The Truth About Muscle Fascia

By on July 9, 2018

How is it that a single celled organism with no nervous system, no nucleus, and no membrane-bound organelles – called a prokaryote – is able to navigate environments, avoid predation, and move toward sources of energy?

It’s quite possible that the answer has to do with fascia – a connective tissue that supports structures as a living matrix and may be capable of acting as a kind of ‘logic circuit’. And what’s more is that we have one of those too. And if you stick with me, I’ll show you why this might be crucial to optimizing your performance.

the truth about muscle fascia

It’s going to be fascianating.

What is Muscle Fascia?

In my video on tendon strength, I explained that it might not actually make sense to think of individual muscles but that we should rather consider them as ‘muscle-tendon’ units. The two work together to such a degree, that it is more useful to think of them as a single functioning unit.

But perhaps it is folly to consider any part of the muscular system in isolation?

muscle fascia connects entire body

Consider that your entire muscular system is wrapped in a film-wrap like substance called muscle fascia. This is a fibrous connective tissue made primarily of collagen that holds everything in place and that has its own elasticity, energy storing properties, and even proprioceptive capabilities. For many years, it has been largely ignored by the fitness community – thought of as the inert ‘stuff’ that just was just there to fill the gaps. But if there is one thing we should know about the human body, it’s that it doesn’t waste space!

Understanding the muscle fascia and incorporating it into your training might just be another important tool for enhancing strength, mobility, agility, and more. But there is also some misunderstanding and hear-say surrounding its role. So, let’s take a closer look.

What’s the Deal With Fascia?

To re-cap then, fascia is band or sheet of connective tissue located beneath the skin made from collagen. Its role is to separate, stabilize, and enclose muscles and organs. There are actually three ‘layers’ of fascia, those being:

  • The superficial fascia
  • Deep fascia
  • And visceral fascia

Superficial fascia is found just beneath the skin in the subcutis of most regions of the body. Visceral fascia suspends organs in their cavities. The type we’re most interested in though is the deep fascia, which surrounds the muscles, bones, nerves, and blood vessels. It helps to divide muscle groups into fascial compartments and contains a large amount of elastin fibre to determine its elasticity and thereby store and return potential energy, while also influencing and perhaps limiting an athlete’s range of motion.

Davinci Fascia

Leonardo DaVinci is actually credited with correctly identifying the fascia long before it was known to modern science!

More specifically, we’re interested in muscle fascia, or myofascia, which is in turn a type of deep fascia.

When you sprint, it is not just your muscles and your tendons that provide the energy rebound, but also your fascia! (Particularly those fascial tissues with tendinous or aponeurotic properties.) When you stretch, your fascia needs to stretch too.

The fascia may be equal or perhaps even superior to the retina in terms of the density of sensory nerve receptors

Fascia is far more than just a supportive, springy wrap though. It also contains blood vessels and sensory receptors. In fact, it has been suggested that the fascia may be equal or perhaps even superior to the retina in terms of the density of sensory nerve receptors. It has between six to ten times more nerve endings that the muscle. Fascia also contains its own smooth muscle cells, which are thought to contribute to fascial contractility (reference).

In short, healthier fascia could result in greater physical strength, more explosiveness, greater flexibility, and even improved balance and agility. Now how do we go about getting there?

Fascia flexibility

Role on a tennis ball, right?

Sort of.

Self-Myofascial Release

If you’ve already heard of the muscle fascia, then it’s probably in the context of self-myofascial release.

This is the practice of rolling on ‘foam rollers’ and tennis balls until it really hurts. The thought is that this can increase range of motion without impairing muscle performance or strength. Stretching before workouts has recently been demonstrated to potentially decrease performance and increase the likelihood of injury (study), but increasing range of motion can surely be helpful for movements like the squat. If rolling on a ball can help you to touch your toes without robbing you of any of your strength, then that’s definitely a good thing. Indeed, this has been shown to be the case in several studies (study, study).

Self-myofascial release

Self-myofascial release is often performed with a foam roller, but a tennis ball can be just as effective and much cheaper!

