Fascia, this seemingly benign material has become somewhat of a poster boy of health, fitness and movement in some circles and the Martial Arts are no exception. Some claim that Fascia is the answer to all the ancient riddles, while other say it is inconsequential. In this article, I aim to unpack Fascia and see what the science says about this tissue. How these finding relate to the Martial Artist will often be clear, but I will attempt to spell out some of the more pertinent points, others I am sure you can figure out for yourselves. It is important to note that I am not a Doctor or Sports Scientist so if you require deeper information, please see the reference papers I link to at the bottom of the page, or check out the excellent video presentations also found at the bottom of this article.
In recent years, as more information has been released by the scientific community on the roles and functions of Fascia in the body, I have noticed quite a bit of kick back from some areas of the Martial Arts community. It seems that for some, the very word makes them roll their eyes and reference old martial terms in preference to this one. But is this reaction really justified?
In the world of martial arts there are distinct groups. The Martial Athletes, The traditional martial artists, the self-defence specialists etc. But there is also a divide inside some of these styles which classifies their practices and outlooks as ‘internal arts’ and ‘external arts’. I will not go into this distinction here, but it would be fair to say that in the world of Internal Arts like Tai Chi, Xing Yi, Ba Gua and Aiki fascia has become somewhat of a buzz word for the various effects and developmental sensations felt. However, it is also completely derided and dismissed by certain more traditional sections of the Martial Arts community who may prefer a model of meridians, paths and ‘Jin’ to explain the processes they perform or use.
Firstly, let me say that if it works for you … keep doing it! Those from traditional camps are welcome to their traditional models and I am sure remain inspired by them. With that said, to dismiss the fascia model as irrelevant, in the face of mounting evidence, would simply be dishonest.
If you understand terms like Chi, Jin, Meridians, vessels, ground paths etc, the model, the context, and the history of those ideas, and get good results from them, then there is no reason to change. But for most martial artists, especially those in combat sports like MMA or those studying Self Defence training, these terms are essentially useless. Before any real training can begin, one would need to study the traditional contexts and be submitted to lengthy explanations from cultures and Martial arts not related to one’s practice. So, something needs to change for these groups to benefit from training concepts like connectionm whole body power and advanced mechanics, and this is where much of my personal focus has been directed.
The aim of those exploring human movement, load balancing and all the other interesting mechanics of the martial artist, is often to steer the conversation towards language that can be readily understood by the widest section of the martial arts community. And far from being ‘mental masturbation’, using more concrete models of anatomy is an extremely useful tool for the martial artist to internally assess what is happening to them. Much like a strength coach can ask the lifter to tighten their buttocks, or engage their core, the Martial Arts coach can talk of pulling tissues taut, feeling certain stretches across muscle groups or connecting the body when managing forces. This is the domain of anatomical explanations that produce the best results in the practitioner in front of you, not explanations that conform to the tradition and culture of the system.
What is Fascia?
Fascia is often called the connective tissue. This description accurately describes one of the main roles of Fascia in our body and it is an important part of our model of how Fascia is utilized. However, Fascia has many roles in the body that impact health, flexibility, action, or reaction etc.
“Fascia is virtually inseparable from all structures in the body and acts to create continuity amongst tissues to enhance function and support.”
Fascia: a morphological description and classification system based on a literature review (1)
Fascia truly spans the body ; it wrap and permeates the muscles while linking them together, to the skeleton or letting them slid over each other, it wraps blood vessels and nervous tissue, it forms boundaries between tissue like the skin and the musculature or the bones, it holds the internal organs in place ... the list is long. It truly is an all spanning and all-encompassing tissue.
The main type of fascia we are interested in is the type that separates, innovates, and links muscles (deep) however there is also the type that wraps the organs(visceral), and the type that runs under the skin (superficial).
