Have you ever wondered why you can’t touch your toes? Or why your organs don’t knock around inside you when you jump rope? Have you ever wondered how your muscles stay attached to your bones? Or why you have cellulite?
It’s not a mystery anymore.
The answers to these under-the-radar questions about your body is your fascia (pronounced fah-sha). But why haven’t we heard more about it in the same breath we talk about acupuncture, cryotherapy, or keto?
The problem, says fascia-therapist Ashley Black, author of “The Cellulite Myth: It’s Not Fat, It’s Fascia,” is that fascia is an incredibly important-for-your-well-being concept that’s often explained in vague descriptions like:
- “It’s like the white stringy gook on a raw chicken breast.”
- “It’s basically muscles.”
- “It’s like a spider web in the body.”
And because it’s misunderstood, its importance to our health and wellness goals often gets overlooked. But fitness gurus like Black are all about fascia because of how interconnected it is to our entire system.
Benefits of keeping fascia healthy
- improved body symmetry and alignment
- increased blood flow, which means faster exercise recovery
- reduced appearance of stretch marks and cellulite
- scar tissue breakdown
- reduced risk of injury
- less day-to-day pain
- improved sports performance
As Black defines it: “Fascia is the body’s connective tissue. It’s a head-to-toe, inside-to-out, all-encompassing and interwoven system of fibrous connective tissue found throughout the body. Your fascia provides a framework that helps support and protect individual muscle groups, organs, and the entire body as a unit. It’s everywhere.”
Fascia means “band” or “bundle” in Latin. It’s mostly made of collagen. Ideally, your fascia is healthy and therefore malleable enough to slide, glide, twist, and bend, pain-free.
Fast facts about fascia:
- Fascia connects all connective tissues (that means the muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments, and blood)
- Fascia holds together the entire body.
- There are four different kinds of fascia (structural, intersectoral, visceral, and spinal), but they’re all connected.
- When it’s healthy, it’s flexible, supple, and it glides.
Black recommends thinking about it like a bed sheet. If you pull the bottom of the sheet, it’s going to affect the placement of the top edge of the sheet, causing it to crinkle.
When it’s unhealthy, fascia is sticky, clumpy, tight, and flakey and forms restrictions, adhesions, and distortions (think: muscle knots).
What causes unhealthy fascia?
- a sedentary lifestyle
- poor posture
- overusing or injuring your muscles
- unhealthy eating habits
- poor sleep quality
Black also claims that cellulite is a symptom of unhealthy fascia: “Cellulite is normal, but the appearance of cellulite is from the pockets of fat pushing up through the connective tissue. So if you treat and manipulate the fascia, the symptom known as cellulite will disappear.”
“But I tell people to remember that just because you don’t have cellulite doesn’t mean that your fascia is good, there are other symptoms of unhealthy fascia,” says Black. Unhealthy fascia can also lead to muffled or muted signals from the nerve endings.
Meaning: You might feel uncomfortable in your own body, or the signals get interpreted by your brain as pain and discomfort.
Treating your fascia can take time, but the relief is instant. That doesn’t mean that your fascia will turn from unhealthy to one-hundred percent healthy right away.
“You’re going to feel like you’re literally pulling yourself open, it’s a good feeling. Fascia work will make you feel open, and able to move in a way you never have,” explains Black.
Fascia health testChoose any part of your body and do what fascia-therapist Ashley Black calls “The Pinch and Poke Test.” Example: On the back of your hand, try to pinch together your skin using your thumb and forefinger. “Pinching will tell you how “fascia bound” the area under your skin is. You should be able to pinch the skin easily, if not, you have unhealthy fascia in those areas.”
Here’s what our two fascia-experts say you can do to improve your fascia health.
1. Stretch for 10 minutes a day
Stretching that elongates your muscles can help you release tension in your muscles, one element of fascia, explains Grayson Wickham, physical therapist, DPT, CSCS.
For best results, he recommends holding stretches for 30 seconds to 1 minute, but don’t force yourself into a deepness or position that causes pain.
2. Try a mobility program
Mobility is a fitness modality that, in its most basic terms, is the ability to move well. It’s movement that isn’t inhibited by lack of agility, flexibility, or strength, explains Wickham.
“Mobility work addresses the body’s fascia,” says Wickham. “Things like foam rolling, myofascial work, and manual therapy will help break down the fascia and therefore help a person move more fluidly. However, you can also work directly on your mobility, and reap positive reward for your fascia.”
Wickham’s program, Movement Vault, is one mobility-specific program. It provides online sequence and routines that specifically set out to improve the bodies mobility. RomWOD and MobilityWOD are two others companies that offer daily videos designed to help you move better.
3. Roll out your tight spots
By now, you’ve likely heard about some of the benefits of foam rolling. Foam rolling is a great way to check in with your body to pinpoint where exactly your fascia is tight and holding tension. Just get onto the roller and let your muscles talk to you, suggests Wickham.
While foam rolling, when you hit a trigger point or tight spot, sit and work on that spot for 30 to 60 seconds as it slowly dissipates, over time this will help restore the fascia to optimal health.
4. Visit the sauna, especially after the gym
“Fascia loves both internal and external heat because it increases circulation and also puts the fascia in a more pliable, receptive state. The internal heat is exercise, and the external heat is something like a sauna, sauna suit, shower, steam room, or heating pad,” says Black. “In a sauna, the fascia gets into a more-supple state and then is able to become more open to what you’re doing to it.”