Likewise, self-myofascial release may be effective in reducing chronic pain and has been shown to aid recovery by reducing DOMS when used after a workout (study).

If you want to see the effects of massaging the fascia for yourself, then try touching your toes. Tricky right? Now take a tennis ball and place it beneath the arch of your right foot. Place some weight on that foot and really let it dig in there. Now roll it around a little, making sure you get the whole thing. This should be a little uncomfortable but not searing agony.

Now do the same thing on your left foot.

Muscle fascia foot

And now try touching your toes again. If our little experiment has worked, then you should find you can now touch your toes better and more easily than before. This demonstration was popularized by structural integration expert Tom Myers and it sheds light on just how incredibly interconnected fascia is. How does massaging your foot affect the tightness of your calves, hamstrings, and glutes?

It comes down to the fact that fascia is connected across your entire body. According to Myers, we can separate our fascia into five major ‘chains’, with those being:

  • The superficial back line
  • Superficial front line
  • Lateral line
  • Spiral line
  • Deep front line

The superficial back line starts at the bottom of the feet and continues all the way over the top of the head, ending at the brow ridge. By loosening the fascia under your feet, you actually help it to relax across the entire posterior chain, thereby increasing your range of motion in a few seconds flat.

touching toes mobility

(By the way, this is what hurts during plantar fasciitis – an inflammation of the fascia beneath the heel.)

Others have suggested that we really only have ‘one’ fascia. It’s also worth noting that fascia can vary a lot in terms of its thickness and composition depending on the location. But point is, it’s all very connected and that’s why rolling on one part of the body can have effects across your entire anatomy.

So far so good. But the bad news is that we currently don’t have much of an understanding of precisely how all this works…

Fascia: Myths vs Fact

Read a number of popular blogs and they’ll tell you that it has to do with breaking up ‘myofascial adhesions’. The theory goes that scar tissue forms in the fascia over time and misuse, resulting in a change in fascial architecture that makes it rigid and tight. By applying pressure in these areas then, it’s thought that we can ‘break up’ that scar tissue and help to regain normal movement.

The only problem is that there is zero evidence for this.

Moreover, when you understand the fascia a little better, it becomes apparent that it’s highly unlikely that this is how the whole things work. After all, those collagen fibers are actually proportionately as strong as steel (study) and it is therefore very unlikely that you’d be able to ‘break down’ any scar tissue or change the structure of the fascia through force alone. It actually takes collagen about three years to completely remodel! (study)

As others have pointed out, if it were really that easy to ‘break up’ your fascia, then you would do it all the time! Like when you’re sitting on your buttocks watching this video and applying far more force over a long period than any bout of foam rolling will accomplish…

If it were really that easy to ‘break up’ your fascia, then you would do it all the time

Then there’s the fact that the benefits of foam rolling only appear to be temporary in nature. The increased range of motion wears off after a while – so your job in the gym is to capitalize on that window of opportunity to lay down new movement patterns. If that’s the case though, then it seems unlikely that we’re actually changing the physical structure of the fascia.

Also: if it were so easy to break up scar tissues in the fascia, wouldn’t it be quite dangerous to attempt this on our own? Wouldn’t we risk damaging healthy fascia and causing more harm than good?

Fortunately, it appears that something else is actually going on here.

While this is still just a theory, the more likely explanation that is rising to prominence is that foam rolling and similar practices actually help to temporarily relax tension in the fascia, rather than break it up in anyway. Remember, your fascia contains muscle fiber, not to mention mechanoreceptors that respond to touch.

And books such as Relax Into Stretch show us the link between relaxing the nervous system and increasing range of motion. It has even been suggested that the fascia may act as a communication system – carrying electrical signals between muscle groups and nerve endings (reference). This would further explain how relaxing the fascia in the foot might help to ease movement in the legs. And I wonder if it might also have something to do with muscular irradiation – the observation that contracting one muscle will cause others around it to contract in kind.

This is also another reason it’s so important to look after your fascia. If you don’t, then it will lead to compensatory movement patterns that could greatly increase your chances of injury down the line. Something as seemingly simple as tightness in the foot, could lead to tightness in the knee, which might lead you to squat badly and hurt your back.

