Dr. Stephen Levin: Biotensegrity (LBP 035)

Dr. Stephen Levin originated the concept of Biotensegrity more than 30 years ago. He originally trained as an Orthopedic and Spine Surgeon and was formerly Clinical Associate Professor at Michigan State University and Howard University. He studied General Systems Theory with noted biologist, Timothy Allen, and now, retired from clinical practice considers himself a ‘Systems Biologist’. He has been closely allied with others working in the field of Design Science, emphasizing the work of Buckminster Fuller and its applications. He has written numerous papers that contribute to the understanding of how biological structures function like tensegrity structures.

In our conversation today we get into, well, first and foremost what biotensegrity is, the many ways that we are not like skyscrapers, how the difference between the bicycle wheel and the wagon wheel can illustrate the concept of how we are “pre-stressed”, what viscoelasticity is, the scapula as a sesamoid bone (every bone as a sesamoid bone really...), some examples of the many tensegrity structures we can find in nature if we know what we’re looking for, what the ichosahedron has going for it and why we should care, and more!




Show notes

Brooke:            For those unacquainted can you give us a simple, kind of nutshell definition of what biotensegrity is?

Stephen:          Tensegrity is a word derived from tension and integrity which is a Buckminster Fuller term to indicate a continuous tension network. It's actually more than that. It's the compression elements of the structure are meshed within the tension elements so that the compression elements, the rods, the skeleton, do not press on one another.

It was derived from Kenneth Snelson's  sculpture actually [Needle Tower, in resources]. Snelson was student of Fuller but it was Snelson who really made the first structure. He describes it as a closed structural system composed of three or more compression struts within a network of tension tendons. He says the compression rods float within this structure and they press outwardly against the tension member so it's a self-contained unit, and it's pre-stressed tension and compression unit. Tensegrity as a word sort of had lost its meaning so that we put bio in front of it, which is a biology adding to it, and it's really more narrowly defined and more specific than using tensegrity, which everybody uses for everything else. You can get away with things in tensegrity you just can't get away with in biotensegrity because lifeforms have their laws that they have to stick to.

Brooke:            The difference between the mechanics of a bicycle wheel as opposed to a wagon wheel- that's a nice illustration of how we are pre-stressed. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Stephen:          Aside from the Snelson sculptures, the closest you get to everyday life as a tensegrity is a bicycle wheel where the hub is suspended in the middle of a tension network of spokes. All your spokes are always under tension. In a wagon wheel, each spoke bears the full weight of the wagon, of course divided by the number of wheels you got on the ground. Each spoke bears the full weight and you actually are vaulting from one compression pillar of the spoke to the other compression pillar of the spoke.

The bicycle wheel, it works the opposite. All the spokes are working all the time. When you set a bicycle wheel, you tighten all the spokes, you pre-tension them, and then it stays that way even when you ride on the bicycle. Your load is distributed through the tension elements of the spokes. All the spokes are pulling on the hub all the time. It's by the opposite pulling of the spokes that the hub stays in place. It's like if you were doing tug of war and you had an equal side and the rope wasn't going anyplace. They're not staying right in the middle because it's equally pulled on both sides. Just as the spokes in that bike wheel are pre-stressed, all the tissues in the body are pre-stressed. They are always under tension. So muscles are never programmed lax. There's always muscle tone present. All the fascia and connective tissue, in fact all collagen have intrinsic tension within them. Even under deepest anesthesia, when you cut muscle it retracts and pulls apart. There's always tone to muscle, and you can never say your muscle is completely off.

Brooke:            I think that's a beautiful illustration. Speaking of visuals, you say that tensegrity structures are ubiquitous in nature if you know what to look for. Can you give some examples of what we might be able to notice if we do know what we're looking for?

Stephen:          There are no true man made tensegrities because even the man-made tensegrity structure itself uses the linear materials, the regular materials people build with. Tensegrities in themselves are non-linear, and we'll probably talk about that later. They're ubiquitous in nature; it's just recognizing them. Most of the obvious ones look like the Buckminster Fuller geodesic domes, like the Disney Epcot Center. Those can all be built as tensegrities. My favorite one is the dandelion puffball because that was of course a large structure that I recognized as being consistent with a tensegrity. The concept has been around for a long time. Icosahedrons were described in the mid-1960s I think it was in the lymphocytes and red blood cells, pollen grains, when you get down to the little things, but if you start looking at bigger things, things like raspberries and similar fruits and berries, puffer fish. In fact, most round spiky thinks are pretty obvious tensegrities when you look at them. Tensegrities actually can be recognized more from the mechanics of the structure than its outward appearance.

Brooke:            That makes sense. On the opposite side of the spectrum, bioengineers oftentimes will describe human bodies or say that they are like skyscrapers. What are some of the many ways that we are not like skyscrapers?

Stephen:          Tensegrities are built up from smaller units. In biology, the subunit, the cell of the tensegrity structure is the icosahedron, which is polyhedron with 20 triangular faces, and triangles are the only structures that are inherently stable with flexible hinges. These structures can have any outward appearance, from spheres to towers with limbs sticking out. It doesn't make any difference. They're all self-contained entities. They don't require gravity to hold them together.

Skyscrapers and towers need gravity to hold them together. The bottom bricks are held in place by the bricks above them, one on top of the other. When you build a skyscraper, the base has to be bigger and stronger and stiffer than the top, and if you tilt the tower over it not only will fall over, but it will pull itself apart because of the intrinsic sheer forces that develop. If you build biotensegrities, they really join together like bubbles in a foam and they sort of share walls and structural continuity.

If you go back to towers, I lived in Washington, D.C. area, and the classic model might be the Washington Monument, which is 550 foot tall, it's 30 foot thick at the base, it's five foot thick at the summit, and it's built stone on stone on stone held together with rigid mortar. The Washington Monument was almost toppled in an earthquake a couple of years ago. It got shaken up and got cracked because it has no flexibility in it. Trees on the other hand are broader at the top. They have much more weight at the top than the bottom. They withstand big winds, and they're sort of built upside down from a Newtonian concept.

