Compression & Tension

What’s stopping you from getting where you’re going? Back up, I’m not asking about the grand scheme of things, although that’s a good inquiry in itself. Today I’m talking about physically, your range of motion. What’s stopping you from moving in a certain way? 

The answer is bound to be complicated, depending on the area of your body and your history of injury or pain or posture. But let’s simplify it for the sake of learning.  

Consider these two categories of limitation: Compression and Tension


elbow compression and tensionTry this out. If you can bend your elbow all the way until your forearm is bumping up against your upper arm, do it. What’s stopping your elbow from bending any further? Well, your arm is bumping up against itself. It’s running into something and it can’t get past it. This is compression.  

toes compression and tensionNow for those of you in a not-super-flexible body, think about touching your toes. What’s stopping you from doing it easily? It’s not that your body is bumping up against itself. What’s stopping you are probably tight muscles somewhere along the back line of your body. This is tension.  

(For my flexible friends, many of you likely feel the sensation of muscle tension from time to time, even if it’s not limiting your range of motion much.)  


Compression is when one bone runs into another bone and you’re just not going any further; you’ve reached the limit of your range of motion. In some cases (like your hip) you may be able to move one bone around the other and find more range of motion. But absent this adjustment, there’s no amount of practice that’s going to make you more “flexible” than this. When you’ve reached compression, that’s it.


Tension is when your soft tissues, like muscle, are stopping you from going further. It’s often tension in the hamstrings that stops folks from touching their toes without bending their knees. Practice can make a difference with tension. With practice you can learn to release a muscle and guide your body into a comfortable, lengthened stretch. This doesn’t mean that everyone, given enough practice, can touch their toes. Anatomy and physiology do impose limits (and touching your toes is really not that important, anyway.)  

What’s Limiting You?

Sometimes it isn’t easy to tell what’s limiting your range of motion. Is it compression or tension? A handy rule of thumb is this: compression stops you in the direction you’re moving, tension stops you from the other side.

paschimo compression and tensionFor example, if you’re sitting on the floor attempting to touch your toes, you’re bringing the front side of your body forward towards your legs. When your front ribs bump into your front thighs, that’s compression. You’re stopped from the front, in the direction you’re moving. If your ribs are nowhere near your thighs but you’re not going any further down, you’ll probably be feeling a pull on the backside of your body. That’s tension, stopping you from behind.   

Why is this Important?

My point here is, it’s interesting to know what’s stopping you from going any further. A little bit of knowledge can go a long way towards intelligent movement, healthy expectations, and loving self-acceptance.

Besides that, anything that gets your brain into your body I consider a good technique to practice. Embodiment is healing and regardless…you’re stuck in that body of yours for a while, now aren’t you? It’s worth being curious about. 


Let’s explore movement with an eye towards compression and tension this week. See you on Zoom!