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Fascia Stretching - Pros and Cons

Fascia Connecting Muscle

One of the most compelling arguments I've heard to encourage stretching is that it helps grow muscle. The argument isn't for traditional stretching, but rather something called "Fascia Stretching." To see how it could work, you first have to understand what fascia is.

Everybody has a band or sheath of connective tissue that supports and binds their body together. That connective tissue is called fascia. Fascia forms an encasement that surrounds muscle fibers.

Promoters of fascia stretching claim that even if you feed and train your muscles properly, if the fascia is too tight it will restrict the muscle growth.

Pillows A common way to describe it is with pillowcases. If you try and stuff a large pillow into a small pillowcase, the pillow is compressed to fit into the smaller space. Fascia is the pillowcase and your muscle is the pillow. Fascia that's too small or stiff constricts the muscles and prevents their growth.

The belief is if you stretch the fascia, it'll act like a balloon. The first time you try and blow up a balloon, it can be difficult. But once that balloon has been stretched out, it inflates much easier. Theoretically, fascia is the same as that balloon. Stretch it out, and when you increase the size of your muscle, the fascia is relaxed and won't hold growth back.

To prove their theory is valid, many boosters of fascia stretching point to an experiment conducted at the University of Texas in 1993. The study was by J. Antonio and W. J. Gonyea and it was titled, "Progressive stretch overload of skeletal muscle results in hypertrophy before hyperplasia." In that study, birds had weights attached to one of their wings to stretch them. In between each "weight" session, the birds were allowed to rest and recuperate for a couple of days.

Over several days investigators would alternate heavier weights with days of rest. Then the researchers looked for changes in muscle mass, fiber length, fiber area and fiber number. Not surprisingly, the wings that had weights attached to them showed an increase in muscle mass when compared with the wings that were left alone.

Supporters of fascia stretching claim that the act of stretching the bird's wings (with weight), gave the muscle more room and that's why they grew more.

I'm going to go out on a limb when I say this, but I'm guessing that the act of putting WEIGHT on a birds' wing will build muscle. Attach something to a birds' wing that pulls it down and presumably that bird will resist the pull. Resistance is the basic action required to build muscle.

To figure out if fascia stretching is truly beneficial for increased muscle growth, researchers will need to test several groups of people. The first group would just be stretched. The second group would be stretched and then given a resistance training workout. The third group would be given only a resistance training workout.

If the group that stretched and engaged in resistance training saw more muscle growth than the resistance only group, THEN we could say fascia stretching is beneficial. Here's the strange part.

It's been seventeen years since the stretching study was done on birds. Dozens of companies have released books, DVD's and online training courses instructing people how to stretch their fascia "for muscle growth." But as of May 2010, nobody has bothered to clinically test the idea and see if it's truly valid or works on people.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't stretch your fascia. There are several medically beneficial reasons to do it.

Benefits of Fascia Stretching

It reduced pain in 94% of patients who suffered from chronic plantar fasciitis and it helps people who have Iliotibial band syndrome. Fascia stretching has also been shown to help alleviate pain in connecting muscles and joints. When pain is decreased, workouts tend to be more effective.

For those of you who want to use foam rolling as a way to increase muscle mass, don't bother. One of the theoretical benefits of foam rolling is that it can help relieve or loosen "knots" in the muscle. Then during strength training exercises, the entire length of the muscle is worked. (This is loosely based on the Huxley Sliding Filament Theory.)

Please note: This has NOT been documented in a research setting, despite numerous books and articles singing its praises. Until it's been proven in clinical research, don't waste your time using this to increase muscle mass. Use it to reduce pain in connecting muscles and joints.

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Updated 3/29/2011