You stop and think about animals including ourselves- we have our small and light bones in our feet. We actually stand on two little sesamoid bones under the first metatarsal, a little thing at the fifth metatarsal, and the heel bone, the calcaneus, which is as soft as eggshells. So we stand on our calcanei and of course we often have dense heads that put a lot of load on these structures. We're built upside down. We don't make sense in a Newtonian concept. All biological structures also have flexible joints, and we are omnidirectional. We don't break apart when we're turned upside down and shake it.

Brooke:            I like how you mention that we don't need gravity to hold us together. When we have people who go into space or even just diving in different pressures under water and things like that, that we don't come apart.

Stephen:          It's one of the characteristics of the tensegrity structure that is independent of these outside forces. It holds itself by internal forces.

Brooke:            It's interesting, and the foam, the soap bubbles is a really nice one too because that's something we can interact with pretty regularly.

Stephen:          We essentially are foams.

Brooke:            I love that image. We are foams. You had mentioned icosahedron, which is pretty important I think to the concept of tensegrity. Can we break that down a little bit more and why we should care about this structure?

Stephen:          When I started doing this, I tried to find some structure that looked like a cell and that would build from a cell. The icosahedron is one of the platonic solids going way back. It's a fully triangulated structure. Again, only triangles are inherently stable, so if you're going to have flexible hinges, you have to be triangulated. It's omnidirectional so that you can turn in any direction. It has the largest volume for surface area, so it's energetically in the sense of using materials that are most economical. It can be close-packed to fill space or would fill spaces like cellular space filling. It joins together. When it does join together, it'll share structures. It's like sharing the faces in the bubble, as we pointed out. The individual icosahedrons can actually then function as a one unit structurally, but it also has the ability to function as the individual unit. They become independent and interdependent at the same time. It can have an external or internal skeleton. You can internalize the compression elements instead of keeping it in the outside shell, and that internal creation is a self-emerging property that comes from the structure itself. It also has mechanical properties that are non-linear, viscoelastic, which is the same as biologic materials, so why wouldn't you use it?

Brooke:            Can you describe viscoelasticity a little bit more, since you just dipped into that a bit?

Stephen:          Viscoelastic suggests the material property has some qualities of a liquid, the viscus part, which is liquid, and some qualities of so-called the solid part, the elastic part. Elastic just means that the form may never return to its previous shape. The rubber band elastic is not a really good elastic. When you apply the term viscoelastic to biologic material, it's really a misnomer. Biologic materials are not hard matter; they're called condensed soft matter, or just simply soft matter. As a class of behavior, the hard materials side has been described as viscoelastic, but it's really a breed of its own.

The best example I can give you of this is silly putty and the green slime that the kids play with. If you recognize silly putty, it's a polymer, it's a mixture of things. Sometimes it's rigid, sometimes it's soft. You can bounce it. You can do all sorts of different things with it, and it behaves differently the different ways you load it. It depends on the rate of loading, the surface area, the temperature. By temperature, I mean only a few degrees. We operate in a very few degree level. Steel, you need to really get it hot. Biologic things have very slight temperature changes can do different things. The silly putty and the biologic density can be malleable, brittle, elastic, all these things at the same time.

Soft matter physics is the science of gels, foams, emotions and some composite mixture like cornstarch in water will show these kind of behavior. The Oxford University Lab actually has on their website, "Biology is soft matter come alive," and that's a quote right off their website. If you think as foam as behaving as silly putty, as it probably does, we have all these properties built into the viscoelasticity and the characters of biologic tissues. All the structures in biology behave the same as icosahedrons do, which have this viscoelastic property, which really isn't that, it's soft tissue mechanics.

Brooke:            You mentioned the cornstarch and water thing. We used to use that at the Rolf Institute just to get a tangible sense for viscoelasticity, and it's really fun if you mix up a tray of it because if you touch it hard and fast, like with really pointed fingers, it just firms up like a wall and kind of pushes you away. If you touch it slow and broad, your fingers will sink in and then getting your fingers out, if you pull real quick, it'll keep you in there. It's really cool to play with that quality with touch and to get a sense for how responsive it is.

Stephen:          I frequently use the example when you pull on your lip or your earlobe, and you'll get that kind of sensation where you can pull, it'll first give easily and then it stiffens up as you pull on it. It's not a linear stiffening up where you get an incremental point by point. It actually gets structurally stiffer in many ways. The harder you pull, the stiffer it gets. The silly putty gets stiffer the harder you pull on it or the faster you pull on it.

If you look at things like fascia for instance, then you're right, just as you play with it that the fascia does that. If you attack a body and push on it hard, it's going to resist you. You'll never get into its deeper layers. If you just sort of lean on it and move into it slowly, you'll get into the deeper tissues of it, and that's very typical of these kind of things. If you think silly putty or these slimy gel things, you'll see that's exactly the way it works. You look at something like the heel pad for instance. You run on your heel pad, and every time you hit it hard it protects you. When you walk on it, it gives you a soft, gentler kind of response and a more of a shock absorber, and if you touch it you can just sort of sink your finger into it. It's the same material. It depends on the rate of loading it that makes the difference.

Brooke:            You mentioned how delicate a structure our calcaneus bone is, that heel bone, and that this model of us like skyscrapers just doesn't hold up. If we were loading it that way with all the force of everything else piling down on top of it, they wouldn't last us very long.

