With chronic pain and many forms of overuse injuries, the problem is often not found in the musculature or skeleton. Most of the time it can be found in the connective tissue—ligaments, tendons, joint capsules, and so on—that have been loaded beyond their present capacity.
Focused training of the fascial network for athletes and other movement advocates could be of great value especially if one is experiencing chronic pain due to a functional lesion (no apparent physical damage).
If one’s fascial body is well-trained—optimally elastic and resilient—then it can be relied on to perform functionally, effectively, and in a pain-free manner.
Until recently, sports trainers, coaches, athletes, and other active groups have primarily focused on the classical triad of muscular strength, cardiovascular conditioning, and neuromuscular coordination. Some alternative physical training activities such as Pilates and yoga have taken the connective tissue network into account in a general sense, but without modern insights from the field of fascial research.
In order to build or restore an injury-resistant and elastic fascial body network, that will provide a pain-free movement experience, it is essential to translate the current insights from the field of fascial research into practical training techniques and regimens.
One of the most impressive characteristics of connective tissue is its ability to adapt. When placed under regular increasing physiological strain, it alters its architectural properties to meet the increasing demand (sounds a lot like the ‘Overload Principle’). Fascial tissues react to dominant loading patterns. The varied capacities of fibrous collagenous connective tissue make it possible for these tissues to continually adapt to regularly occurring strain, especially in relation to changes in length, strength, and ability to shear.
With the help of fibroblasts, fascial tissues react to everyday strain as well as to specific training by steadily remodeling the arrangement of their collagenous fiber network. Approximately 50% of the collagen fibrils are replaced in a healthy body every year. The intention of fascial fitness is to influence this replacement through specific training activities that will, after 6-24 months, result in a silk-like bodysuit, which is not only strong, but also allows for smoothly gliding joint mobility over wide angular ranges.
Elastic Recoil of Fascial Tissues: The Catapult Mechanism
The science tells us that kangaroos can jump much further than the force of the contraction of their leg muscles should allow. Scientists have discovered that a spring-like mechanism is behind this unique ability—the so-called ‘catapult mechanism’. The tendons and muscles of the leg are tensioned like elastic bands. The release of this stored energy is what makes these amazing jumps possible.
High-resolution ultrasound examination made it possible to discover similar orchestration of loading between muscle and fascia in human movement. It has been discovered that the fascia of humans has a kinetic storage capacity similar to that of kangaroos.
This stored energy is not only used when we jump or run, but also with simple walking, as a significant part of the energy for the movement pattern of walking comes from the same catapult mechanism described above. This new discovery has led to an active revision of the long-accepted principles in the field of movement science.
In the past, scientists assumed that joints moved when the skeletal muscles surrounding the joint shortened and the energy from the muscles passed through the passive tendons to create movement. This classical form of energy transfer is still true for cyclical movement patterns such as bicycling. During these types of steady movements, the muscle fibers actively change in length, while the aponueroses and tendons do not change their length very much while they are loaded. The fascial elements remain quite passive.
Oscillatory movements, such as jogging, however, display an elastic spring quality in which the length of the muscle fibers changes little. During oscillatory movements, the muscle fibers contract in an almost isometric fashion—they stiffen temporarily without any significant change in length—while the fascial elements function in an elastic manner. In this way, the lengthening and shortening of the fascial elements is responsible for the actual movement.
The elastic movement quality in younger people is associated with a typical two-directional lattice arrangement of their fasciae. In contrast, as we age and typically lose the springiness in our gait, the fascial architecture takes on a more haphazard and multidirectional arrangement.
Experiments have shown that lack of movement quickly fosters the development of additional cross-links in fascial tissues. The fibers lose their elasticity and do not glide as they once did. Instead theybecome stuck together and form tissue adhesions. In the worst cases, they become matted together.
Collagen architecture responds to loading. Fasciae of younger individuals (left image above) typically expresses a two-directional lattice orientation of their collagen fiber network. The individual collagen fibers show a stronger ‘crimp’ formation. Application of appropriate exercise can induce altered collagen architecture with increased crimp formation. Lack of proper exercise (right image above) has been shown to induce a multidirectional fiber network and decreased crimp formation.
The goal of fascial fitness training is to stimulate fascial fibroblasts to lay down a more youthful fiber architecture. This is done through movements that load the fascial tissues over multiple extension ranges while utilizing their elastic springiness.
A dynamic muscular loading pattern, in which the muscle is both activated and extended, promises a more comprehensive stimulation of fascial tissues than either classical weight training or Hatha yoga stretches.
1. Preparatory Countermovement
To achieve preparatory counter-movement one makes use of the catapult effect, previously described. Before performing the actual movement, the individual begins by creating a slight pre-tensioning in the opposite direction. Pre-tensioning is comparable to using a bow to shoot an arrow.
2. The Ninja Principle
To practice this principle, when performing bouncing movements such as hopping, running, and dancing, one must execute each movement as smoothly and softly as possible. One should gradually decelerate before any change in direction and gradually accelerate afterward. Each movement should flow from the last, and any extraneous or jerky movements should be avoided. The more the fascial spring effect is utilized, the quieter and gentler the movement will be.
3. Dynamic Stretching
Dynamic stretching requires a more flowing stretch, rather than a stretch that holds a motionless, static position. Fascial fitness training utilizes both fast and slow dynamic stretching. The faster variation may be more familiar to many people, as it has been a part of past physical training techniques. You may remember it as ‘ballistic stretching’. For decades it has been considered as being generally harmful to the tissue, but recent research has confirmed the method’s potential merits.
