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  • Richard Ulm

Shutting off the ECSS

Updated: Jan 29

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I have spent the last several weeks covering the mechanisms through which the Extension/Compression Stabilizing Strategy (ECSS) causes lower back pain and injury. The connection between having an overactive posterior chain (aka, an ECSS) and lower back pain is undeniable, but does that mean that the ECSS has no utility in training? Does that mean that the very moment you suspect that the ECSS is rearing its ugly head you should shut down training? Absolutely not!

The ECSS is a compensatory stabilizing strategy which presents when the athlete is unable to adequately stabilize their spine with an optimal strategy - one which maximally leverages intra-abdominal pressure, whilst using the accessory muscles of stabilization (namely the spinal extensors) as little as possible. It is a compensatory strategy meant to protect the spine. To this end, it is very useful. If given the choice, we would all rather crank our spines into hyperextension in the middle of a heavy deadlift than collapse into flexion.

Think of the ECSS analogous to using a lifting belt. Most coaches would agree that belts are useful in training, but we don’t want to be wearing them through all of our sets - warm-up and working. You want to use the belt when it is needed and leave it in the training bag when it is not. Such is the case with the ECSS. When you are attempting a maximal lift, you want to make sure that you are able to safely and effectively execute the movement. In these moments, the ECSS is quite useful. It not only protects the spine, but allows you too successfully complete the set. There should be a continuous effort to maintain an optimal stabilizing strategy throughout the workout; but when you reach that threshold over which the optimal strategy will no longer work, it’s time to pull out the ECSS. Now, there is a discussion to be had on in which situations you need to push beyond this threshold. It is not always useful, safe, or necessary. There are situations, however, where pushing into the ECSS is necessary and worth the risk. This is a topic for another time.

Even if you participate in a sport that requires frequent pushing into the ECSS, it is important that your training shrink the amount of time where the ECSS is necessary. Stabilizing with an optimal strategy not only reduces your risk of injury, but improves performance. Therefore, you want to be able to maintain this pattern in as many scenarios as possible. Constantly pushing beyond your threshold, into the ECSS, will only train the ECSS, which again, is an inferior, compensatory stabilizing strategy.

While the ECSS is both natural and useful in training, it becomes problematic when the athlete is unable to shut it off after training. It becomes problematic when it used as their primary stabilizing strategy. At this point, it would be considered pathological and will block performance and potentially produce injury. It is important that the pattern not become rigid. It is important that we shut off this temporarily useful strategy when it is no longer needed.

In this video, you will find 3 powerful exercises to do just that, shut “off” (reduce the intensity of) the ECSS. These exercises are useful in treatment and in training. I, however, find them the most useful after training, especially after a particularly heavy posterior chain day, when the ECSS is most likely to present. Using these exercises will reduce the intensity of the ECSS, ensuring that the pattern not become rigid, that it not become pathological.


-Richard Ulm, DC

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