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“Tendon Strength”: Fascia, the Sinew Channels & Internal Martial Arts – Part 3

The connection between traditional Chinese ideas about the Sinew Channels and tendon strength and power and recent discoveries about fascia and its relation to health and fitness are fascinating. This is the third in a series of four articles that explores some of these connections.

Read Part 1 of this article

Read Part 2 of this article

Fluids & Fascia

In embryology, the movement of interstitial fluid precedes the development of the cardiovascular system. Water molecules are a very convenient medium to transport biomolecules and to carry out various cellular functions. Research has identified the five parts of what appears to be an integrated fluid system in mammals:

  1. The Primo Vasculature Fluid (PVF) with protein precursors and micro cells held in the Primo Vasculature System (PVS).
    Blood and its constituents in the cardiovascular system.
  2. Extracranial Interstitial Fluid (ISF) whose vehicle had a very irregular structure―the interstitium all over the body.
  3. The Cerebrospinal Fluid within the brain ventricles and spinal canal.
  4. The Extra-Cranial Lymphatic System, which drains interstitial fluid and joins the subclavian vein. [1]
  5. In the fetus, Primo Vasculature Fluid may be the first fluid system to develop and join to the not yet well-defined cardio-vascular system.

Distinctive tube-like structures, forming a water carrying system, have been found in different parts of the body in animals. The fluid contents (water plus the solutes and insoluble peptides/proteins) in different parts of the body are different. Moreover, the ratios of the amounts of bound and free water in organs such as skin, Achilles tendon, tracheal cartilage, muscle and others vary from site to site. [2]

Bound water is now considered to be a 4th state of water (liquid, solid and gas being the familiar three). Dr. Gerald Pollack researched muscles and how they contract. It struck him as odd that the most common ideas about muscle contraction did not involve water, despite the fact muscle tissue consists of 99 percent water molecules. [3] Pollack explored how water in its “bound “ state affects the flow of fluids through fascial tissue. He found that in healthy fascia, a large percentage of the extracellular water is in a state of “bound water”, as opposed to “bulk water” (water in its liquid form), where its behavior can be characterized as that of a liquid crystal. [4]

Interstitial fluids move rhythmically through the body and the fascia, driven by the respiration, which effectively creates fluid waves within the body. Cells in areas where there is resistance or restriction to this interstitial fluid movement are not getting sufficient nutrients and are not effectively disposing of cellular wastes. These areas become “dead spots”, places where the hydrodynamic fluctuation is not penetrating. [5]

The movement of fluids through connective tissue can be seen in the amazing anatomical work of Dr. Jean-Claude Guimberteau. Guimberteau graphically describes the fractal-like alignment of the fibers of the fascial matrix, which creates a web in which all parts of the matrix distribute loads and forces. In Guimberteau’s videos of living tissue, one can see small pearls of liquid move through the tiny individual fascial fibers. [6]

Fascial System Model from the video: Strolling Under the Skin by Dr. Jean-Claude Guimberteau.


These ideas are not unlike Chinese Medicine’s view of the Triple Heater (San Jiao) as a passageway for fluids, and speculation that the fascia and the San Jiao may have congruence. They also tie into Senior Acupuncturist Wang Ju Yi’s analogy of the channels and collaterals to those of a river (mentioned in Part 1 of this series of articles).

Laboratory studies on inflammation have indicated that the principal cause of inflammation seems to be due to mechanical pressure, including blunt trauma, foreign bodies, vibrations, and chronic pressure of low intensity. The basic mechanism of inflammation by pressure is most probably through tissue hypoxia. Exposed to pressure, hydrophobic matter (“water hating” – matter that cannot bond with water) is compressed, and oxygen is squeezed out. After pressure is released, the elasticity of the tissue does not rebound immediately and the tissue remains shrunk with diminished oxygen for a period of time afterward. Hypoxia may then generate inflammatory changes through the direct impairment of mitochondrially mediated anabolic (cell building) processes and consequent metabolic shift towards catabolism (cell tearing down). [7]

Fascial movement, compression and release, stretching and relaxing, in conjunction with deep abdominal breathing, are mechanisms for restoring fluid movement to areas of the fascia experiencing a reduced flow of fluids.

During application of mechanical load – whether in a stretching manner or via local compression – a significant amount of water is pushed out of the more stressed zones, similar to squeezing a sponge. With the release that follows, this area is again filled with new fluid, which comes from surrounding tissue as well as the local vascular network. The sponge-like connective tissue can lack adequate hydration at neglected places. Application of external loading to fascial tissues can result in a refreshed hydration of such places in the body.

