Fascia: The Dark Matter of Human Biology

Within the last decade or so there has been a sharp rise in the interest and discussion about fascia. While it’s been limited in the past, there’s also been more formal research (1,2,3,4) being published about our fascial system, and possibly with a different lens than in past decades. Remarkably, fascia had conventionally been viewed by doctors, researchers and even anatomists as this non-essential filler tissue that didn’t have much significance to movement and function. In other words, fascia was literally just cut out and discarded, which is at least partly why it’s been remiss in most traditional texts and papers. With improved testing and research ability, and perhaps an improved curiosity or perspective on the fascial system, it appears we’re turning a corner with our understanding of fascia and its roles in human performance. And strength coaches should take notice.


I’ve been adamant about the fascia and its role in training for years now. But in this article, I wanted to take a slightly different angle and try to illustrate (if nothing else) how the possibility of what we don’t know about fascia could be significant. I believe if we weren’t so indoctrinated to the musculoskeletal system in our upbringing, it wouldn’t seem so outlandish to have more of this perspective. It should be clearly stated, though, that while I do put a great deal of emphasis on the fascial system, it does not mean I negate the conventional thinking. Denoting significance to the fascial system does not take away from the importance of muscles and bones. My position is simply that we are drastically behind on how we consider the fascia and emphasize this system in our training applications.

Chart adopted via Crossfit Sanitas

Image via @amnacademy

There’s been no shortage of theories postulated and applied for centuries involving the fascial system. A majority of these theories stem from ancient Eastern medical practices and healing rituals. Among them, is that the fascial system serves as the human “emotional memory system”(long, but good video to save for a rainy day) in which traumatic and damaging events are embedded into the tissue to be permanently stored. For obvious reasons, this one will be difficult to “prove” scientifically, but I will say there is strong anecdotal evidence this may have some merit. It has also been theorized that the fascial system is integral for chemical and electrical signaling. Recently a study was published showing that fascial tissue possesses 6-10x more neural and proprioceptive bodies than skeletal muscles (1). This is a profound finding, demonstrating that if nothing else, the fascial system is a prominent communicator for coordinating homeostasis and conducting human movement. Another prominent observation is that fascia does not appear to follow conventional Newtonian physics, but rather is more congruent with the principles of biotensegrity and hydrodynamics. This is an important distinction when considering movement patterns and exercise selection. This video demonstrates the hydraulic properties of fascia much better than I’m able to.


Image via Quora

Dark matter is a recently discovered phenomenon that is said to populate 5x the amount of visible matter in our universe. Dark matter is still largely understudied and unknown. But as it’s described in the video above, dark matter is believed to be “the force that shaped our universe” and does not follow Newtonian physics. At another point in the video, the narrator states that the contributions of dark matter are “known to exist, but not understood.” All of this is to say, there appear to be several conceptual similarities between the two. And as sport and performance coaches observing these in tandem, perhaps we can have a slightly better grasp of how significant the fascial system could be for human movement and sport performance and the possibilities of what we just don’t know yet.


Fascia and Health

Graphic via British Journal of Sports Medicine

Irrespective of the population you work with, nobody can argue (logically) that health isn’t an absolute vital component to training success. A mistake coaches often make, especially those who work with high level athletes, is assuming because the athlete is elite in their sport it must mean their health is top tier. This is a poor assumption to make, as there are plenty of high-level athletes who, medically, would classify as unhealthy. The fascial system plays a major role in general health and biological function. Among the many roles, a few to make note of here include cellular communication, hormone transportation, fluid distribution and circulation (blood, lymph, interstitial fluid), emotional and stress management, tension and fluid distribution, and perhaps even a key role in processing toxins and neurotoxins from our system (1,2).


Nutrition, sleep, and stress/life management are all critical factors for athletes. A simple way of understanding the significance of stress accumulation is to think of stress as a single pool. This pool, however, has multiple pipes that feed into it. Meaning, your biochemistry doesn’t (really) differentiate between emotional, cognitive, and physical stress, it just recognizes that you’ve overwhelmed the system and it needs to fight back. I could literally write a whole damn paper on this piece itself, but to keep this brief, mismanagement of nutrition, sleep and stress will inherently place a threshold on how much the athlete will get out of training. As these apply specifically to the fascia, see the chart below.

Original chart

This also speaks to why I believe that there’s so much misunderstanding surrounding soft tissue and therapeutic applications (i.e., dry needling, acupuncture, cupping, deep tissue massage, float therapy, etc.). I’m well aware that the formal research on these topics is typically underwhelming at best, however, I personally believe we are behind due to A.) Not studying the effects and outcomes with appropriate procedures, populations and/or perspectives and B.) Not having the necessary technology or awareness developed yet. Look, when it comes to these therapeutic modalities, I just believe some work for certain people/situations and some work for others. None independently are going to be life changing, but there is certainly something to these, and I would point to biochemistry and cellular health/function being the main variables in people feeling and moving better.


