Friday, September 28, 2012

Fascia, Anatomy Trains, and Tensegrity

TSYR and other more internal martial arts aims to develop the body in  such a way that it becomes more connected and better aligned to the spine and centre/hara. Some work has been done around what is actually being conditioned by this training. This brings me to talk about the fascia of the body.

The following information was gleaned from an old aikiweb thread and also involves information from some other sources (thanks to my instructor).

This will be a long article but is interesting all the same. This from the aikiweb discussion:

During discussions of internal power/internal strength, we have heard the term "fascia" mentioned as an explanation of what was actually happening, but no one really went into depth about it. So we went out onto the internet and put together a few different concepts we found there regarding fascia, holistic body concepts and sports medicine.

Maybe this is all old news and has already been discussed before.

1: Fascia:

Everyone who has eaten tuna sushi knows what fascia tissue is. The fascia are layers of white stringy fibers running along the muscles. Very chewy.

What is most interesting is that the fascia form large networks or structures within the body, some running from the feet all the way to the top of the head.

The major fascia structures are, for our purposes:

Superficial Front Line
Superficial Back Line
Deep Front Line
Spiral Line
Lateral Line
Deep Arm Back Line

Diagrams can be found at the following link.

Every muscle and organ in the body sits in a bag of tissue called fascia (it's the gristle that butchers cut off before they sell the meat). The bags are twisted at the ends just like garbage bags and also contain fibers that penetrate through the muscles to the underlying bones. The twisted ends form tendons, which have a greater tensile strength than the sides of the bags. If you pick up a full garbage bag from the side it tears but the twisted end does not due to the differences in tensile and shear strength.

The fascia contains contractile and elastic stretchable components as well as blood vessels and sensory nerves. The characteristics of the fascia (thickness, contractibility, viscoelasticity, sensory capability etc) are variable and can be affected by physical training or specific exercises. The sensory components are the major end organs for proprioceptive -- knowing where parts of your body are in space without looking at them. A simple example of this is closing your eyes placing one hand above your head and then touching that hand with the other hand while keeping your eyes closed. You would not be able to carry out that action without the help of fascia and myofascial trains.

The elastic components can be stretched and held in tension. While stretched out, they can assist with the structural integrity of the body. Think of a trampoline or the canvas sail on a yacht or the unbendable arm in Aikido. Also, if they are released from tension suddenly, then the stored elastic energy of the fascia, like a rubber band snapping back, can be accessed and directed.

These fascia springs can hold things together (keep you upright), aid in your balance and posture, and work with your muscles to add power to your movements. They can even recruit organs in the process since the deep frontal line fascial train connects the legs with the back, torso, neck and head muscles as well as the organs of the abdomen and chest. Everyone knows that you can jump higher on a trampoline. The energy still came from you, but the extra lift came from releasing the stored elastic energy in the stretchy parts of the trampoline.

All but one of these fascia structures run through our "center". To put tension (one way is with the feeling of opposite tension on diametrically opposed areas of your body) in them and stretch them around, we can use our waist and stomach muscles. Accessing the stored elastic power and movement of the major fascia groups can be accomplished by Dan Tien turning or moving your spine in and out (ming meng popping) while maintaining structural integrity of the lumbar-lower back spine to avoid injuries and overall body balance (maintain kuzushi).

Visualizing which fascia structure you need in a movement (example, if you decide that it is the Superficial Back Line supporting the load during Kokyu-Dosa), may be useful. Intent and proprioception can play a role.

Interestingly, the lines of tension and force described in some of the Aunkai exercises (and other similar types) seem to follow the major fascia structures.

Most simple "Ki Tricks" can be explained in terms of controlling the fascia structures. For example, by activating the Lateral Line fascia (running from your arm to the back) and the Superficial Back Line, you can perform the unbendable arm trick.

Knowledge of the fascia structures and how they work should improve one's study of movement.

