In the first part of this series, we explored the fundamental characteristics of the myofascial system (that is, the muscle and corresponding fascia). It was suggested that a more global approach may be necessary in order to properly train, condition, treat and assess both athletes and general clientele. This unified approach of treating the body as “one” is certainly a paradigm shift and one that is necessary in order to optimize function.
As an ever increasing amount of research accumulates, a deeper level of understanding is beginning to emerge. Certainly more research is necessary; however, there is an undeniable truth about our body’s design. From the time that we were a zygote in fetal and embryological development, our muscles and surrounding fascia began as one germ layer. From this one layer (the mesoderm) was born the muscle bundles and surrounding it was the ubiquitous fascia. There is no discontinuation of this fascia, and it unifies all of our bodily structures from muscles to organs to vessels to bones. It is impossible to separate it out of the body. The myofascial system, born from the middle germ layer in the embryo, begins to wrap around the other two germ layers (see Figure 1).
In Figure 1, you can see the three germ layers: the mesoderm, which gives rise to the muscle, bone and fascia; the ectoderm, which gives rise to the brain and nervous system; and the endoderm, which gives rise to the digestive system. As these germ layers begin to migrate and grow, notice how the mesoderm begins to wrap itself around the other two layers. This ultimately begins to create a shell around the ectoderm and endoderm germ layers to which structure grow "into." Think of this like pushing your fist into a deflated balloon. The balloon wraps around the fist to encase it (this is called the Double Bag Theory and explains how the fascia hold all of our bodily structures together.
Systems, such as our connective structures (i.e., muscles and bones), grow into the fascia. This means that the endless web of fascia connects ALL bones and ALL muscles together. It may be more appropriate to think of our bodies as having one muscle, simply with approximately 600 different fascial pockets. In this view of the body, we have bones and muscles linked to each other through fascial connectors. The muscles and bones never touch each other. They are simply strung and woven together by our collagen fiber network (fascia). This presents a vastly different view of a unified body.
What Physics Can Teach Us About Unification
Let’s look at this idea of unification from another perspective. In the realm of physics, Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727) spent the better part of his life uncovering the force of gravity. Nowadays, gravity is looked at with little awe and wonder. However, for its time, it was the first opportunity the human race had to see that the heavens and earth were unified. The fact that the planets were governed by the same forces that existed here on earth was a giant paradigm shift. Finally, the heavenly bodies (i.e., planets) and earth were unified. In the early 1900s, a scientist by the name of Albert Einstein became a household name by attempting to search and quest for an explanation, for a "unified field" theory that would unite electromagnetism and gravity, space and time, all together. This occupied more of Einstein's years than any other activity. Einstein began to realize that there is true power in understanding how certain things operate together. Currently, modern physicists are attempting to unify all four of the forces that we know of (strong nuclear force, weak nuclear force, electromagnetism and gravity) into one, all encompassing equation – called “the superstring theory.”
The overwhelming point to all of this discussion of physics is that we typically learn ideas and concepts by breaking things down into their individual parts and then we try to reassemble them. Biomechanists seem to be following the same journey as they seek a greater understanding of movement. Historically, our understanding of biomechanics has been limited to “areas” of the body. However, according to Louis Schultz and Rosemary Feitis, “The muscle – bone concept presented in standard anatomical description gives a purely mechanical model of movement. It separates movement into discrete functions, failing to give a picture of the seamless integration seen in a living body. When one part moves, the body as a whole responds. Functionally, the only tissue that can mediate such responsiveness is the connective tissue.”
Can We Truly Isolate?
But what of the idea that we must “activate the weak link” or “eliminate the energy leaks” by isolating a muscle to turn it on, then blend it back into the system? Take for example, the idea of activating the “weak rhomboids” with an individual who exhibits protracted and elevated shoulders (see Figure 2).
In picture A above, you see retraction of the shoulders, a scapular plane to the clavicle and a corresponding extension of the spine. In picture B, you observe winging of the scapulae (with protraction and elevation), a frontal orientation to the clavicle and flexion to the spine (especially the thoracic segments).
If my goal was then to “restore proper shoulder function,” I must appreciate that what allows the shoulder blades to function in all three planes is certainly not limited to the shoulder. Thoracic kyphosis or lordosis is one the main contributors to the position of the shoulder blade.
Try this experiment: Allow your body to fold over in the fetal position by simply rounding the thoracic spine (see Figure 3B). Observe the “reaction” that takes place in your chain of joints. The unified body not only rounds the mid back but migrates the head forward, changes both secondary curves of the spine (lumbar and cervical, making them more lordotic), and lo and behold, it drives both of your shoulder blades to the elevated, protracted and externally rotated position!
Now, simply and gradually, bring your thoracic spine back into an extended position (see Figure 3A). As you extend the spine, notice what reaction occurs through the shoulder complex. Seeking the path of least resistance, the scapula will naturally and gently migrate back to a more “neutral” position from which it has more available range to move through neutral positions in tri-planar function.
In a unified body, through which all bones and muscles are connected, we are able to speak to the scapula through motions of the thoracic spine. If we simply focus our efforts to the scapula, we are forgetting what drives the scapula in motion: the rest of the body!
So our quest continues to seek a greater understanding of our bodies in motion.
