Being an athlete himself, Dr. Rob Willhite knows the importance of stretching in sports. Fascial release results from stretching that can translate not only to better performance in a game or practice, but also makes the body function and feel better before, during and after the activity. The fascia also gives Dr. Willhite a blueprint to a certain injury of the body where these soft connecting and encasing tissues may be causing pain. Learn more about how the fascia functions in the body.
Dr. Rob Willhite is a Chiropractor and Myofascial Release Specialist out in Hermosa Beach, California. Dr. Rob works closely with athletes from the professional rankings all the way down to high school athletes. On the podcast, Dr. Rob enlightens us about fascia and the overall importance it has on our wellbeing and movement patterns. He also discusses tensegrity and goes over customized at-home exercises that can help get you out of pain. Please welcome, Dr. Rob Willhite.
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The Importance of Fascial Release For Athletes with Dr. Rob Willhite
Rob, where are you from?
I’m from Ridgecrest, California, a little small desert town in the Mojave Desert of California.
How far is that from LA?
It’s about three hours northeast if you’re going towards the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
What was it like growing up there?
It’s special. It’s super isolated town, middle of the desert. I think the closest “major city” is probably Lancaster, which is about an hour and a half away. I grew up in a town where there’s no mall. Walmart and Denny’s were the hangouts. That gives you a little bit of an idea where I come from.
What were you into growing up? Any sports or anything?
That was pretty much what consumed my pre-adult existence with sports. Living in a place like that, there’s not a whole lot to get into. Sports is one of them and my parents pushed that on me and I embraced it, definitely was what occupied most of my time outside of school.
You were a basketball guy mostly, right?
Yes. I played football when I was doing the whole Pop Warner thing. Slowly transitioned into to basketball throughout middle school and high school, that’s what I did. After high school, I went to college and played ball as well.
Where did you play ball in college?
I played at a small Division II school in Carson, California. It’s just south of LA. It’s a school called Cal State Dominguez Hills.
That’s where that StubHub Center is. Is that where you played or is that an outdoor?
That’s an outdoor soccer stadium. We had a nice decent sized little gym on campus, nothing spectacular but it served its purpose.
How was that experience for you? Do you like playing ball there?
Absolutely. It was definitely a great experience just getting to do something that I love to do and getting school paid for. That was a blessing. Looking back at it along the way, you don’t really appreciate it while you’re in it, but definitely it gave me a lot of tools for life. Understanding how to manage people above me telling me what to do as far as coaches and manage people on my level as far as my teammates and trying to be a leader in that capacity. Just having to deal with different physical, mental hardships of going through practice, games, juggling that with school, travel, all that stuff. Definitely it helped me a lot with time management, all the things that I’ve put into place now.
Were you looking to go to the next level after college? Did you get any looks at the League or anything?
It was one of those things when I first started college. I was like, “It would be cool to play professional basketball.” Me, I’m a realist. I knew coming out of Division II school and I understood what my strengths and limitations were as a basketball player. I knew that playing in the NBA was a long shot, especially as I progressed through college. Throughout that grind of doing the whole college basketball thing, definitely started to see myself more in a long-term career in what I’m doing now versus basketball. By the time my senior season of basketball ended, I was okay with it being over. I definitely tried a few things here. The NBA G League tryouts, I definitely wanted to do that for myself. My dad was a big influence and he was like, “You should definitely just try them. Take a crack at it. If it doesn’t work out, at least you tried and didn’t just let it go.” I definitely appreciate him for pushing me to do that.
That’s fulfilling in itself. You tried it. It’s never in the back of your mind anymore. It’s done.
Definitely have peace of mind coming out of it. I was like, “I tried it, didn’t work out.” Now I get to do what I really wanted to do and that’s over the top.
Were you getting anything in college like chiropractic, muscle work, anything done to help you or that led you in that direction?
As a kid and even through college, my first experience with a chiropractor was maybe my junior year of basketball in college. Before that I had gone to PT for ankle sprains, just the typical athlete stuff. I never really had any experience with a chiropractor or anything in-depth like that. When I did, it was very eye–opening. What led me into where I’m at now is I got hooked up in college with a guy who is now my mentor. He’s a chiropractor by license but does very similar with what I do now, a lot of the soft tissue in rehab stuff. Not only seeing him work and how he did his thing but also experiencing the work that he did, for me as an athlete, it was something that resonated with me really quickly. I’ve been to a different chiropractor before. I’ve been to different PTs and all of it was good, but it wasn’t that light bulb moment that I need as an athlete. Once I experienced that I was like, “I can take what he’s doing here, incorporate my own philosophies and ideals coming from an already athletic background. Incorporate some of the chiropractic stuff, some of the rehab stuff with PT.” That’s what I’ve molded into what I do today.