Some massage therapists now employ a technique called ‘fascial unwinding’ based on this concept – applying light pressure to sensitive areas of the fascia in order to trigger a relaxation of the surrounding muscle.

It may also be that fascial release helps to somehow override the pain mechanism thus allowing us to increase range of motion without the nervous system kicking in to halt our movement – much like PNF stretching. I actually suspect that there are a lot of similarities between PNF stretching and myofascial release in fact and many studies focus on comparing the two!

It may also be that fascial release helps to somehow override the pain mechanism thus allowing us to increase range of motion

(For those that don’t know, PNF stretching is proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation. This form of stretching involves contracting the muscle in the stretched position and then relaxing it. You can learn more by checking out my video on weighted stretching.)

Using This Information: How to Use Myofascial Release

What does this teach us? Firstly: don’t be so keen to buy into every new technique and explanation offered by fitness blogs! Secondly: the best way to practice myofascial release may actually be with a more gentle, relaxed, and targeted pressure. Don’t target the site of pain, but rather the surrounding muscle tissues (avoid bony areas). When you feel a kind of ‘release’, then that is where you want to work gently, deeper into the region. Avoid areas like the lower spine and instead target muscles that feel tight or restricted. Popular choices include the calves, hamstrings, glutes, and quads. But don’t forget the upper body too! Do this at the start of your workouts, then stretch at the end.

Shaking out the fascia

It might also be possible to limber up prior to a workout by ‘shaking out’ the fascia: jogging on the spot while shaking your limbs and torso like a wet mutt!

But this is still somewhat theoretical. And I wager that the fascia harbours yet more secrets…

I actually also wonder whether performing ‘body scan’ meditations could also help to relieve tension in the fascia and increase mobility and proprioception. This form of meditation involves focussing on each part of the body. In some versions, practitioners then begin contracting the muscles in the region, and consciously allowing them to relax as much as possible. This is useful for getting into a state of relaxation, but perhaps it could also help to release tension in the muscles and the surrounding tissues? Try actively relaxing your face right now and you’ll see how much tension there is even in those small tiny muscles.

Bodyscan meditation

It’s just a theory, but maybe using this meditation for 10 minutes prior to training could help you to attack workouts with focus, greater mind-body awareness, and less injury-causing tension. I’ll be experimenting with that and will get back to you!

More Ways to Make More of Your Fascia

There are some other things you can do right now to make more of your fascia.

Fascia hydration

One thing is to recognize that your fascia works best when it is well hydrated. Fascia is moist to touch and when it dries out, it can lose flexibility and become more brittle. So, keeping yourself well hydrated is – as ever – really important. Moisture also helps the fascia to ‘glide’ over other tissues, rather than sticking.

Using this meditation for 10 minutes prior to training could help you to attack workouts with focus, greater mind-body awareness, and less injury-causing tension

What’s more though, is that you also need to incorporate a range of different movements into your training. Movement helps to keep the water flowing to those areas and may help to keep the ‘microvacuoles’ opened out (study).

So, if you’re just repeating the same 5 moves in the gym over and over, this will contribute to your loss of mobility and flexibility. Keep your body guessing and adapting and ideally, get outside and start training on unpredictable terrain. Swing, climb, swim, trail run, and you’ll keep your fascia limber. Perhaps even running barefoot, or using more minimal footware, could be of some benefit here. Train with functional, chaotic movements by using your bodyweight, kettlebells, and old-time strongman lifts.

Training outdoors

And if you want to encourage the elastic, explosive nature of the fascia, then incorporate explosive plyometric movements.

Either way, it’s time to start thinking of your body as a single cohesive mechanism. We are not a series of modular joints and muscles – our body is rather one huge, interconnected, and highly complex machine. We need to start treating it and moving it as such.

Functional fitness

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

One Comment

  1. paloma serrano says:

    great article! important to understand the body as a whole and take care of all it´s parts… I didn´t know about the importance of the fascia, i recently bought a peanut ball since my lower back muscles are hurting i think is due to the bed more than training. hurting at the moment and i can feel the pressure is good.
    thank you

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