Week number two of Awesome Research Thursdays is here! I feel like screaming that from a mountain top, but I live in Pennsylvania and it’s cold in the mountains. I did, however, yell it in my car as I drove to work this morning. Does that make me weird? Absolutely. But Veronica (my car, it’s a Saturn Vue) doesn’t mind–so we just kept rolling.
Last week we talked about a study that investigated the biomechanics of two different deadlift variations. If you haven’t checked that out yet, do that now and then come back. Read that bad Larry here.
This week we are going to go in a different direction and talk about our fascia; which for some reason I pronounce as the same way Goldmember pronounces father in the last Austin Powers movie.
For those unfamiliar with what fascia is, we’ll do a brief overview. Fascia is the sheath of connective tissue that covers everything in our bodies–from our organs to our muscles. In the picture below, the white areas that are visible attaching to muscles are dense collections of fascia.
As part of the musculoskeletal system, fascia links muscle groups together and aids in transferring force throughout the body. Moving in repetitive patterns causes areas of the fascia to be come thick and fibrous. Walking, for example, causes the lateral fascia that comprises our IT bands becomes dense, thick and entangled (Muller & Schleip, 2011). Continual maintenance of the fascia through self-myofascial release techniques is extremely important to avoid developing fibrotic adhesions. Joe Giandonato put together a great self-myofascial release resource–check it out here.
In the past, fascia has been thought of as a passive structure that connects active structures. Research done throughout the past decade is starting to tell a different story. And the knowledge bomb goes boom!
What They Did
We aren’t going to look at a research study today, but a research review instead. Researchers from Ulm University in Germany conducted a literature review that examined fascia as a structure with active contractability. They examined histological (cellular) studies and structural in vitro (isolated) studies using the fascia of cadavers–a bunch of studies using cells and parts of dead people. Awesome.
All of the studies they examined were designed to determine the contractability of fascia. Finding the answer would move fascia into the active structure category with muscles.
What They Found
Cells that resemble smooth muscle cells can be found in the crural fascia (deep fascia of the leg), and because of this evidence, they believe smooth muscle cells exist in other sheets of fascia in the body. Our researchers also turned to evidence drawn from structural abnormalites such as Dupuytren disease–a disease that causes the formation of nodules on the fascia of the palm. Dupuytren disease causes contraction of the last two fingers due to the contraction of connective tissues.
More evidence was found while stretching the fascia of dead people. Researchers stretched the crap out of pieces of lumbar fascia for fifteen minutes, then let the fascia rest for thirty to sixty minutes before a second round of stretching was completed. During the second round of stretching the fascia was stiffer and harder to stretch. It was concluded that there must be cells with smooth muscle properties that exist in the fascia.
There was more research cited in this review, but for brevity’s sake we’ll stick with the three above. I’ll post the reference at the end of the article so you can check the full review.
Why this is Awesome
So our fascia has smooth muscle cell like function, what’s the big deal? It’s a big deal because of how smooth muscle reacts to a stretch reflex. When smooth muscle is stretched it contracts (as evidenced by the study that invovled stretching the lumbar fascia). In your digestive tract this is a process called peristalsis. But if we think it in terms of tissue extensibility, mobility and the stretch-shortening cycle of muscles it becomes important for our purposes.
Pre-loading the fascia and invoking a stretch could improve performance during explosive exercise. We already know that this occurs in the muscles, but with the fascia involved it can improve the way we program plyometric and power training–mainly by involving more mobility training and self-myofascial release during rest periods.
We also gain a better understanding of how important the health of our fascia truly is. Keeping our fascia healthy is important for good neuromuscular function throughout the body. So don’t skip the foam rolling!
I hope you’ve learned from and enjoyed the second Awesome Research Thursday. I’m going to keep getting deeper into this fascial research, so expect more in the future.
Muller, D. & Schleip, R. (2011). Fascial fitness: fascia oriented training for bodywork and movement therapies. Terra Rosa E-Magazine, (7), Retrieved from http://www.terrarosa.com.au/articles/enews.htm
Schleip, R., Klinger, W., & Lehmann-Horn, F. (2005). Active fascial contractility: Fascia may be able. Medical Hypotheses, 65, 273-277. (2354)