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Biotensegrity: Emerging Concepts in Movement and Rehabilitation

Fundamental Movement Performance Training

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Tensegrity, a term coined by architect and engineer Buckminster Fuller, was used to describe the structural principle that uses a combination of compression and tension to create stable structures and buildings.

Check out the Kulripa Bridge in Brisbane (AUS) for an example of a tensegrity structure.

This concept was later applied to living organisms by anatomist and researcher Stephen Levin. He proposed that the same concepts could be used to explain how the body maintains it shape and function. That living organisms function through a tensional network of bones, muscles and fascia, in the same way Buckminster Fuller described in his approach to building design.

Within this Biotensegrity framework, the body is recognised as an adaptive, self-regulating system which maintains its structural integrity through a continuous balance between both tensional and compressive forces.

The application of this principle into the areas of physiotherapy, movement and fitness has been gaining increasing attention in recent years, as we begin to move away from considering the bodies structures as isolated and independent.

In this conventional view, we’re taught to see the body’s structure as a rigid skeleton in which levers exist, muscles work in pairs (agonist and antagonist), and as one contracts, another relaxes. This model has been the foundation of both physiotherapy and exercise curriculums since their inception.

This approach has lead to a focus on the isolation and strengthening of individual muscles (or groups of muscles) with failure to recognise or address the complex interactions that may be at play between not only different muscle groups, but different parts of the body entirely as they work collectively to maintain a combination of stability and mobility within joint structures.

The principles of Biotensegrity on the other hand, acknowledges that the body is not simply a collection of separated, isolated parts, but a dynamic system that is constantly adapting to meet the demands of the environment.

The body is a three-dimensional structure of bone, muscle and connective tissue that is constantly under periods of tension and compression. Bones therefore are not levers within a rigid skeleton, but are a framework suspended and supported by muscle and fascia, inter-connected to create a complex web of tensional and compressive forces. This allows for the body to distribute internal and external forces allowing for movement to occur.

As your foot hits the floor during a running stride, the ground reaction force is transmitted through the entirety of the body’s tensegrity structure, not just the foot alone. Ultimately with the forces being absorbed and distributed through the entire skeleton, muscular system and connective tissues.

The greater we develop and understanding and application of principles related to Biotensegrity within the realms of physiotherapy, rehabilitation, movement practices and fitness training, the greater the potential we have to revolutionise how we approach treatment and exercise selection.

Isolated exercise prescription is replaced with an appreciation for movement patterns and loading strategies that integrate chains of muscles, bones and fascia recognising the movement system as a whole.

Overall, the principles of Biotensegrity are powerful concepts that offer us a movement and rehabilitation professionals, a much more holistic and integrated approach for which to align ourselves with. By acknowledging the body’s interconnectedness at multiple levels and capacity for wide-scale adaptability, we have the capacity to provide clients a much greater return on investment.

For more on these concepts, I’d highly recommend the Graham Scarr book “Biotensegrity: The Structural Basis of Life”.

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