Tensegrity: This Changes Everything You Think You Know About Muscle

By on May 29, 2022

Every time you think you have a good grasp on a subject, a paradigm shift comes along and throws all that you know out the window.

DNA analysis

Human performance is no exception. In fact, we actually know very little about how the body builds and maintains muscle, and it only gets weirder the more you learn.

See also: What Happens in the Body When You Build Muscle: The Science of Getting Stronger

Tensegrity is a concept that really shakes up the very foundations of that knowledge, though. Right down to what you learned in PE or Biology back at school.

It’s pretty fascinating. And it has direct, genuine implications for the optimal ways we should be training and moving.

So, what is tensegrity? How does it relate to muscle and strength?

Follow me, and let’s see how deep the rabbit hole goes.

What is Tensegrity?

Broadly, the word “tensegrity” refers to structures that maintain their stability via tension in three dimensions. This can apply in architecture and design.

If you want to suspend an object in the air, then the traditional way to do this would be with a structure governed by gravity. You would pile bricks on top of one another, then place the object on top.

This structure would be stable so long as the force of gravity remained. Take that structure into space, however, and it would collapse. Likewise, it would collapse if turned upside down. Or if subjected to an impact that broke the centre of gravity.

Another way to suspend that object, however, would be to pull it from either side with equal and opposite force. As long as tension is present in the cables, the object would stay afloat, and you could rotate it to your heart’s content.

By repeating this multiple times with lots of rods and connective cables, you could create a large, self-supporting structure.

spiderweb tensegrity structure

An example of a tensegrity structure that exists in nature is a spider-web. Though it is possible to create tensegrity structures that are stand-alone and don’t require any “anchor” to work.

So, what does this have to do with you? Well, you probably saw this coming… but you are a tensegrity structure.

And while this might not sound game-changing – it’s kind of intuitive when you really think about it – it serves as a lens through which to reconsider many aspects of movement and performance.

Rethinking Muscles and Joints

Traditionally, muscles and bones are depicted as simply hinges and pulleys. This is likely how they were described when you first learned about them at school. You contract your bicep when you want to flex your arm. This pulls on your tendons and raises your hand. That is its primary function.

The implication is then that the bones are stacked on top of one another, like a tower of blocks.

But of course, we know this isn’t true. In fact, the bones don’t really “rest” on one another at all. Rather, they are suspended in close proximity. Suspended by a large amount of connective tissue that provides just the right amount of tension to keep everything in place. Relax your muscles and your body collapses in a heap.

Author James Earls puts this into perspective by explaining that the primary function of the hip adductors (muscles that bring the legs closer together) is not, in fact, to adduct the legs. Rather, it is to prevent abduction. Their most important job is to maintain equilibrium by tugging on the connective tissue and keeping the legs straight.

Or to put it another way: the muscles are not primarily force generators, but primarily “tension tuning instruments.” The bones merely act like anchors.

We require just the right amount of tension across the body to keep everything in place.

And this makes a whole lot of sense: the human body should be able to jump, swing, hang upside down, and, indeed, survive in space without falling apart.

More Roles for Tension

But tension isn’t just about stability for the body. It’s also about communication, shock absorption, and more.

In terms of communication, it is tension that allows for our fastest and most potent reflexes coordinated across the entire body.

That’s because tension in the fascia allows signals to travel between muscles without needing to take the scenic route via the brain.

Future Superathletes

We can see this principle clearly when using a using a makeshift walkie-talkie made from cups and string. Create tension in the line and vibrations will carry your force from one side to another. Allow slack to entire the line and the signal is lost.

Likewise, tension across your body means that impacts and contractions can be felt by distant muscles. Mechanoreceptors can then sense this change and react accordingly.

See also: What Happens in the Brain When You Plan and Execute a Movement

If you want to feel this effect for yourself, try the experiment outlined in “Born to Walk.” Simply outstretch your arm so that your elbow is locked, palm facing the ground, then try extending the wrist to point your fingers to the sky. You’ll feel that tension in your elbow and maybe even your shoulder.

