What is tensegrity?

by Trevor Aung Than on September 14, 2012

Tensegrity = tension + integrity

Before I learned the art, a punch was just a punch, and a kick, just a kick.
After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick, no longer a kick.
Now that I understand the art, a punch is just a punch and a kick is just a kick
– Bruce Lee

ED// These tensegrity concepts are adapted from the works of Stephen M Levin MD and the seminars of Tom Myers and Michol Dalcourt

Something I’ve been reading up on lately are the different models science has previously used in an attempt to explain the human body. From counterbalance to the post and beam; from skyscrapers to columns; from levers to mast and stays – the list goes on. It’s interesting how we have always traditionally relied upon mechanistic models to try to explain the human body. Therein lies the conundrum – how can we apply a model used to explain brick, mortar or steel to explain living and breathing tissue? The short answer is, we can’t.

Our bodies, or for that matter any living tissue whether it be plant or animal, respond and react and adapt. A building or flagpost just doesn’t cut it when compared to a living organism. As Michol Dalcourt, inventor of the ViPR, says on his excellent Institute of Motion website:

…we are yet rewriting our views of biomechanics and shattering our models of traditional anatomy. The era of reducing structure to its constituent parts has passed…

Looking at our structure globally, now I mean REALLY taking a step back and thinking….

Who said that a muscle is a muscle?

Gastrocnemius was called what before it was actually named gastrocnemius?

Now I don’t know what it was called and it doesn’t matter but my meaning is this – the 640 names given to our muscles were an artificial construct to make it easier for people to learn about the body. Deconstructing our bodies into parts might have been beneficial in some regard for anatomical learning…but in helping us understand the body in parts we have done a disservice for our understanding our bodies as a whole. The word anatomy actually derives from the Greek to cut or dissect!!

And this problem derives from the tradition of using mechanical means to explain living and breathing tissue. The spine is not a column. A lever is a ridiculous way to look at a joint. These things just don’t make sense when we really examine how the body moves and works.

The 3-D nature of life demands a more appropriate model. A great analogy that Thomas Myers uses and I’ve probably stated this on my blog before is we should view all the muscles in the body as one single muscle divided by 640 different segments of fascia. Think of your body as one huge piece of sausage meat (you choose – lamb, pork or beef) and a butcher decides to make you into a sausage. He or she divides your body into 640 individual sausages. The function (in this case of the sausage – taste, texture, smell) of the constituent parts is the same; just as our muscles are really all one and the same. They work to propel the body in gross movement – walk, run, jump or to hunt that wilderbeast!

This is where tensegrity comes in. Tensegrity was a term popularized by R. Buckminster Fuller who was an American inventor, architect, engineer and futurist. He invented the geodesic dome which is the basis for many large stadium structures such as the Atlanta Dome and Fukuoka Dome.

Our body as a tensegrity structure makes a lot more sense. Our bones don’t actually touch each other so how does everything not come crashing down? Tensegrity helps us explain how our body is able to bend over, to run and jump without falling over like a column would. It is integrity or unity through tension. Think about a picture frame; there are really only two options when we might want to display a picture – we can either place it on the mantle and display it. This is an example of continuous compression, the frame pushes into the mantle and thus is able to stand upright. This is the model our spine is based upon – a column structure. Alternatively, we might want to display that frame on the wall by hanging it on a nail. This is an example of tension – the frame is able to hang by the tension produced by the wire at the back of the frame on the nail. Now this tension model more accurately depicts how our body is structured – our bones are held in place by tension produced by the soft tissue elements, which push out against our outer layer (our skin).

But you might be asking – so what?

Why does this matter?

Good question. We might argue that this is abstract and how or why does this matter to our training?

It matters because we now know that the mechanical constructs we previously used to define the body were only partly correct. Our bodies are living, fractal, chaotic and constantly changing. Effective training programs must take this into account because the two-dimensional programs that were and are promoted in most gyms today are not enough. We must train acknowledging the 3-dimensional, multi-joint tensegrity structures that we all are.

With this, my post next week will be entitled “What does an effective warm-up look like?” and I’ll be keeping the tensegrity model in mind. Have a great weekend!

Further Reading

Biotensegrity website of Stephen M Levin MD

Anatomy Trains of Tom Myers

IoM website of Michol Dalcourt

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Phil Earnhardt September 18, 2012 at 5:54 am

This is a great little article! Your clients are lucky to have someone who pays so much attention to this revolution in biomechanics. One clarification: Kenneth Snelson invented these structures in 1946 (he called them floating compression models) while Fuller studied their dynamics extensively. Snelson currently lives in NYC; he helped design the antenna for the Freedom Tower.

Why does tensegrity matter? Why should your clients care? That is the best possible question. Tensegrity matters because the efficiency of our structure is contingent on the pre-stress (i.e., the tensioning) in its parts. If you alter the pre-stress, you alter the behavior of the structure. Pilates is all about a subtle increase in some lines of tension — “core strength” — which allows us to move our bodies and carry loads more efficiency.

Most people have no idea that they can systemically alter the pre-stress in their bodies. Tensegrity provides a model where this makes sense.

One other resource to recommend: Amy Edmondson’s “A Fuller Explanation” is a great explanation of many of Bucky’s ideas, including tensegrity. It’s available for purchase as a PDF download on lulu.com. Also, the full text of the book is available for preview on Google Books: http://bit.ly/AFEonGB . The writeup on tensegrity starts on p. 279. Many thanks to Amy and publisher Jim Hausman for making this preview available.

If you have other questions, please contact me: @floatingbones on twitter. Thanks.

Reply

Trevor Aung Than September 18, 2012 at 7:19 am

Hi Phil

Thanks for reading and your kind comments and clarification. Will check out those resources. I’m sure i’ll be getting in touch!

All the best,
Trevor

Reply

Minki Kim September 25, 2012 at 6:48 am

HI,

As a Structural Integrator, or some might call us, ‘Rolfers,” I explain and teach my clients to view their bodies more as a tensegrity mass, and not just a heap of muscles and bones compressed upon one another. Most people seek bodywork to feel ‘loose,’ but it’s important to remind clients that some tension is vital for higher organization and natural support of the human form.

Thanks for this article! It’s great to see trainers who approach exercise in this manner. I’m sharing this on my FB fan page and more!

-Minki

Reply

Trevor Aung Than September 26, 2012 at 3:04 pm

Thanks for reading and sharing Minki!

Reply

Xin September 26, 2012 at 7:57 am

Brilliant Trev! Some fascinating reading for someone who’s never had much exposure to anatomy or ideas around how the body has traditionally been viewed. It’s great to get some contrast to traditional, and arguably outdated ideas. Your blog is always such a pleasure to read, and I hope its audience continues to expand!

Reply

Trevor Aung Than September 26, 2012 at 3:06 pm

Thanks as always Xin!

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