In this post we revisit flexibility as Part 3 of our series. As you may recall, in Part 1, we explored the remarkable tissue known as fascia. This fascinating network of connective tissue plays a critical role in our flexibility. We’ll expand upon that in more depth here in this article. In the second part of this series, we enumerated and explained the multifarious causes for the sensation we know as “tightness”. In this third part of the series, we’ll highlight a prominent methodology that we can apply to address our tightness, known as Myofascial Release (MFR). It is my objective that we can offer the reader an understandable explanation for how MFR works, its mechanism of action, and a basic understanding of how it is usually applied to improve flexibility.

Flexibility is a critical but often overlooked aspect of fitness
Flexibility is a critical but often overlooked aspect of fitness

A refresh on the fascial network

The fascial network is a web of interconnected and interwoven connective tissue that pervades our entire anatomy. It runs in an uninterrupted network from our toes to the top of our heads and then back down the other side. It is also interwoven through and around all of our organs, bones, tendons and muscles. It is a dynamic, adaptable, and durable material that serves many vital functions. Obviously, as a connective tissue, one of those functions is to connect nearby tissues and organs. It also supports, contains, and protects all of our tissues. The network also serves as a communication medium, much like our endocrine, circulatory, or nervous systems. In fact, it functions amazingly in unison with those systems. Regrettably, in some traditional health education systems, the fascia was sometimes ignored, often misunderstood, and its vital role underestimated. A good friend of mine who is a physician admitted to me that in his anatomy training during medical school, the fascia was sort of characterized as “that white stuff that you just dissected out of the way in order to see and learn the ‘real’ anatomy”. Thankfully, understanding of and appreciation for this remarkable tissue has steadily increased over the past few decades, and researchers continue to enlighten us with fresh understanding of its role and function.

Disruptions in the fascia can lead to tightness. Tightness is that unpleasant sensation we sometimes feel that manifests itself as stiffness, discomfort, and pain. It is usually perceived as an abnormal state, as something that isn’t quite right with our bodies. There are numerous causes for tightness. For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on the role that fascia, and disruptions with it, plays in causing tightness.

Trigger Points or “Knots” 

Trigger points are very common in our upper back, shoulders, and neck
Trigger points are very common in our upper back, shoulders, and neck

When these disruptions in the fascia occur, we develop focal areas of pain and discomfort, known as trigger points. Dr. Janet Travell, a renowned thought leader in the science and therapy of trigger points, describes them as, “a hyper irritable locus with a taut band of skeletal muscle, located in the muscular tissue and/or its associated fascia.” Sometimes called knots, trigger points can be quite painful, will cause stiffness and weakness of the affected muscle, and restrict the muscle’s full range of motion. The pressure of these trigger points can be intense, as much as 2000 psi. And that pressure tends to be localized on highly enervated, pain sensitive tissues, resulting in acute symptoms of pain and discomfort. Here is a good video that demonstrates trigger points.

“Myofascia” is the fascia that specifically surrounds our skeletal muscles

Myofascia simply refers the connective tissue that surrounds and encapsulates the muscles, each muscle bundle, and even each individual muscle fiber. It is this specific version of fascia that we are most interested in. It’s the myofascia that we will focus on to relieve trigger points and other adhesions that could be limiting our range of motion and flexibility. The term release refers to the relaxation and reduction of the focal area of adhesion, binding, crimping, and hypertonic contraction that can be causing pain and inflexibility.

deep_tissue_1
A graphic representation of superficial fascia just beneath the skin

Remember, we are dealing with connective tissue. The connectivity of that tissue is a function of its adhesive properties. Fascia is composed of collagen, elastin, and water. The collagen is particularly adhesive. Its function is to provide tensile strength to the tissue. It does that by connecting, layering, and reinforcing areas of tissue that are under duress. The body responds to stress or injury by depositing even more collagen at the site in question, exacerbating the inflexibility of that spot.

In addition to trigger points, the fascia can also cause the skin to adhere to the underlying (subcutaneous) muscles and tendons. The fascia connects everything in the body, muscles to tendons, tendons to bone, muscles to other muscles, and so on. Well, it can also connect the superficial myofascia to our skin. When that connection does not allow the free motion, or gliding, of the muscles under the skin, it can further impede our flexibility and result in tightness.

We employ MFR to release or reduce the bound and disrupted tissue…

We employ MFR to release or reduce the bound and disrupted tissue. MFR involves compression of the particular site that is troublesome, whether a trigger point or broader areas of myofascia bound to our skin. How a biological process works is referred to as its mechanism of action. The mechanism of action of how MFR works to release the bound tissue is an area of increasing research. The concept is relatively complex, so I will do my best to describe how it works in layman’s terms.

