Soft tissue work, or care, as I like to think of it, means looking after the muscles and other tissues that help you move. This is a key ingredient in getting fit without getting injured. And it’s not just for athletes or gym junkies. Even if your workout routine is a low-key walk after dinner, you can benefit from looking after yourself.
What is soft tissue?
In this instance, the soft tissues I’m referring to are the muscles and the connective tissues surrounding them, called fascia. These tissues support stable joints, help us maintain joint and posture alignment, and create movement. When they are tight, they can also limit movement, mis-align joints, and trigger pain responses.
I talk about both of these together, but muscle and fascia are two different types of tissue. Both can get stiff from prolonged tension, such as being stuck in one posture or position for an extended time, or prolonged load, like hours of working out every day. When soft tissues are stiff, it means that movement can’t happen as well.
What is “stiffness”?
Let’s take a moment for a quick refresher: When muscles contract, they pull on bones, which creates movement at the joints. A single joint movement can count as exercise (like a bicep curl), as can more complex movements like a squat, where many joints work together. Fascia helps transmit the force of the pull from one contracting muscle to another, or through another set of joints. Together, soft tissues that are pliable can contract, relax, transmit force, and perform these jobs with ease.
Back to “getting stiff”: Muscles that are under tension for an extended period of time can end up staying partially contracted. This means they won’t actually relax OR contract well, so the “pull” on the bones is less efficient and productive. Prolonged tension can also change how stiff your fascia is. This can have a huge impact on overall soft tissue tension and stiffness, because fascia is EVERYWHERE. It surrounds:
- Individual muscle fibres (strings of individual cells)
- Small bundles of fibres
- Larger bundles of fibres
- The whole muscle
The layer surrounding each muscle blends into the layers surrounding other muscles or anatomical structures, which can “spread” tension even farther. Fascial stiffness anywhere in the body can impact how easily the muscle can contract and relax.
The “soft tissue work” referred to is the treatment of these tissues so that they stay pliable, with what we call good tone. This can be done as self-treatment with foam rollers, trigger point balls, roller sticks, etc or you can see a remedial massage therapist, physio/osteo/chiro for manual therapy. Both do the same thing – use pressure or stretch-strain on the tissues to stimulate a decrease in tone.
Why does any of this actually matter?
Beyond feeling tight, which is generally unpleasant, stiffness can cause short and long-term problems. When you’re stiff, your movement changes. It might be so subtle that you don’t even notice it. Over time though, stiff tissue can get increasingly tight, since noticing means not changing its length. In turn, this can start changing how you move. This is one way people develop compensation patterns that can lead to injury.
Tension in any of the soft tissues can also impact joints in more isolated ways. Tightness can generate “hot spots” or areas of higher strain in joints where the attachment point pulls on the bone. Tension can also lead to poor alignment between joint structures, in turn leading to friction and potentially inflammation and pain.
The most important point: Looking after your soft tissue
There are a number of things you can do to look after yourself, including DIY options that are easily done at home, as well as sessions with a manual therapist.
Small, frequent doses of “treatment” is the most effective way to keep your soft tissue feeling good. You can easily do this at home, making me a gib fan of DIY options. My general recommendations are spending 20-30 seconds on any sore spot before moving on, and doing this most days. If you have a lot of different muscles or sore sports to work on, try doing different spots on different days. For example, you could treat upper body spots on one day and lower body spots on the next. You can use a variety of self-massage tools, including a foam roller, a trigger point ball, a massage gun (also called a theragun), or a massage stick are highly effective for muscle tissue. Low intensity stretches held for several minutes per stretch is a great way to treat fascia.
Last, but possibly the most effective: Go and get some hands-on treatment from a qualified professional. This is the soft tissue work that is more effective, both in terms of efficiency and how long it lasts. This may be remedial massage, physiotherapy (also called physical therapy, depending on where you live), or even some chiropractors or osteopaths, depending on their style of treatment. You’re looking for someone who can apply useful pressure (not to heavy, not too soft) in a way the creates a change in the muscle. Specifically, you’re looking for someone who can keep your muscles pliable and ready to move, without causing you too much pain in the process. It’s a huge help in keeping your body pain- and injury-free, and keeping you feeling good.