In the mid 1900s, a model called “Tensegrity” was develop by Kenneth Snelson, a sculptor, and was further popularized by Buckminster Fuller, a designer. The word, “Tensegrity” is an acronym for “Tensional Integrity” and refers to “a system that stabilizes itself mechanically because of the way in which tensional and compressive forces are distributed and balanced within the structure” (Ingber).
Common, everyday tensegrity structures would include the following objects (below left to right are a balloon, bike wheel, suspension bridge and a tensegrity structure):
Think of how a balloon would exist with tensional and compressive forces in balance. The tensional force of the balloon’s elastic, center seeking shell works in balance with the compressive, inner volume of air. If you press your finger into one aspect of the balloon (without popping it), we would find that the energy is dissipated over the entire surface. A bike wheel operates under the same laws. The compressive struts (spokes) are in balance with the tensional force of the rim. All of the forces of the bicycle wheel remain in equilibrium, which means force is transmitted through the entire system. Have you ever noticed that if you break one spoke, it will not take long before another is broken? That is because there is a loss of integrity of the whole if one part is missing.
A suspension bridge and tensegrity models combine tensional wires and compressive struts to create equilibrium.
It has been stated that there exists a universal set of building rules that seem to guide the design of organic structures from simple carbon compounds to complex cells and tissues. An astoundingly wide variety of natural systems, including carbon atoms, water molecules, proteins, viruses, cells, tissues and even humans, are constructed using this most common form of architecture known as tensegrity.
At a macro scale, our bodies represent a complex network of tensional and compressive structures. Namely, the 206 bones that constitute our skeletal system (compressive struts) are pulled up against gravitational forces and stabilized in a vertical form by the pull of our myofascial system (muscles, tendons and ligaments) and its tensional capabilities. At a micro scale, proteins and other key molecules in our body also stabilize themselves through the principles of tensegrity. It is one law that governs and unifies us at the micro and macro scales.
Our body’s tensegrity structure (our body’s bones and muscles) is mechanically stable not because of the strength of individual members but rather because of the way the entire structure distributes and balances mechanical stresses. In other words, if our body has not had the opportunity to work together as a unit (whether inside or outside a gym setting), we will severely compromise its ability to move correctly. In human body terms, tension is continuously transmitted across ALL structural members. If there is an increase in tension in one of the members, there will be a corresponding increase in tension in the members throughout the structure, even those on the opposite side! According to Ingber, “This global increase in tension is balanced by an increase in compression within certain members spaced throughout the structure – the structure stabilizes itself through a continuous tension and local compression. In contrast, most buildings derive their stability from continuous compression because of the force of gravity.”
Take a look at the tensegrity model depicted in Figure 4 (far right). You’ll notice the dowels are supported in a balanced way, without even touching each other by the elastic bands. This is analogous to the body. The dowels in the model represent the bones of our bodies, and the elastic components of the tensegrity models represent the myofascial (muscle and ensuing fascia) elements of the body. If we were to remove all of the myofascial elements off the bones, they would clatter to the floor, much the same as if you were to remove the elastic bands off of the dowel rods. We very often fall pray to the notion that the skeletal system is, by and large, an “intact” system, offering itself inherent stability. However, a more apt way of thinking of this may be to consider that the bones “float” in the soft tissues of our body much in the same manner as the dowels “float” in the matrix of rubber bands.
Now, something quite spectacular happens when you begin to move elements within this structure. We begin to conceptualize how the body reacts to itself. I may wish to “shorten” one area of the tensegrity model (imagine grabbing one elastic and shortening it). What would happen to the entire model? We would quickly observe a “reaction” through the entire structure. Put simply, the whole body reacts to movements at localized areas. Clinicians and certain therapists have known of this for quite some time, but many of these viewpoints are relatively new in the realms of personal training and assessments. Leon Chaitow says, “Identification of shortness, tightness, weakness or restriction does not isolate a cause but rather notes an effect, often the result of distant influences.” In other words, it might not be a muscle tightness that is the cause but rather a reaction to what is happening somewhere else in the body. Thomas Myers believes that “long term, chronic, postural difficulties are often set in the soft tissue in such a way that re-setting the bones [to neutral] simply won’t last. The soft tissue will again pull the bones out of place. Even, balanced tone across the myofascia of the body must exist so that the bones will stay lightly, easily, floating in place.”
If you place mechanical strain or stress into one area of the body, the whole body reacts by tightening (or shrinking). It shrinks in depth or width or height to accommodate that strain through the entire system as opposed to one area of that system. Conversely, as the body lets go of its mechanical strain or stress in the myofascia, it reacts by lengthening (or expanding) through the whole structure. It will expand in width, height and depth (which may be observed by individuals actually getting taller).
The bones push the myofascia apart and the myofascia pull against the bones to keep them in place. Balancing the myofascia will set where the bones sits.
We must begin to look at the body in our training, conditioning, assessments and research as a global unit. As our paradigms begin to shift, so too will the results that we see in our clients and athletes. For those who wish to explore this fascinating topic in more detail, the reference list below is just the tip of the iceberg in the research community. Cancer research and cellular genetics are looking to tensegrity laws in order explain how cell communicate their genetic coding (see D. E. Ingber’s work).
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- Schultz L. Feitis R. The Endless Web. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books; 1996
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