Saturday 19 January 2019

Fit to be tried: Fascial Stretch Therapy

Amanda Phelan

LYING face up on a table, one leg strapped down while a dark hunk leans the weight of his considerable shoulder against the bent knee of my free leg, it's hard to keep "deep breathing" as instructed, because my limb is elongated into an extended arc behind my right ear.

It's a new form of healing -- at a stretch. Invented by a former professional ballet dancer and her partner, this technique aims to release the connective tissue running through the whole body.

Called fascial stretch therapy, it feels like a deep-reaching combination of yoga, stretch and massage.

"We release muscle tension to restore movement and take away pain caused by injury or exercise," says Stephen Ward, one of a handful of qualified fascial stretch experts in this country.

"For example, I just helped a yoga instructor who couldn't do a forward bend without hurting her hamstring, as it was catching on a muscle on the way down. After two treatments, she could do a full bend."

A personal trainer who has worked in the Irish fitness business for more than 12 years, Stephen qualified in deep-tissue massage, but he felt this wasn't giving clients the lasting relief they needed.

So he went to the US to learn about fascial stretching therapy from Ann and Chris Frederick, the people who came up with the treatment.

Ann, a professional dancer, says the stretch treatment helps with daily activity as well as exercise because it works on the fascia -- the connective tissue running through the body. If you look at a joint of meat in the shop or your kitchen, you'll notice the fascia -- it's like a stretchy filmy layer covering the surface.

Relaxing this tissue helps to improve the traction in your joint muscles, Stephen says.

He puts me on a table ready for a standard 'stretch to win' session, tackling the lower body first. This involves strapping one leg down while he works on the calf, quads, shin and feet of the free limb.

Although he maintains the treatment is relaxing and less intrusive than massage, some of the extensions he manages to coax from my legs, inner thighs, and hips feel pretty challenging, and even scary.

He tugs my leg towards him, holding firmly to the foot. "A healthy hip joint pops out and you hear a suck like a suction cup," he says, but manages to get only a few stubborn cracks from my right hip, an area that has a longstanding sports injury.

Stretching the quad (thigh) area is pretty painful, but Stephen explains this is the region with most capacity for pain and tightness.

Manual stretch therapy was pioneered by the Fredericks in 1995, and Stephen says the system focuses on realigning, elongating and balancing the body.

"You get good results within one session, it improves flexibility, strength, balance, co-ordination, body awareness and posture."

But can't you just do a stretch class and achieve similar results on your own?

"When you try to stretch yourself, you can't relax enough or target specific areas as efficiently," he maintains.

Certainly I'd never manage to push my leg that far above my head without expert force or assistance.

Before we begin, Stephen asks me to touch my toes and perform a basic squat to the floor. While I'm quite flexible and do okay, there's a marked improvement in flexibility at the end of our one-hour session.

Sadly we don't have time to tackle a shoulder injury that is my main problem area as the first session focuses on lower body. But my hips are more limber, and some pain that had been a night-time irritation has gone since Stephen's treatment.

It's not quite as relaxing as he promised -- there's bright fluro lighting at the treatment room where he does some of his work, (on Dublin's Lower Camden Street), but I float out afterwards and it feels like my circulation is improving in areas that have been tight and stuck.

"The fascia thickens and shortens when your tissues are under stress from poor posture, lack of exercise, injury, surgery, disease or over-training," says Stephen. "This method treats inflexible fascia at the deepest level-- your joint capsule."

He says just about anybody would benefit from the assisted stretching techniques, which can improve conditions including shoulder mobility problems, lower-back pain, plantar fasciitis, sports injuries, rounded shoulders and Parkinson's disease.

Put simply, it's no stretch to say this treatment improves movement and reduces injury pain.

The Verdict

Did it work? Yes, hip strain much improved

Pluses: Helps you stretch, improves flexibility

Minuses: Seeing your leg extended past your ear with somebody shouldering it into a position that would do a professional ballet dancer proud

Cost: €75 per treatment

Contact: Stephen Ward, Irish Strength Institute, Artane, Dublin 5 (01-4443535). Also at Fitness Dock, 1-4 Lower Camden Street, Dublin 2 (01-405 3777), email:

Stephen will be running a training course on fascia therapy in June

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