Picture a young boy playing on a playground. What do you see? A little boy playing is a bundle of energy as he climbs, jumps, runs and moves in all directions at various speeds. Now visualize an older man trying to navigate a busy sidewalk. How would an older man move differently if compared to a young child? Cautious about having to navigate around other walkers and distractions in his path, the older man would probably move much slower, with a limited range of motion.

An older man and a young boy have the same basic anatomical structures, so why do the two move so differently? This can be explained by the integrated system of fascia and elastic connective tissue that connects every single one of our muscle fibers to one another.

The fascial system and aging

The human body is capable of producing two types of energy: chemical energy from the macronutrients consumed in the diet, and the mechanical energy produced when muscles transition from lengthening to shortening. When muscles shorten, they generate force, which is then distributed by the network of fascia and elastic connective tissue to control movement. In general, young children move in a variety of directions at different speeds, resulting in muscle tissue that is more pliable, resilient and capable of being lengthened in all directions.

During the normal biological aging process, fascia and elastic connective tissue can lose the ability to rapidly lengthen, placing it at an increased risk of injury during rapid changes of direction or movement speed. Compared to young children, older adults tend to move less frequently and when they do, it is at slower tempos while performing repetitive movement patterns, which results in tissues that lack the ability to rapidly lengthen in response to applied forces. As these tissue lose elasticity, the body loses an important source of energy from the mechanical actions of muscle and connective tissues.

Five facts about fascia

Adding certain movements to your workout program can help increase your overall stamina by enhancing the body’s ability to produce and use mechanical energy. Here are five things to know about fascia and elastic connective tissue, as well as some moves that can lead to a strong fascial network, which can reduce the risk of injury, while optimizing mechanical energy in your body.

  1. There are two basic types of muscle tissue. The contractile element of skeletal muscle is responsible for producing force, and the elastic connective tissue envelops individual muscle fibers and distributes the forces generated by the contractile element.
  2. Collagen layers protect the muscles. When muscles experience constant stress from repetitive movements or maintaining a poor posture, they can lay down inelastic collagen fibers to protect themselves from damage. Muscle is organized in layers; when collagen binds between these layers it creates adhesions, reducing the ability of tissues to slide against one other, and subsequently reducing force production and altering the function of the joints involved.
  3. Plyometric movements can help strengthen fascia. The good news is that the right movement can re-structure the fascia and connective tissue to increase elasticity, enhance strength, improve movement skill and develop the structural integrity to resist injuries like pulls or strains. Traditional strength-training workouts are great for improving size or force output of the contractile element, but may not provide the most effective means for training the fascia and connective tissues. Plyometric movements and movements that move the body in all directions can be effective for strengthening the fascia and connective tissues.
  4. Multi-directional movements help the fascial system adapt. A young child at play is constantly moving in all directions at different speeds, and this forces the fascial system to adapt to various levels of force and lines of pull. Most traditional gym workouts focus on the contractile element, yet it’s the elastic component that’s often the cause of an injury when tissue is stretched beyond its normal length. Doing multi-directional movements like lunging in all directions or doing push-ups with the hands in a variety of positions strengthens the fascia by placing different loads onto the tissues.
  5. Plyometric movements are for young and old athletes. Explosive plyometric movements like skips, hops and jumps aren’t just for youth athletes; during explosive movements the muscle fibers shorten while the surrounding connective tissues lengthen, making dynamic jumping movements effective for strengthening the fascia. When it comes to training the fascial network, the only difference between young and old is that older adults will need to increase the intensity at a slower, more controlled rate of progression. For example, start doing jumps with one to two sets of two to four reps and gradually build up to three to four sets of six to eight reps, allowing for at least one minute of rest between sets.

While many traditional resistance-training workouts can strengthen the contractile element, they don’t provide the stimulus that can help improve the resiliency or optimize the mechanical efficiency of fascia and elastic connective tissues. Movements that challenge you to move in multiple directions or at an explosive tempo not only can help strengthen your connective tissue, but also can be effective for increasing caloric expenditure.

Finally, the most significant benefit of training your fascia is that proper loading through physical activity can influence a younger, more youthful architecture of connective tissue. Who doesn’t want that?

Train your fascia

The following movements engage the elastic connective tissue to help improve overall elasticity, as well as strength between the muscle fibers.

Lateral lunge with trunk rotation

  • Begin standing with feet hip-width apart.
  • Step your right foot out to the right. As your right foot hits the ground, push your hip straight back into a side lunge while pressing your right foot into the ground.
  • Rotate your trunk to the right while pulling your right arm back and reaching across the body with your left hand, to increase the trunk rotation.
  • Rotate back to center and return to the start position.
  • Repeat eight to 12 times to the right, then repeat to the left.
  • Rest for one minute after both sides and complete two to three sets.

Standing medicine-ball lift with rotation

  • Begin standing with your feet approximately hip-width apart, so your right foot is a little more forward than your left. (The toes of your left foot should be even with the heel of your right.)
  • Hold a medicine ball in front of your left hip.
  • Sink back into ypur hips, then push your feet into the ground as you bring the medicine ball across your body from your left hip to over your right shoulder in a diagonal pattern.
  • As the medicine ball passes the midline of your body, rotate your left foot inward toward the midline of your body so your left foot and hip rotate to the right.
  • Bring the medicine ball back down across your body to your left hip, and straighten your left foot and hip.
  • Repeat eight to 12 times from left hip to right shoulder, then alternate right hip to left shoulder.
  • Rest for one minute. Complete two to three sets.

High plank to rotation

  • Start in a high plank position with your hands under your shoulders and your feet approximately hip-width apart.
  • Press your left hand into the ground as you pick up your right hand and rotate to look up to your right, while reaching up with the right hand.
  • Allow your feet and hips to rotate together so they end up pointing the same way you are looking.
  • Rotate back to start and alternate to the opposite side. Perform six to eight repetitions on each side.
  • Rest for one minute. Complete two to three sets.

Photo credit: f9photos, Thinkstock; Tom Casey, box24studio.com