Fascia is composed of 2 types of protein, Collagen, and Elastin. These two substances provide integrity and extensibility to both connecting tissues and muscles. The mix of these two substances will determine ‘stiffness’ or ‘flexibility’ of a given area of the body and the mix can be changed through targeted training methods that move the composition towards the requirements of the goal. The level at which we can change fascia is in part limited by the blood and nutrient supply to the tissue. However, although previously thought to be absent any major supply, we now know that fascia is well fed and can adapt to changing demands readily.
Fascia also plays an extremely important role in the reduction of friction in the body. It allows muscles to smoothly run over other tissues and will separate blood vessels and nerves etc. This is a very important part of health, where sticking of tissues together or binding of tissues can cause problematic health consiquences.
How trainable is Fascia?
The first thing we need to address is whether fascia can actually be changed through training! If not, then the entire subject of how Fascia may or may not be used by the martial artists becomes somewhat mute. Further, if it can only be changed through specific training methodologies, which are not practiced by the martial artist, then again the discussion becomes somewhat stifled. Happily, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Fascia is very trainable for athletic performance.
Perhaps the most well-known paper on this subject is “Training principles for fascial connective tissues: Scientific foundations and suggested practical application.” By Robert Schleip & Divo Gitta Muller.(2)
The scientific basis for remodelling your Fascia is well documented.
“A recognized characteristic of connective tissue is its impressive adaptability: when regularly put under increasing yet physiological strain, the inherent fibroblasts adjust their matrix remodelling activity such that the tissue architecture better meets demand. “
Training principles of Fascial Connective tissues.(2)
But the question of how we can remodel this tissue for Martial Arts is not so clear. However, it does seem that almost anything we do with regularity will impact this tissue. Most notable, inactivity in the same position for many hours a day will have a profound impact on this tissue. To understand how this tissue responds to demand we can look to this ‘bad’ adaption. Someone who is static in a set posture for many hours a day will invariably get problems with their flexibility in the hips, shoulders, and thoracic spine. This is the result of either, binding or sticking of the fascial sheets or laying down and remodelling of new material to help you mechanically retain the posture.
Another instance where Fascia remodelling is observed is when load/stress is applied regularly in the same pattern. Load could be produced by speed of the body causing many times the mass to act on a given joint, as seen in Gymnasts, or from moving heavy things around, as seen in weight lifters. However, it can also be apparent in repetitive low load settings, like long distance hikers or horse riders, who, upon examination have developed a more pronounced connection in their given areas of load.
So real time remodelling of fascia is found in repetition or/and where load volumes are found of some type. The practice of solo training in the martial arts can produce remodelling through repetition of demand, through the work with a partner and via the high-speed methods where mass is accelerated. There is a phenomena witnessed in any martial art where long term practitioners will start to develop what some people call ‘Old Strength’. This is a type of power that you recognise when you encounter it, the same could be said of long time farmers, manual labourers or blacksmiths. Their entire body has been changed by the regularity and type of demands they have placed on it and the result is a unique type of connected strength as the body strived to make the movements required more efficient.
With correct programming, we can focus our training so as to force the connective tissues to change or remodel in accordance with the required demands. Indeed, some combat sports coaches are specifically focused on defining and developing the right mix of training for this very purpose.
Noter: Diagram shows changes in Fascial loading in various positions, note activation of fascia under load in stretching.
(reference 3 - See Marinovich’ or SpeedOfSport.)
The Active Fascia.
For a long time Fascia was thought to be a sort of passive structural network, that holds bones together, connects muscles to bones, wraps organs and spans the body tissues. It was thought that this tough material was essentially inert and simply provided a set of mechanical attributes to the real movement motivators, The muscles. Tendons pass the action of muscles to the bones to move the skeleton, Ligaments link bones together, etc. But there is growing evidence to suggest that this is not the case at all, and that various types of Fascia in various areas of the body is active and in some cases contractile.
The magnitude of contraction is something to consider, it is highly probably that the contractile capability of fascia is intimately linked to the muscular contractions. Never the less, the contraction of fascia itself, leaving out the muscle component already introduces an important mover and forge generator. An examination of levers will show that even a seemingly inconsequential amount of movement can have wide reaching consequences at distal points.