Stephen:          The calcaneus is really very soft bone. If you get it in surgery, you can actually just poke at it and it'll break just by poking at it. It's really quite soft. One of our problems is that when you take these things out of the body and let them dry out, they become stiff and hard, and you're not dealing with them under normal test conditions that the body uses. If you're testing things at room temperature, well the body doesn't operate at room temperature. It operates at body temperature. If you take a thing like petroleum jelly, you keep it at room temperature and it's a thick jelly and you put it on your skin, it just slides all over the place. You have to now think of how are these people testing these materials outside the body? If you're not testing it at room temperature and using body conditions, then you got completely different results.

Brooke:            That makes perfect sense. You point out that in the traditional paradigms of Newtonian biomechanics, these are some examples you gave: “The forces needed for a grandfather to lift his three year old grandchild would crush his spine, or touching a fish at the end of a fly rod would tear the angler from limb to limb.” I think these are some good examples about how this bioengineering Newtonian model doesn't really hold up to how we actually use our bodies.

Stephen:          Rather than go through the math with you- it's difficult without a blackboard- let me point out at the Newtonian biomechanics calculation of spinal loading and joint muscle loading are based on a 350 year old model that assumes biologic material is hard matter, and we just discussed that it is not. We now know it's more like silly putty. That muscles act as binaries because they're on and off. We've already talked that muscles are always on. There's always tone in muscles. The assumption is that the muscles act as agonists and antagonists, when they mostly act synergistically. That the muscular system is an open kinematic chain system, one we know that much of if not all of muscular skeletal mechanics is really closed kinematic chains. We move one thing and something moves at the other end of this chain. You also understand that muscles are internal forces and can't resist external forces without external help. They're using the calculation as if the internal muscles can resist gravitational forces, and they cannot. You can go through all this and I don't have to use calculations or any math. I can just talking about this and say, "Hey, they're using the wrong model. You got to start over again."

Brooke:            Perfectly said. We dipped into this a teensy bit, but going back to it, biologic systems are pretty invested in using the least energy expenditure necessary. What are some of the ways we've developed to use the least energy needed?

Stephen:          I'm old enough to been in the Army, and the Army maxim was, "Never stand when you can sit. Never sit when you can lie down. Never stay awake when you can be asleep," and that applies to biologic systems. A non-linear stress strain curve is initially flat. The disc is flat. It just sort of flows along and then starts getting stiffer and stronger. The biologic system always wants to operate at the least energy point at the low part of the curve because as you increase that strain and it gets stiffer, you need much more energy. It's interesting that in the laboratory, most of the testing is done on the steep part of the curve and they sort of ignore the bottom part because the math there is very difficult.

Brooke:            That's interesting to know. Diving into one structure in particular here, the shoulder is one of the least successfully modeled joint complexes using Newtonian mechanics, and you have a great paper on this, which I'll put in the show notes. It's titled The Scapula is a Sesamoid Bone. I love that image. For those listening, can you briefly touch on what a sesamoid bone is and how the scapula functions as one?

Stephen:          The sesamoid bones, are those bones considered outside the axial skeleton that don't contribute to direct support of the body. Of course they're thinking of the body that has a column of bones, and the most common one that everybody knows about is the patella, the kneecap that sort of floats outside the knee and is buried within the tendon of the quadriceps muscle. There are others. One you don't think about very often is the hyoid bones in your neck where your voice box is. There are bones there, and that's sort of sitting in space not supporting anything. Of course while there are supporting ones, but not thought of those, are the two little sesamoid bones underneath the first metatarsal. These things are about the size of small peas, and they crush easily. They are like peanut shells. They'll just crush very easily and they're sitting there, and you'd expect it to get all this force. They're sitting in tendons, and those tendons act like leaf springs on a car and actually keep you from striking the bottom there. If those little sesamoids got hit by the first metatarsal, they'd be crushed like hammering against enamel.

I looked at the scapula, and the scapula sits there and it floats inside the chest wall. There's no direct loading between them. It's buried in muscles. It fits the definition of a sesamoid. Of course, I take it a bit further and I say in the biotensegrity model all bones float because that's a definition of tensegrity, and therefore all bones are sesamoid bones.

Brooke:            Right, yeah, because the scapula, we'll think about that continuity with the clavicle bone, for those of us who are anatomy folks. That doesn't mean that it's not floating just because it has that bone nearby.

Stephen:          If you look at the clavicle, it's also floating up there. It's only hinged to the sternum by a little ligament there at its joint, and of course the chest wall is moving up and down 16 times a minute through these flexible ribs, so there's no way you can pass a load through the chest to the axial spine.

Brooke:            Thank you for that description of the float of the scapula and the float of everything. You've been working in the biosentegrity field for a long time and you've contributed a lot of wisdom in this field. Is there anything that you're currently really fascinated by in your own work?

Stephen:          Actually this year is my 40th year working in biotensegrity. My original concept was sort of a eureka moment 40 years ago when I was sitting outside the Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C. contemplating the skeletons of dinosaurs when I recognized Snelson's sculpture across the lawn. The museum there where his sculpture is is directly across from the Natural History Museum, and I put the two together and then started building from there. Since then, I have been working on this concept and trying to figure out how these two mesh together.

The most recent things I've been working on have been the soft matter physics and the closed kinematic chain mechanisms, which are how these structures move and how they behave under different forces, which completely gets you away from the hard matter physics that is the staple of the present day biomechanics.

Brooke:            Wonderful. That was a really fortuitous day at the Natural History Museum to see those two things together.

Stephen:          The Hershell Museum opened a year before and I had gone down to the museum and walked around and couldn't figure out how this structure stood there. I just left it at that. I was a year later, sitting across the mall and I said, "Oh my god, the two of them match." I went across and then figured out from there, and then it took me a long time to figure out how to build the tensegrity. I called Snelson and got hold of Buckminster Fuller people and I did all sorts of things to finally figure it all out and get down to the icosahedron and then work back up from there.

Brooke:            That's wonderful. Those giant dinosaurs couldn't have really existed with this structural skyscraper model.

