ON THIS EPISODE OF THE BEST MEDICINE PODCAST
Our Guest: Tom Dalonzo Baker
I am overjoyed to share today’s guest with you.
Tom Dalonzo-Baker is a revolutionary physical therapist and the founder of Total Motion Relief.
TMR is a systems approach to injury rehab and pain relief. It seems to be a superior model to the physical therapy methodologies most of us are familiar with.
Tom’s goal is to bring a simple, principles-based pain relief methodology (and education on movement) to as many people as possible so we can all cure ourselves of physical pain in a simple, fun way.
We also got into several discussions of tensegrity, Tom’s history of developing his practice, and how our brain’s cognitive processing can trap us in physical AND behavioral patterns that cause pain.
I hope you enjoy the episode.
The Principles of Motion
I have been quietly studying the concept of biotensegrity for a long time.
For those unfamiliar with the term, here’s a useful definition I found (LINKED).
Biotensegrity, a term coined by Dr. Stephen Levin, is the application of tensegrity principles to biological structures. Biological structures such as muscles, bones, fascia, ligaments and tendons, or rigid and elastic cell membranes, are made strong by the unison of tensioned and compressed parts.
All of our physical systems are regulated by this idea of tensegrity. Our neuro-musculo-skeletal-fascial system is the structure that allows our physical stability and movement to occur and it is governed by the principle of tensegrity.
The most simple way of thinking about tensegrity is this: every “part” of our body is intimately connected to other parts. Therefor, no motion can occur in isolation.
For example, move your bicep right now.
Perhaps you “flexed” your bicep. (No need to show off!)
Do it again. You’ll notice your forearm, tricep, and front of your shoulder were all recruited. (And on a more abstract level, your Central Nervous System was recruited as well.)
This principle applies everywhere in the body.
Any movement you make will require other muscles, fascia, etc to lengthen or shorten to support the intended movement.
There is a whole field of study dedicated to learning the ideal, or natural, state of tensegrity in human beings. “What does a human body without injury, social programming, or muscular asymmetry look like as a tensegrity structure?”
In searching for the answer we can learn something about evolution. Monkeys evolved to climb through trees with their “brachiation” movement pattern. Monkeys can do this all day and not tire out! Humans can do it for about 30 seconds before calling it a day (with the exception of pro-climbers and parkour athletes!).
However, humans can throw, walk in a bipedal gait cycle, lunge, bend, etc in a way other animals can’t. In much the same way that certain mental aspects of modern life may cause us emotional turmoil (for example, Social Media hijacking our dopamine system), perhaps our movement patterns are causing us deep physical turmoil. And maybe the physical and emotional turmoils are related.
I am incredibly interested in this field as it is likely the key to understanding physical fitness, athletics, injury prevention, and more.
I believe this principle of tensegrity is a critical one to understanding social forces as well — when one thing in society moves, other parts accommodate. There are a series of structures and patterns we can healthily engage in as a social organism — and others that will cause injury and cause overcompensation.
I interviewed Tom Dalonzo-Baker because his field of study closely intersects with this principle of tensegrity — he has used his methods to teach people how to treat their own muscular and joint pain. He embeds the principles of movement into his clients’ minds so they can intuit the correct way to treat themselves in 9 out of 10 situations.
I wanted to learn this method and share parts of it with all of you. Let’s dive in.
(Note: I’m aware that some new science is keen to call this principle “fascitensegrity.” That’s totally fine by me. Liquids and fascia appear to play a dominant role in much of the process. I use biotensegrity because it is a more common term and easier for you to research. The principle of tensegrity is what matters.)
Muscle Can Only Do Two Things
In the above example I asked you to “move” your bicep.
That might have been a bit of a trick question. You CAN’T move your bicep. You can cause movement in your body — but your bicep itself will not “move.”
It is a muscle, so it can only do one of two things at a time: Lengthen or shorten.
When the bicep is recruited for a movement pattern (a pullup, walking, throwing, picking up a bag of groceries, a handshake) — it will either shorten (flex) or lengthen (stretch).
There are no other options.
The principle of tensegrity dictates that our bodies ought to be symmetrical. We have two arms, two legs, two eyes, and two ears — each on one side of our body. Tensegrity is the principle that keeps our body limber, mobile, quick and adaptive.