“Fascia is usually seen as having a passive role, transmitting mechanical tension which is generated by muscle activity or external forces. However, there is some evidence to suggest that fascia may be able to actively contract in a smooth muscle-like manner and consequently influence musculoskeletal dynamics.”
Active fascial contractility: Fascia may be able to contract in a smooth muscle-like manner and thereby influence musculoskeletal dynamics (4)
It would be a mistake to think that the focused development of Fascia within the body would have no impact on a martial artists efficiency or power. When using a lever or when rotating a joint, the more tissue recruited and the more contraction available will increase the amount of effective force.
But even disregarding force generation, when applying subtle changes of angle or direction, using large muscle groups may prove too large and overt to be effective. Large movements are often easy to follow, counter or ‘check’. So, the ability to contract in a small space, to create motion where there is seemingly stillness will provide us with an interesting method to gain angular or positional advantages. When we use the force of the connective tissues we will be able to apply a lot of force (maximum connected mass), in small amounts of space.
Tensional Integrity – Structure, stability & elastic recoil
Fascia also plays a vital role in maintaining the bodies structural integrity. Without the connective tissues holding the bones together, spanning the bones and creating compressions across the skeleton we would simply not be able to stand. This integrity is sometimes referred to as tensegrity and is the marriage of a mesh of continuous, but changing, tensions in tissues placing the bones under compression. There is some debate as to whether the body truly fits a tensegrity model, which more classically refers to integrity coming from the web of tensions and not the compression ‘struts’, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the body is reliant on tensional integrity.
Classically, it is thought that the bones hold up the tissue of the body, but in fact tensional integrity means that the tissues are holding up the bones. It is the elastic and structural components of the body that hold the bones together and create pulls the hold us upright. If these tissues were all slack, we would be a heap on the floor.
For the martial artist, tensional integrity means that there is always some ‘tone’ in the system and the system is never truly slack. For the structure to be stable, there must be some tension, and for the martial artist this ‘taughtness’ can be used and exploited.
“The icosahedron, tensegrity spring is different and characterized as ‘nonlinear’. In the resting state, there is always some residual tension or ‘tone’ in the system so it is never completely relaxed. (5)
Mechanics of the martial arts(5)
Utilizing the compression and resulting return to tone is something that we can practically and continuously use in martial exchanges. At the crude level, this store and release will fuel interactions that return forces or fuel strikes. But at a more advanced level, the structure under tension is far more responsive to pressures than the structure that is slack. So, the more we train these tissues and increase the tone in the system the more power we can generate under compression and the more sensitive we are to changes. Eventually, store and release completely disappears as rotation and spirals are used when the structure experiences a compression or extension.
The purpose of training is to tighten up the slack,
toughen the body,
and polish the spirit.
Another role of fascia in the body is to provide load management, especially in areas like the lower portion of the body where there is a mass of muscle and support tissue present between the iliac crest and the lower ribs.
When we move around in any direction we primarily use the muscle system to articulate our bodies in the required ways. However, it is the Fascia that often does the ‘heavy’ lifting of managing and containing the forces produced by the muscles and transmitting them to the skeleton. It is also the connective tissues that may form up to ‘extend’ a lever or provide contractile support to the muscle groups managing a given load.
The most basic example of this is found in the tendons and fascia wrapping the muscles which will compartmentalise the muscles and transmit the force of muscle action to the bone attachments creating articulation.
However, there is a complicated network of links and connections via fascia that mediate our ability to handle loads acting on us. The most obvious example of this is the Thoracolumbar fascia, which is located in the lower back and links to numerous muscle groups of the lower torso and the spine.
This video highlights very well the position and function of the Thoracolumbar fascia
Thoracolumbar fascia interactions.
Obviously, our ability to handle force and load in a martial context is at the heart of almost all interactions. A wrestler will have to deal with large volumes of consistent force acting across all muscle groups. When considering the mechanics in the video above, it is easy to see the merit of increasing the health and strength of the fascia in our bodies.
We also see many martial arts talking about ‘flattening the back’ and similar, in order to add some tension across the thoracolumbar fascia. This point to the early knowledge that this sheet of tissue was important to the management of forces seen in the martial arts.