Another common misconception is what we commonly refer to as “trigger points”. A trigger point isn’t a knot in your muscles, nor is it due to chronic muscular shortening or “tightness”. What is typically occurring here is a lack of fluid and movement between layers of fascial tissue. This lack of movement causes a reduction in hyaluronic acid production and consequentially the tissues bind and adhere to each other, restricting their ability glide or distend. Ultimately, this can create mechanical stiffness, compromise lymphatic & interstitial flow and possibly interfere with neuromuscular function by entrapping nerve endings (4).


While strength coaches are not medical practitioners by any stretch, I think it would be a bit undermining to say that we can’t have some awareness of this and implement some simple things to influence the health aspect in training. Moreover, we should have good insight as to the differences and possible benefits with specialized modalities like massage, dry needling, and cupping. The value of emphasizing feel and general tissue health is a considerable factor for an athlete’s ability to recover. And while not every new or specialized modality will be legit, there are certainly several that are worth the time. Optimal health indicates an improved ability to regenerate. And as we know- where fluids flow, tissues grow.

Image via Phillip Snell, DC, 2011

Fascia and Function

The mechanical effects of fascia are somewhat better understood. In essence, the fascial system acts as one big rubber band that gives our body elastic and propulsive ability. This is a critical variable for force transfer and movement sequencing. Where muscles and tendons are designed to shorten and lengthen based on proximity to bones and joints, fascia is designed more to stretch and coil based on how the body is positioned in space. There are different fascial densities found throughout the body, as some regions are more designed to provide stability and structure, other areas are more responsible for mobility and movement.


If nothing else, we want to consider the three main properties of fascia- viscosity, plasticity and elasticity. The combination and balance of these three properties is the quintessential base for “training the fascial system.” Again, it’s important to understand that the specific mode or application is only limited by what you have access to and what you can coach proficiently. There’s no real “right or wrong”, just better or worse for certain adaptations. But if we can better understand these properties, I’m confident we can improve athlete function and training overall.

Original chart, information adopted via T Meyers

A phrase that I’ve latched on to in recent years is “improving athletes’ ability to tolerate variability.” What I mean by this is giving them a wider array of stimulus, movement complexes and applications with the intent to increase movement bandwidth. The kicker is, all it requires is simple light intensity, moderate demand, multiplanar movement. No, this doesn’t mean doing esoteric walks and yoga supplements your back squats and plyos. But I have become much more committed to items like rolling (rolling on the ground, not foam rolling), eclectic stretch patterns, crawling, lunge matrices, and plank/bridge patterns. These are included in programming for no reason other than to “stimulate the system” and get fluids and signals moving to new or different areas.


Facia Musings

I believe the reason I’ve become so enthralled by the fascial system is because it has provided answers to the missing links in conventional anatomy and biomechanics I always felt were there. Admittedly, I was a subpar student at best, and I didn’t exactly love my undergrad courses. But I was always frustrated with how things never fully made sense to me. The foundational science is incomplete. There is still so much left to be learned about the human body, and I sincerely mean it when I say I believe we are only at the precipice of optimizing human potential. While strength coaches and sport scientists must be proficient with foundational knowledge, I don’t believe it means we need to ignore the possibilities of what we’ve yet to understand. No different than the recent discovery of Dark Matter, the fascial system is something we know exists, but do not know the full breadth of possible influence it has on our health, function, and performance. Be curious, not causal.

Original Image, contents provided via Anatomy Trains and Fasica Training

References

1.) Bordoni B, Myers T (February 24, 2020) A Review of the Theoretical Fascial Models: Biotensegrity, Fascintegrity, and Myofascial Chains. Cureus 12(2).

2.) Schleip R, Gabbiani G, Wilke J,Naylor I, Hinz B, Zorn A, Jäger H, Breul R, Schreiner S and Klingler W (2019) Fascia Is Able to Actively Contract and May Thereby Influence Musculoskeletal Dynamics: A Histochemical and Mechanographic Investigation. Front. Physiol. 10:336.

3.) Zügel M, Maganaris CN, Wilke J, et al. Br J Sports Med 2018;52:1497.

4.) Zullo, A. Fleckenstein, J. Schleip, R. Hoppe, K. Wearing, S. Kingler, W. (2020). Structural and Functional Changes in the Coupling of Fascial Tissue, Skeletal Muscle and Nerves During Aging. Front. Physiol. 11:592.

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