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“Tendon Strength”: Fascia, the Sinew Channels & Internal Martial Arts – Part 4

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 fourth installment in series of articles that explores some of these connections.

Read Part 1 of this article here

Read Part 2 of this article here

Read Part 3 of this article here

Principles of Training the Fascia

Tom Myers, the author of Anatomy Trains, elucidates three key principles that need to be taken into account when attempting to improve the strength and resiliency of fascial tissue.

Principle 1: Enhancing Systemic Elasticity is Essential to Systemic Resilience.

Principle 2: The Fascial system needs variation rather than repetition.

Principle 3: Proprioception and Kinesthesia are primarily fascial not muscular. [1]

Based on these principles, Myers advocates the following:

  1. Whole body stretching and whole body movements that use long myofascial chains.
  2. Avoiding exercises that use isolated muscle orientation.
  3. Do movements that utilize an elastic stretch of tissues – movements that contain a stretch and release component within a single action, and use elasticity rather than muscle power.
  4. Focusing on elasticity, rather than muscle power.
  5. Variation of tempo in the angle of the load – for example, walking on uneven surfaces rather than on flat ground.
  6. Sufficient rest to let the fascia respond. [2]

Whole body stretching and movement is not a new idea. The body is designed to be used as a whole. The more we use the whole body in a smooth, coordinated way, the more efficiently it can function. Kinesiologists have known for a long time that joints and muscles act in three-dimensional connected chains that wrap the body, crossing from leg and hip to the opposite shoulder and arm. This connection has been likened to a serape, the Mexican shawl, worn over one shoulder and crossing to the opposite hip. In pushing or throwing movements, we tend to generate power from the foot to the opposite hand. As the foot pushes off the ground, extending the hip and knee, the waist rotates and the muscles of the torso accelerate the outward extension of the arm muscles. When we pull or hold something we reverse this process, pulling from the periphery back through the body to the opposite foot. This “serape effect” is present in most sports activities, such as running, biking, tennis, and golf.

Movements requiring strength that are common to sports activities and exercise routines probably derive from the primal actions that we perform as infants, pulling things we want towards us and pushing things we don’t want away from us. An infant engages its entire body and spirit in these actions. Efficient employment of strength and power derives from cultivating coordinated, whole body action in these primal movements. Each muscle must contract and relax at the right time. This process can be likened to a series of inter-meshed gears. As one turns, the others must also turn.  In internal martial arts these full body movements emanate from the Dantian/Mingmen.

Movement in general, and whole body movement in particular, consists of rotations and spirals rather than straight lines. Even so-called “hinge joints” are not really hinge joints – much of their ability to work properly depends on internal torsion. The whole body then becomes a mini-universe, each part revolving in synchrony with the other parts, like planets in the heavens. Even blood and the Qi move in spirals through the blood vessels, and the channels and collaterals. Spiral movement creates balance of forces and counter-forces, operating at all times. These spiral and rotational forces are like waves moving through the body. When the muscles and joints are open and relaxed, the waves can move freely and send their reverberations unobstructed throughout the entire body. In martial arts and sports, this lack of obstruction is what allows the body to have a unified power, to be efficient, fluid and coordinated.

Training the Fascia In Xing Yi Quan and Ba Gua Zhang

Xing Yi Master Liu Wen Hua, the son of Liu Qi Lan, gives a very clear description of how fascial chains and whole-body engagement of the fascia is employed in Xing Yi Quan and specifically in San Ti Shi. His remarks are reproduced in their entirety below, because they so comprehensively illustrate how the theories of modern fascial experts have been expressed for centuries in the internal martial arts.

The exercises of Xing Yi boxing are different from the ordinary exercises. The efforts employed in ordinary exercise consist of actions on a single plane or are merely isolated actions of particular muscles. Therefore, the exercises are simple and easy to understand. In Xing Yi boxing, the joints of the whole body move with different axes of rotation, and the contraction of the muscles and tendons are neither tense nor loose, so as to guarantee simultaneous contraction of the muscles on every side without slackening, a comprehensive result. Then in advancing one can attack, and in retreating one can defend, without any gaps that can be exploited. The body has many muscles. Detailed explanations can only be given by individual sections of the body.

 Head

The eyes should be contracted by the anterior cephalic muscle to dilate the pupil and then contracted by the orbicular muscle of the eye to contract the eyelids, so as to be able to stare without any trembling motion. The mouth should be contracted inward by the orbicular muscle of the mouth, so as to clench the teeth tightly and touch the roof with the tongue backward. If so, the skin in the mandibular region, facial region and low chin becomes tight. The neck is contracted by the broad muscle of the neck to dilate the skin of the neck. Further, by the functions of the greater and minor broad muscles of the neck in the deep layer and coordination of the above-mentioned functions of the mouth, the head can be erected upward and the anterior and posterior parts of galea aponeurotica contract and extend to the neck through the down-bearing strength of the two shoulders.

