Muscles have stolen the limelight for far too long. They get all the best placements in magazines. We train them, build them, strengthen them and stretch them. But move over muscles, there’s a new player in town and his name is fascia.
So, what’s the big deal about fascia? Well, ever heard the term brains over brawn? It aptly sums up the advantages to focusing on fascia instead of dedicating hours to building massive muscles. Fascia is “smart tissue,” meaning it’s intricately connected with your internal wiring – your nervous system.
Ever heard of proprioception? Proprioception is your body’s own sense of self in space. It’s what keeps you from walking into doorways or sticking your fork in your eye. It’s how you know when you’re going to bump into stuff without directly looking at it.
Proprioception can exist because your muscles have little tiny cells inside them that sense changes in length as you move around. This is why you get that pain when you stretch your muscles – it’s those proprioceptors sending a signal to the brain that you might be stretching too far and putting yourself in danger of a torn muscle.
So, back to fascia…you know how muscle-bound, iron-pumping, mirror gazing men are sometimes called meat heads? Well, there might be something to that. In the race for intelligence, fascia has muscle beat, hands down. Fascia has ten times the sensory perception that muscle does. Ten times! Talk about a braniac!
That means that fascia can sense different kinds of movement, not just stretching. It feels twisting, shearing, vibration and other types of movement. Additionally, it’s fascia that gives muscle its shape. Without fascia, muscle would be one big lump of undifferentiated tissue.
Fascia divides out the muscle groups, giving you additional function and flexibility. And where we used to think muscle did all the heavy lifting, research is showing us that fascia’s pretty good at that, too. Fascia has what’s called “contractile ability,” meaning that it can shorten, just like muscles.
Fascia makes up the tendons that attach muscle to bone. We used to think these were just static ropes and that a muscle would contract, pulling the bones closer together to produce locomotion (ummm, that means movement). Now we know that the muscle holds isometrically while the fascia contracts. In fact, fascial spring (a type of contraction produced during plyometric movement such as jumping and bouncing) is responsible for the bounciness of some animals, like kangaroos. If they had to depend on muscle density alone, they wouldn’t be able to jump nearly as far.
So, all of this is very well and good, but why is fascia the next “big thing” in fitness? Well, for good reason. Fascial stretching gives much more lasting results in terms of increasing flexibility. Athletes who train their fascia can produce greater power with less muscular force, giving them unparalleled endurance. And, since fascia essentially gives our bodies their shape, working with the fascial network can repattern posture, making it the go-to tissue for long-term pain relief.