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  • Richard Ulm

Why is the ECSS so prevelant?

Updated: Jan 29

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Over the last few weeks, I have discussed at length the consequences of moving with an Extension/Compression Stabilizing Strategy (ECSS). If you haven’t been following along, the ECSS is a pathological, compensatory stabilizing strategy whereby one stabilizes the spine with hyperactivity of the spinal extensors secondary to insufficient production of intra-abdominal pressure (IAP). A question that many of you might have is: why is the ECSS so prevalent? This is the topic for today’s article.

The ECSS is quite common in the general population and the insidious cause of much lower back pain and injury, but it is absolutely ubiquitous in the strength training population, particularly PowerLifting, CrossFit, and Olympic Weightlifting. There are several reasons for this.

#1 That’s how I learned!

For many of you, the principles on which you base your programming were laid by doing a sports. You learned by doing and were indoctrinated by coaches who were all doing their best. I learned the same way. Nearly every day we heard cues in the weight room that perpetuate the ECSS. “Keep your chest up!” “Tighten up your back!” “Butt back, chest up!” “Find your hamstrings.” The list goes on and on. If you’ve been in the industry for more than 5 minutes, it is likely that you’ve heard one or all of these. That is because the industry favors the ECSS. This is for circular reasons. The ECSS is prevalent for many reasons (mentioned below), which cause coaches and athletes to think that it is correct, resulting in coach teaching this strategy to their athletes. You learn it and it takes years (for me 15+ years, medical school, getting a severe back injury, and treating patients with lower back injuries) to realize that it is not optimal and comes with many consequences. Because you learned it at such an early age, the belief runs deep into your bones.

#2 “I” achieved success by using the ECSS!

No matter what level of success you achieved, many of you used the ECSS to get there. This calcifies the belief that the ECSS is correct, even optimal. It is counterintuitive to think otherwise. How else would you have achieved the level of success that you did?

#3 Everybody does it!

The ubiquity of the ECSS is undeniable. Once you see it, you cannot unsee it. As an athlete or coach, we constantly look around at our teammates, competitors, and idols to see what they are doing. This is human nature. Because it is so prevalent, it is inevitable that you will find many examples of athletes “succeeding” using this pathological strategy. Going against the norm is like swimming up stream or driving against traffic. It just doesn’t feel right.

#4 Over-emphasis of sagittal plane movements.

If you were to analyze 100 strength training programs, the vast majority of the movements would be sagittal plane movements: back squats, cleans, snatches, kettlebell swings, RDLs, good mornings, hyperextensions, reverse hyper, etc., etc. etc. The list goes on and on. The ECSS is predominantly a sagittal plane stabilizing strategy. If you do sagittal plane exercises all the time, you will bias development of the ECSS.

#5 Too many barbell movements.

We all love barbell movements. No doubt coaches use dumb bells and kettlebells, but the vast majority of the time, they program barbell movements. Barbells are for sure a useful tool in training, but they limit your degrees of freedom (the possible movement options an athlete has). They block nearly all secondary and tertiary motion in the transverse and coronal planes, thereby driving all the forces into the sagittal plane. While this is difficult to notice, these micro movements are vital and the forces are significant. If you want to feel how important movements in the transverse and coronal plane are, try this test. Take a 44 lb. kettlebell and attempt an overhead squat. Feel yourself shift slightly away from the bell (linear translation in the transverse plane). Feel yourself lean away from the bell (rotation in the coronal plane). Feel yourself turn toward the bell (rotation in the transverse plane). Now try an overhead squat with a barbell. Make sure you have your hands narrow to better simulate the position you had with the kettlebell. By having both hands on the barbell, you are unable to compensate as you did with the kettlebell. What you will feel is a tremendous amount of movement and force in the sagittal plane. Your head will get pushed forward. You will feel a pressure/block in your thoracic spine as it is pushed into end-range extension. Your hips will get pushed backwards excessively, causing your torso to lean excessively forward. The forward lean of the torso will force your shoulders into end range flexion. The motion will feel completely different than it did with the kettlebell, much more awkward, all because the barbell does not allow motion in the coronal and traverse planes. Like reason #4, if you bias training to the sagittal plane you will bias the development of the ECSS. The more you program barbell movements, the more likely your athletes will express the ECSS.

