If you did not know what the muscles were, could you be a good trainer?
Quite possibly - all body training was done intuitively since the martial arts and the first games began in the mists of pre-history. We have only known about the specifics of individual muscles and modern biomechanics for a few hundred years, so a lot of training got done before we had that knowledge.
Are you a better trainer if you know the muscles and how they work? That is certainly the accepted view, and research about the abdominal muscles’ relation to the thoracolumbar fascia, the gluteus medius’ role in pelvic stability, or the psoas’ role in lumbar balance all lead to new treatment strategies.
The same applies for the nerves and motor learning, the organ systems and nutrition, and all the new research on recovery - all of our knowledge makes us better trainers.
Is every piece of research you hear about equally valid?
No, it is not.
We have to be discerning about what we accept as established ‘fact’ - especially in this young industry where ‘facts’ are changing with every decade. There is still a lot to be learned about the body and training.
Practical Application: Fascia
Let us apply the same logic to the body’s biological fabric, these days commonly termed ‘fascia’. Every time you move, the biological fabric has to respond to the loading forces from gravity and any weight or momentum you add to it. If it is overloaded, it tears. If it is under-loaded, it eventually sags. If it is correctly loaded, it stays organised and functional.
You are training your fascia every day, whether you know it or not, and whether you pay attention to it or not. You are affecting other people’s fascia every day in the training room. The question at hand is whether you can do an even better job with it if you understand what it is and how it works.
‘Fascia’ has become a buzzword, and there are quite a number of ‘facts’ about fascia that I hear when I go to training conventions - ‘facts’ I know to be untrue. Here are a few truths about fascia that every trainer ought to know:
1. Fascia is systemic: Fascia is not a bunch of parts, it is a system. If we could magically make everything invisible except your connective tissue matrix, we would see the exact shape of your body. Talk about the Achilles tendon, thoracolumbar fascia, or medial collateral ligament all you want, the actual scientific fact is that there are no separate parts. There is only one whole-body, 3-D spider web of fascia surrounding all 70 trillion of your cells.
Fascia provides the context, the milieu, the environment of movement. We have studied the other two whole-body systems - the nervous system and the circulatory system - but we have not, in 500 years of anatomy, studied the connective tissue network as a system.
As a system, fascia manages biomechanical auto-regulation - all the pushes and pulls your movement creates. Its job is to distribute forces around the system in such a way that all your cells can serve and be served. The best way to understand this in engineering terms is not levers and vectors, but in terms of a body-wide tensegrity.
Tensegrity body model from Flemons
2. Fascia makes its own architecture - according to your demands: Every training session and every injury has a fascial component. The heavier the training session, the more ‘tear and repair’ there is. (This phrase is a little simplistic, but it is a fair if simple description of the remodelling process.)
Understanding the modelling and remodelling of fascia in building strength or repairing whatever gets torn is the responsibility of every trainer. The fibroblast’s ability to clean up, repair, and make new connective tissue is how fascia auto-regulates our system. The more we understand this process, the more we can give the right stimulus to the system to help it grow and repair in the most functional way.
3. Fascial components and properties: Just as we understand the ratcheting of proteins in the muscle, and the ionic channels and neurotransmitters in the nerves, it will help trainers to understand the components and the properties of the various forms of fascia arrayed around the body from bone to fat.
The components to understand are simple: Cells (mostly fibroblasts and their cousins), housed in an aqueous environment produce fibres (25 types of collagen, elastin, and other strong structural elements), and also produce water-loving mucoid substances - glycoaminoglycans - that glue the body together.
Cells, fibres, glue, and water - a simple enough list, but combine them differently and you can get teeth, bone, the cornea of the eye, heart valves, fat, tendons, ligaments, fascia in and around the muscles and other organs - a wide diversity of building materials from a short list of ingredients.
The property of viscosity is essential to the working of fascia on a second-by-second basis, from the synovial fluid in the joints to the similar mucopolysaccharides between the muscles and tendons:
Image Courtesy Dr. Jean-Claude Guimberteau
The property of elasticity - which we now know can be trained into the fascia, even of old folks like me - is an essential one to know how to cultivate. Elasticity is a property of youth, its lack accompanies old age, so if we can keep it longer by functional fascial training… Elasticity is trained at athletic speeds.
Plasticity is a property of fascia where it can be lengthened through sustained stretch - this doesn’t happen at athletic speeds, but at yoga and tai chi speeds. If the fascia is truly shortened (not just held short by neuromuscular tension), then a sustained stretch is necessary to have it lengthen in any kind of permanent way.
Fascia is not the answer to all questions. What we need to know about the fascia will largely be known in another decade. Its role is primarily passive compared to the instantly responsive neuromuscular system. Its active role in remodelling takes place more over days to months, but we still have to pay attention.
To find out more about the role of fascia in training, here’s a link to further information about Anatomy Trains: