by Chad Waterbury
Not all of the following information is practical, in its strictest definition. Some are basically concepts that will help you reach your goals quicker and stay healthy. By doing so you'll have the information you need to build a better body.
Let's get started with one of the most important and least discussed components of your body: fascia.
Holding It All Together
Fascia is connective tissue that surrounds all of the structures in your body, from head to toe. There are three primary types of fascia: superficial, visceral, and deep. Superficial fascia surrounds areas such as your face, neck, and sternum. Visceral fascia, as the name implies, suspends the organs in your abdominal cavity.
But deep fascia is where this topic gets interesting. Deep fascia is tough, fibrous connective tissue that surrounds your muscles. It contains many sensory receptors that communicate pain, proprioception, and various other feedback mechanisms to your brain. And just like your muscles, deep fascia can contract and relax.
According to structural integration expert, Tom Myers, there are five major fascial chains.
- Superficial back line — starts at the bottom of the feet and continues up and over the top of the head and ends at the brow ridge.
- Superficial front line — starts on the top of the feet at the toes and ends behind the ear at the mastoid process.
- Lateral line — runs along the lateral portion of the lower body, hips, and obliques.
- Spiral line — wraps from side to side along the body.
- Deep front line — runs deep along the spine and jaw.
You don't need to worry about all of the different types of fascial lines. My point in outlining the five major chains is for you to understand that every muscle in your body is wrapped in multiple directions by fascia.
It's imperative that you respect the deep fascia that surrounds your muscles. If it's too stiff, it can impair muscle function. Think of how Chinese women used to bind their feet to limit foot growth. Fascia can have a similar effect on muscles. If the deep fascia that surrounds your muscles is too tight, it can restrict your muscle growth and impair muscle function and performance.
Beyond Big Muscles
I wanted to tackle the relationship between deep fascia and muscle growth first. I know you're probably reading this article because you want bigger, stronger, faster muscles, but in order to do that you need to understand more than just motor unit recruitment — if you want to get the best results as quickly as possible.
In pursuit of bigger muscles you've got to respect the structures that surround and support your muscles and joints. If you do, you'll get faster results, and you'll enjoy a lifetime of lifting. That's because unhealthy fascia can impede your ability to perform well in the gym.
If you've ever had foot problems, you might've been diagnosed with something called plantar fasciitis. This is an inflammation of the fascia on the bottom of your feet, often caused by excessive foot pronation. It can be painful, not to mention a nuisance. You might think that inflamed fascia on the bottom of your feet won't lead to other problems, but you'd be wrong.
When I talk about fascia, and its components, it must be understood that these aren't separate, independent parts. Indeed, fascia is an integrated and interconnected band of connective tissue that runs from the bottom of your feet to your head!
When any area of this fascia in between your feet and head gets irritated and loses its functional capacity, your body must compensate. Generally, irritated fascia stiffens. This results in a "pull" across other areas of your body. Think of a fully inflated balloon. If you press your finger into the balloon (sitffen that area) the rest of the balloon must stretch and pull to compensate for your finger indention.
If you have doubts that fascia is continuous across your body, try this simple procedure popularized by Tom Myers.
First, from a standing position, try to touch your toes with your back flat and legs straight. Make a note of how far down you can reach and how intense the stretch is on your hamstrings.
Next, from a standing position, take a tennis ball and place it under the arch of your right foot. Place a good amount of weight on the tennis ball, but not so much that you lose your balance or feel intense pain. Now roll the tennis ball around under your right foot, making sure to hit all areas from inside to outside and front to back. You should feel pressure and a little discomfort on the bottom of your foot, but not intense pain. Do this for 30 seconds before switching to the left foot and following the same procedure.
Repeat the standing toe touch. You'll notice two things. First, you'll be able to immediately reach closer to your toes (or beyond your toes, depending on your initial range of motion). Second, you'll feel less of a "pull" in your hamstrings.
Why? Because the connective tissue on the bottom of your feet is contiguous with your hamstrings. This connective tissue doesn't stop at the hamstrings, though. It continues through all of the muscles that run up and over the top of your head to your brow line!
The tennis ball drill will loosen your hamstrings, but it can also affect many other muscles such as your calves, glutes, and spinal erectors. By rolling the tennis ball underneath your feet you've sent a signal to your fascia to relax, thus freeing up all of your muscles from head to toe. This, in turn, allows you to achieve a greater range of motion for the toe touch test.
The Other Kind of Joint
As Mike Boyles has mentioned in his articles, the human body is a series of joints stacked on top of each other. Anytime there's dysfunction there must be compensation.
Imagine you're driving down the road and you have a stiff neck. You want to turn your head and look over your shoulder before changing lanes. What happens when you have a stiff neck? You end up twisting your torso to compensate for the lack of mobility in your neck. This is how joint compensation works. When one joint can't move freely, other joints have to pick up the slack. When a joint is forced to do extra work, you set that joint up for injury.
