What is Fascia Stretch Therapy (FST)?
Fascia Stretch Training or FST is a type of training that emphasises the need to stretch the fascia surrounding our muscle in order to promote increases in hypertrophy. Before we delve deeper into the topic we should go through some definitions.
What is Fascia?
Fascia is a layer of fibrous tissue which surrounds our entire body acting like glad wrap and holding our organs, nerves, muscles and blood vessels together. In terms of fascia around the muscles, each individual muscle fibre that we have is encased in a layer of connective tissue called the ‘endomysium.' These muscle fibres are then grouped together in bundles called fasciculi which are encased themselves in a layer of connective tissue called the ‘permysium’. Finally bundles of fasciculi make up the entire muscle, which are encased by a layer of fascia called the ‘epimysium’.
Principles of FST
The theory behind fascia stretch training is that muscle is restricted in its growth potential due to the tight fascia surrounding it. After all, if there is no room to grow, how can our muscles expect to do it? The idea then is that if we could somehow stretch our fascia, then we offer more room for the muscle to grow. There are many bodybuilders who swear by this type of training. But is the idea sound or just some more fluff floating in the bodybuilding world? Currently, there are two very well known and differing hypotheses in which to stretch the fascia. One idea is to stretch it through active stretching. The other is to volumise the muscle (engorge it with blood) and thus stretching it from the inside. Let’s look at these two hypotheses in detail and examine whether or not the science out there supports it or refutes it.
Active "Extreme" Stretching
Extreme stretching was a method of stretching fascia developed by John Parillo in the 80s before being further refined by Dante Trudel in his famous “Doggcrapp” (DC) training system. The idea behind extreme stretching was to stretch the muscle as deep as possible with weights and with controlled breathing, whilst attempting to stretch even deeper for approximately 60 seconds. The theory proposed was that this type of stretching was able to not only stretch out the fascia allowing more ‘room’ for muscle growth but also induce microtrauma similar to the eccentric phase of exercises. The rest of Dante’s training involves use of heavy weights, short rests, working till fatigue and more frequent training.
Muscle Hypertrophy & Stretching
While the science behind muscle hypertrophy is still ongoing, the most widely accepted mechanism for muscle growth is due to microtrauma experienced during training. Damage to the muscle fibres during training results in adaptations, which restore the original muscle but also adds extra muscle in order to avoid future muscle damage. This mechanism of microtrauma induced muscle hypertrophy is the basis for the most widely known training idea of progressive overloading which simply suggests that in order for muscles to grow, you would need to manipulate the different variables in training including weight, repetitions and sets so that your muscles are constantly challenged. While the idea behind stretching the fascia to accommodate muscle growth is unsupported, there is no doubt that the eccentric portion of an exercise which involves a muscle being stretched in active tension will lead to muscle hypertrophy. This ‘extreme stretching’ recommendation is akin to the eccentric phase of training, which might be causing more microtrauma to the muscles which in turn could explain why this method works. In addition, there are aspects of Dante Trudel’s training regime which will lead to hypertrophy regardless of whether or not the extreme stretching is incorporated.
Volumising the Muscle
Another very well known fascia stretch training regime is the FST-7 developed by Hany Rambod, a well known American trainer whose impressive clientele includes Mr Olympia Jay Cutler as well as Roy Arde, Bill Willmore and Troy Brown. FST-7 differs from the previous extreme stretching style by attempting to stretch the fascia from the ‘inside out’. Hany Rambod suggest that in order to do this, one needs to engorge the muscle with blood volume in order to expand the fascia. The best way to do this as Hany recommends is to do the last exercise with minimal rests and at least 7 sets. By doing so, it attempts to emphasise the ‘pump’ which is basically a rush of blood into the muscle causing an overall feeling of tightness. This pump is transient and does not last very long after cessation of exercise, but Hany believes that with 7 sets, the pump achieved is enough to expand the fascia enough to accommodate greater growth. Hany Rambod’s training also emphasises on flexing during the rest periods to expand the muscle and thus the fascia. Drinking water during the training session and especially during the last exercise of 7 sets is also seen as extremely important to ensure cells are volumised/hydrated, at least long enough to ensure that the fascia surrounding the muscles is stretched enough.
