Emphasizing the Fascial System in Training
Over the last three years I’ve continued to veer further away from the conventional musculoskeletal lens and constructs of Newtonian physics while becoming more invested in the biotensegrity/fascial approach. Now, my intention isn’t to draw some proverbial line in the sand here, as if the two need to be separate. Make no mistake about it, nothing about human movement or function is performed by a singular system. In fact, literally every single thing we do requires contribution from multiple systems. So when I say I’ve “veered towards fascia” this is simply speaking more to the training approach/exercise selection and perspective on movement side of things. And at the very least, I feel confidently that we need to give a lot more consideration to how the fascial system is involved in producing movement and human function.
My perspective on human movement and the fascial system can be traced to two concrete sources. Similar to most, my curiosity with the fascial system was manifested while reading through Thomas Myers' Anatomy Trains (AT). I will say this book is quite dense and very technical, but if you can keep up it’s absolutely worth the time. What I took from AT was an enormous shift in how I perceived human anatomy and function. Although I believe it’s criminal that fascia can’t be discussed in university setting because it’s “complicated to prove in research”, I think the industry as a whole has been somewhat misled. Because the cadavers in most college settings have been embalmed and preserved, the fascial tissue is virtually non-existent which significantly modifies the experience for the student. Anyhow, AT is an eye-opening realization to how the body is really constructed.
Anatomy Trains threw me down a fascinating path of trying to better understand the fascial system and more importantly how to train it. Which brings me to my second source- Fascia Training by Bill Parisi. This book, contrary to AT, is a very comprehensive, digestible read and can help to make sense of some of the technical content. Again, especially if you’re a coach, I cannot encourage this enough. What I learned from coach Parisi (and others included in the book) was quite profound. In fact, I can’t think of any training-based book that has had a more direct influence on my coaching than this book has. But of the many takeaways I got from Fascia Training, the primary point was recognizing the significant limitations to fixed, compound/bilateral loads. As Parisi tremendously describes throughout the book, we need to give more attention to omniplanar movement, speeds and angles of movement, and how these effect the proprioceptive bodies and tissue qualities of fascia. There is nothing wrong with the conventional movements (i.e. bench/squat/dead) however, I’ve come to believe they are nowhere near as valuable for sport performance I was once under the impression of.
For the sake of brevity, consider this article a casual, broad introduction to fascia and how we approach it in training. But if you haven’t already, I’d strongly encourage you to check out my two-part fascia webinar that I posted about a month ago. I promise, there’s no shortage of detail in those. Nevertheless, let’s get to it.
What is Fascia
Fascia is an extracellular collagenous matrix that is made up almost entirely of collagen and water (1). Although the fascial system is interconnected throughout the entire body, the fascia has varying densities throughout the body, based on demand. For instance, the IT band is a highly concentrated fascial bundle and the same can be found on the bottom of the foot, whereas the top of the skull and upper extremities are spread more thin. Nevertheless, fascial tissue is a non-Newtonian fluid that adheres mostly to the functions of fluid dynamics.
Functionally speaking, fascia is involved in several responsibilities including postural support/structure, transmitting and dispersing forces, tissue pliability and extensibility, and proprioceptive/kinisthetic awareness (1). Additionally, it has recently been discovered that fascial tissue has nearly 6x the amount of proprioceptive and neural bodies than what is seen in muscle (2).
Three Properties of Fascia (BIG 3)
When we’re analyzing movement through the lens of fascia, there are three main properties we need to consider- viscosity, plasticity, and elasticity. As outlined in the chart below, viscosity refers to the tissues ability to glide against each other, plasticity is the tissues ability to reshape and reform, and elasticity is the tissues ability to store and express kinetic energy (1).
*Note: Screenshot of original chart. Info via T. Myers
An easy way to assess these properties is to view them similarly to the way we look at mobility, stability and flexibility… everyone needs all three properties, it’s just a matter of how much of each. For instance, if we have an athlete who is significantly bound up, fibrotic, or “tight”, we could assume we’re going to need more emphasis on viscosity and plasticity. Conversely, athletes who have difficulty with positional/terminal stability, force acceptance or output, or rhythmic coordination we can assume they need more work on the elasticity side of things. No different than anything else training related, we assess the athlete for what they lack, and the sport for what they need. No more, no less.
