The Key to Improving Flexibility May be Your Fascia

Foam rollers and therapy balls have become a staple in dance bags and studios, as the act of ‘rolling out’ before or after class provides a sense of relief for sore muscles. Often described as myofascial release, rolling out is commonly regarded by dancers as a way to improve flexibility and range of motion by targeting the body’s fascia. If we’re getting technical though, that technique is not truly myofascial release - and you could improve your dancing if you understand the difference. 

“You’re cookie-doughing your muscles”, explains Margot Leviton, a bodyworker and intuitive healer who worked as a Registered Massage Therapist in Canada for 12 years. Rolling on a foam roller, she goes on, is actually getting into your muscle tissue like a massage would, rather than manipulating your fascia.

fascia [...] could be the cause of injury, delayed muscle recovery, or lack of flexibility.

Leviton, known on Instagram as "the Vancouver Healer", has found particular success working with dancers from Canada to New York City and Los Angeles, developing a client list that includes Tabitha and Napoleon D’umo, Nika Kljun, and artists of Cirque du Soleil and Dancing with the Stars, to name a few. The hands-on technique Leviton and other myofascial release practitioners use aims to unwind the body's tight fascia – which many dancers don't realize could be the cause of injury, delayed muscle recovery, or lack of flexibility.

What is fascia and myofascial release? 

In the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, MPT Mark Barnes describes fascia as “tough connective tissue which spreads throughout the body in a three-dimensional web from head to toe”. Picture it like Spiderman’s web covering your muscles, organs, bones, nerves, and more, acting as a sort of cushion to provide support as your body moves. When trauma affects the body, like a hamstring strain or twisted ankle, fascia becomes tight and restricted, decreasing the area’s mobility and strength. That’s where myofascial release therapists like Leviton come in, providing a “hands-on soft tissue technique that facilitates a stretch into the restricted fascia”, according to Barnes.

Why should dancers try myofascial release? 

As Leviton explains, myofascial release is a different way of approaching the body than other recovery techniques or flexibility exercises, for example, “Deep tissue massage is on one plane or range of movement, but fascia dictates rotation, and that is what’s missing for dancers.” After long rehearsals, “it doesn’t take long for those little idiosyncrasies of moving a certain way to cause your body to stay in that position because you’ve done it so many times,” she says. Those repetitive movements get stored in the fascia, not in the muscle, and you “become wound in a certain pattern.” This is especially common for dancers because many movements are done one-sided, and you might notice you feel tighter on one side than the other. Bringing the body back to a centered, balanced state will increase your range of motion and aid in sore muscle recovery. 

Dancers wondering how to improve flexibility may also benefit from myofascial release. Leviton has seen dancers flexibility increase ten-fold in exercises like développés, or even some who have never mastered a box split after years of flexibility exercises finally realizing that goal after an hour session. If flexibility stretches for hours haven’t resulted in a higher développé, it could be that it’s not your muscles holding you back, but your fascia. 

... fascia dictates rotation, and that is what’s missing for dancers.

“Dancers don’t realize that all the little pulls and strains they’ve had create scar tissue that stay with them - it’s still stuck in there,” Leviton says, describing scar tissue like a wad of gum that limits range of motion around the area. “Not being able to do something technically, like being able to kick past a certain point after pulling something years ago, is something they can get rid of and make better through this,” she explains. Dancers who have been conditioned to dance through injuries may feel disconnected from the pain of a previous injury they think has healed, but not realize it’s exactly what has kept them from progressing since the injury.

Besides injury recovery, releasing your fascia can also help prevent it, Leviton says. Fascia is meant to glide, and if you never release it, your body will alert you with feelings of tightness or weakness – both of which can lead to injury.

foam rolling hamstring
foam rolling

What is the difference between myofascial release and foam rolling?

It’s all about your intention, and both recovery techniques can be beneficial for dancers. Most of the time, rolling up and down a foam roller puts a hard pressure on the body more similar to a massage, getting deeper into a muscle. This will bring more blood flow to that area and generally feel good after, which makes it great to do before dancing. This technique has also been shown to increase short-term flexibility and decrease muscle soreness following activity, according to an article in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy.

Myofascial release takes a gentler approach than what dancers may be used to, with light pressure being applied to a tight area (what we sometimes call a knot) until there is a sensation of release. Then the practitioner moves to another tight spot to repeat the process. It won’t hurt like the pressure of rolling out, but you’ll feel an increased range of motion in the area immediately after.  

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How can dancers do myofascial release themselves? 

If you can’t find a myofascial release practitioner like Leviton in your area, she suggests using your hand to help release restrictive fascia on your own, in a type of fascia massage. First, press gently into a spot and let yourself sink in to the skin lightly. Push forward, side, back, and rotate in very small movements to test where the tissue is stuck. Once you find a tight area, stay in that position and hold until the tissue releases. It will take practice to start to feel this release on your own, but try not to push through resistance and always use gentle force. Fascia also loves warmth, Leviton adds, so try this after a bath, workout, or after using a heating pad on the area. 

Another way to release fascia is to stretch it. To do this, you’ll go into a stretch to feel a pull of a muscle and then back off slightly and “sit in nothing.” Try this for 30 seconds, repeating three times each side. As for when to do it: “All the time,” says Leviton. 

The bottom line:

Myofascial release therapy could be a key component for dancers to stay flexible, strong, and injury-free, even allowing them to find ranges of motion they didn’t think they could. Adding myofascial release to a recovery routine that also includes stretching, foam rolling, and massage will only help to increase a dancers flexibility, strength, and overall health to meet the physical demands of their work.

References:

  • Barnes, Mark (1997). The basic science of myofascial release. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, 1(4), 231-238.
  • Cheatham, S. W., Kolber, M. J., Cain, M., & Lee, M. (2015). The effects of self-myofascial release using a foam roll or roller massager on joint range of motion, muscle recovery, and performance: a systematic review. International journal of sports physical therapy, 10(6), 827–838.
  • MacDonald, Graham, et al (2013) An Acute Bout of Self Myofascial Release Increases Range of Motion Without a Subsequent Decrease in Muscle Activation or Force. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 7(23), 812-21.

About the author

A native of El Paso, TX, Khayla began dancing at a young age in ballet and Folklorico classes, eventually moving to LA to earn her BA in dance and English from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. She went on to earn her MA in Arts & Cultural Management from Kings College London before moving back to LA, where she currently works as a commercial dancer. When she's not dancing, you can find her teaching Pilates and freelance writing about the intersection of dance, fitness, and wellness.