Trunk

The shoulder should drop downward as much as possible to control the ribs further by the contraction of the anterior sartorius muscle, so as to open the thoracic cavity. Simultaneously, by anterior and posterior traction of the greater pectorial muscle and galea aponeurotica, the shoulder becomes more fixed. The buttocks are also requested to drop downward forcefully, and the muscles in the lower abdomen are also requested to control the pelvic bone anteriorly and forward. The gluteal muscles are also contracted forcefully, to create outward rotation of the thigh. The sphincter muscle of the anus should also be contracted inward and upward. The waist should use contraction of the lumbar muscles and the diaphragm to stretch the lower part of the spine, so as to center the weight of the upper body on the midline of the pelvic bone.

 Limbs

The upper limb should be rotated inward, and the biceps muscle and triceps muscle are contracted equally to resist the anterior and posterior force. The elbow should be rotated to the midline of the body, to form an angle of from ninety to one hundred seventy degrees between the forearm and upper arm, so as to enable the wrist to stand laterally, with the contraction of the anterior circular muscle. The hand closes the fingers sequentially, becoming a semi-circle through contraction of the deep and shallow flexor muscles of the hand, with the base of the thumb and base of the small finger to move toward each other in order to achieve the equal force in the small finger and other fingers.

The internal rotation muscle in the medial aspect of the thigh in the lower limb, the sartorius muscle, is rotated inward to control the knee joint. Various big, medium and small gluteal muscles are also contracted to form an outward posture of the thigh. The quadriceps muscle and biceps muscle are also contracted to form an angle of one hundred fifty degrees between the calf and thigh, so as to maintain a stable posture. The gastrocnemius muscle of the leg and the soleus muscle, in the deep layer, should be contracted, so as to enable the heel to be close with the back of the leg. For the leg in the back, the knee should be flexed forward and inward by the forceful contraction of the biceps muscle and the function of the flexor muscle of the toe, and both feet should grab the ground forcefully, in order to maintain the body weight in the center of two feet. In this posture, the two feet are always in an angle of forty-five degrees. [3]

The famous Xing Yi and Ba Gua practitioner Sun Lu Tang also discusses in detail whole-body body alignments that engage the body’s global fascial web. In relation to walking the circle in Ba Gua Zhang, Sun says that the bend in your legs should have a rounded fullness, and that both heels both have an energy of twisting outward, and your legs are as if in a horse-riding posture, with an intention of closing inward. In addition, in the photo below, the right hip twists until it is aligned with the roundness of the forefinger of your front hand. Sun adds that the shoulders must loosen, and the elbows should have an energy of wrapping inward, so that the tips of your elbows point downward. The hands and fingers spread, with the wrists putting all their energy into twisting outward, until the forefingers stand straight, the thumbs, forefingers, and tiger’s mouths propped open to make semicircle shapes. The shoulders have an energy of drawing in, and the elbows drop down, as the hands push forward. The palms go along with your shoulders, with an energy of “shrinking in”, and the waist follows the wrists as they twist outward. The waist (Yao) turns as far as it can, like a rope being twisted, twisting until the forward forefinger and the gaze are directed to the center of the circle. [4]

 

Many martial arts incorporate exercises to develop supple dynamic strength. Hindu Squats known as bathaks and Hindu Push Ups (dands), are staple conditioning exercises used by Indian wrestlers wrestlers for centuries. The Great Gama, a legendary wrestler who was undefeated in over 5,000 matches, was said to have performed over 4,000 Hindu squats each day. Unlike regular squats and pushups, these exercises have an elastic rebound quality that develops explosive functional power. Indian wrestlers also perform dynamic exercises with various maces and clubs that involve elastic, functional, whole body actions.

The “Ninja Principle”

The work of Robert Schleip and Divo Gitta Mueller has shown that one of the goals of fascial training is therefore to stimulate fascial fibroblasts to lay down more youthful fiber architecture with a gazelle-like elastic storage capacity. This is done through movements that load the fascial tissues over multiple extension ranges while utilizing their elastic springiness. Indeed, when practiced regularly, static as well as dynamic stretching have shown to yield long term improvements in force, jump height, and speed. Different stretching styles seem to reach different fascial tissue components. In addition, variation among different stretching styles is recommended, including slow passive stretches at different angles as well as more dynamic stretches, in order to foster easy shearing ability between physiologically distinct fascial layers and to prevent the tendency for limited movement range that usually goes along with aging. [5]

