Just beneath your skin lies a complex network of connective tissue called fascia. It helps you move well, stand straight and play hard. Keeping it healthy might be one of the fastest – and most overlooked – ways to improve your health and fitness.
As a Massage Therapist, I find it fascinating that fascia is not something that is talked about or taught in most fitness arenas. Fascia is a stretchy, mesh-like substance that interweaves through and around your musculature, surrounds and supports your organs, and shrink-wraps your entire internal structure like a second skin. It’s a key player in the way your body moves, functions and feels. It’s a dynamic substance that can change and respond – both in good and bad ways.
Fascia adapts to every move you make — good, bad or indifferent. Over time, a competitive rower, for example, might develop thicker fascia in her back and shoulders to support the repetitive movement of pulling oars. The fascia in the front of the rib cage of your typical desk jockey, on the other hand, may become thick and short to reinforce a habitually caved-in posture. And injuries, even minor ones, often result in fascial “patches” in the muscles that can cause restricted motion, leading to compensations in gait and movement. These might remain long after the injury itself has healed.
Injured or poorly adapted fascia can start to act like glue, binding to muscles, other fascia, even your ligaments. In a sense, your entire individual life history — exercise habits, injuries, common sitting and sleeping positions — is written in your fascia. Depending on these and other behavioral factors, fascial adhesions can subtly accrue over years and decades, leading to movement inhibition and sometimes chronic pain.
So, think you might have a few kinks in your fascia? In a sense, if you’re already exercising and stretching regularly, you’re ahead of the game. Muscles and fascia are so interwoven that you can’t affect one without affecting the other.
Nevertheless, standard, static stretching and muscle-isolating exercises, while beneficial in some ways, often have little effect on deeply ingrained fascial tension, especially if, like most people, you spend a large portion of your day sitting down.
If we spend months, years, even decades sitting at a desk and think that a few hours in the gym per week are going to undo all that, we’re probably fooling ourselves. Stretching a muscle with bound-up or poorly adapted fascia is a bit like trying to stretch a knotted bungee cord: You’ll get much better results if you get the knots out first.
Some of the best methods for untying these knots take a therapeutic approach, like massage, in which a licensed practitioner works with an athlete or client. Other methods have the client participate more actively, moving and stretching him- or herself in fascia-friendly patterns. Massage can be a powerful tool when it comes to increasing the function of your fascia by increasing it’s elasticity and restoring balance throughout the entire body. Exercising with proper form and precision cares for the body as a whole – something we now know is imperative to health and well being. Learning how to tap into the power of your fascia could drastically change the way you train, move and most importantly feel.
As a Massage Therapist I am just scratching the surface on how fascia works and why it matters to you, but I encourage you to check out the additional sources listed below to expand your knowledge on this topic.