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Low Axial Loading For Grappling Sports

I think its safe to assume that at some point or another all individuals will suffer from some sort of back pain. This is usually a combination of lifestyle, exercise habits and all round biomechanical issues that come from the trials and tribulations of modern life.

Now for the lucky few of us who have discovered the wonderful arts of grappling these stressors are multiplied. We not only have our lifestyle to consider but also a sport which loves to twist, crank, slam and generally contort our spines into oblivion.

As such, it is extremely important to consider this factor when implementing specific supplementary work to improve performance on the mats. A general rule when looking at any combat athlete is that these never have nor probably never will be weight lifters so decisions we make in the weight room do not only have the potential to maximise performance but also drastically reduce it through unnecessary stress.

If your strength and conditioning coach has anything between their ears most of your strength training will be based around the 5 basic movement patterns; squat, hinge, push, pull and carry. These movement patterns will be stressed through various lifts programmed to produce a desired effect.

Before I go any further please let me clarify this. There is no such thing as a perfect exercise! Exercise selection should be based on an athletes strengths, weaknesses, what are their goals?, training age, current phases of training (comp prep etc) and finally the demands of the sport. When put together they should provide a large general stimulus to induce a specific performance outcome.

So we have a good idea that 1. Grappling arts place significant amounts of stress on the spine and 2. We can program specific exercises to produce performance measures whilst minimizing excess stress. I personally am a big fan of exercises that reduce axial loading in the weight room whilst provide the required stimulus to produce results.

Axial loading is simply loading the spine from a top down position. Meaning the load is lifted vertically rather than horizontally (Squats, Deadlifts etc). Don’t get me wrong loading the body in this manner is very important for building all round strength, excluding exercises primarily for this reason will wipe out half of the exercises that we want to use. But what if we can fine tweak these exercises with variations that follow a similar movement pattern but can reduce the force placed upon the spine itself?

Try these variations to reduce Axial loading/excess stress to the spine and maximise strength gains (there are a few others I have thrown in whilst on the topic of minimising excess stress on the spine in the weight room)

Back Squat -> Zercher Squats

Barbell Lunges -> Dumbell Split Squats/Lunges

Traditional Deadlift – Trap Bar Deadlift

Bent Over Rows -> Seal/Incline Rows

Sit ups, Crunches and general shitty core work – Loaded carries - a great article surrounding loaded carries (

As you can see most on these variations simply alter the loading pattern of the movement, forcing us to place tension on areas away from the spine itself (there will still be some force placed on the spine but can be greatly reduced through the specific loading patterns). There is definitely a time and a place for these exercises and all honesty squats and deadlifts are the gold standard when it comes to an increase in strength, it is simply due to combination of sport specific stress to the spine that accommodations can be made in order to minimize overuse. If an individual was looking to implement phases of exercises with higher axial loads like back squats and traditional deadlifts then alterations in sport specific volume and intensity should be made.

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