5 Reasons You Should Try Fascial Stretching

One writer tries the new fascial stretching therapy that pro athletes everywhere are doing

Photo: Getty Images

When you think about the idea of stretching your body, you probably think of stretching the back, hamstrings, or IT band. But there are many other body parts that benefit from a good stretch besides those tight muscles. One of the newest methods of targeted stretching focuses on something you may have never even heard of before: fascia. Here's what to know about fascial stretch therapy and whether you need to add fascia stretching to your recovery routine.

What Is Fascial Stretch Therapy?

First, a little background info on fascia. "Fascia, also known as connective tissue, is a tissue that connects all of your organs, muscles, various structures, and more together [within the body]," says Eric Owens, co-founder of Delos Therapy in Chicago. "Fascia really enables your muscles to transfer force through the muscle."

Here's how: Anytime you move — whether you're running, lifting, or just walking the dog — the force that goes through the muscle to enable movement travels through the fascia, a.k.a. connective tissue. "[Fascia is] important for mobility because you want the structure of that connective tissue to be properly organized in order to transfer movement fluidly," adds Owens. Translation: Healthy fascia means healthy, pain-free movement.

In addition to its mechanical role in the body, fascia also sends sensory information back to your body about the state of your body and how it's moving — if movement is restricted or if there's inflammation present, for example. Symptoms of unhealthy fascia can manifest as muscle pain, weakness, or limited range of motion.

So, how does all of that relate to fascial stretch therapy? Fascial stretching is a neuromyofascial manual therapy method that focuses on the connective tissue system rather than isolated muscle treatment. To break that down, fascial stretch therapy involves hands-on therapy between you and a therapist where the therapist manipulates your muscles to stretch your connective muscle tissue, rather than focusing on one muscle at a time.

"Muscle connection typically goes in one direction whereas fascia goes in multiple directions," explains Kelsey Decker, NSCA-CPT and Education Coordinator for StretchLab. "It's because of the multi-direction of the facial lining that it's important to stretch in multiple planes to accomplish a complete stretch to the entire area."

Fascia stretching is said to give you a feeling of deep relaxation and rejuvenation that no other regular Swedish massage could ever do. The technique was developed by Ann Frederick, the first "flexibility specialist" to work with athletes at the Olympics, and it aims to improve every aspect of athletic performance and recovery.

My Experience with Fascial Stretch Therapy

While I'm not an athlete, like many women who frequent tough workouts, I'm always sore somewhere. So, I headed to Stretch Colorado to talk to founder and CEO Amanda Sarbin, a certified stretch therapist, to try fascial stretching myself and to see if it was really worth the hype.

"It works by moving the joint along with the surrounding tissues to help the fascia and muscles relax at the same time," says Sarbin, as she helps me lie on what looks like a standard massage table fitted with wide elastic bands. As she tucks one of my legs under the band and hoists the other over her shoulder, I realize this is definitely not going to be the type of massage you fall asleep during. (Pro tip: Because of all the moving, you'll probably want to wear stretchy gym gear or athleisure, as I didn't realize this and wore jeans. Oops!)

Working from my feet upwards, Sarbin pulls gently on each joint as I push back. This pull-push is a strange sensation, and I almost feel like I'm getting longer. "This will definitely help your posture so you stand up straighter," confirms Sarbin. The whole experience takes about 45 minutes, starting at my feet and ending at my head and neck. When I stand, I feel amazingly relaxed and almost like I'm floating. The tension is gone from my shoulders and I realize that I really am standing taller.

The Benefits of Fascial Stretch Therapy

One session of fascial stretch therapy is beneficial, but probably isn't enough to reap all the benefits, says Sarbin. Get a closer look at what you could notice after a few sessions.

Improves muscle pliability

"You want muscles to be very spongey and uniform, both in how pliable they feel to touch and how strong they are when you move — everything should feel symmetrical and very fluid," says Owens. Fascial stretching is one way to restore that muscle pliability.

FYI: Unlike flexibility, which is the ability of a joint or series of joints to move through an unrestricted, pain-free range of motion, muscle pliability refers to the quality of the fascial bundles stuck together inside your muscle — and no amount of normal stretching can improve muscle pliability, says Owens. "[Muscle pliability] requires perpendicular pressure, rather than stretching along the long axis," he explains. "Muscle pliability is more representative of the quality of the muscle, although ultimately, you want both."

Think of it this way: A dedicated yogi might be able to bend over and touch her toes by stretching length-wise, but her muscles can still have dense fascia. To relieve that dense fascia, you'll need some form of pressure applied directly to the muscles (using items such as foam rollers, lacrosse balls, or a therapist).

Pain-free stretching

Massage and stretching therapies that focus on rehabbing an injury or breaking up scar tissue can be pretty painful, but fascial stretching is incredibly gentle. "You shouldn't feel any pain at all, just mild pressure," says Sarbin.

"Our body is completely connected through our fascia, so to be able to stretch fascia may be able to provide releases to other areas of the body," adds Decker. And remember, if you're feeling tight in one area (say, your hips), the pain might actually be originating from another area (such as your low back). Stretching the fascia can release tension and relieve pain all throughout your body.

Speeds recovery

Fascial stretching improves the blood flow to tired muscles, helping you to recover faster from tough training sessions with less soreness, says Sarbin. Basketball legend Charles Barkley is a fan and even made a video about how fascial stretching helps him get back in action. But for me, the most convincing evidence was that even the Denver Broncos do fascial stretching, going as far as saying it helped them take home a Super Bowl trophy!

Improves performance

Do you feel like your right shoulder is always tighter than your left, or that you're better at balancing on your left leg than on your right? Those are examples of muscle imbalances, and fascial stretching may help reduce those differences. "Those who experience imbalances in their body could benefit from stretching and creating healthy fascia," explains Decker. "Fascial stretch therapy reduces tension build-up and also reduces overcompensation in other areas of the body."

Once those muscle imbalances are evened out, you're able to perform at a higher level (think: lift heavier weights or run at a faster pace). Plus, blood will circulate easier throughout healthy fascia, which in turn will make it easier for muscles to grow, adds Decker.

And remember how fascia sends sensory information back to your body? That impacts your proprioception, a.k.a. the ability to sense the position, movement, and force of your body, as Shape previously reported. "Proprioceptors are found in our fascia and allow for more awareness to the body when the fascia is working healthy," says Decker. In that sense, fascial stretching may improve your proprioception, balance, and reflexes too.

Assists with injury rehab

"Stretching the fascia breaks up scar tissue and increases the range of motion in injured areas," says Sarbin, who says she became interested in the technique after using it to recover from foot surgery. "By the time I was done with the therapy, the foot that had been injured actually felt 100 percent better than the foot that was fine the whole time," she says. "That's what made me realize how powerful this can be."

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