Fascia. I imagine by now you’ve probably heard of it?
Perhaps, the fascia has been described to you as the connective tissue of the body. Or maybe you don’t really quite understand what it is, but you know when you’re foam rolling & using the yoga tune-up balls, you are doing some sort of fascial self-release.
So, why should you care & know about the fascia?
I’ll start this article with being quite honest. I am biased in my opinion of why the fascia matters. I work with this system, which is actually the largest sensory organ in your body, everyday in my practice as a Certified Rolfer, also known as Structural Integration. I care a lot about the fascia & helping to spread knowledge about it.
Alright, so now you know where I’m coming from, & that perhaps I am a bit biased in the importance of the fascia, but seriously, it’s a pretty amazing system within your body.
The fascia is often overly simplified when being described. People often refer to is as the connective tissue & leave it at that. While this is true, there is so much more depth & physiological responses that happen within the fascia that are important to recognize. Fascia is multi-dimensional tissue that is what forms your internal soft tissue architecture.
‘Fascia is your soft tissue skeleton.’ ~ Andry Vleeming
The fascia is literally everywhere. Because of this, for years in anatomy cadaver labs, it was tossed aside & largely ignored.
I like to think of the fascia as the spiderweb within us. Imagine in your head for a minute a spiderweb. That web has threads all along the outside. It also has threads that weave through the insides & everywhere in between. If you tug on one side of the web, the entire structure of the spiderweb will shift.
Now, let’s bring this analogy into the fascia in your body. You have what is called superficial fascia that acts in a sense like saran wrap. It is at skin level & helps to keep everything held together. In regards to receiving bodywork or using any sort of self-release tool (lacrosse ball, foam rollers, etc.), you may often be thinking to yourself, ‘if I don’t feel it, it’s not working.’ Many people are driven by either the ‘hurts so good’ sensation or going so deep so fast in an area to try & release it, that you end up creating tension elsewhere. To be clear, the ‘hurts so good’ sensation is not necessarily bad, however the latter where you are creating tension elsewhere is no bueno. The reason I bring up this example is, more often than not, the superficial fascia is largely ignored. If the restriction in the tissue is at this layer, yet we keep moving beyond it deeper, that area will continue to remain tight. Sure, you may experience an hour or two of release, but then things tighten back up. This is because the superficial fascia really does act like saran wrap & will cling everything back together. This layer of fascia is kind of like a body glove, it is all connected from head to toe. Before diving deeper to other layers of fascia, you must first release any restrictions in the superficial fascia.
From the superficial level, fascia dives deep within your body. Fascia provides shape to your muscles, holds your organs in place, connects your muscles to your bones, connects your bones to your bones, cushions your vertebrae, & wraps your bones. Again, it is literally everywhere & all of it is one continuous web, meaning everything really is connected.
How does fascia give muscles their shape?
If you break it down to a single tiny muscle fiber, that muscle fiber is wrapped in fascia. From there, several muscle fibers that are each individually wrapped, are then wrapped together in another layer of fascia, this is called a muscle fascicle. Several muscle fascicles are then wrapped together in, you guessed it, more fascia. This is what forms the muscle belly.
You then have fascia between each muscle groups, ideally so they can glide & slide on top of each other allowing you to move with efficiency & grace. What happens is that the fascia can actually become dehydrated & overly fibrous in certain areas from habitual movement patterns, injury, etc.
Now that I have hopefully laid out somewhat of an understanding of the overall structure of fascia, let’s look at what it is made up of. After looking at what the fascia is made up of, my intention is that you will have a better understanding as to why you lose mobility in certain areas of your body, why scar tissue develops, &/ why you may be hypermobile in an area.
Fascia is made up of the extracellular matrix (mostly water) & cells (mainly fibroblasts).
The extracellular matrix (ECM) is involved in every single function of the body and is what makes sure proper cell communication is taking place. This is the place where mechanical signals such as strain & vibration are transmitted through the entire organism via the fascial web. An example of a mechanical signal could be a simple bicep curl, yes, the actual muscle belly of the bicep is firing, but the reason it knows to fire & is receiving that signal is coming from the ECM of the fascia.
The ECM is made up of 2 components, fiber (collagen) & fluid (ground substance). The collagen portion of the ECM is what gives support & structure to everything in the body. The ground substance fills the space between the fibers & the cells, and is why we are made up mostly of water. Interstitial fluid flow in the ground substance is essential to maintain healthy tissue.
The fibroblasts of the fascia are what maintain & develop the ECM. They are what synthesize & remodel the collagen dependent on the amount of tension between the cells & the ECM. If the tension outside the cell is high, collagen production increases. If the tension is low outside the cell, collagen production decreases.
This is important to think about & remember in your workouts & movements. If you are only doing Crossift & then spending the majority of your day sitting, you are doing your fascia & your body a huge disservice. It is so important & essential to the overall hydration of your fascial network to mix in yoga, mobility work, & receive regular bodywork. This is what is so great about working out at Moov as yoga & mobility work are weaved into the daily class. But, ideally, you are still doing more of this work on your own.
In regards to dehydrated tissue or how to hydrate properly so that muscles slide & glide on each other easily. You may be thinking, oh I should just drink more water. Yes, drinking water is great, but if there are ‘kinks’ in your fascial network, aka excessive collagen production in a particular area, drinking more water will not address the dehydrated areas. This is because the fluid flow here is being restricted, so proper hydration is not able to take place at that particular area. You actually need to do some sort of soft tissue mobilization to allow that fibrous tissue to melt, to allow the kinks to release, & then allow for proper hydration of the tissue to be re-engaged. In an ideal world, the fascia responds somewhat like a sponge. If you have a heavy load on it, aka when you are working out doing a lift, the water gets pushed out of whatever general muscle groups you are working. Then, you take a rest, & water is able to flow back in rehydrating the tissue.
A big reason research on the fascia has really only started in the last 20 years is because it is a nonlinear system. The Western Medical model as well as most of science, is very much in a black-&-white model. This has made it challenging for scientists to not only understand but convey through scientific study & research how the fascia actually functions.
Woof, that was a lot. You may be left with pondering questions or confusion. If this is the case, simply comment below or send me a message. Talking about the fascia is one of my favorite subjects so I am happy to answer any questions to the best of my ability. The biggest take-away that I hope you have from this article is this:
- Everything really is connected. Honoring this principle when working out, going about your daily movements, stretching, standing, sitting, experiencing pain, etc, will empower you to have a deeper connection with your body & perhaps enable you to experience why the knee pain you may be experiencing could be coming from your hip.
- You’ve got to prioritize mobility & a variety of movements. Mix it up! (this is the blessing of Crossfit.)
The degree of your mobility, integrity of your overall structure, & resilience of your body to perform better & recover faster is determined largely by how well hydrated your fascia is.
I created a diagram to help simplify the understanding of the make-up of the fascia. You can see that at my blog here: Understanding the Spiderweb Within Us aka The Fascia