All things are held together by some combination of tension and compression. Some structures rely more on tension and some, more on compression. Tensegrity, a combination of tensional integrity, is a term coined by an architect named Buckminster Fuller. As we’ll see below, without tensegrity our bodies would not look the way they do….in fact, they would not look like bodies at all, they would simply be piles of bones, flesh, connective tissue and organs. Then we’ll understand how compression and tensegrity combine to create the human body as it is. Sound confusing? Awesome, let’s try and straighten it out.
Like I said, tensegrity was coined to describe architectural structures, not the human body. The biological use of this term is biotensegrity, but we’ll continue with tensegrity to make it simple. The idea of tensegrity is that a structure is held together by the balance of tension members, not compression members. To make this idea a little more clear, let’s look at a few examples.
To build a brick wall we must stack one brick on top of another, on top of another, on top of another, until we get to our desired height. These bricks are all acting in a compressive manner, from the top brick to the bottom brick which the compression is then dispersed through the ground. If a tree falls on half of the wall, the other half is left undamaged, so the half that was crushed was not helping the half that was not crushed to stay upright.
Next, check out the picture of the bridge to the right. The bridge has a concrete base, which is helping with the support of the structure, but the majority of the support is coming from the matrix of cables running beside, above and across the bridge. If one of the cables breaks, the bridge is still left intact. The weight that was supported by the broken cable is now dispersed to the rest of the cables on the bridge, even cables on the opposite side. If left unfixed, other cables could potentially broke due to more stress than it is used to. This bridge represents the idea of tensegrity.
Our bodies are like the bridge. The difference being that our tensegrity structure is infinitely closed, meaning no outside structure SHOULD help support our bodies (I say SHOULD because we have braces and casts, but these are not normal for human function). Although most institutionalized education teaches the reductionist view of anatomy (reductionist meaning breaking the body down to individual muscles and their functions on the body), this is not the picture that we see in human movement. It’s true that when you dissect our bodies, there are individual muscles, and within their individual selves they function on certain joints of the body to help rotate your hand or extend your leg or lift your head. But the muscles of a living, working human do not function in this way, they function as a system. If a muscle isn’t functioning properly (in our bridge example, the cable snaps) then it will put more stress on other muscles or tendons causing them to take on stress they were not meant to take on. If the muscle is left unfixed, the whole body will constantly adapt and compensate all the way down the chain, from head to toe.
I write this article because most of us tend to go after the pain sight when we have discomfort in a muscle. The pain sight is very rarely, if ever, the pain SOURCE. The only real time there is an exception to this statement is with breaks. Even with muscle tears, the majority of the time the muscle tear was a product of being over used due to other weak or dysfunctional muscles. So when it comes to training your body, especially for athletics and every day life (which is what most of us train for), train the basic human movements, not the muscles. These movements will help you develop the strength and stability your body needs to function properly without the worry of getting hurt.