In healthy fascia, a large percentage of the extracellular water is in a state of bound water as opposed to bulk water. Much pathology – such as inflammatory conditions, edema or the increased accumulation of free radicals and other waste products, tends to go along with a shift towards a higher percentage of bulk water within the ground substance. Recent indications suggest that when local connective tissue gets squeezed like a sponge, and subsequently rehydrated, some of the previous bulk water zones may then be replaced by bound water molecules, which could lead to a more healthy water constitution within the ground substance. [8]


Some trainers, yoga teachers and body-workers suggest to their patients and students that it is necessary to “hydrate” the fascia by drinking eight to ten glasses of water a day. Drinking eight to ten glasses of water daily can, according to “experts”, boost concentration, improve one’s complexion, make the brain work better, aid concentration, and help detoxification. So increasingly one sees people carrying around bottles of water and sipping water constantly.

Unfortunately, these benefits have not been substantiated, and there is much evidence that excessive consumption of liquids does more harm than good. In Chinese medicine, excessive consumption of fluids is thought to overload the kidneys, and over time, can weaken them. Daoist Physician Stephen Chang cautions that the excess liquids tend to be stored in the tissues. This water retention allows wastes to collect, which can affect the nervous system. Dr. Chang explains that this is why people with chronic water retention often appear “nervous and edgy.” [9] Professor Mark Whiteley, a vascular surgeon, feels that drinking excessive amounts of liquid over an extended period of time resets the brain’s chemistry to expect excessive amounts of water. People then feel they can’t go without constant sips of water and “feel panicky if they have to go without for even short lengths of time.” Professor Whiteley, is also convinced that over-hydration is linked to excessive sweating. [10]

In the case of fascia, if the ground substance is dehydrated, shrunken, and solidified, it cannot uptake water and oxygen, so consuming more fluids will not necessarily change the situation. If we believe Dr. Pollack’s theories about “bound water”, it is obvious that drinking more “bulk water” will not necessarily aid one’s fascia.

How much water should one drink? The general consensus is that you should drink when you are thirsty, and if you are sweating a lot and exercising, particularly in a dry climate, you will need to drink more. In other words, use common sense. On a daily basis, most experts agree with the ancient Chinese idea, drink no more than 6-8 cups a day, a number which includes the liquids contained in the foods you are eating.

Fascial Receptivity and Plasticity

Fascial plasticity cannot be understood by mechanical properties alone. Recent research has indicated that Fascia is densely innervated by mechanoreceptors. Myofascial tissue receptors respond not only to pressure and mechanical tension, but also may tie in with the perception of pain and proprioception. These “mechanoreceptors” are found in dense connective tissue (muscle fascia, tendons, ligaments). These receptors are likely responsible for the ability of fascia to change and adapt by softening and elongation of the collagen fibers. [11]

Connective tissue is able to adapt and adjust its matrix in accordance with the demands made upon it. Healthy connective tissue has undulations of an elastic quality, while less healthy tissue is flatter and less elastic. Fascial researchers have noted the ability of a gazelle or a kangaroo to jump much farther than can be explained by the force of contraction of their leg muscles. This seems to be due to the elastic storage capacity of their fascia. High-resolution ultrasound examination has shown that human fascia has a similar kinetic storage ability that comes into play not only when we run and jump, but also when we walk. In these kinds of movements, the length of the muscle fibers changes very little – it is the lengthening and shortening of the fascial elements that produces most of the actual movement. [12]

In younger people there tend to stronger undulations, like elastic springs. within their collagen fibres, In older people, these fibers appear more flattened and inelastic.

It is of interest that the elastic movement quality in young people is associated with a typical two-directional lattice arrangement of their fasciae, similar to a woman’s stocking, In contrast, as we age and usually lose the springiness in our gait, the fascial architecture takes on a more haphazard and multi-directional fibre arrangement. Animal experiments have also shown that lack of movement quickly fosters the development of additional cross-links in fascial tissues. The fibres lose their elasticity and do not glide against one another as they once did; instead, they become stuck together and form tissue adhesions, and in the worst cases they actually become matted together. [13]


Although inactivity appears to negatively impact fascial health, it has been noted that animals do not exercise to maintain their physical capabilities. Dr, Luiz Fernano Bertolucci notes, for example, that long striding movements will remain possible only to the extent that they are fully expressed. Yet most of the time animals are not expressing their optimal movement capabilities – in fact they only do this rarely, when they need to.

Many animals also sleep or nap a fair amount of the time. Sleep imposes regular periods of immobilization, which allows the development of fibrous adhesions, what Gil Hedely PhD calls “the Fuzz.” These adhesions interfere with the sliding surfaces between connective tissue. Each morning when you wake up yawn and stretch, you “melt” the Fuzz and free up the tissue. Each day that you don’t stretch, move and exercise, there is more buildup of Fuzz. [14]

How do animals in the wild maintain musculoskeletal health? They perform no stretching routines and yet still maintain their capabilities. Dr. Bertolucci and others have noticed that animals perform spontaneous pandiculation – shivering, shaking and stretching movements that are largely involuntary, and do not involve cortical stimulation. [15] Pandiculation is often defined as ”a stretching and stiffening of the trunk and extremities, as when fatigued and drowsy or on waking, often accompanied by yawning.” This is what most of us do when we arise in the morning to shake off any stiffness acquired during sleep.

