To understand how this critical tissue works, imagine an orange. The peel is your skin. Directly beneath that peel is a white, gauze-like substance that surrounds each orange wedge and ensures that the orange maintains its spherical structure. That gauze-like substance is your fascia, a connective wrap made of gelatinesque glycoproteins that soak up water, collagen and various other cells. Its main job: to hold your muscles, joints, tendons and bones in place.
Fascia covers every muscle in your body, and when it tightens in the wrong places, it causes pain. You’ve felt this pain before, all those times you wrapped up a serious muscle sesh and could barely walk upstairs.
Much like a sports jacket, the tissue surrounding your muscles can bunch, wrinkle and stretch. And when it gets injured, it rebuilds as scar tissue, with fibres in a crisscrossing pattern. Fibres on healthy muscles and fascia all run in the same direction; when they crisscross, they bunch up even more and can pull and tug at joints.
There’s a good chance you’ve experienced this before, too, and you may have solved it with the most common method of realigning these fibres: foam-rolling. Doing so properly (and regularly) helps loosen damaged areas, relaxing and smoothing them.
Fascia can be the cause of – or solution to – any muscle issue that saps energy or mobility. Here are six common problems – and how you can control them.
Blame your desk job: that stabbing pain at your temples is often related to cranky neck fascia. When your head and shoulders shift forward instead of staying aligned with your spine, the muscles (and the fascia around them) at the base of your head tighten, while the ones that control your shoulders grow weak. Your pectoral fibres also tighten, pulling your shoulders further forward. The combo in this sensitive area leads to tension headaches.
YOUR MOVE: Strengthen your shoulder and back muscles and open your chest all at once with seated rows. Aim to do 3 sets of 12 at least 3 times a week
2. Limited Movement After Injury
After surgery or a severe injury, your body forms collagen-based scar tissue that can replace healthy fascia. The problem: normal tissue fibres line up parallel to one another. Scar tissue develops in a haphazard way, limiting your muscles’ ability to lengthen and contract.
YOUR MOVE: Once the damaged area has healed, begin gentle massage techniques, like gliding the skin forward and back, then side to side, for several minutes a few times a day, realigning fascial fibres.
3. A Lack of Athleticism
Researchers recently discovered that fascial tissue stores more kinetic energy than any other type of tissue. In fact, the springiness of fascia (not powerfully muscled calves) is the driving force that allows kangaroos to make 10-metre leaps. Because of this relationship, experts think plyometrics training makes your fascia more durable and resilient by increasing its density.
YOUR MOVE: Forget fixing your fascia and actually strengthen it. Three times a week, spend up to 5 minutes doing agility ladder drills. Don’t have a ladder? Do 3 sets of 10-20 jump squats.
4. Sticky Joints
Tightness in muscles and surrounding fascia can cause joints to stiffen, making your body move in ways that can create long-term issues. An example: tight calves reduce your toes’ ability to flex toward your shin, changing your gait.
YOUR MOVE: Foam roll or stretch any tense area right after each workout, since your muscles respond best when warm. Try to do three 30-second standing calf stretches (legs straight, heels down) daily.
5. Back Pain
Where your thoracic (middle) and lumbar (lower) spine meet is a nightmare zone. Restricted fascia anywhere – particularly in your hamstrings or quads – can pull on the fascia here. If you work a desk job, it likely means trouble in your psoas, a muscle in your hip flexors that lets you lift your knee and is vital to core strength.
YOUR MOVE: Because it’s located so deep in your pelvic region, releasing the psoas is challenging. Stretch your hip flexors (try the pigeon pose), and foam-roll your hamstrings 2-3 times a week.
6. Unhappy feet
Plantar fasciitis, or heel pain due to inflamed fascia in the sole of your foot, strikes thousands of Aussies each year, especially runners. It’s often due to calf tightness – or flat feet.
YOUR MOVE: Roll your feet over a golf ball for a minute each, ideally every day. In addition to that, foam roll your calves for up to 5 minutes each.
Should you try scraping therapy?
I'm on a massage table and a physical therapist digs what looks like a miniature metal scythe into my left shoulder. I try to stay still as he rubs along my triceps, scraping hard. This isn’t a scene from Guantánamo Bay; it’s my monthly visit to BFX Performance for fascial scraping, a painful procedure that’s supposed to help, um, relieve pain.
It’s the literal cutting edge of fascial care. Also known as Graston, fascial scraping involves a therapist “massaging” your skin with bladelike objects that do what your foam roller can’t, pressing the skin ultraclose to the fascia. That lets the therapist more directly affect this tissue.
All that rubbing leads to tiny red marks, as capillaries burst right below the skin. It also promotes blood flow and realigns new fibres. This helps you recover faster than you would by simply foam-rolling, which is why Graston is popular among pro athletes and bodybuilders. Don’t have the means to turbocharge your recovery? Foam-roll. But if you need to get back in action and have a high tolerance for pain, go get Graston.