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Sit down, push button and hang on

You won't get coddled by the new massage chairs, but you will get kneaded, tapped and pummeled.

May 01, 2003|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

THE big, leather recliner on the showroom floor is not terribly attractive, but it looks snuggly. So you sit down, ease in and press a button.

Suddenly, rollers begin pulsing through the recliner's back as if it were hiding Alien, the chair starts shaking like it hit airplane turbulence and the rollers head down to the very lowest regions of the lower back. Then further.

This is not your father's La-Z-Boy.

Since standard recliners began to morph into sophisticated "massage chairs," they have become more high-tech, more varied and, occasionally, more weird. Now, they are being made to emulate shiatsu, the Asian technique of digging deep into muscles to coax out knots and ease circulation.

They're a far cry from the old Naugahyde vibrating recliners that used to lull one to sleep as they gently trembled.

The shiatsu chairs instead have buttons to "knead," "pulse" and "tap" your back into giving up stress. If the old chairs were soothing hypnotists, these new ones are drill sergeants.

But once you give in to the notion that these chairs are not meant to coddle but to really go to work on your muscles, they can do a pretty amazing job. Which is of some comfort considering the price -- about $1,500 to $3,500.

The Relax the Back chain of stores offers the Premier Shiatsu Massage Recliner, an especially ugly chair that you might want to hide in the home office or bedroom. It is also the most comfortable, however.

"The further you go back, the more intense the massage," says salesman Mike Johnston, explaining that as the body gets more horizontal, gravity lets the rollers dig deeper. The recliner moves back in a manner disconcertingly akin to that of a dentist's chair.

He pushes a button to start the programmed massage cycle that lasts 15 minutes. "You really don't want to go a lot longer than that in a session," Johnston says, and he's not kidding. The Premier goes right to work, with the rollers moving up and down with a strong motion that forces each part of the back, in turn, to arch upward.

Then the rollers start moving outward and inward in an almost pinching action that doesn't really hurt but feels very weird. I let out a little yelp.

"Welcome to 'kneading,' " Johnston says. "Everyone has the same reaction the first time."

The trick, I learn, is to relax and let the rollers go to it. This lasts for another minute and "tapping" begins, with little pounders inside the chair rapidly thumping up and down my back, shaking the whole chair. I hold onto the armrests, getting a bit white-knuckled. "Man, it looks like you are going through an earthquake," says a passerby who laughs, but waits in line to go next.

The rest of the massage is basically an alteration of "kneading" and "tapping" on different regions of my back, butt, neck and even head. The chair varies the intensity depending on the area it's working on -- the neck gets the gentlest treatment. The remote shows the specific areas the chair is working as it goes and it also counts down the minutes.

The most unsuccessful part of the process is the continuous leg massage from a roller moving up and down the leg rest. This is more annoying than therapeutic and can be turned off.

At the end of the massage, I felt nicely loosened up, and I had a bit more range of motion. But I also could feel that my back muscles, especially on either side of my spine, had gone through a real workout.

"You want to walk around a bit and rest before doing it again," cautions Johnston. "If you overuse it, it can bruise you."

That's just physical pain. The psychological discomfort comes from the price -- $3,495, plus $200 for shipping. But at least you'd have the chair to help recover from sticker shock.

On to Sharper Image, where salesman Avedis Donigian seems to be waiting for me like my long lost brother. "You have to come sit down, relax," he says, gently guiding me to the Human Touch Robotic Massage Recliner that has an honored position in the middle of the upscale gadget store. "You are going to love this."

I do not love the look of this recliner with the science fiction-like name. Sitting on round pedestal, the chair has big, wooden, bowed arms that I guess were supposed to make it seem homier. It was a nice try.

But the chair is reasonably comfortable, even if it feels a bit weird for the legs to snuggle into twin troughs built into the leg rest.

Donigian pushes a button and the chair's preprogrammed cycle begins. The action is similar to that of the Premier, but wimpier. And there is no effective neck action. The calf massager, however, gives the best leg massage of any of the chairs tested.

Again, the cycle lasts 15 minutes. The price of this recliner is $1,499.95 for the vinyl-covered model and $1,799.95 for the leather.

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