In fitness, the muscles tend to get all the glory. No wonder, considering we’re visual creatures, and besides, a well-defined hamstring bond looks darn good. However, if you want to understand how to move more efficiently, prevent injury, and get stronger, you need to look beyond your glutes – triceps, biceps, and quads – and consider their admittedly less sexy but equally important counterpart, fascia.
Fascia is often characterized as the connective tissue that encloses your muscles, but their actual function is far more complex. “Fasciae help moderate forces on certain parts of the body so that too much muscle tissue isn’t broken down in one area and tissue in another,” said Chuck Wolf, MS, FAFS, director of Human Motion Associates in Orlando, Florida. In other words, the fascia serves to distribute force throughout the body by reducing it in one area and absorbing it in another, thereby improving mobility and preventing injury.
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After Wolf had studied how fascia tissue worked together while the body moved in different planes of movement, he developed the concept of “highways of flexibility”. Each of these six highways is made up of a chain of tissues that work together to perform a specific type of movement, including flexion and extension, that occur in the sagittal plane. Abduction and adduction that occur in the frontal plane; and rotation that occurs in the transverse plane.
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In everyday life (as well as in the gym and in the field), however, human movement is not limited to just one level of movement. “Even if you only move in one plane, these tissues are still influenced by the other two planes,” says Wolf. In order to drive efficiently, we must therefore keep all six highways functional.
For the highways to work effectively, all of the fascia tissue must be elastic, resilient, and strong enough to accommodate movement patterns in all directions. According to Wolf, the fascia adapts when subjected to movements that cover all planes of movement and include both concentric (shortening) and eccentric (lengthening) contractions. Training on machines does not provide the stimuli necessary to make adjustments in the fascia. So, it is better to use weighted lunges than sitting extensors.
For each flexibility highway, Wolf sketches a route that is supposed to improve the elasticity and elasticity of your fascia. Including these movements in your warm up or cool down can help prevent injuries, correct movement inefficiencies, and give you more strength in your favorite sporting activity.
Hold each stretch for 60 seconds and repeat on both sides.
Anterior Flexibility Highway
This freeway runs along the front of your body, from your feet to your quads and abs, from your chest and front delts to your triceps and to your fingertips.
You step on this freeway when you reach your arms above you and slightly behind you, like when you’re wrapping yourself up for a medicine ball slam or when you hit a high basketball pass with both hands.
Wolf explains that people who sit a lot often experience tightness on this highway, especially in the hip flexors and abdominal muscles, which therefore inhibits stretching movements, walking and running.
Keeping your left foot on the floor, step your right foot on a knee-high bench or box. Shift your weight forward over your right foot, keeping your left heel down and your left leg straight, while opening your arms to the sides at shoulder level and actively pulling them behind you to open your chest.
You should feel this stretch in your left calf, quad and hip flexors, as well as your core, chest, and shoulders.
Rear flexibility highway
This highway runs from the soles of the feet to the calves and hamstrings, through the gluteal muscles and over the back and back, over the skull and to the forehead. This freeway is busy when you’re deadlifting or when you’re reaching down to scoop a baseball off the ground.
“If you are cramped here, it will be difficult for you to sit or crouch,” says Wolf. Even simple flexion movements like bending over to pick something up from the floor can be challenging, and lower back pain can become a problem.
Stand with your left foot on the floor, toes turned out, and your right heel on a bench or box with your straight leg. Rotate your right toes to the right, then pivot them forward from your hips over your right leg and hold them in place.
You should feel the stretch along the back of your legs, the inner part of your hamstrings, and through your back, shoulders, and neck. Stand up straight, twist your right toes to the left and your left toes inward, and repeat the process. This shifts the emphasis to your glutes and the outer part of your hamstrings.
Lateral Flexibility Highway
This street runs along the side of your calf, across the outside of your thigh and hip, through your side body, across your triceps, through your forearm.
You use this freeway when throwing a ball for a tennis serve or playing volleyball. The tightness here inhibits rotation, which is vital for walking and running and can cause pain and dysfunction in the knees, lower back, and shoulders.
Stand by the side of a rig or post and cross your right leg behind your left, feet flat on the floor. Hold the bar at shoulder level with your left hand, then extend it to the side and reach your right arm above you to grasp the bar above your head.
Slide your hips away from the bar while keeping your feet flat to extend your entire side from your calf to the thighs, glutes, hips, abs, back, shoulders, and triceps. Repeat on both sides.
Anterior X-Factor Flexibility Highway
This street runs diagonally from your foot and lower calf to your inner thigh, then across your body to your opposite slants and chest, across your shoulder and biceps to your forearm and hand.
If you reach back with one arm while stepping forward with your opposite leg to throw a baseball or pull a golf club into a backswing, tap this rotation path. Tightness here can lead to problems like biceps or shoulder pain.
Position a knee-high box slightly in front of a rig leg or bar. Stand with your right foot flat on the floor with your toes turned outward, and your left foot on the box with your toes straight.
Grasp the rig with your left hand and shift your weight forward over your left foot. Keep your right leg straight and your foot flat on the floor. Reach behind you with your right arm and open your shoulder to the right to feel this stretch in your calf, inner thigh, upper thighs, stomach, chest, shoulders, and forearm.
Posterior X-Factor Flexibility Highway
This street runs from your calf, through your hamstrings and glutes, and then across your back, back delts, triceps, and forearms to the other side of your body.
This path is used in movements such as following through a tennis serve or a baseball throw. According to Wolf, athletes with dysfunction on this motorway often suffer from back pain.
Stand at the side of a rig leg or pole and hold the back of the pole with your left hand. Reach in front of your chest to grab the rig with your right hand, then bend your left knee and place your left ankle on top of your right thigh.
Sit back with your hips and bend your right knee until you feel a stretch in your calf, hamstrings, glutes, hips, back, shoulders, triceps, and forearms.
Turnpike Flexibility Highway
This is the most difficult highway to visualize as it wraps itself completely around your body in a corkscrew pattern.
“Start at the left side of your neck, then draw a diagonal line toward your right shoulder blade and then under your right armpit through your chest and abdominal complex and down to your left hip,” says Wolf.
The narrowness of this freeway can affect a wide receiver’s ability to turn around to look for the pass while running down the field, or a jogger looking for traffic behind it before crossing the street.
Face a rig or pole, and stand with your feet staggered and your left foot forward with your toes facing the pole. Reach over your body with your left hand and hold the right side of the bar at shoulder level.
Reach under your left with your right arm and twist your torso to the left and hold it in place. Next, reach your right arm behind you and twist your torso to the right to open your chest. You should feel both stretches in your shoulders, upper back, and neck.