But what if we engaged in movement patterns that overstressed that system.
Imagine you only did bicep curls on one arm at the gym. That bicep would become huge! The other one would remain small.
This would be like taking the legs of a chair and making one of them an iron rod, and leaving the others as balsawood!
In this instance, you are shortening the bicep (and stretching the tricep) on one side of the body far more than normal.
Over time, this will cause the tensegrity structure of your body to warp and change. You might develop a twisted posture in your shoulders. You might hunch over.
Your body will adapt to this new structure — but it will send a pain response eventually.
Your bicep will become so tight that it might cause shoulder pain on that side of the body. Imagine this inhibits you from doing something like raising your hand to scratch your head.
A typical physical therapist would give you stretches for that bicep or shoulder. Maybe some electro-shock.
This never actually works.
Tom would use the principle of lengthening and shortening to understand one thing:
There exists a muscle somewhere else in your body that you CAN lengthen or shorten, that FEELS GOOD to engage with that is somehow connected to the problem-area.
If you lengthen or shorten this “unrelated” area — it can re-recruit the problem areas in their natural functions.
Tom calls this principle “yummy and yucky.”
If something feels bad to do, you probably shouldn’t be doing it. “Moving” your bicep got you into this mess — so why continue to apply stimulation to it directly? You actually need to stimulate other parts of your body to restore a balance to your structure.
If it hurts — or feels “yucky” to move — don’t do it!
If it feels “yummy” — then it might be part of your solution!
The Social Conditioning of Pain
The next principle is about another way we can find ourselves in pain.
Imagine a person with cerebral palsy.
Often they have postural distortions. They might have carry their arms in certain ways — unable to swing them during their walking cycle. Maybe they walk with a hunch to the left or right and drag one of their legs.
The reason for this is because they were born with a condition that effects their ability to move in the way the average human moves.
Imagine how foolish a physical therapist would be to try and say “you have to walk exactly like everybody else, and my job isn’t done until you can!”
That’s a road to disaster!
There is a biological reality to each of our bodies. For someone with cerebral palsy that reality is different than ours — they will have a tensegrity structure all their own that they need to work with. If they can move in “yummy” ways then they will have minimal pain and maximal mobility for the structure they were born with.
Now let’s apply that principle to the average person.
You are a human that was born with no major disorders of any kind. Your body has a natural tensegrity structure. It wants to throw things, sprint, go on long walks and engage in rough and tumble play.
But a school teacher says you have to hold a squat position with no glutteal activation and a thoracic hunch for 6 hours a day, every single day. (AKA sitting).
Don’t you think that’s just as much of a road to disaster?
Much of the way we move, behave and hold our posture comes from social programming — not the biological drive to move in the way we moved in prior conditions of evolution.
One common example is this: A lot of guys have certain ideas about masculinity. They feel this social pressure to be a “tough guy” or “alpha male,” and are deeply insecure about their status as such. Maybe they were bullied as children, or picked this mindset up from advertising.
Now they walk around with their chests puffed out and a weird swing in their hips as if to indicate they’re the king chimp in any room they decide to be in.
Only problem is, that’s not a “yummy” movement. Every man has had a period where they tried to walk like that at least once and it’s uncomfortable. It’s not how humans walk.
Eventually this will cause pain in the neck, shoulders, etc (And it won’t get you laid either, fellas).
Most physical therapists will simply ask: “Where’s it hurt?”
Tom Dalonzo Baker instead asks: “Where does it hurt? What is the physical root of that pain? What else in the body can we utilize to restore balance? And what weird conditioning has gotten in your head that’s making you move in a way that you intuitively know is hurting you? How can we upgrade your beliefs?”
It’s a terrific model with many proven success cases.
If you enjoyed this episode, go check out Tom Dalonzo Baker’s work at Total Motion PT.
If you believe you need to speak to a doctor about these subjects but are worried about the fact most doctors are even worse than most physical therapists in this domain then I’d encourage you to reach out to me.
You can book an appointment on my tele-health clinic: Wellspring.
If you don’t have insurance, don’t worry — we’re cash only. Same $50 for everybody.
I’m happy to discuss these concepts in depth with you and refer you to one of Tom’s practitioners if necessary.
Dr Bradley Werrell