2: Anatomy Trains:

Anatomy trains (or myofascial trains) are lined-up groups of muscle and fascia working together for a more effect end result. An example of how it works would be hanging from a bar by one hand, and the arm muscles, shoulder muscles, back muscles all line up and connect to the pelvis so that the load is not carried just by the arm muscles. Also movement of the arms in spirals in Aikido lines these trains up while arm movement straight back and forth firing the biceps muscle and pulling moves the trains out of alignment.

Check out the links at:

Are these myofascial trains real or just a concept?

The below link shows how these chains are connected anatomically. Note: Based on experiments with cadavers, so not for the faint of heart.

This research proves that there are actual physical connections of tissue (that can be measured and described) between muscle groups that were previously considered to be isolated from one another.

These myofascial trains, just like everything else, can be conditioned and strengthened with training. This conditioning requires proper alignment and cannot be done too quickly at first as multiple body parts have to move together in a coordinated fashion. If you practice too quickly at first the body parts will fall out of alignment during the course of the movement. Think of yoga or tai chi and the speed at which they are practiced.

So proper training will physically strengthen the soft tissue connections and improve your coordination and awareness of them (with proprioception). End result, Unified Body. One thing moves, everything moves (Whole Body Force).

3: Myofascia Trains

The myofascia are the very small threads of fascia that surround and penetrate individual muscles. With high resolution ultrasound, these fascia can be studied, and how they respond to different types of training is really fascinating.

The following link has a great article on this.

Diagram from Terra Rosa e-magazine, Issue no. 7, page 4

In Graphic A, we see the muscle and fascial condition of your average non-training couch potato.

In Graphic B we see the condition in the average weight lifter/body builder. The serial and transverse fascial fibers are thicker relative to the couch potato in Graphic A but the parallel (the ones needed to have several groups of muscles work together) are no different than those in the couch potato.

In Graphic C, the parallel and extra muscle fascial fibers are thickened or developed, but muscle and other fascial fibers are not. This is the condition we see in Yoga practitioners (who are flexible and coordinated, but are not known for having explosive power).

In Graphic D, from loaded stretching, we see that everything is developed except for the transverse fibers.

This is critically important. If the transverse fibers are on, then the muscle feels tense. If there is tension, then your body is not really relaxed and you cannot generate waves of power in one part of your body and transmit it to another.

So with loaded stretching, graphic D shows us that are muscles can be fully activated (can move with power) and be relaxed at the same time. This is the ideal condition for all Budo practice including Aikido.

The myofascia can be trained and conditioned, so over time, the training can increase the activation of these fibers. Someone who lifts weights all the time will probably have a very hard time not being tense while doing budo since that is how his muscles have been conditioned. Someone who only does loaded stretching may have a hard time generating the localized shear muscle power (via transverse fibers) to open a can of tuna in their own kitchen when they are older, but throwing people around on the mats will be a piece of cake.

The type of training (weight lifting, yoga, loaded stretching) actually changes your muscles (well, the myofascia in and around them) and how they function. Knowledge of waza is not enough; your body has to be conditioned at the cellular level to perform high level budo.

Relaxing and generating power is just not about "willing" your body to relax or finding some spiritual place in your mind. It has to be trained into your body over time.

4: Tensegrity

Tensegrity is concept of three dimensional structures being held together with elastic tension. The rigid members of the structure add stiffness and strength, while the elastic structures add a springy strength and distribute the load of any impact over the whole structure.

The "old" model of the human body was that it was the bones creating the structure and rubbery tendons and cartilage acted like soft cement to hold it together, (brick and mortar model). The "new" tensegrity model is that the soft tissues act like cables holding the bones and the rest of the body together with elastic tension while the bones actually float in space. The more elastic the tissues are, and the higher the amount of tension there is, the stronger the entire structure becomes.

So what does this mean to Budo practioners?

