It’s a little-known fact that the first personal trainers were bodybuilders who were hired to help clients develop large, well-defined muscles. Because the sport of bodybuilding focuses on the size and appearance of muscles, many fitness programs developed by bodybuilders emphasized only one muscle group at a time. This isolationist approach can help someone look impressive while walking on a stage in his or her underwear. However, most upright movements require joints and muscles to move at the same time, so it may not be the type of activity for improving movement skill or coordination.

Traditional bodybuilding training challenges the contractile element of the muscle to generate force, yet it’s the fascia and elastic connective tissues that control how those mechanical forces are transmitted through the body.

Strength training involves a muscle shortening (or contracting) to apply a force against an external resistance. As the actin-myosin filaments slide across one another, they create a compressive force, which is what actually causes movement. Muscle fibers respond to load. The heavier the load, the greater the amount of force required from the muscle fibers. As heavier forces are applied, the motor units adapt to recruit more muscle fibers, which in turn increase in size.

Enhancing the strength of the fascia and the elastic connective tissues requires a different approach to working out. Traditional resistance-training moves can make your muscles strong. However, here are seven things you should know about your fascia and why it requires different movements than the contractile element of your muscles.

Seven facts about fascia

Muscle and fascia have two separate functions

Strength training can improve muscle force output by increasing the number of motor units activated, the cross-width of the individual muscle fibers or a combination of the two. What is often overlooked is that EACH individual muscle fiber is surrounded by fascia and elastic connective tissues, which actually lengthen when the contractile element of muscle shortens. Muscle and fascia perform two different functions: The actin-myosin fibers are the contractile element—they generate force—whereas the fascia and the elastic connective tissues distribute the force around the body between various sections of muscle.

Fascia stretches and shortens

When the actin-myosin protein filaments slide across one another, they shorten and pull on the fascia and the elastic connective tissues, which lengthen in response. As the fascia lengthens, it stores mechanical energy, which is then released when the contractile element relaxes to allow the fascia to return to its original position.

Fascia contains more sensory nerve endings

Fascia and connective tissues contain more sensory nerve endings than muscle tissue. Multi-planar movement patterns challenge the tissue to control a load as it moves through space, which uploads more information into the afferent (sensory) nerves.

Fascia adapts by creating collagen and elastin

During most free-weight exercises, muscle becomes stronger by contracting to generate an upward force that moves a load against the downward pull of gravity. Heavier loads will help the motor units develop the ability to generate more force as fibers shorten. Fascia contains the protein filaments of collagen and elastin. When fascia is repeatedly lengthened under resistance, it will adapt by creating more collagen and elastin so that it becomes capable of withstanding greater lengthening (tensile) forces as well as apply a greater level of force when returning to its original position.

Fascia uses mechanical energy to apply force

In general, the energy for actions controlled by fascia comes from the physical, mechanical forces, while the energy for muscle contractions comes from macronutrients in the diet. Muscle metabolizes its own energy by converting carbohydrates or free fatty acids into adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the chemical used to fuel a muscle contraction. Fascia is different in that it uses mechanical energy, not stored chemical energy, to apply a force. Lengthening fascia stores mechanical energy, which is then released as the fascia returns to its starting length. Improving the efficiency of fascia to transition from lengthening to shortening can help improve overall force output.

Fascia can get dehydrated

Hydrate. Hydrate. Hydrate. The extra-cellular matrix is the component of fascia made up of individual cells in water. When fascia becomes dehydrated, it becomes more viscous, which does not allow the different layers to slide against one another without restriction. Staying properly hydrated allows the layers to slide against one another as well as helping promote the post-training repair process.

Train fascia with lighter weight

Lengthening fascia under resistance so that it becomes capable of withstanding greater tensile forces can be achieved with multidirectional movements performed at a relatively fast tempo using either light loads or only the body’s own weight. A good guideline to follow is that the heavier the load, the smaller the range of motion. It is easy to control a lighter weight as it moves through space, but when using a heavier weight to strengthen the contractile element of muscle, it is best to stay in one plane of motion to work directly against the downward pull of gravity. To develop muscular strength, the optimal loads would be 80 to 100 percent one-rep max for one to six reps. To develop optimal fascial integrity and resiliency, the loads would be much lighter to allow multiple repetitions in multiple directions without fatigue. For example, strengthening the contractile element of the hips could be done with heavy barbell deadlifts for less than six repetitions, while strengthening the fascia and the elastic connective tissues of the hips would be best accomplished with multi-planar lunges while holding light dumbbells for four to five reps in each direction for a total of 12 to 20 in each set.

Why train your fascia?

When was the last time you saw someone getting pumped for a workout because it was “fascia day”? We know that doesn’t happen, but it should because doing movements to strengthen your fascia can help improve overall force output while possibly reducing the risk of an overuse injury. This does not mean forsaking traditional strength training to only do multi-planar movements for your fascia. An effective approach to program would be to include a combination of heavy strength training for your muscle along with multidirectional movements using lighter weights to improve the resiliency of your fascia and elastic connective tissues.

Bodybuilding taught us the split routine, specifically the use of different body parts on different days to allow for optimal recovery and muscular development. A different type of split routine would be to rotate between heavy training using traditional movements for strength on one day, lightweight or body-weight movements in multiple planes to improve the ability of fascia and connective tissues to withstand a variety of loads from different directions on the next day, and on the third day, focus on a specific energy pathway—either ATP-PC, glycolysis or mitochondrial respiration—to improve metabolic efficiency and the ability to produce the chemical energy to fuel movement.

A word of caution: When starting a program to train the fascia, focus on learning the movements. Stretching the fascia in different directions will apply tensile (lengthening) forces to the tissues, and it could cause soreness the first few workouts if they are not used to being stretched during dynamic movements.

Photo credit: undrey, Thinkstock