“Will I be able to do the splits after you work on me?”
I’ve been asked this quite a few times when new clients walk into my office. My rise to fame would be meteoric if I could perform such a feat! The answer is NO, it doesn’t work that way.
Just because you are so flexible you can wrap yourself into a pretzel does NOT mean your fascia is healthy. Conversely, just because your fascia is healthy (maybe you’ve become a fascial release ninja?!) does NOT necessarily mean you will achieve an increase in flexibility. Though it might…
There is definitely some overlap and if you’re going to win the game of mastering your mobility, then it’s critical to understand the distinctions.
I’m going to do my best to break this down and make the info WORK for you and your goals.
This is PART ONE of a THREE PART series.
What does it mean to be flexible?
Take flexibility a step further and you might think of the people next to you in yoga who can go all the way into pigeon pose without screaming (definitely not me), or sit comfortably in a deep squat with perfect form and no knee pain (me!)
Take it to an even greater extreme and we’re talking about those people are so bendy it doesn’t even seem “right.” These are usually gymnasts, dancers, performers or dedicated yogis who have taken their practice to a totally different level: the human pretzel! (Yikes).
What does it mean to have healthy fascia?
When your fascia is in an optimal state it won’t hurt AT ALL when weight or compression is applied. That means you could have a sumo wrestler standing with his full weight on your IT Band and it wouldn’t hurt a bit! True story. (Actually I haven’t tested that one yet, but I should! Ha. That picture to the right is me devilishly excited to work on my apprentice’s IT Band, AND it demonstrates my hyper-mobile elbow and shoulder joints).
If your entire fascial system is healthy, it will act as one unit like a highly adaptive SPRING (click here for a specific post on this), allowing us to sprint, jump and fall with minimal impact on our bones.
We have as our birthright the ability to play and move as we want because our fascial system is designed to absorb impact AND allow us to spring out of jumps and steps with fluid elasticity.
Most of us, however, have unhealthy fascia to varying degrees and don’t even know how GOOD we can feel because fascia is only JUST beginning to make a name for itself within the fitness, medical and alternative wellness worlds. Getting our fascia healthy should NOT be limited (in my opinion) just to those of us in pain! Kind of like eating well and being active, the healthier our fascia the better we will feel in our bodies on a daily basis and PREVENT all kinds of soft tissue and joint pain as we age.
Distinctions between Flexibility, Hyper-mobility and Inflexibility:
To have a ‘normal’ or healthy degree of flexibility, your muscle fibers should be able to lengthen a decent amount, and your joints should have a healthy degree of mobility. Most people have a decent or average degree of flexibility.
In order to be far more flexible than average your muscle fibers will certainly need to lengthen, but your JOINTS and attachments (your tendons and ligaments) will ALSO need to become flexible.
Anyone who can “pretzel” themselves is hyper-mobile. This means that all the attachments have been permanently stretched to the point of being OVERLY mobile. Joints can hyper-extend, rotate beyond a normal range of motion and ligaments are so loose that some injuries might become incredibly common and repetitive, like rolling your ankles repeatedly or dislocating your shoulders.
I am hyber-mobile because of my years as a child gymnast. I can NEVER undo all those hours of stretching every joint and muscle in my body. Although I most certainly cannot do the splits anymore, most of my joints are incredibly hyper-mobile.
Being hyper-mobile comes with its own set of problems and should NOT (in my personal opinion) be an ideal to achieve. I can tell you from personal experience that this hyper-mobility means that a lot of the time my joints try to perform movements for me rather than my muscles! I have to train my lower quadriceps like my VMO to work for my knee joint rather than my knee joint hyper-extending while standing. My shoulders do the same thing: the joint attempts to reach the greatest range of motion through flexibility, which actually means the muscles around my joint (if I am not careful) get LAZY and weak! And all of this can lead to more injuries I might not be prone to if I were not hyper-mobile.
While we all need to have SOME degree of flexibility, there is NO health benefit to being a pretzel.
It’s been quite rare for me to see people (in my practice) who are in fact naturally inflexible to an unhealthy degree. However, it certainly happens.
If you’re naturally inflexible it CAN look like any of the following: you have a hard time bending over to touch your toes (or, forget about toes, even touching your knees might be hard); squatting low to the floor feels impossible to your hips AND so does sitting with your feet together and knees bent; you can never go into pigeon pose without wanting to die; you can’t put your hand behind your back; you can’t hold a pole with wide apart hands over your head and get them behind your head, let alone all the way down to your low back; your ankles might be inflexible due to tight achilles or calves, and going into a V sitting position on the floor and attempting to touch either foot OR the floor in front of you feels impossible due to hamstring and adductor tightness…
These are just a FEW examples of what COULD indicate being naturally inflexible.
