"Do you know about FASCIA?" It was in 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.
AGEING is closely related to fascia health and the integrity of our overall structure, creating excessive "pull" and causing us to lose the battle against the forces of gravity over time.
How do we train fascia?
It is essential that we understand fascia's principles, organisation, and properties before incorporating fascia-specific methodologies into training - especially the relationship between load distribution and movement patterns.
Excessive voluntary contraction can conflict with force transmission and elasticity: to harness the power of fascia, a Tensegrity-approach to training can help to improve our force transmission and distribution.
For fascia to be healthy, it should receive hydration and undergo movement and gliding: we can achieve this through foam rolling, visiting a massage therapist, and practising dynamic stretching or mobility training.
Suggested existing methodologies of training healthy fascia include Fascial Fitness, fascia pilates, contemporary dance, Qi Gong, Tai Chi, Yin Yoga, and Rope Flow. These practices are excellent modalities of fascia training, and we look forward to adding more as we continue our ongoing exploration of movement.
Adding more movement opportunities throughout the day and reducing long periods of being sedentary will help to train your fascia - this can include concepts such as practising dynamic sitting.
Fascia can be trained for optimal elasticity and force transmission, though more vigorous activities should be approached carefully, with further understanding gained through specialisation courses. Equally, after injury, movement therapists and rehabilitation training should be chosen with care and following appropriate expertise (see our recommended list below).
As an avid member of the Fascia Research Society, and having followed and qualified in numerous Fascia training courses from a variety of leading Fascial training practitioners and educators, Advanced L4 Physiology, Harvard HMX Physiology - we bring the context of Fascial training into the BBS Training Method, with the goal to bridge the gap between traditional and new biomechanics and develop a more widely functional approach to training for sports and fitness. We use these basic principles to address flexibility, loaded movement training, and neuromuscular efficiency to prepare and develop the body for skill development.
Thoughts & Recommendations
The Fascia Research Society emerged from the Ida P. Rolf Research Foundation (IPRRF) established in 2007, which has been hosting the International Fascia Research Congresses since 2009. Now an independent entity, the FRS board and staff include the top researchers in the medical field dedicated to the research and applications of fascia in movement and medical fields. There is new research being published constantly. So it's key to keep an open mind and handle this information with care as researchers navigate through the next decade of discovery.
Various researchers are finding new "lines" of continuity that connect parts of the body and form patterns within the Tensegrity model of biomechanics. Please note that this is not all published, exact science yet - modalities and interpretations are reconstructed through laboratory dissections and new kinetic chains and connections are constantly being found. These patterns are incredibly useful for mapping the body in connection to movement, but keeping an open mind when discovering new "connections" is key to avoiding being fixated on a particular kinetic chain pattern.
Techniques in working with fascia can easily be taken out of context due to a superficial understanding and inaccurate information. Therefore, coaches and students should follow a GRADUAL approach to understanding and training with fascia. Whereas some approaches are safe for most populations - such as self-myofascial release, natural movement, and dynamic mobility - other training modalities require much more experience and care. For example, heavy eccentric loading or jumping into ballistic stretching can lead to tears and injury when momentum takes the joints out of alignment and fascia fibres are pulled outside of their elastic range. This "handle with care" maxim, together with developing a safe, progressive approach to flexibility are key points of the Long & Strong course methodology.
Courses at BBS Training Academy refer to the expertise of various methods, approaches, trainers and research leaders in the industry - and if you're ready to take a deep dive, here is a list of non-exhaustive references and links to websites and courses available:
For suggested modifications, updates, and additional considerations to this article, please contact us via the message box below and include links to research and sources.