Chest day or push focus? Back day or pull focus? I’ve always found language to be a fascinating thing to pay attention to. In the PPSC we talk about language in the context of empowering clients to work around pain and focus on what they can accomplish and build on instead of telling them what’s “broken” or unavailable in their training. We use screens and assessments to determine what opportunities exist to improve movement quality and capability. We use the movement pattern pyramids to choose appropriate versions of the squat, hinge, lunge, push, pull and carry exercises for each client. We use the 6-phase dynamic warm-up to clean up weak/painful links and facilitate motor learning to help clients train pain-free for life. This coaching philosophy unites thousands of PPSC coaches in unlocking performance and longevity for themselves and their clients.
WHAT ARE MYOFASCIAL LINES?
But what does all of that have to do with myofascial lines? Well, it comes back to language. When I first started working as a personal trainer, we viewed the body as a series of opposing muscle pairs: chest & back, biceps & triceps, quads & hamstrings. Program design was then a recipe of individual ingredients thrown into the pot one at a time. Beginner clients did each machine in the circuit or performed a series of bodyweight and dumbbell/barbell exercises in either total-body or split body programs. I remember accommodating pain/discomfort/imbalance by picking a lighter weight or skipping certain exercises altogether. Some clients ended up with just a lot of stretches. And we carried on that way for quite some time.
Before I go any further, I want to clarify something. There’s nothing wrong with machine or dumbbell exercises. There’s nothing wrong with split body programs. There’s nothing wrong with meeting a client where they’re at and helping them get into the habit of showing up at the gym, gaining some confidence with basic exercises and feeling the benefit of consistent exercise. There’s also nothing wrong with more advanced participants using machines and more muscle-specific exercise techniques. Progress is progress. Strength gained is beneficial. Doing a form of exercise you enjoy is important. So, if you’re currently employing this type of program/service and you feel like it’s working for you, by all means carry on!
AND if you want a deeper understanding of movement, you want more variety in your programming, you’re looking for solutions for people with postural opportunities and the need to workout around pain then let’s get into talking about movement success and viewing the body through the lens of myofascial lines.
MYOFASCIAL LINES (aka anatomy trains, kinetic chains, slings, etc.) are continuous chains of fascia, connective tissue and muscles that link parts of the body, often from head to toe. The history of fascial research is surprisingly short. Andrew Taylor Still MD opened the American School of Osteopathy in 1892. In original papers he specifically described fascia as “a covering, with common origins of layers of the fascial system despite diverse names for individual parts. Fascia assists gliding and fluid flow and is highly innervated. Fascia is intimately involved with respiration and with nourishment of all cells of the body, including those of disease and cancer.” But it wasn’t until 2007 that his papers were presented internationally, and it took until 2012 to address his ideas of fluid flow.
A lot of the research regarding myofascial lines comes from studying cadavers and it’s easy to find images on an internet search of what the lines look like separated from the rest of the body. Why this matters for movement is that a line of connected tissue dissipates or manages load, movement, change of direction, etc. throughout its total length – not just in the area we perceive the work to be happening. Restriction or lack of integration of the line means opportunity for improved movement or, in some cases, pain and dysfunction. Let’s look at some specific examples:
SUPERFICIAL BACK LINE
Flexor Digitorum Brevis
The superficial back line involves bend & extend patterns like squat, hinge & lunge movements. The example I like to show when teaching this line stems from the standing toe touch. This would be an assessment of overall back line mobility – some people can easily touch their toes and others struggle to do so. People that can’t reach their toes often claim to have “tight hamstrings.” But, as we’re about to find out, that’s not always the case.
Start by standing feet hip-width apart and slowly slide hands down your legs reaching towards your toes. See how far you can get just by gently hanging. Don’t reach or bounce to try to gain more depth. This is your pre-test. Then take a trigger point ball and roll the bottom of your feet – especially the arch and heel. Proceed to foam roll the soleus & calves. Now retest the standing toe touch. Feet hip width apart, slowly sliding hands towards toes. The goal is to see if the range of motion has increased. (For people who can already touch their toes you might now be able to take palms flat to the floor or you might notice a reduction in the stretch sensation even if your hands travel the same distance.) If you notice a significant improvement (which is common enough) what does this mean?
While the perception of the standing toe touch is that it’s a hamstring stretch, applying the soft tissue techniques to the bottom of the foot and the calf actually increased ROM. That’s because restriction or tone anywhere in the line affects the overall mobility/function of the line. (What might blow your mind even more is that performing soft tissue work on the quads might actually increase that forward fold ROM more than performing soft tissue work on the hamstrings! We’ll get to why in a moment.)
SUPERFICIAL FRONTAL LINE
Extensor Digitorum—Longus and Brevis
Quadriceps (including the Rectus Femoris)
The superficial front line also involves bend & extend patterns but at the bottom of the deadlift when the superficial back line is lengthened, the front line is shortened. In a cobra or up dog yoga stretch the front line would be lengthened while the back line is shortened. Similar to how we used to imagine muscles pairs, the myofascial lines are actually synergistically opposed. That means they work together to manage mobility & stability in all movements and planes of motion.
So, let’s come back to the idea of the quad soft tissue work and how it affects the hamstring. If posture, training habits, etc. result in an overdeveloped quad group then we end up with tone and a lack of synergy between the front and back lines. Foam rolling the quad (with a focus on pillar position) helps downregulate tone (globally) and allows for more range on motion in the toe touch.
The other way we demonstrate the importance of synergy in movement is with the foundational movement pattern pyramids. Notice that supplemental exercises for the squat include glute and hamstring-focused movements for more vertical squats and quadricep-dominant movements for “hingey” variations. The difference between programming leg extension and leg curl machines vs programming a zercher squat and a sissy squat is that in the more functional viewpoint, the superficial front and back lines are in play during both movements but with a different focus, different ground contact points (zercher squat is an active/planted foot whereas sissy squats are predominantly focused on the balls of the feet,) and different requirements of glide through the fascial lines.
SISSY SQUAT VARIATIONS
Thanks to PPSC Coach @adairtrainer AND puppers for the Squat videos!
This one’s my favourite. Call it a soccer goalkeeper bias, but traditional workouts don’t train the lateral line to its potential and yet, for reasons you’ll soon see, it’s holding the key to unlocking performance!
Peroneus Longus and Brevis
Anterior Ligament of the Fibular Head
IT band, TFL, Glute Max
External and Internal Intercostals
Splenius Capitis and Sternocleidomastoid
The superficial back line promotes the hinge pattern, but did you notice that glutes are not actually connected to that line? The gluteus maximus – the focus of so much program design, Instagram poses and influencer hype, is actually here on the lateral line! In the PPSC we teach a particular set up for the P4 activation drill – banded glute bridge because it accesses all 4 of the movements the glutes facilitate: hip extension, abduction, external rotation and a posterior pelvic tilt. Let’s break that down a little further. The connective tissues of the lateral line actually start at the first and fifth metatarsals (the tissue on the first metatarsal travels under the foot and then wraps behind the ankle to run up the side of the leg through the peroneals.)
So, starting with the feet in a slightly externally rotated position and cueing up an active foot or tripod stance (big toe, little toe & heel) is the first place we can make a difference as coaches in terms of dialing up tension and stability through the lateral line. Second, the posterior pelvic tilt establishes strong pillar position (but be careful – some people will be in a neutral position with their feet on the floor so DON’T need to add additional posterior tilt. Whereas other clients will still have an arch in their low back with their feet on the floor and so need to be cued into a neutral position by engaging a posterior tilt.
The goal is neutral – use the posterior tilt cue as needed!) Once the pelvis is set in the ideal position, we cue up abduction to help increase glute recruitment and to create better centration at the hip. NOW we can ask for breath, bracing the pillar and the movement into hip extension. There’s a HUGE difference between this execution and the low tension, disconnected, “isolated” hip bridges we see in clinics, gyms, home workout videos and group classes.
BANDED GLUTE BRIDGE
SIDE PLANK VARIATIONS
Incorporating the lateral line in programming should be a huge focus for all pain-free performance coaches. But that doesn’t have to mean fancy, fast or explosive movements. Here’s a few of my favourites: side plank variations, lateral lunges, iso squats with abduction and glute bridge variations with abduction! And since the right line is synergistic to the left line, it can be common to see imbalances between sides. *A bilateral/symmetrical program will not solve asymmetries! This adds to the importance of NOT neglecting the lunge pattern and unilateral work.
BACK FUNCTIONAL LINES
Latissimus Dorsi (L)
Thoracolumbar Fascia (crosses the body)
Gluteus Maximus (R)
Vastus Lateralis (R)
Subpatellar Tendon (R)
FRONTAL FUNCTIONAL LINE
Lower Pectoralis Major (L)
Lateral Rectus Abdominis (L) and Abdominal Aponeurosis (crosses the body)
Adductor Longus (R)
While there are more fascial lines, the last one we’re going to look at in this article is the synergy between the back and front functional lines. We talk about contralateral movement (opposite arm & leg) in several of the foundational movement pattern pyramids but it becomes most obvious in the carry pattern. Outside of the Ministry of Silly Walks, humans actually perform a lot of movements with the rotational bias of contralateral movements. We see it in walking, running, sport, and dance all the time. It’s also what babies progress through as they explore and earn development positions from rolling to crawling to walking.
I had a few experiences in my own rehab and training where dedicated effort to work on one limb/joint (let’s use left shoulder for this example) was frustratingly incomplete. I was cleared as “good enough” to get back on the field but I didn’t have the same confidence and performance as pre-injury. But the nature of competition meant that you taped up and focused on doing your part to get the team a win. It wasn’t until off-season (or even years later as I got into yoga, fascial stretch therapy, kettlebell flow and animal flow) that I realized and worked on imbalances in my ankle/knee/hip on the RIGHT side and suddenly noticed that my LEFT shoulder felt better than it had in years!
I’ve found a lot of success in helping clients achieve pain-free movement and discovering work-arounds for their “non-fixable” issues by incorporating more contralateral movements into their programs AND these types of movements lend themselves really well to improvements in the set up, co-contract, breathe, brace and move style of coaching that we teach at the PPSC. When we link the whole body into a movement, the added focus and challenge of maintaining total body irradiation means that there’s more to progress over time that just intensity and volume!
CONTRALATERAL EXERCISES (Dead Bug & Quadruped Variations)
TRAINING UP THE MYOFASCIAL LINES (KETTLEBELL AND LANDMINE)