HOWEVER, almost ALL of the above are the possible result of a pain pattern that is present in your fascial system, and if the correct fascia is released then BAM! You could suddenly become “flexible.”
And herein lies the critical importance of understanding these distinctions:
If you believe you’re inflexible when there’s an underlying pain pattern present (caused by fascial restrictions) and you attempt to FORCE your body to become more flexible while it’s in a neurological “clamp down” (your brain not allowing you the flexibility you’re attempting) you might seriously piss off your body and end up in far more pain.
Distinctions about unhealthy fascia vs inflexibility:
Unhealthy fascia can lead to pain, injury, inefficient movement and lack of mobility. It is this lack of mobility that many people interpret as inflexibility when in fact it has nothing to do with flexibility! More on this in a moment.
Unhealthy fascia shrinks, becomes dehydrated and sticks to itself in knots, which then pulls on joints, stops blood from flowing, can block nerve signals and (in my opinion) can lead to a lot of “itises” (tendonitis, bursitis, arthritis) and pain issues.
MOST adults have unhealthy fascia to varying degrees even if there’s no pain present. This is because we haven’t learned to take care of it starting in youth. Fascia, while not brand new to the scene of injury and healing, is finally starting to gett its due attention. Yet it is still relatively unstudied (except by citizen scientists like myself and others doing similar work).
I can’t help wondering how super-hero like we humans could become in our bodies, how bullet-proof, if we learned to take care of our fascia starting as teens, or even younger!
Unlike muscle fibers, which shorten or lengthen typically in only one direction (from one joint or attachment site to another), fascia shortens (and can only be truly released) in 360 degrees: from both joints to a center point (any center point) and from there ALL the way around whatever bone it’s attached to.
Fascia is a vast MATRIX of criss-crossing gluey/watery collagen fibers, some minuscule and other pieces much larger, from the cellular level where it wraps every nerve ending to the thick coating around huge muscle groups like the quadriceps.
Unhealthy fascia becomes dehydrated, sticks to itself and form balls or “knots” because of under-use, overuse, age, injury, trauma and/or stress; it feels tender or sore when weight is applied; it can get crunchy/stringy or lumpy and releasing it usually SUCKS big time.
Healthy fascia doesn’t feel like ANYTHING. There’s almost zero sensation (not even pleasant sensation!)
Your fascia can ONLY be taken to OPTIMAL through pin and stretch methods. You cannot go past optimal. So, unlike flexibility – which you can increase and increase through repetition until you become a pretzel – fascia will only respond until it’s healthy.
When we talk about releasing fascia it is not flexibility we’re talking about. Muscles will feel “looser” when the fascia is released because the fascial matrix is no longer pulling the muscle fibers into knots!
What does this all mean? The big take-away:
Muscle fibers can only shrink or expand according to their shape, which is LINEAR. When you become more flexible, you could say that your muscle fibers get LONGER.
Fascia shrinks and can ONLY be released according to its shape: GLOBAL. So, when you release fascia you could say that you become more SPACIOUS.
Muscle fibers have NO CHOICE but to go with the fascia when it shrinks and sticks to itself precisely because it is shrinking GLOBALLY (pulling everything peripheral to a center point). Similarly, when you RELEASE fascia and become more globally SPACIOUS, your muscle fibers have more freedom to glide and function with fluidity.
The fascia, however, isn’t necessarily impacted when muscle fibers are lengthened through a stretch or contracted through flexion, because the fascial matrix gets to expand and shrink globally. (Imagine threading a rubber band through the center of an orange, and then pulling on both ends of the rubber band to make it “taught”, or conversely putting slack back into the rubber band…do you think that linear shrinking or expansion will affect the orange very much?)
There is certainly some grey area here. What I am saying isn’t ABSOLUTE, though it’s a good general rule. And…
The healthier your fascia, the more likely you will be able to gain flexibility without injuring yourself or harming muscle or joints.
The opposite is NOT true however:
Gaining flexibility (beyond the norm) does nothing to guarantee healthier fascia, and in fact being hyper-flexible could mean you’re more injury prone.
To be continued….
Part 2 will teach you when and how to release fascia, and why and how to increase flexibility.