Think about the ankle joint. When you have plantar faciitis and excessive foot pronation, another joint must compensate — the knee joint that's directly above it. The knee joint is being pulled inward to compensate for the excessive foot pronation.
Since the knee joint has altered its natural position, the hip must follow (you can't move your leg without it affecting your hip) and shift its position. Importantly, the hip joint is linked with the shoulders because of your fascial line. So now that your hip has shifted, the opposite shoulder must compensate by shifting, too. Depending on the position of the hip, your shoulder might compensate by moving more anterior — thus throwing your scapula out of its ideal placement and shortening the muscles on the front of your shoulder.
In essence, you could say that plantar faciitis can cause shoulder problems. But the distance can travel even further. Indeed, research has demonstrated a direct link between a fallen arch and TMJ in your jaw!(1)
Now are you beginning to understand the importance of tissue health, mobility, and proper posture? You must keep your fascia as healthy as possible by performing mobility and flexibility drills, along with maintaining proper posture and balancing out the exercises that train your entire body.
And this is where it's appropriate to bring up mobility and flexibility training.
Mobility and Flexibility: Are They Synonymous?
It's safe to assume that you've heard the term "flexibility," and thanks to the writings of Cressey, Robertson, Hartman, and Boyle, you're familiar with "mobility." Over the past few years, mobility training has been the focus of many fitness coaches and physical rehabilitation specialists.
What are flexibility and mobility, anyway?
Imagine you're lying on your back with your legs straight. If you just lie there and let a physical therapist lift your leg up as high as possible he'd be testing your passive range of motion. This is a test of flexibility — the ability for your muscles to passively lengthen.
When you stand up and mimic the same test by pulling your leg up as high as possible, you're testing mobility. Think of mobility as active flexibility. After all, the definition of mobility is "the ability to move freely." So flexibility and mobility are not synonymous terms. They have been in the past, but I think it's an over simplification.
Is one better than the other? No. Just like you need to lift heavy, medium, and light weights to train your muscles to work for different periods of time and at different speeds, flexibility and mobility training serve different purposes, too.
It's common practice to stretch your muscles before you train. I'm not talking about "warming-up" by jogging or jumping rope, I'm talking about passively stretching. You've probably heard that stretching prevents injuries by "preparing" your muscles for hard work. Intuitively, it makes sense, but research is mounting to refute the notion that stretching before a workout provides any real benefit. In fact, passive stretching before a workout might impede your performance.
Flexibility training, or passive stretching, is relaxing to your muscles. That's great for recovery, but it's also relaxing to your nervous system. For example, you'll temporarily lose strength in your hamstrings if you passively stretch them by weakening the signal between your nerve endings and muscles.
You of course know that you want the nervous system to work at its peak while you're training in order to recruit as many motor units as possible. By reducing the nervous system transmission between your motor neurons and muscles, you won't be able to produce as much force as if you skipped the passive stretching.
After a workout, however, it's beneficial to relax your muscles and nervous system since it was revved up during your workout. When your nervous system is stimulated, it's very difficult, if not impossible, to get your muscles to the point of relaxation that's necessary for recovery.
This is why you typically get a stiff neck when you're stressed. Therefore, I recommend flexibility training, or passive stretching, at the end of your workouts for two reasons. First, it'll help your muscles and nerves relax. Second, it's a time when a temporary loss in strength isn't detrimental to your performance.
Mobility training, if performed correctly, can enhance your nervous system and prepare your joints for a workout. When you actively move your muscles through a full range of motion, you stimulate the motor nerves that innervate your muscles, thus allowing you to recruit more motor units.
If you've ever watched Olympic swimmers right before they dive into the water for a race you'll notice that they do big, fast arm circles to prepare their shoulders. This is a smart move. By actively moving their shoulder joints through a full range of motion, they're enhancing the neural drive to their muscles and stirring up synovial fluid that reduces joint friction.
This information doesn't end with the nervous system and joint fluid, though. Remember that fascia that I was referring to? Well, flexibility and mobility training help keep that fascia supple. By doing so, you'll receive three big benefits. First, you'll be able to train your exercises through a greater range of motion.
Second, you'll potentially reduce your risk for joint injuries. When one area of your body is stiff and restricted, another area has to compensate. Compensation is a big set-up for injury since it makes a specific area function differently than it was designed.
Third, you'll give your muscles room to grow by "unbinding" them.
You might not think that fascia is very sexy or exciting, but damn it, it should be. Please put this information to good use and you'll keep your money in your pocket instead of contributing to a physical therapist's retirement fund.
Chad Waterbury is one of the world's leading experts on developing muscle for the goal of enhancing performance. His novel training methods are used by athletes, bodybuilders, figure models, and fitness enthusiasts of all ages and from all walks of life. He has an M.S. in Physiology from the University of Arizona, and he specializes in the neurophysiology of human movement and performance. He currently trains, consults and lectures around the country.
1.Janda V. J Prosth Dent. 56(4):484-487, 1996.
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