So when I said that there are three main properties, I may be selling you a bit short. Remodeling, or the fourth fascial property, is effectively the response to long-term adaptations that include health/wellness factors. The simplest way to view remodeling is to consider the saying “we are what we repeatedly do”. From exercise selection and training intensity to sleep, hydration, stress and resting posture, our fascia will respond to what it is subjected to- good, bad or otherwise. An important distinction with remodeling is that we could have the theoretically perfect training plan and perfect execution, but if the extraneous factors outlined above aren’t accounted for it won’t mean shit. With the fascial system, we need to put just as much emphasis on the time spent away from the training facility as much as we do while we’re in action.
Time is the ultimate variable at play here. No matter how pristine our training is, and even if we’re hitting 100% on all the external factors, the body needs time to reorder, arrange, and adapt. This further illustrates the importance of consistency and repetition, a few good training sessions a month won’t cut it. Investing time in soft tissue work only when you’re sore and feel prompted to do so won’t cut it. We need to practice all of the factors routinely, with consistency.
Training the Big 3
I can’t overstate enough that irrespective of what you’re training has consisted of you’ve been working your fascial system. With what I’m getting into here is again ways that we can go about making fascia more of a focal point. There are certain movements, applications or stimuli that elucidate the fascial system. With that, there are five main principles I consider for fascia training:
*Note: Screenshot of original chart
Looking at the chart above we can see that these are all items that should already be interspersed in your training, at least in some capacity. As I alluded to above, one of the primary training variables we need to modify to emphasize fascia is the speed of movement. This goes beyond simply employing an eccentric or isometric tempo… we want to also delineate between things like “rhythmic vs. impact”, “pulsing vs. punching” and adding in perturbative and oscillatory type stimuli. From my perspective, most of these augmented speed/movement cadences are emphasizing the proprioceptive bodies found in fascia, which are upwards of 6x that found in muscle (2).
It’s important to recognize the significance of speed/movement intent. This also applies equally to the muscular system and connective tissues, but just as difference in external load or a different type of stimulus have different effects for the body, speed and movement intent are no different. Longer, slower movements under heavier load emphasize more of the plastic properties of fascia, whereas submaximal, ballistic type movements speak more to the tissue’s elastic properties. We need to recognize the deficits with our athletes and make adjustments to programming and exercise selection accordingly.
When we’re introducing these concepts with our athletes, we want to do so no differently than we would anything else- start slow and steady, manipulate variables over time, add difficulty/complexity. I generally follow this base progression timeline with my athletes:
*Note: Screenshot of original chart
For the most part nothing about this should seem unorthodox or out of left field. We can, once again, see that the approach isn’t much different from conventional applications. However, one item I’d like to point out to emphasize is resistant applications. If you notice in the second block we see the emphasis is on resisting force, however, in block four this focal point becomes resisting torque. Torque, although a descriptor of joint sheering in conventional biomechanics, is a major consideration for fascia. We must recognize the rotational virtue of movement and helical nature of not only fascial fibers, but everything found in the human biology.
I would also argue that the majority of sport-specific demand is more reliant on managing torque impulses than purely force alone. As such, a considerable element of emphasizing the fascial system is achieved by developing robustness and resiliency to rotational force (or torque). We want to introduce the athlete to managing/expressing uniplanar forces, first, then build into rotational concepts.
Expanding a bit on the progression schemes, let’s take a look at the chart below. First thing to take note of is the exercises listed. Notice there are no Bosu balls, no abstract training methods. These are all common items that should be found in just about any athletes training program. The second point to note is that the progressions are very simple and modest. Changing angles, adding tempos, bilateral to unilateral are all very low hanging fruit that are prudent for just about anyone.
*Note: Screenshot of original image
We should be able to pick up on a few consistent themes here… all we are doing is manipulating variables and constraints. Start with something basic, do it in a conventional fashion, then modify it. I think an error most strength coaches make is lacking progressions and variability to their accessory options. In my mind, this is where we should really be driving the nature of progression and analyzing a host of variables at all times. By removing a limb, adding speed, combining planes, and so forth we’re effectively building the robustness to movement variability. In my opinion, this not only benefits the fascia, but benefits the athlete greatly in performance and sport.
Bringing it All Together
1.) Anatomy Trains (Thomas Myers)
2.) Fascia Training (Bill Parisi)