Fascia is a spiderweb-like connective tissue surrounding and supporting our muscles, bones, and organs. It plays a crucial role in force transmission and movement efficiency, acting as a scaffold for muscles and tendons to attach to. Fascia is what allows for coordinated movement throughout the body.
In this blog post, we will explore the nature of fascia and its impact on our movement and performance. And why we’ve changed our stance on foam rolling and other fascia-specific training modalities.
Fascia And Nerve Fibers
Proprioceptive nerve fibers are found in soft tissue, including muscle, fascia, and skin. They are sensory neurons that provide the brain with information about the position, movement, and orientation of our body parts in space.
With six times the proprioceptive nerve fibers compared to muscles, fascia plays a significant role in movement and performance and in managing external and internal forces in the body.
By providing the brain with accurate information about the position and movement of our body, these fascia nerve fibers help us make quick and precise adjustments to our movements, which can reduce the risk and severity of an injury and improve performance.
Fascia As A Dynamic System
The fascia network is arranged in layers divided into three main categories:
Superficial: This layer is located just beneath the skin and consists of loose connective tissue and fat. It serves as a cushioning layer, protecting the underlying tissues from trauma and providing insulation for the body.
Deep: This layer is located beneath the superficial layer and is made up of dense connective tissue. It surrounds and supports the muscles, bones, and organs and helps to transmit forces generated by movement.
Visceral: This layer surrounds the organs and provides a supportive framework for them. It comprises thin, delicate layers of connective tissue that allow the organs to move and function properly.
For example, the Superficial Back Line runs from the bottom of the feet, up the back of the legs, along the entire back, and up over the head to the forehead. Thomas Myers first described these lines in his book “Anatomy Trains.”
Throughout these lines, fascia has different densities depending on demand. The bottom of the foot has a dense bundle of fascia, whereas the upper extremities are spread thinner.
Unlike other connective tissues, such as tendons and ligaments, which are composed primarily of collagen fibers aligned linearly, fascia has a multidirectional arrangement of fibers.
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Fascia can stretch, twist, and move in all directions. It responds quickly to changes in movement, helping the body remain stable and efficient.
When the fascia senses a load or force on one part of the body, it adapts by changing its tension elsewhere to counteract it.
Fascia And Range of Motion
The fascia’s adaptive capabilities help increase or reduce our range of motion and flexibility. When the fascia can move freely and unrestricted, it allows us to move more efficiently and with greater freedom.
When the fascia becomes thick or stiff, it can restrict movement and limit our ability to perform certain activities.
Like any other tissue in the body, fascia remodels itself based on the stimulus it receives. Remodeling capabilities allow it to adapt to the training and lifestyle stimulus we provide.
These remodeling capabilities mean that the quality and health of our fascia reflect our overall health, fitness, and movement capacity.
Causes of Fascia Stiffness
Aging, psychological factors, breathing disorders, genetic predisposition, hormones, neuromuscular illness, and trauma-induced scars can all affect facia stiffness. As do the health of the vestibular system and our ability to process toxins via the lymphatic system.
The same lifestyle factors that negatively affect our health also increase the stiffness of the fascia. Cutting on sleep, eating junk, being dehydrated, unmanaged stress, physical inactivity, and repetitive postures and motions will all decrease the health of the fascia network.
Fascia And Power Transfer
The three properties of fascia that allow our bodies to adapt to environmental and mechanical forces are viscosity, plasticity, and elasticity.
Viscosity relates to the fascia’s ability to move and slide against itself and other tissues.
Plasticity makes fascia capable of remodeling when subjected to mechanical tension or pressure.
Elasticity refers to the fascia’s ability to recoil and return to its original shape after being stretched.
These properties allow the body to transfer power and efficiently generate force during physical activities. For example, when we run, the fascia in our legs helps to transfer energy from the ground up through our body, allowing us to generate more power with each stride.
Fascia And Injury Prevention
Fascia has a vital role in maintaining musculoskeletal health and function. Maintaining healthy fascia through well-planned training and movement programs and healthy lifestyle habits can reduce our risk of injury and improve our overall physical performance.
Things do get dicey when we start looking into doing targeted exercises to improve the fascia’s quality.
What Works For Improving Fascia?
To beat the dead horse here, the health of the fascia depends on the individual’s overall health. Lifestyle factors such as sleep, nutrition, hydration, and stress management can significantly impact fascia health.
Adequate sleep is essential for tissue repair and recovery, and inadequate sleep has been linked to decreased collagen production, which can negatively affect fascia health.
Also, stress management techniques like meditation and deep breathing can help reduce inflammation and promote tissue repair, improving fascia health.
Similarly, the fascia’s performance capabilities depend on the individual’s fitness level, movement quality, and strength. We will improve our fascia by staying flexible and including strength training, plyometrics, and power work in all planes of motion.
Wait…What About Foam Rolling?
Many courses, coaches, and practitioners provide fascia-specific training and release techniques. Whether that’s about training to improve the fascia slings or using manual therapy, foam rollers, and other implements to release the tension in the fascia.
For years, I swore by foam rolling as a warm-up for my fitness routine.
Have you ever tried a massaging foam roller? Whoa.
I thought foam rolling was essential for preventing injury and improving mobility, so I encouraged my clients to incorporate it into their training routines. But then, I had a realization.
Despite all the time I spent foam rolling, I didn’t see the results I had hoped for. The flexibility gained from foam rolling was short-lived and created a dependency on needing the foam roller instead of the freedom to move confidently.
So I shifted my approach by focusing on a variety of movement practices that keep my clients and me feeling strong, supple, and pain-free. I still recommend foam rolling when appropriate but emphasize that it should never take priority over actual movement.
What does the science say about fascia-specific training?
As far as the current research goes, there is no evidence to support that the difference we feel after foam rolling, massage guns, and manual therapy is due to fascia manipulation. We might feel different, but these changes are more likely to be perceptual and brain-based than tissue-specific.
Does foam rolling still have some benefits? Yes, if it makes you feel better, that’s all that matters. We like to combine foam rolling with a deep breathing session when we really need to relax and let go. You just are not changing something in your fascia. That just isn’t happening. And it’s okay.
Fascia Is Only One Piece Of The Puzzle
Yes, fascia is fundamental to movement, performance, and force transmission. But our body is complex, and trying to divide it into specific parts complicates it further. Every aspect of the body is vital for movement and performance, and fascia is one part of this complex system.
It’s impossible to single out fascia as the specific tissue to train and be sure that other structures or tissues of the body are uninvolved. Plus, there is no way we can quantify improvements in fascia based on our interventions.
Instead of obsessing about fascia, train, move, and practice with the end goal in mind. Improve your fitness, strength, power, and flexibility. Move in all planes of motion. And include adequate rest and recovery.
And the fascia will take care of itself.
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