingly, these higher standard courses unfortunately come at a higher financial cost, although payment can normally be spread over the training period via a monthly standing order. They also require a greater commitment in terms of home study and unsupervised massage practice, with regular course work submission deadlines and practical skills assessments. Full details can be found at www.theisrm.com or www.lssm.com.


In return, as indicated above, Level 5 courses are accredited by the Institute of Sport & Remedial Massage (ISRM), and graduates are entitled to full Membership of the same. The ISRM is the sole uncompromising guarantor of the highest standards of Sports Massage in the country, and the only guarantor of similar criteria for Remedial Massage.

ISRM accreditation in turn provides members with eligibility to register with CNHC (Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council). CNHC are the national voluntary regulator for complementary healthcare practitioners in the UK, whose key function is to enhance public protection, by setting standards for registration with CNHC. For further information, please visit www.cnhc.org.uk.

Whilst Level 5 graduates likewise qualify for full Membership of the SMA (Sports Massage Association), this organisation has unfortunately markedly compromised the standards it professes to uphold over the past 4-5 years, notably by granting ‘Level 3 Membership’ to holders of the corresponding NVQ3 qualification level. This and other ongoing unsatisfactory ‘issues’ mean that SMA accreditation regretfully no longer guarantees potential clients/employers/consumers the higher level of proficiency in Sports Massage which originally constituted its raison d’être.

What is the right course for me?

One key consideration therefore in deciding which level of study to opt for, is the prospective student’s aims and objectives once qualified.

Level 5 training should definitely be considered if:

–  The aim is a career change and/or achievement of a sufficient level of competence successfully to work at a professional level, even part time

–  The aim is to be eligible for opportunities or remunerated posts with professional/elite athletes, for instance for Sports Governing Bodies, professional sports clubs, etc.

–  There is a strong interest in human applied anatomy, physiology, and how to promote healing, improved function, and performance.

–  The prospective student is seeking overall ‘value for money’ from his/her course.

Until 2009, the minimum requirement for remunerated opportunities in the private sector was most often SMA (Level 4) or ISRM accreditation. Since the launch of CNHC and its rapid increase in both membership and recognition among primary healthcare organisations, demand for ISRM accreditation (enabling CNHC membership) is rising steadily and is likely to become the defining benchmark in the not too distant future.

Depending on the widely differing course contents, Level 3 training may provide:

–  Very basic ‘oil massage’ skills

–  Elementary level anatomy and possibly physiology

–  Limited supervised practice, often by tutors who are not themselves sports/remedial massage practitioners

–  A self-validated qualification of unreliable standard, unlikely to equip graduates with the confidence and skills required to achieve a successful practice

What Level 3 training will NOT provide:

–  It will not provide guidance, let alone training, on correct working posture, thereby exposing students to overuse injury, whilst significantly reducing quality of treatment.

–  It will neither provide ISRM accreditation, nor, consequently, eligibility for CNHC resgistration. It only enable Level 3 SMA accreditation, which is inadequate for private sector remunerated opportunities and/or unsupervised work at sports events.

Which training provider? Which course?

While the final decision clearly remains with the prospective student, opting for a Level 5 course is strongly recommended to anyone aspiring to excellence or committed to a ‘serious’ career move/development. Full details of course providers and course information can be found at www.theisrm.com and/or the related links provided.

Level 3 to Level 4 ‘bridging’ courses

One-to-one or small group tuition is available to any Level 3 or 4 practitioners wishing to attain Level 5 standard and ISRM accreditation. A number of my Hampshire-based CPD courses are highly suited to this end. The Course programme, registration instructions and form can be downloaded from the ‘Courses’ page of this website. Alternatively the file can be requested by e-mailing Tanya@tmb-src.co.uk.

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