But now bend your arm slightly and try the same thing: you’ll notice that far less “information” travels down the arm.

This is crucial for so much of our unconscious movement.

Reflexes and Signals

As we walk, for example, the muscles are constantly fine tuning their lengths to allow for the optimal efficiency (reference, reference). Often, this is in response to alterations in neighbouring muscles and even distant ones. Not to mention the effect of ground impact forces and changes in gravity.

Walking in the Mind

When the heel strikes on the right side during gait, this downward force creates a tilt in the pelvis to the left side. This sudden acceleration is then controlled by the hip abductors on the right – where the heel hit the ground and the abdominals on the left.

Further, this then creates tension across the entire back: as the gluteus maximus contracts that tension travels to the opposite latissimus dorsi via the thoracolumbar fascia (reference). This tautness is like pulling a tight skin over a drum and allows easy force-transfer and recoil.

To put it more simply: tension in your butt during walking is felt by the lats.

Again, this is all paraphrased from the book Born to Walk by James Earls, which I highly recommend.

As for absorbing impact, the tension across the fascia naturally ensures that energy can be absorbed by the whole system, and returned as appropriate. This would not be true if the body were truly comprised of only hinges and pulleys. 

Another role of the muscles and connective tissues, then, is to act as “dampers” for dissipating energy.

Implications

This is all very interesting, but does it really have implications for the way we should be training and rehabilitating?

In short: yes!

For example: tensegrity shows us how important it is for the body to work as a cohesive whole. Weakness or unwanted tension in one muscle doesn’t just create compensatory movement patterns; it also interferes with the transmission of signals across the body. The body really is only as strong as its weakest link.

lizard crawl tensegrity

We can thus assume that it makes sense to train the body as a single unit, in this way. Now it’s easy to over-extrapolate here and get carried away. But it certainly seems to support the notion that we shouldn’t train solely in isolation, nor should we address dysfunction or imbalance in isolation. We need to look at the whole system.

It also suggests the importance of protecting the fascia itself during surgeries and other procedures. This isn’t just inert “stuff” – far from it.

Likewise, it means that optimal movement and quick reactions are very much the result of having tension in the right places, at the right times. Too much tension and you could inhibit other signals, or create too much tension throughout the entire system. Not enough tension, and you’ll risk weakening the inputs.

Sparring in Woods

Learning to be tense and loose in the right areas could result in superior performance. In particular, we need to carry less tension in our bodies. We need to learn to relax muscles just as we can contract them.

Training the correct resting length, or tonus, may also have big benefits for a lot of people.

And, in some cases, tensegrity may even reveal better ways to generate power and to move efficiently. Reportedly, some African women are able to carry 20% of their bodyweight on their heads without it harming the efficiency of their walking (see Born to Walk). More analysis is needed, but it seems that this is possibly thanks to their ability to effectively translate that additional downward force into elastic energy.

J C Santana has said to me many times that “translating” force and energy is often more important than generating it: as when taking a running jump from one foot to dunk a basketball. There’s very little countermovement here.

We need to stop moving solely in linear, retrained patterns.

The body is able to triangulate by using the combined tension from multiple lines of force to better fine tune, adjust, and control precise movement.

And to me, this once again supports the great need for more “sensory rich” movement and training. We need to stop moving solely in linear, retrained patterns, so as to reinforce and strengthen these crucial reflexes.

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

4 Comments

  1. Kyle Du Preez says:

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  2. Kyle Du Preez says:

    please do a Collab with CHRIS HERIA

    • Hal says:

      Chris Heria is a bit of an egotistical dingleberry. Adam could teach him a lot but he’d lose brain cells just trying to deal with that guy. His form is nightmarish and he’s a shill. He pushes targeted weight loss and BS, completely the opposite of what Adam does. He’s just a fitfluencer. The Bioneer is an educator.

  3. Ajai says:

    It would seem that this concept may go a long way towards accounting for the “what the hell” effect and general effectiveness of kettlebell swings, as they make you use your entire body as a unit, maintaining “tensegrity” throughout.

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