Dossier: Exercise videos

Fascia training: supple and pain-free

Connective tissue is an important sensory organ that can be the root cause of many different aches and pains. Exercises with a foam roller loosen knots and thus tension – and ensure that your musculoskeletal system is fit and healthy. It’s not just for sports people.

Text: Julie Freudiger; photo: Sebastian Doerk

The human body is like a grapefruit. At least when it comes to the fascia. If you cut through the fruit in the middle, you’ll see the white membranes that divide the flesh into individual slices, as well as a softer skin that surrounds the whole fruit and holds it together. In the same way, in our body we have a dense network of white fibres – the connective tissue – that surround our muscles, tendons, organs and other body structures. The fascia run through our whole organism, connecting everything together. Without them our skeleton would collapse.

What do fascia do?

For a long time, experts believed that the connective tissue was just “dead” filler and support material. It is only relatively recently that fascia came to the attention of the scientific world, along with the discovery that they contain many receptors. This means that they perceive stimuli and pass them on. In other words, fascia are an important sensory organ that is important for both body perception and the sensation of pain. The function and composition of the fascia change depending on the area of the body in which the connective tissue is found. The fibres can have the tensile strength of steel, but can also be soft and supple and stretch to twice their length. Fascia cushion and protect organs, stabilise the body, transmit force and are significantly involved in movement processes. They are also essential for cell metabolism. 

Knots cause pain

“If you don’t move, you seize up”, says fascia researcher Robert Schleip to explain how pain builds up. Studies have shown that the collagen fibres in the fascia have a kind of lattice structure. The more stable this structure is, the more supple and functional the connective tissue. This structure becomes matted and chaotic due to ageing, injuries and lack of physical activity. This matting reduces the elasticity of the connective tissue, restricts motion and causes pain. It is interesting to note that fascia react to stress. More recent research findings show that there is a direct connection between pain in the musculoskeletal system and our state of mind. And there is increasing evidence that the thoracolumbar fascia in our back may be one of the main causes of back pain

Foam roller for the fascia

To ease or prevent knots and tension, there is a simple and efficient remedy: fascia love exercise and stretching. They want to be challenged and tested. Pressure and tension is just as important. In addition to getting plenty of varied exercise in your daily routine, a foam roller is therefore an effective aid. By rolling on a hard foam roller or ball, the connective tissue is squeezed out like a sponge before being replenished and renewed with fresh tissue fluid. The fibres behave like matted hair: At first it is almost impossible to comb through it, but after several passes the hairs start to fall back in one direction. In the same way, the fibres are restructured and ordered by rolling – and thus become more elastic and supple.

Anyone who is healthy can use a foam roller to massage their connective tissue with no problems. To do so, roll slowly with well-dosed pressure back and forth or pause and hold on individual spots for a moment. Don’t push past mild discomfort into real pain. You should be able to breathe comfortably at all times. The rule “less is more” also applies generally to the duration and frequency of fascia training. Using a foam roller twice a week for around ten minutes is enough to feel the benefits. Older or chronically ill people, e.g. those suffering from rheumatism, or people who have problems with veins or lymph nodes, thrombosis, varicose veins, acute injuries, or who are recovering from surgery should only use a foam roller on consultation with their doctor. 

In all shapes and colours

Foam rollers and balls are available in a wide range of sizes, shapes and levels of hardness. Anyone starting with fascia training will probably find it easier to use softer designs. Rollers with nubs or grooves enhance metabolic stimulation, smaller rollers are suitable for smaller areas of the body such as the forearms. For the back, there are rollers with a groove in the middle as well as double balls, as the gap takes the pressure off the vertebra. Foam balls are designed to treat individual pressure points and the chest, but you can also use a tennis or rubber ball. Although there is a wide range of foam rollers and equipment available on the market today, to start you only need a roller and a ball. As is so often the case, less is more when it comes to foam rolling, too. 

Recommended reading

The book “ Fascial fitness” by Robert Schleip provides a simple guide to the complex world of fascia. It leads you through a series of exercises for beginners and athletes. 

“Fascial Fitness. How to Be Vital, Elastic and Dynamic in Everyday Life and Sport” by Robert Schleip und Johanna Bayer: North Atlantic Books; 2nd edition (6 July 2021)