Want to improve your performance and prevent injury? Keep your eyes on the flexibility highways.
In fitness, muscles tend to get all the glory. Not surprising, considering we’re visual creatures, and besides, a well-defined hamstring tie-in looks darn good. But if you want to understand how to move more efficiently, prevent injuries and get stronger, you need to look beyond your glutes — and triceps and biceps and quads — and consider the admittedly less sexy, but equally important counterpart, the fascia.
Fascia is often characterized as the connective tissue that encapsulates your muscles, but its actual function is far more complex. “Fascia helps mitigate forces on certain parts of the body so there isn’t overuse of muscle tissue in one region and the degradation of tissue in another,” explains Chuck Wolf, MS, FAFS, director of Human Motion Associates in Orlando, Florida. In other words, fascia serves to distribute force throughout the body by reducing it in one area and absorbing it in another, thereby enhancing mobility and preventing injury.
After studying the way fascial tissues worked together as the body moved in different planes of motion, Wolf devised the concept of the “flexibility highways.” Each of these six highways is made up of a chain of tissues that work together to perform a particular type of movement, including flexion and extension, which occur in the sagittal plane; abduction and adduction, which occur in the frontal plane; and rotation, which occurs in the transverse plane. However, in everyday life (as well as in the gym and on the field), human movement is not exclusive to one plane of motion. “If even if you’re moving in just one plane, those tissues are still being affected by the other two planes,” Wolf says. Therefore, in order to move efficiently, we have to keep all six highways in working order.
Highway patrol For the highways to work effectively, all fascial tissue needs to be elastic, resilient and strong enough to accommodate movement patterns in all directions. According to Wolf, fascia adapts when exposed to movements that cover all planes of motion and include both concentric (shortening) and eccentric (lengthening) contractions. Training on machines doesn’t offer the necessary stimuli to create adaptations in the fascia, so you’re better off using weighted lunges than you are seated leg extensions. For each flexibility highway, Wolf outlines a stretch progression designed to improve the elasticity and resilience of your fascia. Incorporating these movements into your warm-up or cool-down can help prevent injury, correct movement inefficiencies and give you more power in your favorite athletic activity. Hold each stretch for 60 seconds and repeat on both sides.
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