He was treating you in college?
Yeah. He treated me once or maybe twice through a mutual connection. He’s a very expensive ticket when I was in college. He was a one-time, two-time deal and after that I was like, “Can I just hang out?” That’s how it got started. I was hanging out with him all throughout undergrad when I had time and even when we were in chiropractic school. During spare time I had, I was over there learning and just trying to figure the thing out.
A lot of people are like, “What should I do? How do I get in there and talk to people?” I was like, “Did you ask if you could follow them around?” Everybody loves giving back and sharing that experience of what they do. You very rarely find people that would say no to that. You just got to get up and ask and mostly everybody says, “Yes.”
That’s the hard part for most people is getting up and asking them. It was the same for him. I was fortunate enough to come across a guy who once I started talking to him, he asked me about what I was doing in undergrad and I told him, “I’m majoring in Kinesiology. I’m looking to go to PT school.” He was like, “Let me show you a different way to that I do. If you want to you want to come hang out at any time, just come back.” For me, that was all I needed. After that, I hopped on the train. I’ve started hanging out and seeing how not only what he did in the treatment room, how he interacted with his patients, but also his work-life balance, the whole gamut of everything that went into what he was doing. I just fell in love with it. I told him, “If you’ll allow me to, I’m just going to hang out with you as much as I can and do exactly what you did to get where you’re at because I want to do it.”
You shadowed him a lot in chiropractic school?
Yes. Obviously, there’s not a lot of free time in med school especially as I got more and more into eighth, ninth, tenth term where we had some time that we’re out in the field doing whatnot. I made it a point to go over there and hang out with him in his clinic, help him as much as possible, add value to what he was doing while I gained experience. He was nice enough to set up once a week, twice a week at max, where I would go to his house. We’d spend about three, four hours and we’d have other people come over and he would just teach me. He would just train me in all these soft tissue techniques that he’s developed over the years. I latched on to that stuff and then added what I knew as an athlete and all the other stuff that I had done outside of what he just showed me. I just incorporated my own twist on this.
Rob, you specialize in myofascial work, soft tissue. Can you go into how important fascia is and how it’s becoming a new focus of what a lot of people are focusing on and why it’s so important? What is it?
Let’s try and make this as streamlined as possible because there’s a lot to talk about. The way that I describe the fascia to patients and people when I’m doing the education a bit, the best and the easiest way to describe it is fascia is very similar to that weird casing around sausages. It’s what holds all the contents of the sausage together but not only that, it’s connecting sausage link to sausage link. If you can imagine the muscle being the sausage and then the fascia being that outer casing. Depending on what functional lines that we’re talking about, you have different muscles that are connected in function by this fascia, this outer casing. It’s definitely one of those things when you’re talking about going into actual function movements; especially for me working with athletes or the athletic population. When I go to do and diagnose and do my investigation on why someone is in pain or they have an injury, I’m looking all across these fascia lines because maybe there’s an injury in the knee, but there’s all these different sausage links that are involved. Maybe it’s not just sausage link number one, it might be sausage link number five, six, seven, down the line that could be adding to that. That’s what the fascia is. It just connects all these different muscles and muscle groups together in that functional way.
How do you go about working with it and assessing which “sausage” is tighter than the other and all that stuff?
One of the most important books that I got a hold of in chiropractic school, which helps me a lot when I go into doing the diagnosis of a patient and figuring out not just where their pain is but what’s the primary cause of their pain is a book called Anatomy Trains by Tom Myers. It just gives me a blueprint. I know now from experience and from the different education I got from chiropractic school, the different books I read outside education from my mentor, when I see a certain injury in a place like the knee, there’s a couple places that I go outside of the knee, those primarily being the hip and the ankle; the hip and the ankle and the foot as contributing factors to added stress on the knee or different biomechanical factors that go into that. When I’m looking at it which sausage link to pick? I’m seeing where the pain is and then I have a blueprint from all the education especially that Anatomy Trains book, as to other muscles along that fascia train that I’m going to go look and I’m going to see, “Do you have the mobility here in your hip? Do you have the mobility here in your ankle? Do you have structural foundation in your foot? Why is it that there’s extra stress that you put on your knee?” That’s the blueprint that I go with throughout the whole body.
