Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Fascia Function: Building a Tough Trunk

Bodybuilding is here to stay. Let’s face it…as long as there is a desire to get strong, grow bigger or look good, bodybuilding will remain an invariable foundation in the world of physique improvement. With numerous training systems available (bodybuilding, power-lifting, functional training, Olympic lifting, endurance training, bodyweight training, etc) to accommodate different ability levels and different outcomes, there is also one constant that remains in the shadows of all gym corners waiting to veer its ugly head. It’s called injury and it can put a screeching halt to any program a lifter follows. Now, this is not another pre-habilitative program article or a movement prep program to follow prior to a workout. The information I am going to share with you is pertinent to gaining size and getting strong by blending in different movements into your current exercise routine.

A typical bodybuilding routine is consisted of a mix n’ match of body parts with a strewn of isolated movements to induce hypertrophy and in some cases, fat loss. Because of the nature of bodybuilding’s split routines and isolated movements, the likelihood of injury is always possible. Most lifters depend on multiple sets and high volumes to elicit the response they desire, but most never engage in, what I call “tightening the corset”. This expression is used to simply reinforce the underlying muscles and fascia to act together while still being able to perform isolated movements.

Fascia is an uninterrupted, three-dimensional web of tissue that extends from head to toe, from front to back, from interior to exterior. It is responsible for maintaining structural integrity; for providing support and protection; and acts as a shock absorber. Fascia is comprised of soft tissue that surrounds muscles, bones, organs, nerves, blood vessels, and other structures. It functions as the body's first line of defense against pathogenic agents and infections. After injury, it is the fascia that creates an environment for tissue repair. [1]

Fascia is a highly adaptable tissue. Due to its elastic property, superficial fascia can stretch to accommodate the addition of adipose tissue that accompanies weight gain. The superficial fascia can also slowly revert back to its original level of tension after weight loss. Deep fascia can contract. What happens during the fight-or-flight response is an example of rapid fascial contraction. In response to a real or imagined threat to the organism, the body responds with a temporary increase in the stiffness of the fascia. Bolstered with tensioned fascia, people are able to perform extraordinary feats of strength and speed under emergency conditions. [2]

Deep fascia also has the ability to relax, however some tension is needed in order to maintain proper function of structures—much like ligaments around a joint. One of the largest areas of fascia is located at the trunk.

Self-myofascial release on the lower back is not a recommended thing when you have little to no muscle mass in that area. However, some experienced lifters and bodybuilders will have very well-developed erector spinae muscle group and can tolerate foam rolling the area. However, we can devise other ways to increase blood flow around the thorocolumbar fascia by using a massage stick.
With a massage stick, roll up and down the length of the lower back to where the glutes attach. Apply considerable pressure to the area by flexing the trunk forward and laterally. Avoid rolling over the bony structure of the spine if you lack muscle mass in that area.

Side-Lying Trunk Rotation Stretch
Some short duration static stretching is beneficial for increasing the cross-sectional area of the oblique muscles that encompass the trunk.

Lie on your side with upper leg bent. Turning at the trunk, press your arms in a semi-push up position with shoulders square. At the same time, make sure to keep your hips pressed into the floor and keep both upper arms parallel with the floor. Hold each position for about 3-5 seconds. Repeat 2-3 times on each side.

Contra-lateral Cable Squats
This exercise is typically used in the physical therapy realm of training, however it is great for “stiffening” the trunk and training the external obliques, erector spinae, and latissimus dorsi as agonist muscle controlling the recoil effect of rotation [5].

Stand to the side of a cable column with a pulley set low or level just below the knee. Grasp the handle and cross your upper arm with the cable. There should be some tension on the cable, so don’t be afraid to add some weight. Also, make sure you stand about 8-10 inches away from the column. Descend as you would into a squat. The idea is to not let the cable pull your torso in the direction of its tension. This is the anti-rotation that we seek for core stability.

