You’re Not Stretching What You Think You’re Stretching – PART I

You know that one time you finished a glorious workout and woke up the next day with that brutal feeling (great feeling) of soreness? No? Leg day? Yeah, that one.

And you thought to yourself, DOMS! Must be Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. If you’ve been training you are familiar with it, and if not definitely look forward to it. Then off we go about our usual recovery routine. For some, it’s stretching, others self myofascial release (SMR) via foam roller, or trigger point balls, or even just general movement and mobility drills to help with recovery.


I’m here to share some knowledge from people who drop knowledge bombs, and hopefully provide some new insight in your quest for that perfect yoga pose. Part I of this article will look at fascia and stretching, while Part II will look at fascia, its relation to DOMS and strength training.

While the debate exists whether stretching or SMR is beneficial for soreness after exercise, not much really explains the idea that both are indeed beneficial in recovery. I’m gonna try, but first…

Some days, I’m as stiff as a truck. Not this one.


SO I asked the question “Why are they both beneficial?”

This leads to the following questions:

1)    When you are doing SMR, what are you working on?

2)    When you are stretching, what are you stretching?

The answer to both questions is “FASCIA”.


There are abundant information on SMR floating around the internet and boy they are helpful. If you’d like to learn more about foam rolling and current research on it, I suggest you take a look at Chris Beardsley’s comprehensive summary here.

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Let’s look at the second question: “When you are stretching, what are you stretching?”

Like I said, the answer is muscles! Just kidding, it’s fascia.


Fascia, what?!

Yeah I had the same face too!


Yup, fascia. Lots of it.

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First let’s figure out what fascia is before we go and try stretching it.

The definition of fascia is rather broad, because well, anatomists haven’t really looked much on this magical tissue until the recent decades. The Federative International Committee on Anatomical Terminology broadly defines fascia as “sheaths, sheets, or other dissectible tissue aggregations.”


More recently Kumka and Bonar (1) did a literature review and proposed a classification system for fascia. They suggested 4 main categories – Separating (ie. Compartmentalizes organs and body regions), Compression (ie, Tensor fascia Lata), Fascicular (ie. Intra/extramuscular, neurovascular) and lastly Linking (ie. IT tract, axillary fascia, thoracolumbar fascia). For this articles purpose, we are mainly interested in the linking fascia. Feel free to read the resource at the bottom.


Linking fascia play a role in movement and stability, is critical in myofascial force transmission (force transfer from muscle to fascia), important in proprioceptive communication throughout the body and creates a significant pretension in the muscles.


Huijing and Baan (2) looked at myofascial force transmission and showed that a blunt dissection of the fascia on Tibialis anterior (shin muscle) resulted in a 10% decrease in force. Full dissection of the compartment resulted in a 47% increase in muscle length while decreasing optimal force. This means that when you get rid of the fascia, you lose force production but your muscle lengthens! When you stretch, you’re stretching the fascia and not the muscle. Makes sense? If not, check the next study.


Vleeming et al(3) looked at the wonderful Straight Leg Raise. You’d expect a ‘hamstring stretch’, maybe glutes or even the calves experience a pull. Remember though, we’re stretching fascia not muscles. Here’s what they found:

  • 240% same side ITB (relative to hamstring)
  • 145% same side lumbar fascia
  • 103% same side lateral crural fascia (extensor retinaculum)
  • 100% same side Achilles
  • 26%   same side plantar fascia
  • 45%   opposite side lumbar fascia

That’s a whole lot of fascia…fascias? Fasciae? You get the point. When you stretch one, the linking fascia transmits the strain along the lines and you affect different parts of your body. Ask me to stretch your hamstrings one time and I can tell you your left big toe is attached to your right shoulder. No kidding.


This is where the work of Thomas Myers on Anatomy Trains becomes so powerful. Noes to toes – Fascia is a whole system that is uninterrupted, linking the whole body. If you’re a health care professional, strength and conditioning coach, a movement therapist, and have not picked up this book, you’re slightly behind.

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So now you’re saying, “Okay Ace, enough knowledge – let’s put this to work!”

While I love putting myself to tears after a good foam rolling session, I also incorporate stretching after workouts. The same goes for my clients.

That’s how we roll.


The stretching that I employ for big muscles groups follows the anatomical myofascial lines. This makes sure that the linked anatomical structures are then also stretched along the line it belongs to, killing two birds with one arrow (I don’t like stones). Furthermore, anecdotally, myself and my clients feel an increase in the tension or the stretch of a certain area as soon as we incorporate the rest of the line. This is probably related to the pretensile function of the fascia on the related muscles.


Stick around for Part II, as I stretch out the fascia and link it to strength training! (see what I did there? :D)



(1)    Kumka MBonar J. J Can Chiropr Assoc. 2012 Sep;56(3):179-91. Fascia: a morphological description and classification system based on a literature review.

 (2)    Huijing PABaan GC. Arch Physiol Biochem. 2001 Apr;109(2):97-109. Myofascial force transmission causes interaction between adjacent muscles and connective tissue: effects of blunt dissection and compartmental fasciotomy on length force characteristics of rat extensor digitorum longus muscle.

 (3)    Vleeming APool-Goudzwaard ALStoeckart Rvan Wingerden JPSnijders CJ. Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 1995 Apr 1;20(7):753-8. The posterior layer of the thoracolumbar fascia. Its function in load transfer from spine to legs.


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