Let’s say someone’s got right hip pain. How often do you see that the root cause of the problem’s at the right hip? Do you see it pop up in the shoulder or the ankle or other spots like that?
On the conservative side of things, I would probably say nine out of ten times, it’s going to be somewhere other than that hip. That plays along to another premise of the Anatomy Trains book in the whole fascial system this buzzword that people use nowadays. I think they call it tensegrity. That’s just two words tensile and integrity combined to describe how the human body works as far as absorbing forces and transmitting forces. The simplest fundamental way that you could describe it is imagining the human body like a balloon where you have the same amount of tension across this balloon from the inside. Any time you put any type of forced compression into the balloon, it’s going to be transmitted all along that surface. This is the easiest foundation way to put it but there’s obviously a way more that goes into it. The human body is very similar. When you put a force in it whether it’s running, jumping, even something as simple as sitting at a desk for eight hours a day at work, all these, whether it’s macro trauma or micro trauma, any force that you’re putting is going to be transmitted throughout the system. It’s the whole tensile integrity.
To go back to the whole point of this is if there’s a constant force or anything like that that’s being put into one part of the body, it happens a lot with athletes who are positional like a pitcher, certain forces that are constantly at play. The same thing goes off on the other side of the spectrum. If you’re sitting at a desk for eight hours a day, you’re going to get the same type of forces in the same type of micro traumas on a daily basis. Just like if I took a ballpoint pen and I’m constantly pressing down in that balloon, eventually that balloon is going to pop. What ends happening is that one doesn’t necessarily pop where I’m pushing that pen. It’s going to be somewhere else in a weak point that has given out before the actual point of force.
Now that we know what fascia, is there are hundreds of ways in different types of therapy that goes into it. What are you mainly focused on and how do you go about treating just the fascia and the tightness in everything?
There are a lot of people with the idea that the fascia is important. There’s a bunch of different ways that you can go about treating it. There’s ART. There’s Rolfing over here. There’s structural integration. There’s all these different ways to do it. For me personally, what I found to work, and this is just from my own experience as an athlete and then moving into my experience as a patient with my mentor and learning from him as a mentee. The way that I look to treat it is based on a lot of research by a guy named Robert Schleip where he’s done a lot of research with the fascia and how it responds to different forces and impulses and all that stuff. What he has found in his research is that deep slow pressure, the best way I can describe it is it looks like deep tissue massage. It’s extremely deep pressure and it moves very slowly. With this type of pressure, it’s stimulating certain proprioceptors in the skin, in the fascia layer especially. What ends up happening when these proprioceptors are being stimulated, it basically stimulates the endocrine system and the parasympathetic nervous system to have this global relaxing effect to where you are decreasing the tone of the muscle.
Do you feel the tensegrity change? Do you wait for a release when you’re doing that slow therapy or does it sometimes take a couple of hours after the treatment? How do you know when you’ve got it per se?
That’s the hard part and that’s what comes with experience. For sure there’s definitely going to be times where you feel that release. That’s exciting stuff because you can feel it, the patient can feel it and it’s an immediate result. On the more common side of things, it’s one of those things where especially with how deep and slow that it’s going, it’s very uncomfortable to the patient. People don’t love me while I’m doing it but they do love it. It is more one of those things where we do the work, you definitely feel different immediately. When you really get to appreciate the work is a couple days later, when you start to see all that stuff just relax and let go. You definitely feel more mobility and you feel a lot of that tension in the muscles and the fascial system just decrease. You get a little bit more range of motion, less pain.
After you fix the tensegrity, do you find that you have to fix that athlete’s ergonomics of what they’re doing? If they go back to playing the same way they were, that’s probably going to come right back, right?
Yes. That’s the other half of what I preach to all my patients. I’m big into analogies because that’s the best way people can understand it. My analogy that I use with everybody is that it’s almost like you have this house that you built over the years. We need to tear that house down with our soft tissue work and then we need to build a backup from the foundation with rehab, exercise. Another big part of that, and just to go exactly with what you’re asking, is after we’ve done the tissue work, we need to see what’s going on biomechanically and almost reeducate that fascial train or that muscle system to work properly so we can build that foundation on solid ground instead of this haphazard deal that we’ve got going on.
