Thursday, November 16, 2006

Compression v. Spinal Lengthening: Different Applications for Different Training?

I'm fortunate enough to have been exposed to some very good training materials: teachers, mentors, and colleagues in the trenches. Three who come to mind who've influenced me are Alfonso Duran, my second weightlifting coach; Pavel Tsatsouline, who introduced me to kettlebells and clarified much of the systemization and methodology that Alfonso taught me; and Dr. Eric Cobb, creator/developer of Z-Health. So my current thinking and stances on training are probably more a reflection of their influence combined with almost 15 years of experience in the industry.

Pavel teaches compression as part of the RKC system, not only for performance, but also for safety. Try pressing a heavy bell without compressing the ground, your joints, muscles, breath, and focus: unless you have another/alternative method, that sucker just ain't goin' up. But here's the problem I see: too much tension and too much compression actually make you weaker. It shuts down the joints and overstimulates the sympathetic nervous system producing the exact opposite effect you're looking for. Now, in fairness to Pavel, he has spoken about this and produced multiple DVDs and books covering various aspects of this subject, but many in the RKC community only focus on the tension and compression.

Dr. Cobb teaches spinal/axial lengthening for maximal strength, speed, and performance. (Incidentally, so does Pavel, just a different variation and in conjuction with compression.)

The question I struggle with is this: Are they both right? Is one more right than the other in some instances over others?

Here's an example: As a weightlifter, I am currently using axial lengthening only. No compression whatsoever. Here's my rationale: I must be as fast as possible under that bar. I slow myself down when I use high-tension techniques. I even use axial lengthening when squatting and pulling. Why? Because, unlike the other strength sports, the olympic lifts require a very high degree of athleticism. Athleticism is the perfect blend between tension and relaxation. This blend must be automatic. Generating tension, in my experience, is a conscious decision. For slow grinds like deadlifts and squats in powerlifting, tension--high-tension, is a very, very good thing. But not for weightlifting. Too fast. Too athletic.

Upon what am I basing my ideas? Well after studying hours and hours of training hall tape, recalling my early experiences as a novice weightlifter and the rantings of my first coach, weightlifters only, or simply, "stretch out" at the start. They try to touch the crowns of their heads to the ceilings. This is axial lengthening. When watching them squat, they wedge themselves between the floor and the bar. In fact, they also do it on the lifts as well: wedging plus axial lengthening. From my vantage point, this is a combination of Pavel's and Dr. Cobb's philosophies.

Based on the above observations, this is the way I am currently thinking:

1. Compression/high-tension techniques should be combined with axial lengthening for slow grinding lifts, like the military press, bench press, squat (unless your an olympic lifter) and deadlift, etc.

2. For ballistic exercises such as the olympic lifts and their kettlebell cousins, axial lengthening may actually be better. It's been my experience that I'm faster, stronger, and have better endurance if I perform these in a "long spine" position without the high-tension techniques.

The only problem I forsee is that in my humble opinion, it's just plain ol' much easier to teach a client high-tension techniques than to "feel" long spine. It's just much easier to feel high-tension than long spine. Perhaps it's just going to take time for me to get my clients to adjust to long spine.

I will have more on this later, I'm sure of it.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


While I agree that too much tension could make one weaker in certain circumstances I think everything depends on why you are creating tension in the movement. and how much you actually need to fulfill the task.

cases in point;if you only have a 53 pound kb then using as much tension as necesary to press the bell wont require all that much for the average guy. but by hyper irradting the body with tension one learns how to fire more muscle fibers, longer as well as harder.

I know in powerlifting the inability to keep the grind going will result in not being able to make true circa max lifts.

so practicing generating tension makes sense with a limited load.with a infinitely loadable barbell it's a different story. there one needs the tension and some amount of compression to have enough stiffness to survive huge supra max loads.

I do whole heartedly agree that spinal lengthening WHILE bracing with max tension. I beleve that too much compression helped cause my back injury in the squat and dl.
I think you can do both similtaneously.

while compression is good for strengh spinal flexion should not take place. I'm reading MrGIll now and they are adament about that for back health.

I did way too much round back liftin in WSB!way too heavy too.

After that injurey spinal lengthening while squatting on stability balls really helped re stabilize my spine.

when I got back into power squatting after that I also axial loaded or my back hurt.there was still compression but I only thought about the arch and staying tall.I let the abs do what they wnted( as per Dr Siffs advice). It worked fine.

and I still focus on that that doing kb swing drills as I think its veyr safe. you can compress the abs at the end but cannot lose the lumbar curve.

but I'm not sure how taht owuld work on really heavy dls or presses. I will have to play with that.too bad I cant train heavy at all anymore. cant really do any grinds. the ballistics keep me healthy it seems. the grinds just wear me down.

I do think that people, clients incuded, are for the most part so weak that learning to generate tension is very important for them'I think you take how strong you are and easily you can generate and maintain tension.Most are not close and the clients are not in the ball park.

another reason I like stability balls for clients .very very easy to get them in positions of high total body tension,safely.

good stuff bro.nice to see your thinking process.

7:38 PM  
Blogger Franz Snideman said...

Interesting conversation for sure. I find that my back feels better with a little bit of both. Too much compression and my disc goes koo Koo! Too much axial extension and my back feels unstable and vulnerable. Might it be possible that there are "axial" types of athletes and "compression" types of atheltes? What I mean is that could there be a predisposition in your nervous system to respond more favorably to compression or axial extension? Or might it be just a product of your training environment?

I teach quite a bit of axial extension to my clients as I feel it is more important over the course of someone's life as gravity eventually COMPRESSES us all.

Similar to what Mark said, too much compression has caused alot of my problems in my body, especially my disc. It's not that tension is bad, it's that focusing on toomy tension for too long can be disastrous!!!!!!!

Oddly enough, traction has never felt good on my lumbar spine. I think I'm just to unstable in that area for traction to help. Standing tall and thinking tall definitely do help, probably because as I am lengthening I am pressing against the earth which helps stabilize my lumbar spine.

One of the challenges with the RKC system is that everyone thinks it is all about tension so that is what everyone automatically focuses on. This is unfortunate because Pavel teaches the importance of relaxaion as well, it just seems to be overlooked by most people, including myself when I entered the certification in 2003.

I agree with Rif that one should learn how to gradiate the level of tension they need to get the job done, period! Therefore one is learning how to be efficient and use "just enough" tension to be safe and effective!

Great stuff either wasy Geoff! Great post!

4:13 PM  
Blogger Geoff Neupert said...

Thanks fellas; very pertinent insights on both your parts regarding this topic.

Franz, I think you get what you train for, bottom line, period--SAID Principle. I don't think it's a certain type of athlete or a genetic thing, perhaps just motor learning talent if you can do one better than the other.

I agree with you Rif--appropriate tension for the load.

7:17 PM  

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