“The flexion stiffness shows an almost linear increment with the increase in fascial tension. The results of this study showed that the effect of the LF on the stability of the spine is significant.”
Effect of lumbar fasciae on the stability of the lower lumbar spine.(6)
Later in this clip is an excellent demonstration and explanation of how the Thoracolumbar Fascia handles load:
Sensitivity - proprioception
Anyone with experience of high level martial artists will know how ‘refined’ their movement, motion and ability to change in an instant can be. They seem to know exactly how, where, and why they are moving and can often move with extremely refined sensitivity to the changing conditions of the situation. These skills are rooted in the body’s ability to sense its position in association with the things in its environment (including the opponent) and in association with itself.
As such, the final aspect of fascia that I believe is extremely relevant to the Martial artist is in its role as a sensory network. Fascia is full of cells that give us feedback. These cells are mechanoreceptors and Proprioceptors, and are responsible for sensing the force of muscle contraction, the movement, rate of movement and relative position of body parts and then relay this to the nervous system.
"One of the most relevant discoveries in the world of anatomy over these many years is that muscle spindles, the chief proprioceptive cell affecting our muscles, are not in the muscle, but in the fascia surrounding the muscle and its muscle bundles.”
Fascia as a proprioceptive organ (7)
This network is deeply affected by immobility or familiarisation with patterns. If someone spends their days sat at a desk, with little to no activation of the mechanoreceptors or proprioceptors, their network will become less effective at providing location or mechanical feedback. I have seen this in several people I know who became more and more ‘clumsy’ the less and less they moved.
Happily, the reverse is also true. Imagine for a moment a gymnast or movement practitioner. When they begin their training adopting new movement patterns will be extremely taxing and the quality of their movement will be poor. But over time, as their sensory network become more refined they will be able to perform highly complex tasks, even tasks that their body has never performed, with ease and grace.
In the martial arts we can also train this system, both to refine our movements but also to allow us to understand relative positions during exchanges. The high level martial artists from any system will have this highly developed sense of where things are at any given moment. The important thing here is that the sensory nature of Fascia is not ‘thought process’ dependant, in fact it is more akin the defunct term ‘Muscle memory’. With the developed body the central nervous system is constantly provided with highly accurate information at a higher rate and this in turn allows us to move in appropriate ways naturally, with little thought.
In conclusion, Fascia should be thought of as one of many active agents in the body, both in the internal arts, in combat sports, in general body movement and health. It would be an error to completely disregard this tissue as a fad or as subordinate to the old traditional models in light of the evidence. Especially for those to whom those models hold no deep meaning. The mounting evidence is suggesting that not only can it be trained, but that it plays a vital role in our movement capacity, proprioceptive sense, strength, power, sensitivity, and health. All things that the serious martial artist is deeply interested in.
In the MartialBody system, almost every section has an element of Fascia training baked into it, such is the importance placed on it. I do tend to agree that it can be too important in some camps, with muscles, pressures, levers and many other vital parts of the puzzle being dismissed. However, it is very important to understand that it is one part of the puzzle, and an important part it is.
Please be sure to check out the further reading or interesting information below for more detailed information on the role, purpose and applicability of Fascia to the Martial Artist.
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Further information & Resources.
Information from Thomas Myers
Brilliant and amusing information from Dr Serge Gracovetsky - Fascia Congress
Fascia & Fitness series
If you would like to see these structures please watch the fascinating below documentary. Please be warned the documentary shows dissections, cadavers and live surgery.
Strolling under the Skin
1: Fascia: a morphological description and classification system based on a literature review
2: Training principles of Fascial Connective tissues.
3: Marinovic training system / speed of sport
4: Active fascial contractility: Fascia may be able to contract in a smooth muscle-like manner and thereby influence musculoskeletal dynamics
5) The Mechanics of Martial Arts
6) Effect of lumbar fasciae on the stability of the lower lumbar spine.
7) Fascia as a proprioceptive organ