It’s probably very beneficial for someone to visit you in the off-season while you have time to do that. Obviously, you’ll see someone mid-season but the chances of them changing everything mid-season is tough. They could probably do it on the off-season, right?
During the season, more of the work that we’re going to do will be more of the soft tissue work just because that there’s not a lot of time to reeducate those systems. A lot of what we do is just going to be more for just tissue quality, tissue help, making sure they’re staying out of pain and making sure that they can perform their job whatever it may be at the best of their abilities pain free. Off-season is where we’re going to go down and we’re going to just tear that house down and rebuild it. That’s when we have the time and take the time to do that.
Another thing I like that you’re doing is you make videos for people where they can literally become their own doctor after you assessed what’s going on. You give them at home exercises or things that they can do to help them keep the tensegrity and everything, right?
Absolutely. That’s probably the most fun part about what I do is the education part. That’s more of where my passion is. I do love helping people but I love to make sure that people can help themselves as well. The main goal in everything that I do obviously is to get you out of pain. I want to keep people out of pain. I don’t want him to be dependent on anyone. I will never give somebody a video of something that they can do without telling them why they’re doing it. I want to make sure that everyone going forward whether they’re with me or it’s via Instagram, if they have an injury they understand why they have that injury. I want to give them an idea of why these certain injuries happen and then moving forward how you can get out of pain and how you can stay out of pain.
Has it come a long way with athletes today? I remember when I was doing training and everything, they would have 40 kids in one room doing the same exact thing. Some kids shouldn’t have been doing deadlifts and squats and all this stuff and some kids had awful knees and everything. How do you go about correcting that? You obviously want the whole team involved but you don’t want anybody getting hurt.
That’s definitely a tricky subject moving forward especially because I’m working for a lot of trainers and strength coaches, personal trainers, the whole bit. If you’re going into a team setting where you’ve got 40 kids in a weight room and they’re all on the same program, that’s not going to work. Everyone has their imbalances. A lot of the times these programs just build on those balances, especially if you’re in a weight room or training room with all your teammates. You don’t want to be the guy who can’t lift. You’re going to tweak your back or your feet or any way that you can and make sure you get the job done, which in the long-term is going to be detrimental and that’s what we see the combination of that and then how much kids specialize in a particular sport so early. All the sports that these kids are doing nowadays are year-round. There’s no break between your school team, your club team, your trainer. What happens is you see kids, baseball players with Tommy John surgery at sixteen. Torn ACLs for basketball players at twelve; it’s crazy, tendonitis, all these different overused injuries.
A lot of the combination of unspecialized training, the volume with which these kids are playing their sports is contributing to a lot of the unnecessary injuries. If there was a better way, which there is and I have a great resource that I work very closely with, he’s one of my best friends. He has taken the training and added not only a component from an actual athlete’s point of view but from a physics point of view. It’s a lot better way for the soft tissues, for the joints. It’s not so much the traditional stuff. To answer your question, the training that we have nowadays is archaic and almost medieval. We have to start moving towards a training system that is more research-based, more advanced for understanding how the body takes in those forces and the tensegrity model and all that stuff. A lot of what we do now in the training room is based on building muscles. As we start looking at what an athlete does, especially as I look at it from an injury standpoint it’s not so much that we need to be worried about strengthening certain muscles. We need to be strengthening certain fascia function-wise. That’s what makes the athletes the best. On top of that, if you’re training the right way, you’re going to reduce your risk of injury.
Do you encourage kids that you work with to play a couple sports all year round around? Everybody is working so hard that you almost have to but there does come a point where it’s got to be fun too. How do you tell those kids to balance out? Even the parents, I’m sure the parents need to hear that too.
The coolest thing about that whole situation is I was one of those kids. When I was playing in high school club, I was driving from my hometown which is three hours from LA. I was driving to LA every weekend so I could be playing for my club team. There was no break. I know that as a kid, if you’re not working hard as the guy next to you, then you’ll feel like, “He’s doing more than me and I’m not going to make the team and I’m not going to get playing time. I’m not going to go to the NBA,” or whatever highest level of sport you’re trying to achieve. There’s definitely a point to where you get these diminishing returns.
