The Fascial Web
Myofascial lines need be effective as a whole, with other lines, and with the neighboring layers of tissue. You cannot isolate a line of tissue, nor a specific region or part, and certainly the body doesn't function that way. Instead our body aims for rhythmical communication through it's entirety.
Our body is a tensegrity system, meaning that our compression structures (bones) are held together with tensional guide wire system of muscle, ligaments, tendons and of course fascia. Tensegrity systems share the burden of absorbing force, so that each part is important, and a change to any one part will influence the whole.
The sum of the whole is greater than the parts
Our body needs the ability to mitigate force through it's entire tensegity based system. If we rely on just one link in the chain to absorb force, then that link will inevitably break down. A stronger, and more intelligent system will disperse load through as many parts as possible, to share responsibility to generate, or absorb force. You only have to try to throw a ball from just your hand, to see how ineffective it is to generate maximum force. Throwing with the whole body, all the way down to the foot pivot, is far more effective because we permit the use of fascial continuity.
Problems arise when local parts break down, and the interconnected-ness of the system fails. When the continuity of our fascial system breaks down, we suffer injury, pain, tightness, lack of movement, or too much repetitive movement. Even though one specific area may be 'tight', the problem is a whole body problem. When the continuity of the system is compromised, one area often under performs, forcing another area to work extra hard, and thus cry for help.
As our mentor Ian O'dwyer says 'a tight muscle never sings'. The silent, 'stuck' areas are often the troublemakers that lead to compensation and dysfunction. And so if one part is continually tight or in pain, then going after the sore part and stretching it is to chase pain in circles.
Stretching isn't a complete solution
Stretching 'tight' parts won't help the body, because the root cause of why the area is tight hasn't been addressed. Likewise stretching the entire fascial line won't help unglue the stuck parts, and miraculously help all the parts along the line work better together. If the connective tissue is stuck, glued up or knotted, then stretching it will only enhance the areas around the stuck area, often pulling the knotted or stuck spot even tighter!
The more stretching that is performed on a stuck area like this, the more compensation occurs, and the more the stuck spot is reinforced as more load (the stretch) is out through an already stuck area. You cannot stretch a knot out of a rope, you must first de-tangle it!
We now know that in loading and stretching, that muscles barely change length, and instead it is the tendons, ligaments and fascial tissue that change to accommodate movement. Stretching is perceived as the savior for mechanical problems or stiffness, but really we need to open up the slide and glide of tissues to permit 'shear'. Shear is the ability of fascial layers to slide and glide over and around each other. For this to happen we need healthy, hydrated fascia.
The first part of flexibility that we lose is the 'shear' between layers of connective tissue. As we lose the ability of tissue to slide and glide, the viscosity of fascia changes from supple running fluid – to honey – to glue – to dry strands.
A better solution
If you have reoccurring tight spots, it's time to ask why.
What is causing this area to lay down more tissue to make itself stronger?
What areas are inefficient causing this area to overworking?
Is there an old injury that's created compensation through the system?
Are we moving or training with too much repetition?
Are we moving variably enough to create a resilient fascial web?
Is our body subject to repeated postures that are creating dysfunction?
Is nutrition adequate to grow and maintain healthy fascia?
Are foods like vegetable oils, sugar and toxic chemicals degrading fascia?
Stuck sections of connective tissue are merely trying to protect us.
We lay down extra tissue in accordance with the lines of mechanical stress applied on the body. Mechanotransduction is the process of how our body responds to force and converts mechanical input into chemical energy. In other words, our body reshapes itself depending on the forces it's repeatedly subject to. In bones osteoblasts fortify bone along lines of mechanical stress, and in fascia fibroblasts produce collagen to create stronger connective tissue along lines of stress. Repeated movements, exercises, habits, or lack of movements, all shape our body.
Think of a dowagers hump on an elderly person. This hump of tissue on the back of the neck forms over years, and is the result of the body intelligently trying to make itself stronger, as the persons body has become rounded over, succumbing to gravity. Trying to release the hump won't be as effective as trying to open up the front of the persons body, enhance alignment of structure, and create new, varied, movement patterns to reverse years of repetitive stress.
If not stretching, then what?
There are many ways to enhance function and efficiency, in our opinion, stretching isn't one of them! We haven't stretched for a few years now, and instead prefer the following strategies which offer more global, body wide benefits, and lasting change.
Look at the patterns of the body causing dysfunction.
If you are not suffering an acute injury, and your pain or dysfunction has lasted more than 3 months, it's likely a compensation, chronic issue which means you absolutely must look away from the site of injury, or discomfort. Get assessed, or body read by a qualified therapist, structural integration practitioner, or movement coach who can observe where you have lost 'space' or function, or where rhythmical movement is lacking, and which parts might need some help.
Increase slide and glide
The best way to increases mobility, efficiency and strength is to increase the slide and glide between tissues. Strategies might include manual therapy, foam rolling, trigger point work, skin tractioning, active release techniques, or vibration therapy. The intention is to enrich the proprioception or sensitivity of dulled areas. Basically, find ways to upregulate silent areas along the fascial lines, which may be slowing down the traffic flow of communication for it's entirety.
Load the system in continuity
Once the stuck areas are optimized, the next step must always be movement to enhance and integrate the area with the rest of the system. Once an area is enriched, we must help the system best adapt to it's new sensitivity with movement. Mobility drills like subtle, small range mobilizers which take lines of tissue through rhythmical ranges of motion within an appropriate threshold are ideal.
Movement threshold or range of motion is important, and many of us move far too big. Moving at a small range of motion allows for the system to work together with rhythm. When movement becomes too big, (think a giant lunge step) balance is often compromised, and the rhythm of movement is lost as the smooth continuity of load dispersal is lost, and energy leaks and clunky compensations occur. If movement threshold is beyond a suitable range of motion where rhythm and fluidity can be maintain, it merely encourages compensation patterns!
Full body movement is ideal to help train our system to perform the way it was designed, as a whole. Too much isolation type training (bicep curl, leg extension) often costs integration and de-trains the myofascial continuity.
Seek variability to build resilience in all aspects of the body and even the brain! Repetition is the enemy of the body, and leads to breakdown, distortion and pain. Our body responds to mechanical loads, and thus training in a multitude of directions, speeds, angles makes for a resilient system. The greater variety of stimulus, the greater potential for positive adaptation.
When all parts can share the load and move as a system, load can be shared, efficiency is greater, and the body can operate as it was designed. Fascial lines don't need stretching, they need enhancement and rhythmical movement.