Opinion

The Right Way to Gain Muscle With Soft Tissue Work

When training and diet both fail to further gains, many trainees turn to things to solutions in a pill, like nootropics or Vitamin C.

However, a little-known fact is that soft tissue techniques can propel your size and strength gains to new heights.

Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. The opinions and articles on this site and in this contributor’s article are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems.

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Why Do Soft Tissue Therapy?

Now, the term “soft tissue therapy” might conjure up pictures of a relaxing day at the spa, but let me warn you that one distinctive feature of a good soft tissue practitioner is physical strength.

So, believe me when I say the techniques I am going to mention are actually quite brutal.

But it’s okay, since they are brutally effective too!

To wit, a man with 51-centimeter arm circumference can gain 2 to 3 cm in one treatment of the methods I will discuss.

Yes, I said 51-centimeter arms — when talking about muscle growth, these techniques are much more effective for advanced trainees.

Basically, when you train hard, you tear down muscle tissue on the daily. Keep doing that for years on end and you’re bound to develop a host of adhesions that limit growth and function.

They’re called training-induced micro tears. A build up of unaddressed micro tears can lead to muscles that are harder and tougher than they should be, this will impede the smooth motion of muscles, can result in reduced range of motion and, potentially, increase your injury risk.

With repeated abuse and build-up of scar tissue, muscles shorten and weaken. In the end, the available range of motion diminishes and this ultimately paves the way for imbalances. Adhesions are not necessarily painful at rest, but they do impede growth — so you might not even know you have any issues.

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4 Kinds of Adhesions Athletes Should Know About

According to Dr. Michael Leahy, inventor of Active Release Therapy©, there are different kinds of adhesions:

  1. Intra-muscular adhesions
  2. Inter-muscular adhesions
  3. Nerve to muscle adhesions
  4. Muscle to bone adhesions

Note that the first, intra-muscular adhesions, means that the different muscle fibers stick together, forming “knots”. Inter-muscular adhesions means muscles can adhere to one another, limiting both growth and range of motion.

In fact, inter-muscular adhesions are one of the most common causes of people not being able to clear the bar with their chins during chin-ups — the teres major and latissimus dorsi muscles have a tendency to bind together.

Those are problems from a mechanical perspective. But the nerve to muscle adhesions are also hugely important. I often harp on this: the nervous system is the forgotten component of strength training.

The central nervous system is the main player, yet the information travels down the nerves.

As you may have figured out if you have ever suffered from a sciatica attack, some nerves pass in between muscles. You already know that adhesions can happen within muscles; they can also happen between muscles and bone or between two muscles.

Then there’s the muscle to nerve adhesions. They can also tamper with the nervous influx. Liberation of said adhesions would facilitate the nervous influx, and this is why the techniques I advocate not only promote size increases but strength gains too. Common gains I’ve seen include turning your 5-rep max to an 8-rep max. From one treatment.

Muscle Growth and Fascia

Muscle growth can also be limited by fascia.

There are different types of connective tissue, fascia being one of them.

Fascia is an envelope that surrounds and isolates anatomical structures either on a superficial or deeper level. Under normal circumstances this tissue allows muscles, blood vessels and nerves to glide smoothly on one another.

Myofascial adhesions can range in severity from making things “stick” in the same way overnight maple syrup sticks to a countertop, to Velcro tight adherence. In any event, adhesions decrease muscle’s ability to function and grow properly.

Without further ado let’s see what techniques I find the most useful.

Two Kinds of Soft Tissue Work for Muscle Growth

Active Release Technique

The first kind of treatment A.R.T (Active Release Technique) targets muscle tissue and connective tissue.

ART is patented by Dr. P. Michael Leahy and skilled practitioners can use as many as 500 different techniques to evaluate and assess the specific issue. The treatment entails pressures applied by the practitioner combined with patient specific movements in order to address the issue at hand, be it any kind of adhesion or nerve entrapment, namely those four types of adhesions listed earlier.

There’s a lot of footage online of me performing ART on various athletes , including IFBB pro Ben Pakulski. Learn more about what it looks like in this clip, where I practice ART on Mark Bell.

Gua Sha

The next method is the Gua Sha, which I show how to use in the Kinetic Chain Enhancement classes.

Gua Sha is a traditional Chinese medical treatment in which the lubricated skin is scraped with a smooth edged and blunt instrument. It’s considered an early form of instrument-assisted soft tissue mobilization (IASTM), the idea being that the gua sha creates micro-traumas at the damaged tissue to enhance healing.

Again, skill is of the essence, but it can have extraordinary results for body parts that refuse to grow because the fascial envelopes are too restricted. Gua Sha use would be useful for type 1 and 2 adhesions: intra-muscular and inter-muscular.

If you don’t see instant results with practitioners, there are two possible reasons:

  1. You are not big and strong enough to need it.
  2. The practitioner is useless.

Make absolutely sure you do your research and find a reputable practitioner — this is absolutely key.

[Read our full article on Gua Sha therapy here – what else can it do for strength athletes?]

Final Words

Research is still conflicted but there have been a few promising studies reinforcing my years of experience. (And, well the few thousand years of use of Gua Sha by Traditional Chinese Medicine.) Let’s say that my use of these techniques is based on empirical evidence and experimenting with top levels athletes for many years. Science tends to catch-up to me later, as it did last year in regards to the edge provided by Fat Gripz training and the relevance of regional hypertrophy.

So, assuming you are an old-time trainee whose diet and training are spot-on, lack luster progress could very well be fixed by soft tissue therapy. Don’t hesitate and hire a highly qualified soft tissue practitioner to work on you.

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Featured image via @hitesh_healer and @strengthsensei on Instagram.