For me in working with athletes, the last thing I want to tell them to do is stop playing this sport or decrease playing the sport. I know it’s not realistic. I was there. I know how it goes. That’s a big part of the reason I do everything that I do on social media and Instagram especially is I want kids to along this way to understand that if they’re going to be playing this much of one sport from this early on, you’ve got to take the precautionary measures to take care of your body. I don’t know about you, Kevin, but for me when I was when I was playing sports growing up, I never stretched. I stretched when the coaches told me to. Half the time, I was BS-ing the whole time. I didn’t know what a foam roller was. I didn’t know what foundational exercise is. I didn’t know what activating this before I play would do for me.
That’s my whole premise in my social media. To just push on the kids and educate them in the importance of doing all the little things along the way. That will not only reduce the risk of injury as you move forward especially playing with this high volume of sport that we’ve got nowadays. You talk about loosening your hips, getting your feet and ankles mobile and strengthening all that stuff through a full range of motion. That’s going to make you a better athlete at the end of the day. It’s a double-edged sword. You are not going to get hurt as much and you’re going to be better physically. That’s what I try to push on them. I don’t necessarily tell them to stop playing one sport or take a break or even play different sports. It would be nice if you could take a break but I understand the mind of an athlete, especially the parents, if they’re pushing them to get their college scholarship. I don’t even go their route. I just say, “Here are the things that you need to do along the way. This is the life you want to lead. This is what you need to do to maintain.”
Rob, how often do you like to see your clients? I know it’s different for everybody depending on what they’re going through. How long is a session usually?
For me, I see all my patients for an hour; one-on-one for an hour. Typically, I touch on the intensity of the work that we’re doing in that hour. In the worst case I’ll see somebody twice a week but never more than that. Usually, it’s once a week and we have them on a regimen. In that weeks’ time they definitely have homework to go home and work on. A lot of the trajectory of how quickly they get out of pain, increased their mobility, whatever it is that our goal is, is going to be dependent on how diligent they are with their homework. That’s the way that one works.
If you’re in the LA area, go see Rob. What about a kid in Florida or something? What should he seek out? He’s like, “I’m not doing well physically,” and he’s a top athlete. What can they do to just seek out? Obviously, they can watch some videos but what would be your advice for them?
That’s a tough question to answer because I know there are so many variables that go into that. I would say more than anything, find a practitioner whether it’s a doctor or a massage therapist, trainer, whatever it may be. Find someone who’s going to take the time to understand your issue and not just cut and run you through this patient mill. That’s what my whole practice on is. Being able to sit down with someone for an hour and fully go through what we’re doing. It’s not like I’m in and out of that room. It’s like, “This is me in your time. Let’s figure this thing out.” If you could find a doctor who might come at a higher price tag, but it’s always going to be worth it, I guarantee you. Find someone who can just sit down and try and figure out what’s going on with you. If they can’t help you, they’ll at least put a plan together to put you in the right situation whether maybe with someone else to get you right. That would probably be my biggest advice.
Rob, are you sports-specific? Are you just basketball or are you seeing athletes all across the board?
All across the board. Basketball, that was my sport. I got some basketball players, got quite a bit of football players, volleyball, gymnastics, swimmers, jujitsu, mixed martial arts, boxing.
What are your social media platforms where people can find your videos and check out what you’re doing?
I would say the easiest one would be my Instagram page. That’s where most of my stuff goes. Obviously, all the videos are a minute long, trying to keep the captions pretty short so that people don’t get bored. I know people don’t want to read. It’s @Dr__R0b.
Are you on YouTube or with strictly Instagram right now?
Yeah, strictly Instagram right now. People can get a lot of the stuff that I want them to have right now in there but definitely in the works for bigger and better things. Hopefully, that will get going by the end of the year, a more extensive library of knowledge to pull from.
Rob, thanks for coming on. That was awesome. Always a pleasure talking to you. I really appreciate it.
Thanks for having me. My pleasure.
Maybe in a couple of months we’ll get you back here, see what you’re up to and seeing a lot of big things coming your way.
Any time you’ll have me, I’ll get on here and ramble a little bit.
I’ll talk to you soon. Thanks for coming on.
Thanks, appreciate it.
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