Stephen:          Absolutely not. There's no way that they could have functioned in any way but a tensegrity concept. Even more than anything else, the Diplodocus had a tail that was over 100 bones long and was held up in the air. It didn't drag on the ground. It used to whip around. There's no way that that that could have functioned unless it was in a tensegrity structure. The muscles are adjacent to the bone. There's no lever that you can possibly make out of it, so it has to function as a tensegrity.

Brooke:            My son went through a very intense dinosaur period for a long time, so I'm pretty well versed- Because the tails were so long on these skeletons they were finding, they just always assumed and created the skeletons with the tail dragging on the ground until they finally realized they'd never found a fossil with a tail drag.

Stephen:          Exactly. That was my professor. I was trained by the head of the Paleontology group over there, and he used to say, "In the sands of time there are footprints but no tail tracks."

Brooke:           Which means we have to think of these things totally differently than we have. Thank you so much for all of the amazing work that you have been doing and for talking with all of us today.

Stephen:          It has been my delight. Thank you very much.

Home play!

Let's play with viscoelasticity by getting in touch with our preschool selves. Either get yourself some Silly Putty, or make a cornstarch goop. How you ask? The recipe is right here:

  • Grab a large-ish tub of some kind. Flat on the bottom is best (because then maybe you can even stand in it- jump on it and it's firm, stand still and you sink.)
  • Add cornstarch
  • Add water very slowly and stir. You will know when you have added enough water when it's consistency gets goopy but not too liquid.

Then- once you have either Silly Putty or the cornstarch goop- you can play with its viscoelastic qualities:

Pull the Silly Putty apart quickly and it will snap and get more brittle. Pull it apart slowly and it will get soft like warm taffy.

With the cornstarch- touch it firmly or quickly- slap it, poke it, etc and it will firm up like a wall. Touch it broadly and softly and it will soften and become more like  a liquid. The same goes for getting your hand out of the goop: pull your hand out quickly and it will firm up and hold on to you, pull your hand out slowly and your hand will be released.

Now you know what working in fascia feels like! And you have a better sense for how our bodies operate in both a viscous and elastic state simultaneously. Have fun!


Biotensegrity- Stephen Levin's website

Buckminster Fuller Institute

Kenneth Snelson's Needle Tower sculpture

How Does the Hirshorn's 60 Foot Needle Tower Stay Upright in A Stiff Wind- Smithsonian Magazine (includes video of its installation)

Tensegrity the New Biomechanics

The Scapula is a Sesamoid Bone

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Michol Dalcourt: What Training the Whole Body Really Means (LBP 027)

Michol Dalcourt is the director of the Institute of Motion, the inventor of the fitness tool the Vipr, and the co-founder of PTA Global. He and I talk about the insightful work they are doing at IoM including how fascia moves the body, our body as a fluid organism and why we need to pay attention to its fluid dynamics, tensegrity! (one of my favorite subjects...), what he means when he says the body is a lever-less system and other concepts in the “new” biomechanics, why we need to zoom out and not just focus on the nervous system’s effect on muscles, and how the fitness industry’s go to approach of training for speed via more strength is actually slowing people down.




Show notes

Brooke: Can you describe what you do at the Institute of Motion.

Michol : IOM really is a collection of thought individuals that take a look at movement strategies, coaching, and content for not only the health professional but ultimately the end consumer as well.

Brooke: One of the phrases that I came across as I was reading your materials is the phrase "farm kid fit". Can you describe what that means to you and how you realized that was an important thing?

Michol:  I'm Canadian, so most of us are observed with the game of hockey. When I finished my university in Alberta, I was working with hockey players, rather. What we saw was that generally the strongest of those hockey players came from rural communities and we spent all our time with city kids in our sport performance training center and we would follow a periodization model of training stress but it wouldn't really match what these people who never really stepped foot in a gym were doing.

By investigating this anecdotal evidence of why farm kids are so strong, we uncovered a lot of interesting things and many of them pointed to the body as an aggregate and actually led us to develop a fitness tool that's on the market right now called Vipr.

Brooke: You have several nice short lectures, videos on your site and one of them is about how bones do not touch and what that means when we think about a body. Can you talk a bit about the concepts in that?

Michol: When we look at the idea of bony structures coming together, it really is an opportunity to describe the ability of the body to create space internally. If bones were actually touching, we would wear out far too quickly. We would probably last about a week and then the bones would be rubbing down the hyaline cartilage would be rubbing down to a point where the surface of the joint articular surfaces would just decay. The body sets itself up differently to maintain space so that we can have efficient movement.

Brooke: We think so much about ourselves I think it's like stacking up bricks and it's hard to conceive of that internal space.

Michol: If we use that analogy, it wouldn't make much sense. If we were to build a building, it wouldn't make much sense for us to have most of the bricks and moving bricks on the basement or on the ground level floor and adding all these things stacked up. We have a third of the bones of our body from the ankle done. That would be analogous to having a building that is 10 stories high having most of the movable bricks on the ground level.

Brooke:  Tensegrity is a big part of what you do at IoM and I'm a big tensegrity nerd'

Michol: When I went to school we learned about the analogy of levered systems, right? We really looked at the body with that lens as we associated our body with the same set of laws as what we build bridges and what we build buildings with, which is Newton's three laws, which are physical laws.

But the structure lacks the critical aspect that we need, which is movement. We wouldn't build a building or a bridge that can move. We would build it so that it can move just enough to mitigate stress but not so much that it's going to be onerous to its construction.

When we look at the idea of tensegrity, the way I think about it is those are biological laws and they operate differently than physical laws, i.e. Newton's three laws. When we look at differentiation of how biology self assembles, it's going to be without the constraints of stability first and mobility only as a subset, as a function of that stability. In other words, you build a bridge than can perhaps move just slightly to mitigate some stress but not that much or building to do the same thing.

