Thoughts on “Fascia in Sport and Movement”

 

Fascia is a thing right now. People attribute an almost mythical power to it, and a quick twitter search of fascia brings up 1000s of tweets with people extolling its benefits. Like many, “Anatomy Trains” changed my view of movement and, like many, it took me a while to realize it’s not just about training fascial lines; you have to teach differentiation, independent joint movement, and strengthen muscles in a variety of ways, not just in their functional, fascial slings. I read most of Schleip’s tome “Fascia: The Tensional Network of the Human Body,” and moved away from the deep study of fascia, instead diving into topics like motor control and biomechanics. This isn’t to say that I disregarded fascia completely; I just moved away from fascia as movement gospel. I recently read most of “Natural Born Heros” by Christopher McDougall (you are probably noticing a trend. I usually finish books. However, I find smooth muscle fascia less captivating than fascia’s relevance to movement. It turns out, kidnapped world war II generals don’t really hold my interest either. Parkour and natural movement, on the other hand, are fascinating). McDougall re-sparked my interest in fascia with his description of elastic recoil and how it pertains to Parkour. This led me to several of Schleip’s papers and, ultimately, to his most recent book. 

“Fascia in Sport and Movement” is really interesting, if you are a movement person. Klinger and Schleip clarify on the very first page that “fascia” is almost synonymous with the term “connective tissue (2015). This includes things like ligaments, muscular envelopes, tendons, and capsules. Researchers are finding that extramuscular myofascial delineations are largely responsible for force transmission from the muscle to the skeleton. This can be easily illustrated by backbends. Backbends interest me because, for years, I didn’t feel anything except discomfort in my low back. The reasons why were multi-faceted. The primary reason backbends didn’t feel good were because I was unable to maintain any connection at all to my deep core. My lowest ribs popped forward, my pelvis tipped forward, and the load went into my low back. Once I learned how to keep my lowest ribs down and I had the proper muscular support in my pelvis (thank you, PRI), I still didn’t know how to differentiate the segments in my thoracic spine to lift up and out rather than bend around. This took a bit of motor control learning in the forms of Feldenkrais and FRC, until finally, I was able to disperse the load across my skeleton, instead of all of the force being transmitted to one spot on my vertebral column, leading to the “opening of the superficial front line.” (When I watch Instagram videos of people backbending, the ones that bend around just one spot jump out at me. I feel their discomfort). It took neuromuscular training, motor control training, and then fascial training to be able to do the backbends properly and in a way that feels more like an opening and a slight abdominal stretch.

One of the theories behind fascia is that it works in an elastic manner. When muscles transmit force, as much as 40% of the contraction is transmitted to another muscle, often an antagonist, or opposing muscle, which stiffens to increase resistance of the primary movement (Schleip, et.al, 2015). From a stability perspective, if someone is tensing his jaw, for instance, while attempting to perform a movement, it seems that would take away the efficiency of force transmission. As an aside, Yeampattanaporn et.al, (2014) found altering breathing patterns in subjects with chronic neck pain not only decreased EMG activity in the upper trapezius, anterior scalenes, and sternocleidomastoid, but also increased cervical range of motion. This is consistent with the idea that if one inhales using the accessory muscles of the neck, force would be transmitted to the antagonists of the neck, limiting neck movement due to the stiffening (and blocking flow. Jaw and upper chest breathers miss out on finding ease in their movement, but that is a different post). If a practitioner can begin to see where tension is consistently held, it might help the practitioner identify where to begin helping the subject find ease, usually in the space above or below where the place of tension, improving the elasticity of the entire system.

To enhance and increase the storage capacity of fascia and collagenous tissues requires an external stimulus in the form of training. The type of load required depends on the goals; if the goal is to strengthen tendinous tissue, the magnitude of load needed is high. This is similar to what research shows with plyometric training. Vaczi et.al, (2013) examined a high intensity plyometric training program on soccer athletes. They chose higher intensity exercises specifically because rapid strength gains without injury was a goal (exercises were performed two days a week, over a 6 week span). According to Klinger and Schleip, studies indicate the collagen degradation that accompanies targeted exercise loading outweighs the collagen synthesis the first 36 hours after training. As a result, a targeted “fascial” training isn’t recommended to be performed more than 3 days a week (the soccer players in the above mentioned study had dramatic improvements in depth vertical jump and no injuries). Interestingly, yoga is a considered a form of fascial training as well, though the mechanical load is less. Something that might be considered for activities that specifically work to improve tensegrity and elastic recoil is the frequency with which these activities are performed. Perhaps activities utilizing counter-movement and tensigrity principles should be thoughtfully programmed no more than 3 times a week? Or maybe if the plyometrics or the asana sequences are varied enough and not taxing the same collagen fibers more is fine? I am not sure the answer, but I do think balanced and varied exercise programming, both within exercise selection and intensity levels, can decrease risk of overuse injuries. 

I barely got out of chapter 1 with this blog. Other topics of interest include scar tissue, exploring movement through martial arts, parkour, Gyrotonics, and Clubbells. The research cited and the ideas presented are thought provoking and, in my opinion, worth reading. I know Dr. Spina says it’s all stuff made out of the same thing, but I do think maybe some of that stuff can have a profound impact on other stuff. I have experienced first hand the power of exercises designed specifically to address various fascial lines, and I have also experienced the power of teaching joint differentiation to increase mobility and strength. I believe principles from biomechanics, fascia research, neurology, and anatomy can all be used to in training programs to maximize an individual’s strength and mobility. It is simply up to the practitioner to figure out how.

Yours in health and wellness,
Jenn

Schleip, R.S., (2015). Fascia in Sport and Movement. Handspring Publishing: Scotland.
Yeampattanaporn, O., Mekhora, K., Jalayondeja, W., & Wongsathikun, J., (2014). Immediate effects of breathing re-education on respiratory function and range of motion in chronic neck pain. Journal of Medical Association in Thailand, 97, 55-59.
Vaczi, M., Tollar, J., Meskler, B., Juhasz, I., & Karsai, I., (2013). Short-term high intensity plyometric training program improves strength, power and agility in male soccer players. Journal of Human Kinetics, 36, 17-26.