"Do you know about FASCIA?" It was 2017, outside the University of Stellenbosch Biokinetics department that Holly, my new intern at BBS Training Academy™, asked me a question that would bind us forever and send me down the deepest rabbit hole I've ever been on. Fascinated by a new world, I opened the doors of Narnia.
Fascia, it turns out, really is the "Turkish delight" of the human body: not just because it's similar in texture, but in that, once you take your first bite, it's impossible to resist more. Understanding fascia brings clarity to SO MANY finicky questions about our body.
Fascia can be a nebulous subject and working with it can be misinterpreted as alternative medicine but, as Dr Carla Stecco said at the 2021 FASCIA DAY conference in Lugano, "It is not alternative medicine - it is INTEGRATIVE medicine". The fascial tissue has been one of the main concerns for massage therapists, acupuncture, physiotherapy, and sports medicine - among other professions - and provides links to many unanswered questions surrounding our anatomy.
Over the five years that followed Holly's poignant question, I slowly started addressing and began studying this subject more closely, becoming increasingly familiar with the various approaches and available research relevant to sports and training. My interest wasn't a conscious leap, it was much more gradual than that. It seemed that whenever I found a question that was unanswered: from neuroscience to biomechanics, podology to chronic pain, sports psychology to nutrition - the answer always boiled down to this mysterious tissue. Like the needle pointing North - fascia always surfaced as part of the answer.
I became acquainted with the subject between 2017 and 2018, and then decided to make FASCIA the focus of my ongoing exploration of the human body in movement.
There is so much new information, and in the last year, I have taken five training courses that approach the subject from different angles. These are some of the main takeaways. By no means an exhaustive summary, remember to handle them with care. References, sources, and recommendations are listed at the bottom of this article.
What is fascia?
Fascia, previously disregarded by anatomists as muscle "packaging", does so much more than merely group and shape the muscles - which is the simplest of its functions and can be seen by the naked eye. Carla Stecco uses the imagery of the grapefruit to show its structure. If you "evaporated" the entire body except for the fascia, you would still be able to see the human form - like a 3D animation model.
The fascia network penetrates the body's tissues both superficially and deeply. Tendons, ligaments, epimysium, endomysium, and visceral membranes are all considered part of the fascia network.
Several researchers in medicine and veterinary science have been researching and publishing findings for many years. However, anatomy books and sports science syllabi are still working towards integrating these new findings: this is not due to a lack of research, but the length of time it takes for the bureaucracy of the sciences to update with all the new findings. It's a long, tedious, ongoing process.
Researchers and leaders include Tom Myers, the Stecco family, Robert Schleip, Ida Rolf, and many more. The earliest studies of fascia training from Vastalius 1509 and Michelangelo - and contemporary leaders and founders have now come together to form the Fascia Research Society.
I like to think of fascia as human "mycelium": a live network that runs through the body, interacting with each tissue. It's below the surface, and you cannot see it from the outside. When it's dead and dried, it is not capable of withstanding tension or allowing movement. But see it when it's alive - it connects and organises all the wonder of life.
Why do we care?
Medicine and sports science innovations are making a major shift from traditional biomechanics to the Tensegrity biomechanics model. Professionals in the sports/movement/fitness/wellness industries should be prepared to progress into the new biomechanics models.
However, traditional martial arts and yoga forms have intuitively been training fascia for thousands of years.
In fact, most 'muscle tissue' is really only 70% muscle fibres and 30% fascia, while your pelvic floor is comprised of 30% muscle fibres and 70% fascia!
Similarly to a thirsty plant, dehydrated fascia in its extremes can become tough, fibrous and brittle... making it more prone to tears, inflammation and pain.
Fascia is the most innervated tissue in the body! Chronic pain and discomfort are linked more and more to disturbances in the body's fascia when it becomes dehydrated and inflamed.
As it is so densely rich in proprioceptors and nerves, working with fascia is absolutely key to developing proper mobility, flexibility, and proprioception.
When you "tear" a muscle - it's not the muscle fibres that tear; it's the packaging that tears… your fascia! Muscle fibres, when taken out of their "packaging", have 50-60% of elastic capability, whereas fascia will tear after only 22-26% of elongation under tension.
New research shows strong links between healthy fascia and enhanced plyometric training and explosive power, by training tension and harnessing the natural powers of recoil.
The interstitial fluid in between the sheaths of fascia allows the tissues to GLIDE on one another, like wearing multiple layers of clothing... this is the ability to move smoothly with the combination of tissues, full of hydration and free from restrictions and adhesions, that facilitates our movement.
What do we need to know?
Fascia is capable of so much more than we first believed:
Proprioception, co-ordination, and pain perception
Whereas traditional biomechanics has been concerned with measuring the movement of individual joints and isolated muscle groups (useful to understand the properties of these body parts), modern biomechanics uses the Tensegrity model of load distribution throughout our entire physical structure.
Fascia can become dehydrated due to excessively repetitive movement, excessive force, or joint immobility. Dehydrated (stiff) fascia forms "knots" and creates kinks in our Tensegrity model. This is very often the cause of imbalanced movement patterns which lead to chronic pain, injury, pelvic floor dysfunctions, digestive health disruptions, and generalised immobility.
Lax fascia (excessively compliant fascia) can create joint instability, unwanted movement, and poor movement control.
We can bring our fascia back to health at any age through balance, expansion, and better load distribution in the human body using the Tensegrity model of biomechanics, instead of focusing on excessive contractions and high loads.