Barbell Landmine
No fancy equipment here. Just stick a barbell into a corner of the gym and add weight. Unlike the resisted contra-lateral cable squat where the corset of trunk muscles must stay isometrically contracted to avoid torsion, the landmine offers an isotonic effect for the obliques, pelvis, lats, and leg muscles. This exercise displaces an anterior load laterally and demands the aforementioned muscle group (mainly obliques) to resist the contra-lateral rotation. If done correctly, the hips should not move and the lumbar region should remain stable—with little to no emphasis on the arms. 

To execute, begin with holding the fat end of a barbell (Olympic preferred) and the other end hitched into a corner or fixed object that will not restrict the bar from moving during the exercise, but will anchor the end. With a simple grip (left on top of right or vice-versa), maintain the chest erect and abs braced. Position your feet shoulder width apart and slightly externally rotate the hips (and feet) outwards. This will stabilize the pelvis much easier. Then shift the barbell (you can add weight to the top end) from left to right. The movement should end when you have one arm crossed over your chest. Initiate the return and pause at the center before shifting the bar in the other direction.

In the video clip, notice the lumbar spine never moves and the hips and shoulders remain square. It may be an environment for arm-work, but the experienced lifter should be able to integrate proper trunk stiffening during this exercise—especially the lower the bar comes (to each side). This is the anti-rotation we seek for trunk stability.

Slideboard Prone Jackknifes
We didn’t forget about the rectus abdominals as our anterior trunk ally. Using the slideboard for ab work not only intensifies the movement, but it allows the anterior chain to work together to stabilize and decelerate at the point the body reaches a lengthened lever position. A similar action to the ab wheel, the prone jackknife also creates an autogenic stretch for the thorocolumbar region—the antagonistic of the rectus abdominal sheath fascia. The more explosive the movement, the more muscle action needed from the upper extremities, which makes this, exercise a great unifying piece for the upper and lower body segments.

To execute, position yourself with knees and torso over a slideboard. Keep the hands off the slideboard and placed in a push-up position. When ready, lift the hips high and keep the shoulder girdle stiff. Slide the feet down and powerfully, retract back so that the hips flex and the buttocks rise high. It is very easy to lose the stiffness in the trunk when the feet slide down, so make sure to keep the abs braced and not let the hips over extend.

These exercise and drills can be added into a routine as auxiliary exercises or as movement preparation. They are best combined with vertically loaded exercises or movements that lengthen the body as a long lever arm. For instance:

Contra-lateral Cable Squats
Barbell Landmine
Slideboard Prone Jackknifes
Dead lifts
Split Squats
Step-up Squat
Bench Press Front Squat
Push Press
Standing Military press

Adding these three exercises and the preceding fascia maintenance drills will allow the trunk to remain a strong and functional intersection. Ultimately, it begins with minding the quality of the fascia in the area and understanding the importance of how it can benefit your lifts.


[1] Paoletti, Serge (2006). The Fasciae: Anatomy, Dysfunction & Treatment. Seattle, WA: Eastland Press, 151-161. ISBN 0-939616-53-X.

[2] Paoletti, Serge (2006). The Fasciae: Anatomy, Dysfunction & Treatment. Seattle, WA: Eastland Press, 146-147. ISBN 0-939616-53-X.

[3] Active fascial contractility: Fascia may be able to contract in a smooth muscle-like manner and thereby influence musculoskeletal dynamics. Schleip R, Klingler W, Lehmann-Horn F, Med Hypotheses. 2005;65(2):273-7

[4] The posterior layer of the thoracolumbar fascia. Its function in load transfer from spine to legs. Vleeming A, Pool-Goudzwaard AL, Stoeckart R, van Wingerden JP, Snijders CJ, Spine. 1995 Apr 1;20(7):753-8.

[5] An electromyographic study of unresisted trunk rotation with normal velocity among healthy subjects. Kumar S, Narayan Y, Zedka M., Spine. 1996 Jul 1;21(13):1500-12.


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