Training Smart: Tendons, Ligaments and Fascia

Tendons, ligaments and fascia are all made of collagen. Collagen is structural protein which forms tough, durable fibers that are then used to connect up all the different muscle groups and structures of the body. By understanding what each of these groups does we begin to understand how our bodies work better, which means we can also begin to train them better so that they do what we want them to do.  

This is what each of these does: 

Tendons link muscles to bone. They anchor each muscle group to the bone with a grip so hard that when the muscle flexes, it pulls on the tendon and the bone it’s actually anchored to bends with the force. This is why the skeleton also gets stronger and bone gets denser when we exercise vigorously. 

Tendons are found in the fingers (they are all tendon), joints, and everywhere we have muscles that need to be anchored (biceps, quads, abs, etc). 

Tendons respond slower to exercise than muscles so it takes longer to make them stronger but they also lose that strength more slowly so a tendon that has not been exercised for a month plus will not lose strength in quite the same rapid way that muscle, undergoing the same period of inactivity, would. 

Ligaments link bone to bone. They are present at the joints of the wrist, knee, ankle shoulder and elbow as well as any other part of the body where one bone needs to be linked to another in order for the skeletal structure to be held together. 

One of the properties ligaments have is called viscoelasticity. It means that they can change shape and elongate when under tension and they return to their original shape when the tension goes away. However they do not have a hard memory of their original shape which is why they can be trained to be more supple (which is what dancers, martial artists and gymnasts do when they train their joints to be more flexible). It is also why it is necessary for a dislocated joint to be put back in as quickly as possible to avoid overstretching the ligaments and creating a weakness that will always be there. 

Fascia (the plural of which is fasciae) is the collagen matter that connects attaches, stabilizes, encloses, and separates muscles and other internal organs. It is usually classified into superficial fascia which is very near the surface of the skin, deep fascia which usually surrounds individual muscles and keeps them discreet from other organs in the body and visceral fascia which forms the supporting component for vital organs deeper in the body. 

Conventional wisdom told us that fascia is the one part of our body we had very little control over and was most resistant to training, but that is only because we used to have a very poor understanding of how it actually works. The latest studies, as we shall see below, show that it is key to developing power and endurance and it is incredibly responsive to specific types of exercise.  

The Same But Different

While all three forms described above are made of the exact same material: collagen which forms tough, twisted fibers, each performs a different role. Tendons respond to exercise the quickest because they are constantly subjected to stresses and forces as we exercise our muscles. The latest studies show that tendon strength and stability is key to unlocking the potential energy stored in the muscles. 

Ligaments on the other hand need careful, structured forms of tension like the ones we introduced in our Flexibility Week that allow them to gain greater mobility without running the risk of being damaged. The flexibility and strength of ligaments allows us to manipulate our bodies exactly the way we want to. The exercises and workouts that we introduced in Dragon Week for instance are perfect for the development of good tendon strength and fascial fitness.    

Fascia is the surprise celebrity guest at the fitness party. What we have learnt is that fascia responds best to: 

  • Whole-Body Movements. Engaging long myofascial chains and whole-body movements is the better way to train the fascial system.
  • Proximal Initiation. It’s best to start movements with a dynamic pre-stretch (distal extension) but accompany this with a proximal initiation in the desired direction, letting the more distal parts of the body follow in sequence, like an elastic pendulum.
  • Adaptive Movement. Complex movement requiring adaptation, like our HIIT workouts and programs beats repetitive exercise programs. 

The new research has shown that “the body—and the fascial net in particular—is a single connected unity in which the muscles and bones float.” Because fascial connective tissue has 10 times more neurons and nerves than muscles it becomes critical to how we move and how we function. 

Two new things have emerged from this: First, that specific training can enhance the fascial elasticity essential to systemic resilience. In other words we can train our bodies to have greater resilience to physical stress and use and preserve energy better. Fascia that has been trained this way, for example, stores and releases energy in a more efficient way than untrained fascia making a 10km run a lot less tiring and energy intensive for a runner who has taken the time to train the fascia in their body from one who hasn’t. 

Second, the fascial system responds better to variation than to a repetitive program. We’ve always said that the body is an adaptive machine that tends to optimize for whatever it is we are doing which is why at Darebee we bring out so many workouts and training programs. We never want you to get into your comfort zone, because then you are losing in physical ability. Now we know that the fascial system plays a key role in that. 

Summing Up

Given a limited amount of time to train for performance gains and better body control it is better to focus on integrative tension and whole body training using bodyweight and HIIT than to focus on resistance training that isolates muscle groups (a.k.a. lifting weights) unless, of course, you are training in a sport like bodybuilding where size is the final goal.   

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