When we think about movement of the human body, it’s important to understand that our movement is not strictly governed by the muscles themselves, but rather the chains of muscles and the connective tissue in between known as the myofascial system. Mastering foundational movement patterns are key when it comes to improving muscle function and performance. Without these deep subsystems cooperating with each other, dynamic movement would effectively be impossible.
The theory of the myofascial system was popularised by Thomas Myers – his books and posters receive widespread use, and his approach to human movement just made sense to me. Next time you’re being treated on a physio bed look on the wall for the skeleton with blue connective tissue drawn through it - that’s Myers’ work.
What is a myofascial sling?
A myofascial sling is simply one of these subsystems which is interconnected through fascia, muscles, tendons, and ligaments to keep to the body stable and allow for force to be transmitted in a given direction. Train these slings and we move more efficiently – neglect and you’ll forever move like the tin man from The Wizard of Oz.
For example, when walking or running we repeat a series of contractions that a lot of the time will involve contralateral (opposite sides of the body) activation of reciprocal muscle groups in opposing limbs. Yes, that’s a mouthful, so in other words, when one hip is moving into hip flexion, the other is simultaneously moving into hip extension. Additionally, we often incorporate contralateral arm positions at the same time where one arm is responsible for driving one hip and the other arm is responsible for the other hip, also known as the cross-crawl movement effect. All these moving parts tied together are responsible for the transferral of force across multiple joints, helping us to essentially move from point A to B.
How do myofascial slings work?
The force produced by a contraction in our musculature spreads across its site of origin, before being transferred to neighbouring structures and other muscles contracting in synergy. This makes it possible for the force to travel far from the original point of the muscle contraction in a direction called the force vector. Force vectors need to be balanced as imbalanced vectors have the propensity to cause tension in a sling, leading to loss of stability, misalignment, and restricted movement which ultimately dictates our posture. We are a product of our environment and our physical habits and I personally see a lot of sling related issues arise from the typical restricted office posture which a lot of us find ourselves in from 9am – 5pm, five days a week.
Our body is made up of many of these myofascial slings, and it’s necessary that they are all working harmoniously, otherwise we can increase the likelihood of injury. Consistently tight in a particular muscle group no matter how often you stretch and trigger, or often feeling restricted in specific ranges of motion? There might be more to how you’re moving than just your “tight hamstrings”.
These days, I emphasise sling mechanics with my own clients, and the vast majority of programs I write include sling-based exercises which vary depending on the client goal. Training muscles in isolation is a lot of the time necessary to correct muscular imbalances and discrepancies, but there comes a point where training muscles solely in isolation is not necessarily beneficial for an end goal that requires functional movement – whether that be walking, running, playing sport or getting up on a ladder to paint the house. Many of the accessory exercises that I program to complement the big primary lifts focus on addressing weaknesses in some of these slings. Athletes may benefit because quick, efficient force transmission means you sprint faster, and the ball is kicked higher or thrown further. An elderly, sedentary individual may benefit from repatterning their movement and getting multiple muscles to work in synergy to improve lower back health, hip and knee pain, posture and overall body alignment, or to prevent the risk of falls.
I’ll provide a couple of examples of how I utilise myofascial slings to help achieve results. The posterior oblique sling and back functional line relates to the contralateral relationship of the opposite sides on the back of the body. In short, this line effectively joins opposing sides of the body in terms of force transfer. An example of this is the relationship between the left gluteus maximus and right latissimus dorsi. Want to run quicker? Work this sling to help during the most propulsive phase of gait.
Likewise, the anterior oblique sling and front functional line demonstrates the same concept but on the front of the body relating to opposite hip and shoulder. When this group of muscles contract together, it provides stability by acting like an abdominal binder, compressing the entire pelvic girdle, resulting in force closure of the symphysis pubis and helping with lumbopelvic stability, which is key when thinking about rehab for a lower back injury.
Movements targeting myofascial slings are the foundation for balanced workout routines and result in greater control, recruitment, and movement capacity as we train to move on the natural network designed for our bodies. In my own experience as an exercise physiologist who spends a fair bit of time correcting movement dysfunctions and musculoskeletal injuries, I’ve come to realise that movement quality trumps all – it’s not always about the weight on the bar. Set aside time in your workouts going forward to incorporate some of these new exercises and strengthen the movement rather than the muscle. If you’re still inquisitive about learning more or some specific exercises, look at some of what the internet has to offer – alternatively, I try to put some of the exercises I used regularly on my Instagram @ag.exercisephysiology.
For more information around how myofascial slings can become a part of your exercise, please don’t hesitate to get in touch – we’d love to help!