Updated: Aug 22
Humans (and other biological organisms) are animated. We function against and with the forces of gravity with push, pull, twist, bend, and stretch, while bearing loads and maintaining structural integrity. How do humans and other biological organisms do this? How can we explain this amazing ability to function as we do?
In the 17th century, Giovanni Alfonso Borelli, who is known as the father of biomechanics, used mathematics to prove his theories about how the body functions. Borelli’s theories stated that the bodies of animals and humans functioned as intricate systems of beams, pulleys, and levers, just like machines.
Although Borelli’s principles are clearly at work in the movement and function of biological beings, there must be something more. Human (animal) movement and functioning is much too complicated…much too ELITE to be explained simply by a bunch of pulley and lever systems within the body. For the past several hundred years we have had difficulty letting go of the idea that classic physics alone can explain how biological organisms move and function. There is clearly more to it!?
Even Galileo’s famous Square-Cubed Law (Square–cube law - Wikipedia), which has helped us build strong and stable skyscrapers, has proven insufficient in trying to explain how an organism the size and shape of a brontosaurus could function. In reality, when applied, the Square-Cubed Law would leave the poor brontosaurus collapsing under its own weight. The rules of classic physics were discovered through experiments involving inanimate objects and we have continually transferred those principles to living systems, expecting them to behave the same way. This is simply wrong.
What have we learned since Borelli and Galileo?
We know that human (and animal) tissue can become stronger under stress or load. We know that certain tissues will stiffen when loaded and others will lengthen. We know that muscles, bones, fascia, tendons, and ligaments all change and adapt to load and movement patterns, allowing for the most efficient functioning. (See more about adaption here: https://www.alliance-athletics.com/post/think-adaption) We even know that bones and tendons can store large amounts of energy when under a load and return it with even more force, like a spring. Knowing all this, along with the principles of classic physics helps us have some understanding of how we run fast, throw a ball, explode upwards in a jump, strike a baseball with exceptional force, balance on a beam, or lift a heavy load.
…but it does not completely explain the exceptional athletic mobility of someone like dunk champion, Mac McClung:
There must be more?
Dr. Stephen Leven, a successful orthopedic surgeon always felt there was a better explanation for the exceptional ability of the human form to function.
One day, in the mid-1970’s Dr. Levin found himself at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington looking at the huge fossilized skeleton of a brontosaurus. Pondering the creature’s 15-meter-long neck, its cervical thoracic junction, and the size of its leg bones, Levin concluded that the movement and functioning (biomechanics) of such a creature could not be explained by the classical physics beam, pulley, and lever model. This revelation filled him with doubt about everything he had learned about the structure and functioning of the human body. It even made him question the spinal surgeries he had been performing. Disturbed and deep in thought about his revelation, Levin left the huge dinosaur fossil and ventured outside where he stopped dead in his tracks in front of the “Needle Tower”, a sculpture created by Kenneth Snelson. The sculpture stood 18.2 meters tall, on par with the dinosaur, and was made of large aluminum rods that never touched each other, but were held in place by tension generated by a continuous network of wires. The wires gave the structure shape, suspending the rods in symmetry and balance with each other.
This ‘floating compression sculpture’ would forever change Levin’s concept of the human form and functioning. In Snelson’s sculpture, structural members which bear compression are separate and distinct from those that can bear tension. The balance of these forces creates a condition called ‘prestress’, the inherent baseline tension in a structure or body. Levin saw the prestress model as an explanation for our own human architecture, with the bones being discontinuous, compression bearing struts, and the connective tissues being the cable that maintains the tension. Additionally, in 1981, Levin hypothesized that bones ideally do not compress with each other and their joint surfaces but rather our bones “float”, like the rods in Snelson’s sculptures, in the fascia and surrounding soft tissue.
American architect Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome invention took the prestress model to a new level, replacing the prototype ‘floating compression sculpture’. Fuller coined the term ‘tensegrity’ a combination of the words ‘tension’ and ‘integrity’, meaning: “Any structure that employs continuous tension members and discontinuous compression members in such a way that each member operates with maximum efficiency and economy”. Tensegrity is the principle behind the floating compression sculptures and plays a major role in the geodesic dome. See more on Buckminster's domes here: Domes – Buckminster Fuller Institute (bfi.org)
David Lesondak (David Lesondak), the author of the book Fascia, What It Is and Why It Matters, says “An easy way to think about tensegrity is when push and pull have a win-win relationship with each other”.
Dr. Levin maintains that tensegrity architecture provides an essential model for biological structure. He calls this model 'biotensegrity'. In respect to human function, biotensegrity states that the body’s 206 bones (compression struts) are being pulled up and held aloft against the forces of gravity by the tensile force of fascia, ligaments, and tendons (tensional members). This truss-based design can be incorporated into more complex, polygonal shapes that better reflex our human architecture than the shapes of classical physics. (more on this in part 2)
The following is a video of Dr. Levin explaining biotensegrity:
As FASCIA research steamrolls and knowledge of this amazing connective tissue advances, Dr. Levin’s biotensegrity model makes more and more sense. As stated earlier, classic physics is insufficient at explaining the movement and function of humans and other dynamic biological beings. The following video is a nice summary of the relationship between tensegrity and fascia and how this relationship affects the way we more recently have been looking at pain:
It seems tensegrity theory is causing a paradigm shift. Tensegrity as applied to biological functioning could answer a multitude of questions. Are tensegrity principles central to biological function? Is tensegrity what allows humans (animals) to move and function superior to machines? Has human tissue function evolved to work with and under the rules of tensegrity? Does strengthening the body’s ability for tensegrity create superior athletes? Will understanding biotensegrity enable better human function, health, physical resilience, and longevity?
Stay tuned for Part 2 as I dive more into tensegrity, fascia and the human cell as they all relate to our amazing ability for exceptional movement.
Thanks for reading.
David Lesondak, Fascia: What it is and how it matters.
Copyright Handspring Publishing Ltd 2017
Website - David Lesondak
Website - The Stephen M. Levin Biotensegrity archive
Website - Research Gate
Website - Buckminster Fuller Institute
Interested in other educational blog posts by Coach Sara? See below: