The Benefits of Stretching and Fascial Stretch Therapy (FST)
Tight on gym time? Think twice before skipping your stretch. Research shows that there are many benefits to stretching, and when done consistently and correctly, stretching can improve blood flow and mobility, especially in older adults. There are many ways to stretch, yet one of the most innovative approaches—Fascial Stretch Therapy (FST), a manual stretch performed with the assistance of a coach—is garnering attention for its evidence-based effectiveness. Olympians are using FST, as are professional athletes, to significantly increase range of motion, enhance recovery, and bolster overall performance.
What are the Traditional Ways to Stretch?
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) has identified several methods of stretching, including these three major categories:
- Dynamic stretching—repeatedly moving groups of muscles in a controlled way (think walking lunges, inch worms, and leg swings). Dynamic stretching, which preps the body for more strenuous activity, involves a defined range of motion. It is best performed as a warm-up before a workout.
- Static stretching—easing your way into a position that elongates a particular muscle group, and then holding that position for 10 to 30 seconds, as in a hamstring stretch during which you reach for your toes while seated on the floor. This form of stretching, which should be performed at the end of a workout when muscles are already warm, is the most commonly used in general fitness.Static stretching can be either active (using one muscle group to stretch another on your own, with no outside force) or passive (stretching with a partner, having a coach stretch you, or using gravity to assist you in your stretch—all external forces).
- Ballistic stretching—using the body’s momentum to bounce into a stretched position that pushes your muscles beyond their normal range of motion. An example of a ballistic stretch: bouncing up and down continually while touching your toes. Though ballistic and dynamic stretching both require movement, ballistic stretching’s movement is uncontrolled and a final position is never held.
What is Fascial Stretch Therapy (FST)—and How Does it Differ From Traditional Methods of Stretching?
Every one of us has fascia—the web-like connective tissue that comes wrapped around our tendons, bones, joints, and muscles. Though we can’t see it, it has everything to do with how well our bodies function. Ann Frederick, a former professional dancer and a flexibility therapist, trained the Olympic men’s wrestling team in 1996 using a novel approach that involved stretching the athletes’ fascia rather than just their joints and muscles. That summer, the wrestling team bested the Russians and earned more medals than any other team.
Ann returned home to the Phoenix area with an idea: Why not further develop and refine the new stretching technique she’d used to dramatically boost the wrestlers’ performance? Amid her research at Arizona State University and her work at a stretch clinic she’d opened, Ann created Stretch to Win-Fascial Stretch Therapy (or simply FST)—an assisted, table-based stretching technique that her findings showed to be superior to traditional stretching.
“FST is a facilitated stretch, meaning that a therapist stretches your body as opposed to you stretching yourself,” said Mike Brady, a certified fascial stretch specialist in Englewood, Colorado. Mike trains StrongPath.com founder Fred Bartlit using the FST approach. “In contrast to traditional forms of stretching,” he explains, “FST isn’t just focused on individual or groups of muscles. Rather, it’s focused on how the lines and patterns of our fascial tissue interact with those muscles. By following those lines and planes of fascial tissue, we are able to achieve a greater range of motion with no pain or tension—all while producing an enormously high level of stretch and relaxation.”
In their book Stretch to Win, Ann and her co-author husband, Chris, describe FST as an undulating stretch—one that, in contrast to dynamic, static and ballistic stretching, involves moving the body in a wave-like motion and incorporating deep breaths that are synchronized with that movement. “It’s a synergistic approach during which the therapist and client stretch together,” he said. It’s not me stretching someone else—it’s the two of us together stretching that person’s body.”
Picture an FST stretch this way: You’re dressed in loose, comfortable clothing and lying on a cushioned massage table. Your therapist, who should be certified, manually shifts or rotates your body—for instance, by a sustained pulling of your arms or legs to create traction while you inhale and exhale deeply at various tempos and at certain junctures. This combination simultaneously allows the nervous system, the fascia, and the muscles to relax.
What Are the Major Benefits of Fascial Stretch Therapy?
“Fascial Stretch Therapy improves flexibility by creating an increased range of motion around each joint,” Brady said. “In the body, there’s a beautiful balance of stability and mobility, and if you can find that perfect balance where the joints are completely stable throughout the range of motion, you build a body that’s least susceptible to injury.”
In addition to reducing the likelihood of injury and increasing range of motion, Fascial Stretch Therapy has benefits including:
- Reduction or elimination of stress
- Decreased joint aches and pains
- Greater balance and flexibility
- Improved posture and mobility
- Shorter recovery times after exercise sessions
- Increased blood flow to exhausted muscles
Fascial Stretch Therapy even indirectly prevents muscle loss. “If a muscle or joint is designed to work in a full range of motion, and you only use it in a specific or limited pattern, that’s absolutely going to cause that muscle to atrophy and eventually lose its function,” Brady said.