How MFR works…

Essentially, the applied pressure acts upon the crystalline nature of our cells and induces a bioelectric current that restores proper biochemistry and bioelectric flow through those tissue. This is known as piezoelectric flow (“piezo” is derived from the Greek word piezein which means to squeeze or press). The restored bioelectrical current

“allows that which has solidified to start to hydrate, which means the tissue can glide again, and this horrible pressure, 2000 psi of pressure, to be taken off of pain sensitive structures that produce our symptoms, that then moves into… what we call release.”

Applying compression to the affected site induces a bioelectric and biochemical response that changes the connective myofascia from a semi-solid state into a more viscous or fluid state, freeing it to glide smoothly against adjoining tissues. Often, once the fascia is released the underlying muscles will relax. Trigger points are a combination of bound fascia and hypertonic or contracted muscle. With the appropriate amount of time and pressure, both will release and relax.

The key is to apply pressure, or compress, the affected area. But, how much pressure, how long it should be applied, and the manner in which it is applied are topics of some debate.

There are various tools available to deliver the restorative pressure we desire. Therapists will often use manual pressure to facilitate MFR. In this practice, they apply pressure with their hands. With self-Myofascial Release (sMFR), we use various tools such as foam rollers, lacrosse and tennis balls, and other specially devised implements to self-administer therapeutic pressure. In most cases we use the tool with our body weight create and apply the pressure.

Foam Roller and lacrosse ball are typical of the tools we use to isolate and treat trigger points with self Myofascial Release
Foam Roller and lacrosse ball are typical of the tools we use to isolate and treat trigger points with self Myofascial Release

The keys to successful sMFR are first locating areas of tightly bound, or knotted fascia, then applying an appropriate amount of pressure for an adequate amount of time. Some practitioners advocate lesser, gentler amounts of pressure for periods of five or more minutes. Others suggest more intense pressure and massaging or kneading motions to work the trigger point. The various tools that are available are all designed to facilitate this. The objective is to achieve a release of the fascia and a relaxation of the muscle.

How come MFR is so uncomfortable???

OK, now that we understand a bit more about how MFR works, let’s talk about how it feels. Well, unfortunately MFR can be uncomfortable, even painful. This is especially true when you are first getting started with MFR. Let’s face it, deeply kneading and grinding into tender parts of our bodies, with tools that can resemble instruments of torture, isn’t exactly the most pleasant of sensations. But, soon enough, the discomfort becomes tolerable, and the release that you accomplish will come with such a pleasing sensation of relief that it will all be worth it. The discomfort certainly becomes manageable as you grow more experienced with this practice. Eventually, the sensation becomes something of a “hurts sooooo good” feeling. But, don’t be surprised if the first few experiences of MFR are uncomfortable, especially if you are riddled with tough trigger points and have been dealing with chronic inflexibility.

Also, foam rolling, in particular, can be physically taxing. It’s a bit of a wrestling match as you grow more experienced with how to position your body on the roller for optimal effect. It can feel awkward and uncomfortable in the beginning. But, like any physical pursuit, it becomes easier the more you practice it.

Other benefits to MFR…

Besides just the gains in flexibility that MFR can deliver, it provides several additional benefits. MFR can help to eliminate toxins that might be stored or pooled in your muscles and tissues. This is particularly true after bouts of intense exercise. This often leads to a reduction in DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness). By increasing the suppleness of our muscles and fascia, MFR is terrific preparation for stretching. Performing MFR prior to stretching will likely increase the extensibility of our tissues and lead to bigger dividends in plasticity from our stretching routines. It also has a relaxation effect, similar to massage. That relaxation can then serve to reduce stress, anxiety, and has been shown to improve sleep quality.

So, the list of advantages of MFR is long and encouraging. But, why do so few of us regularly practice this wonderfully therapeutic activity? Why do we so often neglect our flexibility?

MFR of the hip flexors

If this works so well and is so good for us, why don’t we do more of it? 

Certainly, the discomfort that is associated with MFR is a deterrent. The same might be said of stretching. If it hurts, or is uncomfortable at best, most folks won’t want anything to do with it. We can tell them all day long about how much it will help them, but they will avoid it or procrastinate, usually until there is a crisis and it becomes necessary and unavoidable, such as in the case of injury or unbearable chronic pain.

I also believe that many people simply don’t prioritize it and don’t allocate enough time to be consistent and methodical about flexibility. For some (and this used to include me) MFR and flexibility are simply not prioritized as equals to other areas of fitness such as strength, endurance, and speed. It’s something of the proverbial stepchild. Ironically, time spent proactively working to improve and enhance our flexibility almost certainly will improve our results in the other areas and will accelerate our gains. In fact, I will venture a guess that if you are stalled out in your pursuits for greater strength, increased endurance, and more speed, it might possibly be traced to inadequate flexibility.