Well, we want to expand our bodies and not have compression in any areas. We will be able to absorb more power and release more power by putting all of our body in elastic tension. A well known example of this in practice is the basic forward roll. We stretch out our bodies and arms to absorb the energy of hitting the mats by stretching the deep back arm myofascial train. We do not fold up into a fetal ball, taking away the stretch and elastic tension from our arms, back and legs. By stretching out our arms and making them feel "springy", the force gets distributed throughout our entire body via Tensegrity.

Of course there are different levels of Tensegrity, depending on your training.

Wrapping it all together (in a collagen bow):

At the end of the day, we have our large fascia structures, such as the Deep Front Line and Superficial Back Line, which with training have become stronger and more elastic. We can control the stretch of these fascia with our posture. We have trained our muscles to work together to form anatomy trains that we can access. The combination of the stretched fascia and the anatomy trains working together create a "whole body" superstructure from Tensegrity. If someone has Tensegrity, then all body parts have elastic tension and no compression; pushing on any area will result in the whole structure absorbing the push and springing back on it (kuzushi on contact). The feeling will be the attacker "loses" at the moment of contact. Of course by changing the tension in different areas of the body, an adept can alternately make their body feel "soft and absorbing" or "hard and springy" at will.

With the loaded stretching, the myofascia have been programmed to have the series and parallel fibers on, but transverse off. When this is combined with anatomy trains, a movement in one part of your body (dan tien, waist), can be efficiently transmitted to the hands or arm without the arms or shoulders tensing or feeling "on". Significant amounts of elastic energy can be stored in muscles that are not really that large, from a body builder's perspective.

All these effects together could be called Ki or Chi.

Loaded Stretching:

So what is loaded stretching? Well, it really seems to be what Akuzawa is teaching with his Aunkai curriculum, it is the Nairiki exercises (at least the few ones that I saw) that TSYR has, and the exercises that Dan Harden is teaching in his workshops. Even the classic breathing exercises in many Aikido warm-ups contain loaded stretching.

Unfortunately, it is easy to perform these exercises incorrectly and not get the full benefits. If you treat them like an aerobics exercise and you are not getting a "loaded stretch" throughout the movement, then you are not going to change your myofascial fibers too much. You will not condition your myofascial trains to work together either. I will step aside and let the experts discuss these exercises in detail, but obviously it has to be deeper than just having the hands and feet in the right position.

When I first saw the Aunkai exercises demonstrated, I was skeptical that they would have much benefit. Now that I have read the articles on how the myofascai work and how anatomy trains can be strengthened, I am now much more open to these types of exercises.

So if there is anyone else out there who had some skepticism about the benefits that these specialized exercises promised, well there now seems to be some scientific evidence that they can work.

There is still an "art" to the martial arts. You still have to put in thousands of hours of blood sweat and tears to get anywhere. Nothing here is a shortcut.

Ki, Ying Yang and those other terms are the terminology that martial artists in the Bronze Age used to describe their high level abilities. It may be useful to modernize our terminology based on science when describing our bodies in a Budo context.


Modern sports medicine research and concepts can help to explain some of the high level martial abilities of the Elders in the Art.

Specific types of training can change your body at the cellular level and put "spring" in your muscles without them being tense.

Different parts of our body are physically connected with soft tissues that can be strengthened and controlled. Tensegrity unifies all the forces in a head to toe fashion.

Maybe, just maybe, we can incorporate some of the "Fascia Fitness" concepts into our own training and improve both our bodies and our techniques. That would be awesome.

Total Disclaimer: I do not claim to have any special knowledge or abilities in this. I am just summarizing what I found on the internet, with some minor commentary to connect the dots. The transverse myofascial in my shoulders are noticeably active during all of my techniques, there is no measureable tensegrity in my body, I have little conscious control over my fascia structures and they are not very springy and finally my anatomy trains are not well developed at all. I can provide references to back up these claims.

A special thanks to Dr. Aaron Stone for helping to coauthor this article. The disclaimer is all mine though.

Byron Foster

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