What Is Fascia?
The word Fascia gets thrown around a lot in the health and sports world. Myofascial release is more popular than ever and there is good reason for it! The fascial system is one of the most important connective tissue systems of the body. I have people asking questions all the time:
- Why is the Fascial system even important?
- Don’t the muscles and bones do all the work?
- Is there only one kind of fascia?
- Why do I have to Foam Roll?
Fascia is the tissue that holds the entire body together. It’s the reason we can stand up, tension, and transfer force through our body. Let’s take a look at what role Deep Fascia plays in our body, what it does, and how proper care and maintenance of this system can help us maintain overall muscle health and increase movement performance.
The Anatomy Of Fascia
Fascia is a connective tissue and one of the most abundant tissues in the body. It is mainly made of collagen and covers and wraps everything in the body from every organ to each individual muscle fiber. So bottom line, it’s important! Especially for muscle health and movement performance. This connective tissue framework is so dense that even if you were to remove everything from the body except the fascia, you would still end up with a very human looking shape. It is completely integrated in us and most people don’t even know it exists! There are different types of fascia, each with a different role, but the main type we want to focus on today is the Deep Fascia.
Deep Fascia has a large concentration of elastin protein that determines the flexibility or resilience of the tissue. This is VERY important in athletics for having powerful plyometric movements. More varied movement allows the fascia to maintain its flexibility and on the opposite side, immobility will stiffen it. It is wrapped around every individual muscle and muscle group. Think of it this way: the outside of a single muscle is covered in a continuous layer of deep fascia creating a “bag”. These individual muscle “bags” are further separated according to their function into a larger bag. For example: your quads are made up of four different muscles and each have their own fascial bag. Your body then has one larger “bag” that encloses these four quads to keep them together as a unit. This means there are FIVE separate fascial bags that hold together the quads. All these “bags” need to move across each other to produce unrestricted movement.
Going along with this bag scenario: try to imagine a bunch of small bags(muscles) needing to move around inside a bigger bag(fascial compartment) that also needs to move smoothly with all the other larger bags (fascial compartments with different muscle groups) in the body. That can be A LOT of friction and if the fascia becomes stiff, tight, and adhesed which happens with strenuous exercise, awkward posture, and immobility then it can create soft tissue problems. More flexibility in these fascial bags create more range of motion and allow more force to move through the muscles. Soft tissue maintenance, lifestyle choices, hydration, and diet play a huge role in determining the flexibility in these fascial bags.
Why don’t We Know The Fascia System Like We Do The Muscles & Bones?
Dissection and anatomy used to be illegal. Until the 17th Century, it was extremely taboo to dissect human bodies to learn anatomy. To get around this taboo idea, Anatomists would steal bodies from a recently dug graves and bring the body back to some undisclosed location to dissect it. The problem with these dissections is most of the bodies would already be in a somewhat advanced stage of composition and there would be no fascia to look at! Fascia will decompose a lot faster than muscles and other type of soft tissue so it was overlooked. This is the complete opposite of today and we now have sanitary and legal dissections and microscopes to get a really good look at the tissue structure.
Real Life Experience With Fascia
One of the most relatable examples of stiff fascia is how your body feels after you wear an orthopedic device like a boot, arm sling, or cast where some body part was immobilized for a period of time. When you take the device off, you notice that the area is stiff, weak and has less range of motion. Some of this is attributed to muscle atrophy, but a large part is actually because of the fascial systems involved. This happens because the fascia will adapt to the new immobilized conditions and stiffen. Receiving soft tissue body work, some type of strength training, and stretching routine is important after injuries to help return to normal movement as soon as possible. The longer you wait after an injury to rehab it, the more problematic down the road it becomes as the tissues will get more and more stiff as time goes on.
How To Keep Your Fascia Healthy
Varied movement is key for training and maintaining the flexibility of these deep fascial systems, which is hard to maintain with lack of movement or constant repetitive stress activities. With most sports, you perform the same movements and your fascia is trained for that one activity by becoming stiff in certain areas to support it. The moment an outside stress comes in a form that your body is not used to or understands(as in a different sport or activity), it greatly increases the chance of an injury. Myofascial release paired along with massage in these stiff areas is what returns normal function and movement, along with increased fluid flow.
I highly suggest getting some type of bodywork at least once a month for maintenance care and regular exercise to maintain the fascial system. I have found that every 3-4 weeks is optimal to keep away any injuries that may be in the process of forming. Maintenance is important because you can get on top of injuries before they become problematic.
-Nick Picchetti L.M.T.