If a friend handed you a short, elbow-width broom handle with multiple 2-inch plastic spikes resembling a medieval torture tool, and told you to rigorously roll it up and down your thighs, buttocks, back, arms, and belly to improve muscle tone, break up cellulite, and alleviate inflammation — “it may cause some bruising, but that’s OK” — would you do it?
Like gua sha (ancient Chinese facial massage with jade and rose stones — a legitimate blood flow and glow inducer) and Hanacure (the creepy-looking Korean beauty masks — results questionable), fascia blasting is doing the social rounds. If you’re on Instagram or Facebook even infrequently, chances are you’ve seen sponsored posts pop up for fascia blasters.
Women craving the next new device to help them combat cellulite to look and feel slimmer are buying fascia-blaster tools that claim to break down fat, tone the body, and rejuvenate skin. But there are questions around whether fascia blasting actually works — and strong concern in the fascia-research community over the safety of these blaster bodywork tools, which some experts in the medical field say can cause more harm than good.
But if you’re like us and open to a little pain-for-gain, your first thought before even considering purchasing may well have been: “What the heck is fascia and why do I need to blast it?” To get the lowdown on what’s behind the hype — and the bottom line on whether our bottoms and the rest of our body can benefit from incorporating fascia-blasting techniques into our toning routine — we turned to the experts at the Fascia Research Society.
Figuring Out Fascia
Fascia is an elusive part of our anatomy that experts and researchers still don’t fully understand. In anatomical circles, fascia is described as connective tissue, a layer in the interstitial spaces around our bones and muscle that has a structural support role. Yet scientists and experts don’t yet have a full understanding of fascia — or what it even looks like.
Some describe it as a delicate and ethereal form — translucent tissue resembling bubble wrap that cocoons around and in between our musculoskeletal structure; a wispy mass of spider webbing; or a cotton candy-like tissue that wraps around other tissue and reacts to how we move and feel, especially when it comes to body aches and pain, and even our mental health.
“It’s well understood in anatomy that fascia serves a role in structural support,” explains Sue Hitzmann, manual therapist, exercise physiologist, and founding member of the Fascia Research Society. “However, connective tissue supports something even more profound than our muscles and bones. It nurtures our sensory nerves, assists in metabolic functions, helps our cells transport nutrients to other cells, and houses cells that assist in tissue repair and defend against foreign organisms and bacterial invasion.”
And that’s not all. According to Hitzmann, fascia serves a role in nutrition as well. Different metabolites diffuse through connective tissue membranes during their transportation between blood capillaries and cells and other tissues. Fat (adipose tissue) is caused by calories that are unused in our day. These calories convert into lipids and are stored as adipocytes until they are used. If they aren’t used, they simply get stuck in the superficial fascial spaces (called microvacuoles) and ultimately can be stored in our viscera or gut.
As we age, fascia loosens and gets slack, dries up, and cramps, impeding correct movement. It’s why we’re stiff and slow to move in the mornings.
“This is a primary catalyst for poor absorption and digestion — not to mention the unsightly clumps on your thighs and butt called cellulite,” she states, bluntly. “So not only can fascia adapt on a structural level causing macro issues like poor posture, joint pain, and muscle strain, it adapts on a micro level, causing cellular degradation and an increased tendency to become sick, lowering our immune system, and ultimately accelerating our aging process.”
Hitzmann, author of New York Times bestseller The MELT Method, has studied fascia and its impact on the body’s overall function for 25 years and considers fascia to be a workhorse. She says regardless of age, activity level, or diet, the repetitive movements, sedentary postures, and overall stress of daily life negatively impacts the supportive qualities of fascia. It can be anything from a “desk sentence” (sitting all day) to a workout routine or training for a sport.
On top of that, as we age fascia loosens and gets slack, dries up, and cramps, impeding correct movement. It’s why we’re stiff and slow to move in the mornings. “Repetitive tension on our fascial supportive tissue is like stretching out a sweater. After a while, it just doesn’t return to its original shape.” Another analogy is a dry sponge. When fascia starts to dehydrate and dry up, Hitzmann says, “We need to rehydrate the fascia and squeeze it so that it then holds more water.”
To Blast or Not to Blast
When it comes to fascia blasting and manipulating your body with the equivalent of a soft-spiked rolling pin, the medical jury is still out. Some in the fascia field say it’s OK to try blasting if you go gently, carefully, follow the guidelines, and don’t overdo it. Others, including Hitzmann, are adamantly opposed, concerned about misuse and the harm these tools can do.
“I find the whole idea of fascia blasting offensive. There’s enough body dysmorphia out there without making women feel they have to ‘fix’ their fascia. Fascia is not a bad thing. The opposite. Our entire being relies on fascia. Everyone wants a quick fix, and the tools on social are preying on that.”
Hitzmann says keeping our fascia healthy requires daily attention for even just 10 minutes. “Pay attention to precursor signals that your fascia needs work, including your feet feeling achy and stiff on the floor when you get out of bed, feeling you have to constantly adjust yourself, and/or getting up from a chair and feeling 20 years older.” The key, she says, is to work on rejuvenating and maintaining your fascia from both the inside out and the outside in.
“Fascia is not a bad thing. The opposite. Our entire being relies on fascia.”
“We don’t drink enough water throughout the day, but the secret to cell and fascia hydration is more frequent and consistent intake of water in smaller amounts, every 15 minutes. Take one sip and just keep going. On the whole, you’re better off drinking sips throughout the day than chugging.” And if your excuse is that you don’t like water, she doesn’t want to hear it. “That’s like saying I don’t like air! Put two drops of cayenne and a drop of lemon in your water for a spicy kick that makes you feel a little thirsty (the lemon helps cut the spice). Drop one drop of cayenne in each cube of an ice cube tray, a little squirt of lemon, then just pop a few in your water. As the ice dissolves, it makes you want to drink even more.”
And for the outside-in? “I swear to God if all you do is stand up every 30 minutes, stretch your arms overhead, exhale, and put arms down — that’s a great start!” Hitzmann says standing desks are great, but they can cause fascia stiffness from being in one position too long, so you need to add posture rebalancing and movement every half hour for 10 minutes to restore fascia fluid flow.
Ideally, she says, you need to commit to a 10- to 15-minute daily routine of applying gentle, hands-off, soft-tissue manipulation with firm but soft foam rollers and rebalancing techniques, as she guides in her self-care MELT Method approach, or under the guidance of a trained manual therapist.
“The do-it-yourself approach to fascia is still new, and you need to be careful,” Hitzmann says. Bottom line? Be wary of social ‘experts’ and research before you buy.