Whereas biology, the critical aspect of biology is movement. Cellular movement, system movement, and then organism movement. If we don't have those most fundamental things, then the organism won't survive. This idea of push forces and pull forces for mutual benefit, and that's really the underpinning of tensegrity.

Brooke:You used this great phrase: self-assembly. We're not putting ourselves together on a factory line.

Michol: We went through the Industrial Revolution. We mechanized everything and so we treated our body the same way. We had fulcrums, we had pivot points, we had joints that were operating in one plane of motion, and we even dissected the muscles to reflect primarily the sagittal plane and primarily this idea of what we call link action, which is you've got one bone that's still and you've got the adjacent bone that's moving against the still bone, and that's brought to us by muscle that shortens under concentric force, and voila, we have movement.

Although that may be true, it's only true in a limited capacity and I would argue that it's true only when we put ourselves in a very restricted position. The flip side is that the body can do more than just that one thing and most of the time you'll have one bone that's moving and the adjacent bone is moving as well. It will be moving in all three planes of motion.

Biology is predicated upon the idea of adaptability and resiliency, and like I said before, mobility and movement.

Brooke: You described the body as a leverless system. Is that some of what you're talking about here?

Michol: Yes. This idea of push and pull forces. We've got bony structures that are resistant to compression and then we've got tensile elements like skin, collagen fibers, connective tissue and muscle that operate as a center-seeking pulling force.

Between the two you've got these bones that essentially create space by pushing things away and then you have all this viscoelastic material, which is also water, by the way, and pressure of water, that is regulating the tension of a body and they all operate for mutual benefit. The more balanced that they are, the more viable that the organism is.

We look at health of skin, we look at health of fibrous connective tissue. We look at health of bone. We look at health of the aqueousness or the hydration of the body and if they are in balance, then the individual can achieve or has the potential to achieve more.

Michol:  With fascia more particularly we're looking at how collagen itself self assembles. If we think about Tom Myers always used a great analogy that muscles will create force but the fascia organizes it. A subset of that fascia is really the collagen and the health of the collagen is predicated on diet strategies, hydration strategies, and movement strategies.

Brooke:  I love talking about the fact that we're a fluid system, again, we're not a product.

Michol: We are mostly water. H2O molecules  occupy a lot of space cellularly. They keep things not only hydrated but they keep things in a viscoelastic way so they help the other structures, the bones, they help the skin, they help the fascia, they help the muscles create a mitigation system for stress. If we hit the ground, part of that ground reaction force is going to the muscles part, it's going to the bones, part if it's going in the skin, part of it is going to the fibrous connective tissue, which is our fascia, and part of it's mitigated by this gelatin that we have for lack of a better description that will buffer kinetic impulse into the ground.

If all of those things are not working well, then injury may plague the system or we just increase the risk of injury, and we see this a lot with runners. Then they ponder was I designed to run?  In my mind, I would first look at, all right, if you've got the metabolic engine, do you have the hardware, the structural hardware to mitigate stress if you come colliding into the ground?

Brooke: If I'm, say, a personal trainer, what are some ways that you evaluate this?

Michol: What we're doing at the Institute right now is we're actually putting together what we call an onboarding process and what it is, is it is a way to create a battery of different assessments that look at different elements that make up the whole. With those metrics, we can then create a view of is the person prepared and how are they prepared for what they want to do ultimately.

Our feeling is that there are a lot of good tests out there but they operate on an island. You take one test for this particular result and then that's it. What we would rather do this is aggregate this into a whole picture and then create what we call a dashboard.

Brooke: The spine is not a column.

Michol: The spine is really fascinating in terms of its development and its morphology. If we look at it in its development when we were in the womb, what we would look at is a C-shaped spine that could accommodate restricted space. Without crowding and becoming a taller structure, we need to accommodate a very much a compact structure while we're in the womb.

With intrinsic muscle action on the body and the spine as we wiggle around in there, we start to create intrinsic pressures that begin the process of changing the C shape of the spine to what would we know now as the S shape curve. We've got 33 mobile segments in the spine.

That really accommodates this idea of axial loading, which is this top-down force that we apply when we stand up. If we were a column, that would be egregious load to the discs of the spine, so to mitigate this, what we have is very much this wave scenario in the spine where it's a shock absorption system. We never really want one vertebrae to be crushing down on another because what's stuck in the middle is a disc, which is mostly water, and if one impacts the other too much, be it a sudden trauma or be it just repetitive positional stress.

The longitudinal ligaments go on into a slack position and then what happens is you've got the structural abnormalities. Now we're calling upon one system to do too much so now muscles are on and they're on more or they're upregulated more past the resting tone to stabilize the spine, and once we have that, then the system is on too much.

There's a lot of research that indicates that muscles if they are doing their job, the neuromuscular system should turn on and off and on and off and on and off and on and off. Muscles that stay on chronically generally lead to problems.

Brooke: One of the other pieces of the whole that you're looking at a little bit differently is the nervous system and you talk about how our traditional model of movement is really just looking at the nervous system's relationship with muscle.

Michol: We learn about this idea of an action potential being propagated along the nerve to the motor units. Then they pull on a bone and then that's what creates human movement. Although that is extremely true, it's not the only thing that physically creates movement. One of the easiest ways to create movement is to interact with gravity and ground because gravity will always torque the body and always move the body.

If I was standing and I lean forward, that would initiate the gait cycle. If I can continue to do that, it would continue to initiate the gait cycle. As we lean in a field of gravity, it creates a very efficient model for movement because we're grabbing from these environmental influences, which is gravity and ground.

If I swing my arms and legs, that creates potential kinetic energy for movement as well. What we say at the Institute is what the body first seeks to do is to capture energy. Whether it's from the ground from reaction force, whether it's from tissue lengthening to create potential kinetic energy as I stretch an elastic band, same thing, viscoelastic material skin, fascia, muscle, they all have the qualities of an elastic band in that if you stretch them, they create potential kinetic energy.

