This post explores the attachment and tensegrity perspectives of anatomy and how I use them to inform my massage.

“The Hand Bone’s Connected To The Arm Bone…”

The very first workshop I attended at the Oxford School of Sports Massage was on Human Anatomy. Prior to this, my knowledge extended as far as singing, “your thigh bone’s connected to your hip bone” in primary school. I was about to learn that not only do the bones have names, but also the bumps, dips, and curves that shape each bone do too… and I needed to learn them! Ady, the principal tutor wheeled in a life size plastic skeleton. We spent the next 6 hours labelling it up with post-it notes and learning how to feel these “bony landmarks” on our study partners.

Next, we learned that many of the bony landmarks acted as “attachment sites” for the tendons. Throughout the course we were constantly revising these attachment sites along with the movements that each muscle creates. This knowledge helps me to target my massage. If a client is deficient in a particular range of motion I can usually work out which muscles might be contributing to this.

Muscle tightness and how the body is like a wooly jumper…

In the fitness industry, we very much think of the body as a number of parts that make up a whole. Bodybuilders and weight lifters in particular (myself included) say things like “I’m training chest today!” But more and more anatomical research suggests that the body works as a complete, fluid, and tensional system.

Learning “attachment sites” conjours up an image of the rectus femoris somehow glued onto the tibial tuberosity. Modern thinking suggests that it is more a case of the fibres of muscle knitting more and more densely to become tendon, which becomes denser still to become bone. Whilst this may seem like a trivial difference, this can help us to understand why a person can have pain in one area of the body caused by a muscular or movement dysfunction in a completely different area of the body. When you tug a loose thread the jumper will unravel and pinch throughout!

Fascia and how the body is like an orange…

This perspective of anatomy emphasises the role of the FASCIA! You may have read my references to the fascia in previous posts, where I probably referred to it as the “anatomical body stocking”. Whilst this gives you a basic idea of the fascia, it nowhere near does this prolific, hard working tissue justice!

The human body is wrapped in fascia how an orange is wrapped in pith. Unwrap the orange and a tough but thin layer of tissue divides the segments. When you bite into the segment you’ll find that it is made up of more even smaller individually wrapped juicy pods. The human fascia wraps the body in this way to the extent that if every part of you that wasn’t fascia was removed you would still exactly resemble you. Not only in your body shape and facial features, but the location of every blood vessel, the space where your kidneys are, and the rough edges of the bone you broke when you fell down the stairs as a child!

Tensegrity and how the body is like a tent…

The body can be described as a tensegrity structure. Tensegrity refers to a structure that includes components stressed by tension (such as the guy ropes of a tent) that support components that are not (the pole of a tent). In the body, the fascia and the soft tissues are the guy ropes that hold the bones in place. In our most effective posture the “guy ropes” are equally tensioned to create balance.

If I stressed one guy rope with more tension than the others it would become shorter. This would cause the tent pole to lean towards that side. To maintain the pole in that position, I would have to reduce the tension in the opposing rope. If, like the body, the pole was connected to a second pole via more ropes this change in tension would cause a shift in position of the second pole too. So, you can see that in a tensegrity structure changes to one component can have far-reaching knock on effects.

In Conclusion…

The tensegrity approach to anatomy is more recent than the attachments perspective. For many decades fascia was scraped into the bin and discarded during disections, as anatomists searched for the functions of individual muscles. This made anatomy more accessible because we could begin to understand parts of the system that made up the whole.

Looking at a client from both perspectives can provide useful insights to their body and how they use it. I choose to begin my initial treatments with a posture check to highlight any obvious imbalances. Next I assess the area of pain or discomfort with specific muscle tests and/or palpation. As I treat, I consider how the client’s tight muscles would affect the tensegrity system as a whole and this can help me to identify other areas that may need releasing. This global-local-global approach to my massage sessions ensures a thorough treatment that is wholly tailored to the client’s body’s needs.

Funnybones featured heavily in my childhood bedtime stories!
When you pull a loose thread, the jumper can unravel throughout :(
The human body is just like an orange!
These guy ropes hold the tent's structure by tensegrity principles
A simplified tensegrity model of the body

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