But what the heck is fascia anyway? Here, we offer the facts about fascia, including why stretching this tissue is so terrific for your body (and the best fascia stretching exercises to do daily for more mobile limbs and less muscle stiffness).
What Is Fascia?
Fascia is the sheath of connective tissue that encases, separates and protects the organs, bones, neurological structures and cardiovascular vessels in the body, says Winnie Yu, PT, DPT, CPT, a physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments.
"Since fascia surrounds many of the body's main structures, it is naturally meant to stretch as you move," Yu says. In fact, when you move, your fascia functions to reduce friction and stress between your muscles and organs, she adds.
But when fascia becomes irritated or stressed, it can grow tight, stiff or painful and restrict your mobility.
Sometimes this happens when there's a shortage of hyaluronan, a substance found between the different layers of fascia, which supports smooth movement, Yu says. Decreased levels of hyaluronan can occur from a lack of physical activity, overuse of a certain body part or during recovery from a surgery or injury, she explains.
What Is Fascia Stretching?
Thankfully, regular movement and stretching can heal fettered fascia. By introducing load to fascial connective tissues (such as tendons) through targeted stretching, you stimulate collagen, which helps heal structural tissues and aids in injury recovery, Yu says.
Simply put, stretching fascia tissue can tone down tension, stiffness or even pain throughout the body.
Fascia stretching — which may decrease inflammation — can also help prevent mobility problems. That's because keeping your fascia flexible and limber (read: healthy) will enable you to maintain adequate mobility, Yu says. And having good mobility (i.e., ease of movement and range of motion) can reduce your risk for injuries and improve performance in and out of the gym.
3 Best Fascia Stretching Exercises
The following three amazing moves will stretch your major muscles and accompanying fascia from head to toe, hitting all the hot spots that tend to get tense (including the fascia in your feet and back).
You can do all the moves in order — for a complete, full-body, fascia stretching routine — or separately when you want to target an especially tight body part (lower back, we're looking at you) that needs a little extra TLC.
If you're dealing with an acute injury (or something that developed relatively recently), aim to do them twice per day, starting with round one in the morning (or at least after a period of inactivity), Yu says.
Doing your fascia stretching exercises first thing (i.e., before loading the tissues with your normal activity) will help limit the microtrauma and associated inflammation that may build up throughout the day, she explains.
For those doing static fascia stretches as a preventative measure to reduce the risk of injury, pain or stiffness, try tacking them onto your post-workout cooldown.
Either way, for the best results, perform 2 to 3 reps of each stretch for 20 to 30 seconds.
1. Kneeling Plantar Fascia Stretch
This is one of the best stretching exercises for the plantar fascia — the band of tissue that runs from your heel to the ball of your foot that provides arch support and absorbs shock.
When the plantar fascia is irritated, it can cause a condition called plantar fasciitis, which may develop from overuse, faulty foot mechanics (like flat feet) or inflammation along the bottom of the foot or heel, Yu says.
Stretching the plantar fascia can help prevent or manage pain.
- Start off on your hands and knees with your toes flexed behind you.
- Slowly walk your hands closer to your body as you sit your hips farther back (eventually sitting back on your heels).
- You should feel a stretch along the soles of your feet. Hold this position for 20 to 30 seconds, then slowly return to the starting position.
2. Upper Trunk Rotation Stretch
Also known as the thread the needle stretch, this move primarily helps lengthen the rotators of the upper part of the trunk, but it also stretches your thoracolumbar fascia (a diamond-shaped area of connective tissue that covers the muscles in your thoracic and lumbar regions) and your latissimus dorsi (the large, flat and triangular muscle that covers your lower back), Yu says.
Stretching fascia in this area is stellar for anyone who experiences upper (and to some degree lower) back stiffness or tightness.
- Start in a quadruped position with your wrists and elbows stacked under your shoulders and your knees stacked under your hips.
- Cross your left arm under and reach toward the right until your left shoulder rests on the ground.
- Extend your right arm forward as much as possible just before the point of discomfort.
- Hold this position for 20 to 30 seconds, then slowly return to the starting position.
- Repeat on the opposite side.
3. Lower Trunk Rotation Stretch
This is the ultimate stretch for people with stiff, tight low back issues since it helps elongate the rotators of the lower part of the trunk as well as the lower portion of the thoracolumbar fascia, Yu says.
- Start by lying on your back with both legs extended in front of you.
- With your left arm relaxed to the side at shoulder level, bend your left leg and slowly rotate it toward the right.
- Gently grab the top of your left knee with your right hand and hold.
- Maintain this position for 20 to 30 seconds, then slowly return to the starting position.
- Repeat on the opposite side.