All those things are in flux as it relates to creating movement, and pressure in tubes as well also creates movement and mechanical lift through the hydraulic amplification of shoving a bunch of pressure in a tube. Pressure inside tubes creates mechanical lift as well.

If we use too much of one system, then we start to wear out too quickly.

Brooke: You say that the fitness industry is typically training for speed via more strength but that this actually slows the athlete down.

Michol: It only requires that we think about times in our lives where we have high anxiety, we're more tense. With more tension, with more of this engagement in the neuromuscular system, we generally slow down because the action of speed is predicated upon both a high level of engagement of the muscular system and then a quick disengagement of the muscular system to allow the segments of the body to move quicker.

It may be just as important to view the muscular system as acutely turning on and acutely turning off quickly to achieve higher levers of speed. If you're training athletes for speed, do they have a quick ability to turn a muscle off? In our industry, generally we have cues that engage the muscles too long. Right? It could be keeping things tight, keep the core tight and then move. That may be something that you would give to a specific individual if they have a certain, let's say, condition or instability but in terms of achieving high levels of speed, we want the system to relax.Which is very antithetical to how we're thinking about things right now in my estimation.

Michol: I think part of that is the fear of we need to stabilize the system but it really is about the individual. If the individual has good balance or is achieving good balance between the idea of skin health and fascial health and bone health and muscular health and nervous system timing, and then, again, all the other things that make up the system, i.e. good hydration and everything else. What we have is  shape stability based on the principles that you describe before on tensegrity. If we're creating that resiliency within the tissues, then we don't have to achieve high levels of stability in the body because a lot of that stability is given to us in the aggregate with skin health and with fascial health. They all contribute to body-wide stability.

Brooke:  We've touched in on a bunch of these concepts but what are some of the other ways that you're seeing the more traditional views of biomechanics changing and getting challenged these days if there are any others that we haven't touched on?

Michol: I think it's just this thing that we have tend to think about biology in the terms of Newton's three laws as a class of levers and we talked about this before. Biological laws set themselves up differently. Right? It's all about mitigation of stress into the whole. That's how the body can capture energy.

Let's say you are in the track and field discipline. There's a lot of biomechanic textbooks that really amplify the value of taking a look at how we would achieve greater impact in, I don't know, a high jumper or a throw of some sort. There's merit to that and I think if we blend this idea of the math and the forces that we apply to the body and to an implement if we're engaging in let's say a track and field activity, and we look at it in the lens of biology is all about self-assembling things in aggregate and we take a look at the health of the whole system, then we might find a sweet spot for us to be able to look at both sides of that or both aspects of that to put the sentence together, so to speak.

We're putting all aspects of the conversation together to make a complete sentence as opposed to taking a look at just part of the sentence, because in a lot of cases what we end up doing is we take a look at a certain aspect of the body and we look at it in a very mechanistic way. If we can realize that every tissue is important to the outcome of movement strategies, then we would take a look at skin health, we would take a look at fascial health, we would take a look at bone health, we would take a look at hydration health.

In the health field, especially in the fitness field, we don't have a tendency to do that. Monday is never skin day in the gym, it's always a muscle day in the gym. That narrative is changing, but if we can expand our lens a little bit further, then I think that we would achieve a body that has a constitution that allows it to move and then to achieve its goals.

Michol: I live in California, there are people who have spent thousands of dollars spreading creams on their skin to fortify collagen in there, and I'm not going to debate whether that has merit or not, what I would say is that we can achieve a similar thing by training it in a certain way, and that refortifies collagen. It's by no accident that people who exercise tend to look better in their skin for longer.

Michol: We are looking at anti-aging strategies because when I was in my 20s, my goals for health and well-being are different than now that I'm in my 40s, and I'm looking at taking what I have and trying to extend that as far as I can. From an endocrine response, from a tissue response, from the metabolic response.

Brooke: I've been in the fascial fields professionally for so long, I've said this before but people are always looking way younger than they actually are in those fields. I go to a conference of my peers who are also fascial therapists or movement therapists of some variety, and I don't know how old they are because they're probably 10 to 15 years older than they look, which is great.

Michol: They're doing something right.

Brooke:  Is there anything that you are currently playing with in your own practice these days or something that you're fascinated by mentally even?

Michol: We're doing, like I said before, the onboarding, which is really exciting to us because we're taking a look at how we can create a profile for an individual that creates some metrics, some things that individuals can look at, some numbers, some schemes that they can look at, that tell them or give them a glimpse into how they are doing.

The other thing that we're quite excited about is from a programming perspective- Whether you're going to load your soft up with external resistance or whether you're going to use your body as a mechanism for movement, we've structurally put this down in a very simplistic way to allow a person a very much inclusive approach to training so that they're not stuck in one aspect. Let's use the bodybuilder as an example.

Let's say a bodybuilder engages in bodybuilding activities, typically what they do is they introduce load to the body via weights and they have a very linear response. Research shows that that is a great way to put muscle on the body, but if that's all I do, I lack mobility in time and then the body breaks down. There are many bodybuilders that don't age without injury.

Even for that bodybuilder, it would behoove that person to spend some time working on other strategies, unloaded, recovery-based, and everything else. We've mapped this very simple programming model out that reflects the nature of yes, your goal may put you in this area for a while but you still need these other areas, at least a little bit at a time to balance out the training scenario.

The same thing is true with runners. Right? If I'm a runner and all I do is run, then chances are my body's going to break down, but I can do these other prophylactic exercises or strategies that allow my running to be enhanced but I'm not necessarily running while I'm doing it, I'm looking at tissue quality, resiliency, all these things that allow me to be, let's say, a more efficient runner if that's what I was doing.

It's very simple but it's very scalable in terms of people utilizing this system, so we're very excited about that as well.

Home play!