In the years since Ann Frederick invented Fascial Stretch Therapy, the approach has been embraced by elite competitors and ordinary bench-pressers alike.
“This powerful form of stretching is being used by group after group, from the National Football League to the United States Olympic Committee,” Brady said. “And time and again, coaches and athletes are having great success.”
“As an FST therapist, I don’t usually have to convince my clients of the benefits,” Brady said. “At the end of their first session, they mention that they feel lighter and taller. Many have a kind of euphoric feeling. Their nervous system has calmed their body to a point where they experience a unique sensation.”
How Can an Exercise Newbie Start a Fascial Stretch Therapy Regimen?
While you can perform Fascial Stretch Therapy on your own or with a gym buddy, explained Brady, he urges beginners to first connect with an FST therapist before jumping into a regimen. While self-stretching does come with some benefits, the greatest benefits are experienced when a trained therapist guides the stretching. In part, that’s because your nervous system cannot totally relax when you stretch yourself—nor can you apply the same level of force to create the traction necessary for a full stretch.
“A Fascial Stretch Therapy session should begin with a thorough and proper assessment by a certified therapist,” Brady said. “The last thing you want to do is overly strengthen an already tight muscle or build a bad mobility pattern. Once you’ve been evaluated, your FST protocol can be tailored to specific parts of your body.”
A head-to-toe FST stretch typically lasts about an hour, said Brady. “The frequency of sessions is dependent upon client need,” he explained. “So when someone begins stretching—and I’m making a generalization here—that person usually needs a stretch once a week, and some might even need it twice a week just to start loosening and opening the body and learning these new patterns and ranges of motion. After we get the body on that path, we can often drop off to once every other week or even once a month.”
What is the Stretching Protocol Used by Fred Bartlit, Co-Founder of StrongPath.com?
“Fred is absolutely dedicated to a lot of activities, including skiing, golfing, and of course, his weight training,” said Brady, who guides Fred through an hour-long FST session once or twice a month. “In the beginning, we had to look at the series of stretches that would improve his performance in all three of those areas—it was about making progress the whole way.” So after providing Bartlit with a full and professional evaluation, Brady customized a plan that includes:
- A focus on rotational stretching to enhance Bartlit’s golf game.
- Lower-body stretching to keep his legs as strong as possible for enduring his strenuous leg workouts.
- Upper-body stretching to improve his spiral patterns and flexibility during both skiing and golfing.
“Fred is a pretty regimented and disciplined gentleman,” Brady said. “He does what he does without failure and is extremely goal-oriented in terms of achieving his personal best. When Fred and I first talked about what stretching would do for him, his comment was, ‘I’m not going to waste my time on anything that won’t help me.’ And I said, ‘Fred, I guarantee you this will help you.’”
“After just a couple of sessions, he told me, ‘I wish I’d met you sooner.’ When you hear something like that from Fred, someone who has access to the best of the best, it grabs your attention. You know there must be a recognizable benefit, because if there wasn’t, Fred wouldn’t be involved. Anytime you can show someone who’s involved in weight training how FST will help him or her achieve those goals, that’s all the convincing required. This method of stretching will get you where you’re going faster.”
Some Research has Demonstrated That Fascial Stretch Therapy is More Effective Than Traditional Stretching—but do Dynamic, Static, and Ballistic Stretching Still Have a Place?
When it comes to increasing strength and flexibility, traditional stretching may no longer claim the limelight, yet when implemented correctly, it still comes with some upsides. Though studies on when and how to best stretch have had mixed results, scientists generally agree on stretching’s key benefit: an increased range of motion which, in turn, bolsters overall flexibility and performance. No, traditional stretching may not provide these benefits to the same degree that FST does, yet it’s still preferable to, say, never rising from your couch.
“It’s important to stretch for a host of reasons,” said Marci Kenon, an IFPA-certified personal trainer and lifestyle coach in Manhattan who trains clients both at Blink Fitness and through her site, MarciKenon.com. (Kenon received the “The Stretching Process” certification through the Center for the Advancement of Therapeutic Arts, or CATA). “Stretching not only helps us to move with greater ease and strength in day-to-day life—like when you need to carry some heavy bags of groceries up several flights of stairs—it also provides stress management for the body and mind.”
When it comes to ballistic stretching and the bounce that goes with it, however, Kenon encourages caution. “A lot of people bounce when they stretch, and that can inadvertently cause a tear in your muscles—which can lead to scar tissue, tightening, and decreased flexibility.”
Of the three traditional stretching methods, she strongly prefers dynamic stretching ahead of a sweat session. “You need to warm up both your muscles and fascia before you work out,” said says. “Your muscles are like rubber bands. When they’re cold, they can easily snap. Dynamic stretching or even a 10-minute walk on the treadmill sends nutrients and blood to your muscles—and that can prevent soreness, reduce the possibility of injury and, most importantly, set you up to reach your fitness and wellness goals.”