Going to the sauna has always been popular, but thanks to emerging research pointing towards the health benefits, they’re more accessible and widely used than ever before.
In a study published in Springerplus, researchers found that both traditional steam saunas and infrared saunas decreased delayed onset muscle soreness and improved exercise recovery. The researchers suggest that infrared saunas may penetrate the neuromuscular system to promote recovery.
Another study published in the Journal of Human Kinetics found that sitting in the sauna for 30 minutes increases women’s levels of human growth hormone (HGH), which helps our bodies break down fats and build muscle.
Black’s suggestion: Revamp your workout warm-down with a sauna session, just remember that you’ll need to rehydrate even more than usual after. If you don’t have access to a sauna, other forms of heat therapy will work, too.
5. Apply cold therapy
“Cryofreeze and cryotherapy are good after a workout because it reduces the inflammation of your entire body by restricting swelling. The fascia is right below your skin. The last thing that you want is to be inflamed. So the coolness can help with inflammation,” explains Black.
Black’s suggestion: If you don’t have access to a cryotherapy tank, use a cold compress for 10 minutes, and then remove it for at least 15 minutes. She says that you can repeat this until you begin to find relief.
6. Get your cardio on
“Aerobic exercise is one way of heating your body from the inside,” says Black. She recommends incorporating exercises without weights, like running, biking, swimming, and rowing to get the muscles moving and increase the blood supply to the muscles.
As a bonus, these exercises support symmetry in the body, which also aids in the health of your fascia.
7. Try fascia yoga
“When you go to a physical therapist and lay on the table, the expert maneuvers your leg and you’ll feel a very specific pull in the fascia of the hip or the shoulder. With the use of stretching and a specific tool called the FasciaYoga ball, I’ve designed a way to help you get that pull or that traction on your own,” says Black, explaining her recent creation, Fascia Yoga.
While Black teaches Fascia Yoga classes around the country, she also has a fascia yoga app which will allow you to stretch your body in entirely new ways.
While “yoga” is in the name, the program looks and feels more like a soccer-practice warm-up with a stability ball, than a typical yoga class.
8. Keep you and your fascia hydrated
Think about how different your skin looks and feels when it’s hydrated versus when it’s dry, says Black. It’s similar for fascia.
“If you’re hydrated, your fascia is going to have more of a Jell-O, malleable feel to it. If you’re dehydrated, it’s going to be crusty and flakey. That’s why hydration is super important to your fascia,” she explains. “A go-to hydration tip is to drink at least half your bodyweight in ounces of water,” says Wickham.
9. Massage it out with a FasciaBlaster
The FasciaBlaster, is another Ashley Black innovation that’s designed to loosen up the fascia all over your body, kind of like foam rolling with a much more rigid, plastic exterior. Fascia muscle rollers range from $10 to $90.
While there are no clinical trials to verify this product, people and writers have reported that it helped their cellulite. If you’re looking for an alternative to this, experts agree that foam rolling can provide similar benefits.
How to use the FasciaBlaster
- Facia loves heat, so warm up with a few minutes of low-impact cardio, if you can.
- Strip down, because the tool is designed to work on your bare skin.
- Find an oil, moisturizer, or lubricant you can use to help the FasciaBlaster glide.
- Begin rubbing the blaster over your skin up and down, or side to side. Just like when foam rolling, when you hit a trigger point or tight spot, sit and work on that spot for 30 to 60 seconds as it slowly dissipates. Black recommends 1 to 5 minutes per body zone total.
- Because your fascia is all connected, remember to FasciaBlast the whole body and not just your “trouble areas.”
- After blasting, Black recommends hydrating.
- You can FasciaBlast as often as you’d like, just be careful not to blast over bruised areas.
10. Get professional help
If you’re chronically stiff and sore, or you have a muscle injury that just won’t heal, Black suggests consulting a specialist to see what would be right for you. Fascia is so interconnected, one area can affect other areas.
“Massage therapists, PTs, chiropractors, sports masseuse are all types of fascial therapy that may help melt away a person’s stiffness.”
Fascia work is not something that you work on once a month. As Wickham says, “fascia makes everything continuous, so you also have to treat the body as a whole.” If you’ve ever had a knot or pain in your shoulder that seemed to travel after you massaged it, that’s likely because of your fascia.
Certain symptoms may be a sign that you should pay more attention to your fascia health.
Symptoms of unhealthy fascia
- hunched posture
- lack of body-symmetry, for example one shoulder is higher than the other
- poor mobility
- lack of flexibility and strength
- feelings of discomfort
“It’s a daily thought. It’s something you have to keep up,” reminds Black. Her recommendation: For every hour that you spend doing impact exercise, spend thirty minutes doing work to improve the health of your fascia.
Gabrielle Kassel is a rugby-playing, mud-running, protein-smoothie-blending, meal-prepping, CrossFitting, New York-based wellness writer. She’s become a morning person, tried the Whole30 challenge, and eaten, drank, brushed with, scrubbed with, and bathed with charcoal — all in the name of journalism. In her free time, she can be found reading self-help books, bench-pressing, or practicing hygge. Follow her on Instagram.