Let's make it "skin day" in our training! Obviously you can do this in a number of ways- so if you want to get a session of bodywork, roll around on Yoga Tune Up therapy balls, or MELT yourself with the MELT Method go for it! But if you are looking for a simple, at home, tool-free technique, there is always skin-rolling. Here is another old school video of me demonstrating it:

Jules Mitchell: The Science of Stretching (LBP 009)

I got a chance to talk with Jules Mitchell right after she turned in her Master’s thesis on the science of stretching. Jules’ work blends biomechanics with the tradition of yoga to help people move better, and while looking into the research on stretching she discovered some pretty eye-opening things! For example, the idea that we can persistently stretch a muscle and have it grow longer, it turns out, is not true. We get into many other myths of stretching- and it seems there are plenty- what really works, what’s really risky, and what a better model of viewing the body might be when we put aside the “stretch tight bits to make them looser” paradigm.




Show notes

Exercise Science is a field of science with many different aspects. Jules focused on biomechanics in her Master's work, which is a science of forces and how the body responds to loads.

Yoga therapy can mean many things, but for Jules it means the application of biomechanics into yoga. It takes into consideration how the body is responding to loads, and how individuals have a loading history based on what they have done in the past, so you can't give people a blanket yoga practice.

Her Master's Thesis is basically the science of stretching.

About 1 year into the research she discovered that what she had learned from the yoga community was not supported by the science.

She went through a pretty big transformation from that and had to allow herself to unlearn and approach the science with a blank slate, and then to re-learn.

The concept of stretching in itself, at least in the yoga community, this idea that if you stretch more and stretch harder that it will get longer and you will increase your range and you will get more flexible has very little truth to it. In reality that's just damaging it [the tissue].

If you hold a rubber band and stretch it, then you release that- you release the load- it goes back to its original shape.

Lack of range of motion is not realty about lengthening. It's much more an issue of tolerance. It' s a use it or lose it thing. If you never work in that range of motion your body doesn't understand it and doesn't want to go there. So your nervous system limits your range of motion.

That argument is the hardest one to come to terms with- that for the most part range of motion is an issue of tolerance and not mechanical length.

"Tolerance" means can they go there? When they hit the end of their range, that's their nervous system limiting their range. If they were under anesthesia, they would have a full range of motion.

For those who are dealing with limited range, or flexibility issues, what can they do? Gentle, passive stretching to the point of tolerance where they can relax into it and their nervous system feels safe there, and be there for 30 seconds to no more than 1 minute.

If you really want to see changes it's really about using it. Create muscle force at that range of motion. It's active, your body has to be in control.

Jules does more strength training at these ranges of motion than passive stretching and that's where you start to see the results, because your neuromuscular system starts to work in cooperation.

Pectoralis minor (images here) if that's my issue and I want it to get longer, what would it look like to do this with strength training?

Jules says she is not going to use the word "longer" because the range won't increase. And it's not just pec minor, it's all the connective tissue around it, the ligaments of the joint, all the neighboring muscles, etc.

How that would work, you would bring the shoulder into a range where the shoulder is limited, and then you would work in that range on flexing the muscle to get it as strong as it can at that limited range. It's kind of like resistance stretching. You are stimulating the fibers so that they can communicate with your nervous system back and forth, and that's one of the most effective ways because you are developing strength and control in that joint position.

At the opposite end of that she would refer them to Restorative Yoga which is based in props. You wouldn't try to stretch as hard as you can. When you stretch as far as you can what's already compliant is going to stretch first so you're not going to hit your target tissue. But if you properly use props now there's a more equal force distribution, and you can be in that pose for a long time and communicate to your nervous system.

We are dynamic communicating organisms vs. lumps of clay that can be molded. It's all about how our nervous system regulates our muscle tissue, which transmits a force to our connective tissue.

We have to look at the tensegrity model where muscle fibers literally embed into connective tissue. If you think about it your muscles are contractile tissues- that's what they do. They produce force. the sarcomeres are literally transmitting force to the connective tissues all around, not just length-wise but also radially outwards in all directions and dimensions.

If you don't have the ability to control the muscle force in all dimensions you run into weakened muscle force. We want our muscle tissue to be strong enough to move.

[said another way] We want to be stiff- just stiff in all ranges of motion, not just one range of motion. In a full range of motion "stiff" makes us powerful beings and now we have a full range.

This idea that the more flexible we are the better off we are- when reality those people have more trouble "holding themselves together".

How does someone get "tight" in the first place?

Jules does not use that word, because there is no definition for tight. It's not a mechanical term.

If we're going to go with air quotes "tight", or talk about limited range of motion- that you can only take your joint in certain positions- that happens, 9 times out of 10, because it hasn't been used there, so the nervous system doesn't put it there. The muscle fibers aren't strong enough to maintain that force regulation through the body. It will go to where it's safer. It's not a matter of tightness, it's more a matter of communication.

Jules mentions Van der Wal's article (which is linked below in the resources). He was groundbreaking in this research. He was an anatomist and he realized that our mathematical models for human movement weren't fitting in to how we viewed anatomy. We really aren't a collection of muscles. There's never any part of the body that's slack. His work was groundbreaking for understanding tensegrity. Force transmits radially through out the body, so everything is always under some degree of tension.

One of my favorite Dr. Rolf quotes of all time: "Wherever you think it is, it ain't"

Stretching an injury: we have a cultural misunderstanding of stretching. We have an idea that if it hurts, stretch it. People who are in pain should just leave it alone instead of stretching it and instead move it and use it so the muscle fibers will direct the loads where it's supposed to go.

If you have a tendon or ligament tear, that you want to wait before you stretch. A big problem is that the inflammation goes down within a few days and they no longer feel the injury and so are ready to go right back to stretching it. It's a good 6 weeks before the collagen can take stretching. And that's conservative; A safe measure would be 1 to 2 years.

