Key Takeaways: The Evolution of the Roller Track in Massage Chairs
What are the different types of roller tracks, how do they differ, and what are the pros & cons of each.
- Brief history lesson – How did the massage chair come about?
- Straight roller track – What was the first roller track like?
- S-Track – Follows the curves of the spine
- SL-Track – Extension of the S-track
- J-Track – A variation on the SL-track
- Split Track – Latest and greatest roller track innovation
The Evolution of the Roller Track in Massage Chairs
In this article, I’d like to talk about the evolution of the roller track in massage chairs. Massage chairs have come a long way since the first one was invented in the 1950’s. We have seen significant developments over the years, including 3D/4D roller mechanisms, up to 8 rollers in a chair, foot rollers, calf rollers, BlueTooth connectivity, speakers, arm rollers, developments in the use of airbags, etc. etc. etc.
But, in my opinion, I’d have to say the development that has changed the efficacy of massage chairs the most, since it’s onset, is the evolution of the roller track. After all, coupled with it’s accompanying roller mechanisms, it is the roller track that is the primary massaging mechanism of the chair. It is what facilitates the massage of the principal spinal muscles. And, it is the spinal muscles that are often the precipitators of the pain for which customers buy a massage chair, such as back pain, neck pain, sciatica, shoulder pain, headaches, and more.
The First Massage Chair Concept
From my understanding, the first massage chair was built by a man in Japan who was trying to help his daughter, who had severe headaches. This fellow was a sewing machine parts salesman. He jimmy-rigged a kitchen chair, using sewing machine parts, to make a massaging mechanism for his daughter. Obviously, it worked…or else I wouldn’t be here talking about massage chairs with you! As a matter of fact, I have heard that as much as 25% of homes in Japan have a massage chair.
The First Roller Track
The next iteration of the roller mechanism was on a straight roller track. Fujiiryoki was one the original players in the massage chair market. You can see the chair to the right that was one of the first mechanical massage chairs made. Notice that it has the wheel on the side of the chair to move the rollers up and down. This is a chair from before the advent of electric massage chairs. There are chairs in today’s market that still use a straight roller track, like the Synca Kagra. It has a roller mechanism that can protrude up to 3.5″ to accommodate the neck, mid back, and low back curves, to allow for the curves in the human spine, while rolling along a straight track.
The S-track was the next roller track introduced to the market. It is called an S-track because it follows the shape of the spine, forward in the neck and low back regions, while curving back for the mid back and hips. Most chairs have an S-track nowadays, even as part of the SL-track.
The L or SL-Track
The L-track or SL-track was a huge innovation when it first came to the market back in approximately 2011. I remember the Infinity Iyashi being the first SL-track chair we carried in our showroom. It was a hit! Now, the market is full of chairs with the SL-track feature. What makes it special is it extends the S-track down under the seat of the chair, so now you could get roller massage not only on the muscles in your back but also muscles in your gluteals (aka “butt muscles”). It is called either L-track or SL-track. You’ll see both of those terms as you do your massage chair research. Just know that they are exactly the same thing. The L-track configuration still integrates the S-track, thus the SL-track label.
Some manufacturers built a J-track roller track, a slight variation of the SL-track. The rollers extend under the seat, but at a greater angle away from the seat than the SL-track so that the chair offer an improved stretch program (I’ll discuss the stretch programs of each configuration later in this article). The SL-track seat angle is about 90 degrees, whereas the J-track seat angle is at about 135 degrees.
The Split Track
About 3 years ago, Daiwa came out with the first split track massage chair. The split track took an SL-track chair and “cut” them into two separate tracks, one for the seat/low back, the other for the neck/shoulders/mid & low back. Each track had it’s own roller mechanism; some have 4 rollers on the bottom mechanism and 2 rollers on the top mechanism. Others have 4 on the bottom and 4 on the top. Since the split track was introduced, it has become a technology that is growing in popularity. Some other names have been attributed to this split track, i.e. hinged track (Luraco), flex track (Osaki), and Syner-D (Infinity). I can guarantee you that we will see more and more of this split track configuration in future models.
Pros & Cons of Each Roller Track Configuration
The best pro of of most S-track chairs is the quality of the full-body extension stretch program. An S-track chair can fully recline, close to horizontal. Combine that with the compression of the calf/foot and shoulder airbags and the lowering of the footrest, and you get a fantastic full body extension stretch. Other S-tracks use what we call “segmental stretches”, where the stretch is broken down into a separate neck stretch, a separate back stretch, and a separate hip stretch, using the airbags and rollers simultaneously at each segment.
The con of the S-track chairs is that they cannot offer the user a massage of the gluteal/seat muscles, like the SL-track and split track chairs do.
The pro of the SL-track chairs is the full body roller massage, including the gluteal/seat muscles. But, because the SL-track configuration is built with a fixed L-shape, it cannot flatten out, upon reclining, to allow a full-body extension stretch. The SL-track can only offer a moderate hip distraction stretch. The body will always be in the L-shape position and, when in that position, the dropping of the footrest and the the reclining of the chair will only allow the legs to be pulled. That pull only really affects the hips, as opposed to the whole spine. The full-body extension stretch is more popular than the hip distraction stretch because of the full body stretch.
The pro of the J-track configuration allows the body to be in a greater reclined angle, thus allowing for a better stretch. The stretch from a J-track chair is closer to a hip distraction stretch than it is to a full-body extension stretch, so it won’t give you the same stretch as an S-track or split track configuration.
The great thing about the split track is that, because the roller track is split up into two separate tracks, the chair can give you a full body recline to horizontal. That allows you to have the full-body extension stretch AND a roller massage on the glutes as well as the back. It is the best of both S and SL worlds.
The con of the split track, at the present time, is the cost of the chairs. Most of the split track configurations are in chairs priced at the higher end of the price spectrum.
Below is a video I made awhile back going over the pros & cons of each roller track configuration.
Massage Chair Technology
Who knows where massage chair technology will take us, but the split track is a fantastic innovation in today’s massage chair industry. Perhaps, someday, a chair will come out with 3-4 different tracks, one for each major section of the spine.
Dr. Alan Weidner
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