When we think of fitness, what first comes to mind? How fast and far we can run? How much weight we can lift in the gym? How fast we can finish those intervals? Common thought is physical fitness is only achievable through hard effort, but cardiovascular and weight lifting activities are only a small component of it.

Mobility and myofascial release are becoming more common buzz words in fitness communities. Mobility is having the entire range of motion through a joint, whether it is the shoulder, ankle, hip or spine. What part does mobility play in overall fitness?

A test can help determine your mobility. Lift your arms as far overhead as you can go without arching your back. Can your arms go straight up and past your ears? If they do without arching your back, the shoulders exhibit full range of motion. If your back arches or arms do not go past your ears, the shoulders lack full range of motion.

When full range of motion is lacking, it may open up your body to unwanted injury and compensation. Those injuries may not occur only in the gym; performing a simple everyday task such as reaching overhead into a high cabinet with an arched back can lead to back or shoulder injury. When the shoulders have full range, the chance of injury is reduced.

It’s easy to change your mobility with a little time, persistence and patience. Think back to the stretching you learned in elementary and middle school with the obligatory 30-second hold after doing a quick walk or jog around the gym or track. You were instructed to complete stretching all the main muscle groups and then move into the true workout or activity. But what about stretching for change, to achieve the full range of motion you are seeking? This is where myofascial release comes in.

John F. Barnes is a physical therapist, the founder of the myofasical release approach, and has been teaching the technique for over 40 years. He continues to update his teaching based on what works in clinic and what the research shows. His approach can help provide effective change to minimize risk of injury and rid the body of pain.

The fascia is the three-dimensionsal spider web that holds the body together with fluid moving through it. When fascial restrictions happen with either repetitive motion or injury, the fluid hardens like cement, not allowing movement through this spider web. This results in decreased range of motion and possibly discomfort and/or pain.

The principles of myofascial release are easy and research supports it; a five-minute hold at 3 percent sheer force—pressure to the first resistance felt in the body—results in permanent change in the fluid, causing the cement to melt into liquid. This is done either with direct pressure to a tender area of the body using a ball or through a stretch, elongating the fascia for five minutes.

However, this type of stretching or self-myofascial release is not to take the place of the 30-second stretching recommended to be done before activities. It is done at the end of the workout to provide lasting change.

Here are two elongation stretches to try at home:

Posterior fascia elongation (whole back of body release):

  • Sit against the wall with a pillow behind the back, hips against the wall. Let legs straighten in front, relaxing into a comfortable position.
  • Place hands at side of your body, letting the shoulders slump forward.
  • Beginning with the head, slowly bring it forward, moving down the spine vertebra by vertebra like a strand of pearls.
  • When the body begins to feel the first pull, pause and settle into the stretch, letting it soften and then increase the forward fold as the fascia releases.
  • Continue for five minutes, stretching further with each release, breathing and settling into the body.
  • Slowly return to sitting upright.

Anterior fascia elongation (whole front of body release):

  • Using a 36-inch foam roller, lie with it vertically along the spine with the pelvis and head supported.
  • Keeping knees bent and the low back on the foam roller, place hands at your sides on floor, palms up. Begin to elongate out through finger tips, keeping the hands on the floor.
  • Bring your arms out to the side and up towards the head.
  • When the body begins to feel the first pull on each side, and it may not be symmetrical, stop and wait, allowing it to soften.
  • Continue to raise hands towards the top of your head without losing the elongation, increasing the stretch as the fascia softens and releases.
  • Continue for five minutes, stretching further with each release, breathing and settling into the body.Remember, fitness is about strength, cardiovascular endurance and mobility. We need all three components to have a healthy body where the fascia’s fluid is free to do its job, preventing injury.

Megan E. Richey, PT, DPT, is the owner and physical therapist at Radiant Physical Therapy in Ridgefield, located in the Ridgefield Health and Wellness Center. She can be reached by calling 860-898-0879 or emailing RadiantPhysicalTherapy.com.