Most often it takes some re-injury before people are willing to hear that advice about not stretching.

Nobody cares about stretching the way the yoga community does. In the research and in the Exercise Science community there is no interest in these extreme ranges. In fact, in the research Jules was looking at- in many cases people who practiced yoga did were excluded from the studies because they don't expect these extreme ranges.

The biggest surprise was that there was very little research on yoga and flexibility. She found one short study. The yoga community has done some great research but more on mental health and relationships.

However in 2012 Yoga Journal did a study on the 18 million Americans that practice yoga and the number 1 reason they were practicing yoga was to increase flexibility, so there' s a big disconnect [between the research and the reasons people seek out a yoga practice].

When flexibility is the issue for a person, stretching is not going to help. Moving frequently in more full ranges of motion and incrementally increasing the load is actually the answer.

Jules believes that is what yoga was meant to do- yoga is using your body weight in a bunch of different positions.

But we have gone in this "push harder, harder, harder" mentality and you have 80 people in a classroom, and some have been doing handstands for 10 years, and some just got off their couch, and you're giving them the same class. That's scary.

You can't expect a yoga teacher, or any other fitness instructor, in a group setting to be able to fully take into consideration how you have used your body for its whole history. And you have to keep that in mind.

In her own practice Jules is currently playing with decreasing her flexibility. She was never hypermobile, but she's learned that she was really flexible and she was really weak in these full ranges of motion. Increasing the muscle contraction at the end range has got her feeling better than she ever has.

Home play!

I am in the process of finishing the first Liberated Body Guide (short guides of what works for what) and the first one will be the Short Hamstrings Guide ("short" in air quotes, but Limited Range of Motion in Your Hamstrings makes for a wordy title...). Because my world is fairly hamstrings-centric right now due to the guide, let's play with load instead of stretching to see how the hamstrings respond. For one week play with swapping out any stretching protocol you might have for squatting, lunging, or a Founder (from the previous episode with Eric Goodman) and see what response you get. I'm talking about body-weight movements that are not high velocity or high quantity. This is good for both the "tight" types and the Gumby types, so everybody wins!


Jules Mitchell's site

Jules' most current blog post which covers in more detail what we talked about in the interview: Stretching and Muscle Control

Restorative Yoga

Jaap van der Wal article  (It's exceptional, print it out and digest slowly...)

Jules' post that I refer to in the home play section: Are You Really Stretching What You Think You Are?

Eric Goodman: Resolving Back Pain (LBP 004)

Even though he was considered conventionally “strong” Eric Goodman was a broken down mess at 25 who had major spinal surgery recommended to him. The creation of the Foundation Training is the culmination of figuring out how to heal his injuries and back pain himself using his anatomy and chiropractic training. We talk about our super compressed modern bodies and what that means for us, what the posterior chain is and why rehabilitating its functional strength and integration matters, how outdated our conventional notion of the core is- and what “core” actually means, and how it’s possible that an x-ray of Eric’s spine today would still show a big old mess there, and yet he is pain free.




Show notes:

The major back surgery that was recommended to him at 25. How he used to have the conventionally “strong” body but was so broken down. Foundation Training is the culmination of 8 years of figuring out his back injury himself using his anatomy and chiropractic training.

The spine and hips should the strongest part of your body rather than the spine being the main mover of the body which is what many people are doing these days.

The modern body is super compressed- we are losing the war against gravity terribly. What about the digestive issues, the depression, the mood issues- these are just other forms of compression.

Posterior chain inside jokes ensue.

Defining the posterior chain and why to focus on it in the modern body. The deep front line- the anterior chain is not supporting us and connecting well.

Posterior chain integration is key- most people need their posterior chains to get a lot stronger and a lot longer in order for their lives to get better.

The notion of the core as outdated: A contracted abdomen literally pulls you into a ball- shoulders as well.

When the abdomen lengthens and learns to hold tension the lower back lengthens and learns to hold tension, and the posterior chain then starts to integrate.

Redefining the core- it is the center of your body. This, skeletally, is your pelvis. Your core musculature is anything that supports your pelvis in space.

Next book isn’t just on back pain but on the larger cultural problem of compression.

Trying to get the body back to tensegrity. Foundation Training is pure muscular counterbalance.

How and why simplicity gets overlooked- the bias towards complex procedures.

How an x-ray of his spine today would still show the degeneration, yet he doesn’t have pain. Explaining to people how that’s possible.

He describes his extreme diagnosis.

If you think that you're going to control an injury without addressing the environment around that injury, you're wrong.

The communication between the neurotransmitters in the digestive tract and the neurotransmitters in your brain have a lot to do with how much pain you experience. The body is this infinite web of communication.

Western medicine might be the most important thing in the world when it comes to emergency situations, but it might be the wrong group to give us advice on daily living.

Doctors are groomed to be elitist- they are not arrogant, but they are groomed to believe that the information they have is much more significant than the information coming from others. And they have extremely valuable information, but they are in a system the suffocates them. And they have learned how to fix, not how to prevent.

It's a huge mistake to have to become unhealthy to learn about health. (as doctors do in their grueling medical training)

Self-care is so much more significant to society than healthcare. If patients started realizing their ability to take care of themselves it would free up so much time and energy in our healthcare system.

Eric's current interest in using a slackline to play with balance, and getting really strong and healthy in your core (and everywhere). A link to a good slackline is below in the resources.

Home play!:

Let's all do a founder, shall we? This one is worth getting a good visual of, so please check out Eric's videos below. Be sure to watch both so that you can troubleshoot any common errors. And let me know how it goes! I'm always at brooke [at] liberatedbody [dot] com

Founder video

Founder common mistakes video


Foundation Training

Foundation- the book

Foundation Training DVD

The next book is upcoming between February and April 2015- stay tuned!

Anatomy Trains

Kelly Starrett

Gibbon Slackline