Pandiculation in animals involves involuntary deep muscle co-contractions, in which the soft tissue actively elongates against the bony structures as the joints are stiffened. The contractions and movements form a sequential pattern from a mosaic of reflexes, the sequence of which can neither be anticipated nor purposely performed, in the same way that a spontaneous yawn is different from a purposeful one. This is interesting particularly when we recall that Wei Qi, as it moves through the Sinew Channels, allows the individual to respond in a reflexive and spontaneous manner without volition or cognition, and that Wei Qi and the Sinew Channels generate an immediate ability to respond to changes in an individual’s environment.

Dr. Bertolucci goes onto say that Eastern martial arts appear to have a connection with pandiculation:

Qi Gong, for instance, requires the body to be fortified with automatic (involuntary) tonus in the deep postural muscles at the same time the superficial muscles associated with voluntary activity are relaxed. Under these conditions, the body is integrated as a whole and all its parts relate with one another in movement. These conditions cannot be produced by voluntary motor action, but emerge spontaneously with appropriate states of attention in which mechano-sensing is enhanced. A person in such state could take advantage of elastic potential energy stored in the body when performing a blow. This characteristic of Qi Gong suggests a tensegrity-based mode of action with a high pre-stress level. In fact, potentiation of performance has already been shown in pre-stretched muscles, due to their ability to store potential elastic energy. [16]

These ideas are interesting especially in relation to Qi Gong exercises and martial arts movements, in which one holds postures while internally sensing spontaneous movement. This is part of the power=releasing dynamic found in holding Zhan Zhuang postures, like Xing Yi Quan’s San Ti Shi (Trinity Posture), for extended periods of time, and in Shanxi Xing Yi’s Tu Na Si Ba (Four Method Breathing Exercises). This kind of spontaneous movement can also be found in Qi Gong exercises derived from Daoist meditation practices, like those taught by Hu Yao Zhen, where one observes the spontaneous breath that moves between Dantian and Mingmen (a breath that is outside of the normal respiratory rhythm). Hu Yao Zhen describes this practice as follows: When you are able to observe like this for a certain amount of time, your body begins to move unconsciously. After the body is set in motion, your intention must always observe the Dantian. If the body wants to move in such a way, then it will move in such a way. [17]


[1] The Integrative Five-Fluid Circulation System in the Human Body. Peter Chin Wan Fung, Regina Kit Chee Kong, in Open Journal of Molecular and Integrative Physiology. Vol. 06, No.04 (2016), Article ID:72100

[2] Ibid.

[3] Dr. Gerald Pollack and Structured Water Science.

[4] Training Principles for Fascial Connective Tissues: Scientific Foundation and Suggested Practical Applications. Robert Schleip, PhD, MA and Divo Gitta Mueller, HP (Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies (2012) xx, p1-13.

[5] Ligamentous Articular Strain: Osteopathic Manipulative Techniques for the Body. Conrad A. Spence D.O. and William Thomas Crow, D.O. (Seattle: Eastland Press, 2001) p. 27-28.

[6] Strolling Under the Skin. Dr. Jean-Claude Guimberteau. SFRS: service du Film de Recherche Scientifique 2005.

[7] Definition of Inflammation, Causes of Inflammation and Possible Anti-inflammatory Strategies, Srdan V. Stankov* The Open Inflammation Journal, 2012, 5, 1-9

[8] Ibid.

[9] The Tao of Balanced Diet: Secrets of a Thin and Healthy Body. Dr. Stephen T. Chang (San Francisco: Tao Publishing, 1987) p.112.

[10] Are you an Aquaholic? Doctors are always advising us to drink more water but in fact drinking too much can be even worse. Mandy Francis. Daily Mail (Published: 15 February 2015 Updated: 17 February 2015)

[11] Fascial Plasticity – A New Neurobiological Explanation – Part 1. Robert Schleip. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, January 2003.

[12] Robert Schleip, PhD, MA and Divo Gitta Mueller, HP (Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies (2012) xx, p1-13.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Gil Hedley Fascia and stretching The Fuzz Speech YouTube.

[15] Pandiculation: An organic way to maintain myofascial health. Luiz Fernando Bertolucci, MD (January 7, 2016)

[16] Ibid.

[17] Les Jeu Des Cinq Animaux (Five Animal Play) by Jiao Guo Rui, De Ye Tao and Hu Yao Zhen, translated by Grégory Mardaga..