It’s probably not a great idea to start this type of dynamic stretching without first warming up a bit, but it seems that long-term and regular use of fast dynamic stretching—if performed properly— can positively influence the architecture of the connective tissue, as connective tissue becomes more elastic when this type of exercise is performed correctly. The ninja principle should be observed during fast dynamic stretching, and fast dynamic stretching has even greater effect on the fascia when combined with a preparatory counter-movement, as previously described.
In contrast to the bouncing motion of fast dynamic stretching, slow dynamic stretching engages multi-directional movements, with slight changes in angle. This engagement is not done by passively waiting, as in a lengthening classical Hatha yoga pose, or in a conventional isolated muscle stretch. Instead, these movements include motions in all three planes of motion (sagittal, frontal, and transverse), including anterior, posterior, lateral, and spiral movement patterns.
Slow dynamic stretches involve large areas of the fascial network being stretched simultaneously. Instead of stretching isolated muscle groups, slow dynamic stretching targets movement patterns that engage the longest possible myofascial chains.
4. Proprioceptive Refinement
Proprioception can be defined as the ability to sense where one’s body parts are located in relation to each other. Because proprioception is necessary for movement control, it must be included in the practice of fascial fitness. To more finely attune one’s proprioceptive capabilities, knowledge of the location of proprioceptive nerve endings is necessary.
It is of interest to note that the classical joint receptors—located in joint capsules and associated ligaments—have been shown to be of less importance for normal proprioception, because typically they are stimulated only at extreme joint ranges, but not during physiological motions. Recent findings indicate that the superficial fascial layers of the body are, in fact, far more densely populated with mechanoreceptive nerve endings than tissue situated more internally. It follows that, proprioceptive nerve endings located in the more superficial layers are a better target for exercises, as in these areas, even small angular joint movements lead to relatively distinct shearing motions. Therefore, perceptual refinement efforts should focus on producing shear, gliding, and tensioning motions in superficial fascial motions.
It is important to remember that when movements become too repetitive, our body ceases to maintain its proprioceptive awareness and our sense of proprioception cannot be properly engaged. To prevent ‘sensory dampening’ we need to keep our exercises both varied and creative.
In addition to the slow and fast dynamic stretches and utilizing elastic recoil properties, fascial refinement activities should include experimenting with various qualities of movement. For example, extremely slow movements, very quick micro-movements, or large macro-movements involving the whole body. Also, placing the body in unfamiliar positions while working with the awareness of gravity will quickly and dramatically change the quality of movement in your efforts to refine proprioceptive awareness.
5. Hydration and Renewal
An in-depth understanding of the plasticity and changing elasticity of the ‘water-filled’ fascia is particularly useful in developing and perfecting our systems of slow dynamic stretching and fascial refinement work.
Approximately 2/3 of the volume of fascial tissues is made up of water. During application of mechanical load (stretching or local compression) a significant amount of water is pushed out of the more stressed zones, similar to squeezing a sponge. With the release that follows, this area is again filled with new fluid which comes from the surrounding tissue as well as the local vascular network. The sponge-like connective tissue can lack adequate hydration at neglected places. Application of external loading to fascial tissues can result in a refreshed hydration at such places in the body.
In healthy fascia, a large percentage of the extracellular water is in a state of ‘bound’ water (as opposed to bulk water) where its behavior can be characterized as that of a liquid crystal. Much pathology, such as inflammation, edema, or the increased accumulation of free radicals and other waste products, tends to accompany a shift towards a higher percentage of bulk water within the ground substance.
Recent findings suggest that when local connective tissue gets squeezed like a sponge and subsequently rehydrated, some of the previous bulk water zones may then be replaced by bound water molecules, which could lead to a more healthy water constitution within the ground substance.
The goal of exercise is to refresh such places in the body with improved hydration through specific stretching to encourage fluid movement. Proper timing of the duration of individual loading and release phases is very important to hydration. As a part of modern running training, experts often recommend frequent interruption of running with short walking intervals. There is good reason for this: Under strain, the fluid is pressed out of the fascial tissues, which begin to function less optimally as their elastic and springy resilience slowly decreases. The short walking breaks serve to rehydrate the tissue, as it is given a chance to take up nourishing fluid. For average beginning runners, experts recommend walking pauses of one to three minutes every ten minutes. More advanced runners, with greater body awareness, can adjust the optimal timing and duration of those breaks based on the presence, or lack, of that youthful and dynamic rebound. If the running movement begins to feel and look more dampened and less springy, it’s probably a good time for a short break. If after a brief walking break there is a noticeable return of the gazelle-like rebound, then the rest period was adequate.
This cyclic training with periods of more intense effort interspersed with purposeful breaks, is recommended for all facets of fascial training. The individual learns to the dynamic properties of his or her fascial ‘bodysuit’ while exercising and to adjust the exercises based on this new body awareness. Fascia-oriented training may also help prevent overuse injuries in connective tissue.
6. Sustainability: The Power of a Thousand Tiny Steps
An important concept in fascial-oriented training is that of the slow and long-term renewal of the fascial network. In contrast to muscular strength training—in which big gains occur early on, followed by a plateau with only very small gains—fascia changes slowly and the results are lasting. Improvements have a lasting cumulative effect, which after years can be expected to result in marked improvements in the strength and elasticity of the global fascial net. As fascial proprioception becomes refined, the individual will probably experience improved coordination.
It is consistent and regular training that pays off. Just a few minutes of appropriate exercises performed twice a week is sufficient for collagen remodeling. The related renewal process takes between six months and two years, and will yield a lithe, flexible, and resilient collagenous matrix.
Of course, fascial fitness should not replace muscular strength work, cardiovascular endurance, or neuromuscular coordination (skill) training. It should be viewed as an important addition to a comprehensive training program.
This article is adapted from Fascia: The Tensional Network of the Human Body (Elsevier Science, 2012).