Optimal performance state and Peace of Mind

In some ways, we are all in search of that elusive peace of mind that accompanies the physical and psychological condition that we know of as optimal performance state. I briefly described this extraordinary state of mind and body in an earlier post. It’s a pretty remarkable experience. It’s well known to be an incredibly important element of athletic performance. Athletes will often describe it as being “in the zone”. I will assert that it can also occur in our everyday life and when it does we experience a similar sense of “flow” that leads to impressive powers of concentration, acute intellectual processing, and excellent recall of information. It also can inspire a very satisfying peace of mind that is all too often missing from our hyper-busy workaday lives. How can our physical flexibility have such a pronounce affect on all of this? Well, I will assert that our physical well being directly impacts our emotional, psychological, and spiritual well being. If you feel physically tight, bound up, and uncomfortable, won’t that spill over into all aspects of our lives? Conversely, if you feel loose and limber, light and nimble, how might that affect our emotional well being? Our intellectual acuity? Our spiritual outlook? Think about how charitable you’ve felt after a bruising and brutal work week, with too little sleep, not much exercise, too much caffeine, and cramped and knotted up neck and shoulders. Not fun. Probably not at your best.

OK, so now that we have a better appreciation for the value of flexibility, the underlying causes for our inflexibility, and clarity on how we can take action to improve it, what do we do next? Well, like everything in life, how we spend our time reveals what we value most. If we value the effect that flexibility can have on our physical and emotional well being, we will prioritize it and devote adequate time in our lives to attend to it. How much is enough? That all depends on your individual needs. Daily focus on flexibility would probably be in our best interest. But, if that’s not practical, allocating 15-20 minutes, two to three times per week, will surely be a good place to start. If you begin to really believe in the power of flexibility you’ll soon discover ample time to commit to it. I personally try to allocate about 15-20 minutes each day. And I augment that with a longer 45 min session every week. I can attest that when I am able to execute on that plan, I feel immeasurably better and sharper in all aspects of my life.

How can I get started? 

Working on hip flexor mobility after a thorough sMFR session
Working on hip flexor mobility after a thorough sMFR session

Our Flexibility classes are great resource available to you. In these sessions, we practice what we preach and cover a comprehensive regimen of MFR and restorative stretching techniques. Look for Part 4 in this series, when we will explore these stretching techniques to cap off our series on Flexibility.

And finally, drink up!

As a postscript, remember, our level of hydration has a direct effect on all of this. As Dr. Tom Myers points out, “the less the fascia is hydrated, the less elastic response it has in it.” Perhaps as important as MFR can be to our flexibility is whether we are properly hydrated. Drink up!

Works cited:

  1. Barnes, J F. Myofascial Release: A Comprehensive Evaluatory And Treatment Approach. Rehabilitation Services, Inc, 1990. Print.
  2. Frederick, Ann & Christopher. Stretch To Win, Flexibility for Improved Speed, Power, and Agility. Champaign, IL:Human Kinetics, 2006. Print.
  3. “FTM 2014 John F Barnes Interview – Myofascial Release and Proof – V6.” YouTube. YouTube, 01 July 2014. Web. 25 Jan. 2017.
  4. Holzman Weppler, C., Magusson, S P. (2010). Increasing Muscle Extensibility: A Matter of Increasing Length or Modifying Sensation. PHYS THER, 90: 438-449.
  5. Myers, Tom. Anatomy Trains, Myofascial Meridians for Manual and Movement Therapists. London: Churchill Livingston, 2014 Third Edition. Print.
  6. Myers, Tom. “Fascia In Movement, the Essentials Preview”. Online video clip. Youtube, 30 April 2015. Web. 20 December 2016.
  7. “Myofascial Pain Syndrome Video”. Spine-Health. Veritas Health, Inc., 4 Feb 2016. 25 Jan 2017.
  8. Page, P. (2012). Current Concepts In Muscle Stretching For Exercise and Rehabilitation. The International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 7 (1): 109-119.
  9. Phillips, W. “5 Tips to Tackling Muscle Soreness”. Stack. 13 December 2016. Web. 20 December 2016.
  10. Travell J, Simons D. Myofascial Pain and Discomfort: The Trigger Point Manual, 3rd Edition. New York, NY: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2006. Print.

2 comments

  • Thanks for this posting. As someone who sometimes is required to sit for extended periods of time, I appreciate the quick tips.

Paul Reilly

Paul is the Owner and Founder of MidStrong. He created MidStrong in 2017 to train men and women in midlife who are busy with work and family to build muscle and burn fat so they can look and feel better than they did in their 20’s. MidStrong is making Functional Fitness training safe and fun, and inclusive. He and his wife, Julie also own and operate MidStrong locally, their bricks and mortar business, previously called ACCELERATED Strength & Balance. It is a boutique fitness center specializing in training folks in and around Westborough through the challenges of midlife for more than five years.