Science of FST
Although one can stretch fascia and loosen it, whether or not this allows for greater muscle growth is uncertain and not supported by science. Fascia itself are flexible structures on its own, so the idea that it would restrict and hinder the growth of muscles is hard to consider. In order to get the pump as suggested by Hany, you need to do low volume training first before doing high volume training. He suggests the use of heavier weights and less sets to begin with before achieving the pump with slightly lighter weights and 7 sets. Hany’s advent of using heavy weights is sound and is required in order to activate more motor units and thus increasing muscle damage across the entire muscle. In this author’s opinion, Hany Rambod’s FST-7 training is simply a glorified way of suggesting higher volume fatiguing training which naturally leads to greater eccentric muscle damage anyway resulting in eventual muscle growth gains. While flexing your muscles in between sets might result in transient delays in blood escaping the muscle prolonging the pump, whether or not this has any effect at all on stretching fascia or muscle hypertrophy is still unquantified. Furthermore, it is important to consume water or other beverages in order to stay hydrated during the day and during your workouts, as being dehydrated can cause a loss in performance and may cause faster fatigue. Keeping your cells hydrated ensure that cells keep their full form, however, whether or not this affects muscular hypertrophy is still up for debate.
Stretching & Muscle Growth
Overall, there is very little scientific evidence both in literature and from Dante and Hany themselves as to whether or not the fascia stretching protocol as described in this article is capable of achieving muscle growth. Sure, there is anecdotal evidence and an impressive clientele list and followers of both training regimes, but whether or not this is attributable to the stretching is unknown. There is some evidence out there that temporary vascular occlusion1,2 or the obstruction of blood flow to an area as produced with active stretching or with the ‘pump’ can lead to decreased atrophy and result in increased growth hormone production in clinical patients and older subjects going through periods of muscle disuse. However, the studies showing those results used a technique of vascular occlusion using a pressure cuff rather than active stretching. There is also evidence in animal studies showing that long term passive stretching was able to induce rises in insulin like growth factor 1 as well as rises in protein synthesis in order to slow down muscle atrophy3. Additionally, repetitive stretching was able to decrease muscle disuse atrophy through interactions with the Akt/mTOR signalling pathways in the body4, known for its effect on muscle growth in in-vitro studies. Although there is evidence for the use of stretching for muscle hypertrophy, research is still in its infancy and more tightly controlled human studies on healthy athletic populations need to be conducted before any final recommendations can be made.
Fascia Stretch Training is an interesting concept, however at this current moment there is very little science to support it. This author does however like some of the base concepts behind the overall training regime as suggested by Dante Trudel and Hany Rambod including:
- Lower reps with heavy weights and training to fatigue
- Incorporation of endurance style training
- Emphasis on hydration and journal keeping
- The need for extra protein and good nutrition
Whether or not active stretching and flexing has any noticeable effects on fascia, and whether or not these effects translate to greater muscle gains is still out to the jury. Regardless, it is important to constantly track your progresses and to vary your workouts to incorporate a wide variety of exercises and activities, of which stretching can be a great addition. Please refer to our Stretching article for more information.1 Takarada Y, Takazawa H, Ishii N. ‘Applications of vascular occlusion diminish disuse atrophy of knee extensor muscles.’ Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2000 Dec;32(12):2035-9.
2 Takarada Y, Takazawa H, Sato Y, Takebayashi S, Tanaka Y, Ishii N. ‘Effects of resistance exercise combined with moderate vascular occlusion on muscular function in humans.’ J Appl Physiol. 2000 Jun;88(6):2097-106.
3 Sasa T, Sairyo K, Yoshida N, Fukunaga M, Koga K, Ishikawa M, Yasui N. ‘Continuous muscle stretch prevents disuse muscle atrophy and deterioration of its oxidative capacity in rat tail-suspension models.’ Am J Phys Med Rehabil. 2004 Nov;83(11):851-6.
4 Agata N, Sasai N, Inoue-Miyazu M, Kawakami K, Hayakawa K, Kobayashi K, Sokabe M. ‘Repetitive stretch suppresses denervation-induced atrophy of soleus muscle in rats.’ Muscle Nerve. 2009 Apr;39(4):456-62.