Schleip and Mueller use the popular idea of the Ninja, the legendary Japanese assassins, to illustrate efficient training of the fascia. They particularly focus on the smoothness and elegance of movement, and performing movements a softly as possible, without any extraneous or jerky movements. Changes in direction are preceded by gradual deceleration of the movement before the turn and a gradual acceleration afterwards, each movement flowing from the last. This is much like the way a cat moves, jumping and landing softly and with precision. This kind of movement creates fascial spring, and is akin to the precision of dance. [6]

Many writers on fascia have extolled the virtues of running as means of training fascia due to the elastic recoil that goes through the body as force is compressed into the ground and released with each stride. However, based on the “Ninja Principle”, it is obvious that this elastic recoil will only occur if one runs well – with an light, springy, open, even and smooth stride that propels the body forward. This kind of running exhibits oppositional full-body movements of the arms and legs that create movement through the torso. However, utilizing this kind of light, springy movement unfortunately most joggers do not do. In observing most joggers, one sees an emphasis on heavy compression into the ground, with minimal elastic forward moving force, uneven and jerky strides and minimal movement of the upper body. It seems that correct running needs to be trained, so for those without training, perhaps walking might be a better approach for many people.

Fascia as a Sensory Organ

It was mentioned earlier that fascia has a rich supply of sensory nerves, and that internal awareness of the position and movement of the parts of the body (proprioception and kinesthesia) are primarily fascial, not muscular. The sensory systems of some fascial tissues detect slight angular direction changes. Recent findings indicate that the superficial fascial layers of the body are, in fact, much more densely populated with sensory nerve endings than connective tissues situated more internally. Many proprioceptive nerve endings are located in the more superficial layers where stretch and shearing motions of the fascia are more easily detected. [7] Studies have also indicated that limb and low back pain are decreased by increased local proprioception. [8]

These findings illustrate the importance of skin sensation in receiving proprioceptive feedback. The idea of the “Integrating” or “Bringing Together” the Four Tips (Si Shao) in Nei Jia Quan seems to stress the importance of proprioception at the periphery in connecting and unifying the fascia of the whole body. The four tips are:

  1. The Hair Pores are the Tip of the Blood
  2. The Nails are the Tip of the Sinews
  3. The Tongue is the Tip of the Flesh
  4. The Teeth are the Tip of the Bones

Xing Yi Master Liu Wen Hua had this to say about the Four Tips:

It is necessary to touch (prop up) the roof of the mouth with the tongue, knock the teeth, hold the fingers and toes inwards, and tighten the hair pores. When the tongue touches the palate, body fluid (saliva) can concentrate ensuring the smooth circulation of Qi and blood. When the teeth are knocked tightly, Qi is able to flow into bone marrow. When the fingers and toes are drawn inward, Qi is able to pour into the sinews. When the hair pores are tightened, Qi in the whole body can gather and be solid. To be “integrated” means that in every posture, there is unity in touching the roof with the tongue, knocking the teeth, drawing the fingers and toes inward and tightening the hair pores. If one of the four is absent, the Qi will be scattered and power weakened, so there is little purpose in discussing martial skills. [9]

One of my own observations about the importance of sensory feedback at the level of the skin in fascial training is that the sensation of one’s clothing against the skin, or moving across the skin, when performing martial practices and Zhan Zhuang (“stake standing”), gives feedback to the fascial networks. I have also noticed that loose flowing clothing, like the kind used in Chinese martial arts, gives useful proprioceptive feedback, both of the clothing moving across the skin, and also the soft tissue of the body, flowing, twisting, and gliding smoothly through space, whereas the tight, restrictive clothing so popular in sports today actually gives one the opposite feedback. In the past, many yoga practitioners and martial artists wore loose, flowing clothing which might be said to allow “free movement of the Qi” through the superficial layers of the body, thereby aiding proprioceptive feedback in the fascia. In contrast, tight-fitting clothing seems to block the smooth movement of the Qi in those same superficial layers of the body, thereby increasing the sense of tension and solidity (rather than elasticity) in the superficial musculature.

 

Notes:

[1] Fascial Fitness: Training in the Neuromyofascial Web. Thomas Myers

[2] Ibid.

[3] Detailed Collection of the Art of Xing Yi Quan. Liu Dian Chen (Liu Wen Hua). Translation by Huang Guo Qi and Tom Bisio 2013.

[4] A Study of Ba Gua Boxing. Sun Lu Tang (April 1917). Translated by Paul Brenna

[5] 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.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Tactile discrimination, but not tactile stimulation alone. reduces chronic limb pain. G. Lorimer Moseley, Nadia M. Zalucki , and Katja Wiech (008 Jul 31;137(3):600-8. Epub 2007 Dec 3) https://www.bodyinmind.org/wp-content/uploads/Moseley-et-al-2008-tdt-for-crps-Pain-137.pdf

[9] Detailed Collection of the Art of Xing Yi Quan. Liu Dian Chen (Liu Wen Hua). Translation by Huang Guo Qi and Tom Bisio 2013.

 

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