#6 Not enough unilateral movements.

Perhaps because of a lack of equipment, limited time, or perhaps just for the simple reason that you can move more weight, bilateral barbell movements tend to be the preferred exercise for strength coaches. When you perform bilateral movements, whether in the sagittal plane or not, you are biasing the sagittal plane in the spine. This is for the simple reason that with bilateral movements, the forces in the coronal and transverse planes are minimal. Take a classic sagittal plane movement, the barbell RDL. In the bottom position (when the hips are flexed and your back is near parallel to the floor) the weight is pulling your torso into left rotation through the right arm, but this torsional force is cancelled out by the right rotation force traversing through the left arm. The result is nearly pure sagittal plane force in the spine (particularly the lumbar spine), which perpetuates the ECSS. If you perform this motion with a single dumb bell or kettlebell, you preserve these tri-planar forces. The RDL is a purely sagittal plane motion. But if you perform it with a unilateral load, you expose the body to tri-planar forces, demanding activation of non-sagittal plane muscles like the abdominal obliques. This is not only better for function, but reduces, even combats, perpetuation of the ECSS.

#7 Industry wide love of the posterior chain.

Again, likely because of the prevalence of bilateral barbell movements in sagittal plane movements, the industry loves the posterior chain. For these movements, the posterior chain is the most perfectly positioned muscle chain to execute these movements. Strengthening the posterior chain, therefore, quickly improves performance in these movements. Overactivity of the posterior chain is essentially the ECSS. The more one emphasizes the posterior chain in their training, the more likely one will express the ECSS.

#8 It works!

Yes, I said it. The ECSS works. It would take nothing more than a quick YouTube search of “back squat & powerlifting” to prove that amazing feats can be achieved with the ECSS. It would be foolish of me to say otherwise. It works, but only in the short term and comes with many consequences, consequences that often limit performance and end careers.

Whether you are training by yourself or are lucky enough to have a coach, you are likely basing the technique you use on immediate feedback. If something works, you use it. It is difficult to step back and see the long term effects of the strategy you used to hit that lift. I know this because I myself fell into the same trap. It was 2002. I was in Emporia, Kansas training by myself. I was oh so close to snatching body weight for the first time and had written a 12 week program to do just that. I was in the basement gym of Emporia State on a cold Sunday afternoon with 6 x 1 snatch programmed for the day. The goal? To snatch 104.2Kg. (If you are wondering, yes, I weighed myself that day, and yes, I weighed all of the weights, the barbell, and even the collars, to ensure that l legitimately snatched body weight. I am that guy.) I was to take my first attempt at 104.2kg in thee 3rd set. I tried and got pulled onto my toes and lost the weight out in front of me. For the next 4 minutes, I walked around, listened to Tool Aenema and said “sit back on your heels.” I attempted the 4th set, sat by on my heels, but alas, lost my spinal stiffness and collapsed into flexion as I hit the second pull. Not surprising, I didn’t succeed. Determined to get the next set, I thought “tighten up your back”. I set up for the lift, cranked my back on and went for it. Wouldn’t you know it, I nailed the rep, and, for the first time in my life, snatched body weight. Hell Yea!!!

What just happened? I was rewarded for using a strategy that was effective in that moment, but one that would produce a litany of lower back injuries down the road. This happens all the time. Athletes and coaches react to the immediate feedback they receive in training. It is natural and even understandable.

Because the ECSS is effective (not efficient), it is easy to achieve short term success. Over and over again we see the same thing: cranking on your spinal extensors works. Unless you can see the bigger picture, it is difficult to ignore it.

Unfortunately, what gave you the short term success you craved so much is what prevents you from achieving maximal potential.

Next week, I discuss how to shut down the ECSS.

- Richard Ulm, DC

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