Tuesday 31 May 2016

What's all the fuss about fascia?

Fitness industry training about fascia is fashionable now.   Earlier this year I did some excellent training with Heather King-Smith on Myofascial Slings.   The training draws on the growing body of research on fascia and how it functions.

Going back in time to my initial Pilates training, understanding of fascia was less widespread across the fitness industry.  And the received wisdom was to work muscles first then stretch them afterwards.
However, after teaching for a while, I realised that most of us need to become more flexible before we exercise, rather than after.   It also became obvious that you can passively stretch some muscles for as long as you like but you won't make a significant difference to their resting length (in other words - they won't stretch!)

Having discovered the Franklin Method, last year we had a term of  classes that included Franklin hamstring fascial release.  We  finished each class with the Shoulder Bridge exercise (pictured left).

In the past, some clients would always experience cramp in their hamstrings despite warming up and doing static hamstring stretches first.

But in our hamstring-fascial release term I was impressed to see that no clients cramped in the Shoulder Bridge.  Fantastic!   But why and how does that work?   And to begin with, what is fascia?

Facsia is...
Connective tissue that forms all-encompassing structures within our body surrounding and connecting bone, muscle and internal organs.  It's able to both absorb and create force.  Its characteristics vary upon where it is in the body and its function.   Here are four different fascial functions:
  • The outer most layer (superficial fascia) gives our body its shape.   
  • Visceral fascia surrounds and supports the internal organs.
  • Dense layers of deeper fascia surround and compartmentalise muscles (such as the quads). 
  • Elsewhere fascia forms thick sheets which are strong enough for muscles to insert into (e.g. the Thoracolumbar Fascia).

Why release fascia?
Fascia can become restricted which may cause pain and / or dysfunction.   For example, fascia can get damaged and tighten down and then put stress on nerves, muscles and joints.   It can also thicken and become more solid if there is a lack of movement (such as around a frozen shoulder).

The good news is that fascia can be released.   It has sensory receptors which respond to touch and pressure (such as rolling on a ball, massage, tapping and vibration).  This means that when you release fascia you can decrease the tone in the surrounding muscles.   So the muscles are less tight and are then more able to stretch.

In our hamstring release classes, we used our hands to massage the superficial fascia at the back of the thigh and as a result we were able to reach further down our legs.   So the muscles were able to stretch and their tone had changed so they were less likely to cramp in the Shoulder Bridge.

In these two pictures, I have a fascial release ball under one set of hamstrings.   I'm flexed forward over the leg to bring my hamstrings into a lengthened position.   By staying and breathing for a short while - using this method - I'm also able to influence the tone and resting length of the hamstrings effectively and gently.  

In our April and May term we've also found some surprising effects on flexibility in joints of the body quite far away from where we were releasing - again the power of connective tissue!

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