Spinal Decompression – Gravity Hates Your Back

Lengthening That Spine

Walking, sitting, standing, deadlifting, squatting, shopping, driving, painting, reading… What do all of these activities have in common?

At first glance, it looks like there’s no common denominator amongst the entire list. Right? I mean, look at it – it’s a mish-mash of unrelated crap. However, I am going to tell you that there is one common denominator in the list.

It’s gravity.

No matter what we’re doing, our bodies are constantly experiencing the effects of gravity. It is completely inevitable, unless you get a chance to leave Earth and hang out in outer-space with the quarks, dark matter, and black holes. On a side-note, I recommend anyone who likes science to watch Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman. I have about 10 episodes recorded on my DVR that I need to watch.


Back to what we were talking about – gravity is a never-ending force the we have no choice to but to eat up, so to speak. For all intents and purposes, this is perfectly fine. Without gravity, there would be no such thing as weight, because all objects would be essentially weightless. That means there’d be no stimulus available for our bodies to grow, whether it be a college-kid squatting 500 lbs or a toddler learning how to walk. Humans would be doomed to forever be frail-little-skeletons, because there’d be no need to be strong, if it weren’t for gravity.

We all know that gravity is force applied downward (or, applied perpendicular to the Earth’s surface, because the Earth isn’t flat). That means that whenever we’re standing or sitting upright, we’re essentially getting squished by gravity. This is known as compression. This should be a simple concept, really. For the not-too-bright crowd, let me illustrate it for you:

Tension vs. compression

As you can see, the object being compressed is experiencing the downward force from gravity. The other force pushing upward from the floor is the ground-reaction force – basically, an opposite force equal to gravity, thus prevents any motion from occurring. If the object weren’t experiencing a ground-reaction force, it would not compress, but be in motion.

Next to “compression” is “tension”. What is tension? Think of how you apply tension to a rubber band – you pull the two ends away from each other. In the world-view of gravity, something that experiences tension is attached or hanging on to something above, while gravity pulls it downward.

Notice how we said before that everything we do involves gravity – well, to specify that even further, everything we do seems to involve compression. But what about tension? Well, how often do you hold onto a bar or a ledge and let your body hang there? Unless you’re a gymnast, the answer is probably “never”.

Why does this even matter? Load-bearing activities are usually what causes back injuries such as herniated disks. Even though that the spine is resilient to compression (and is more susceptible to injury while experiencing shear force), load-bearing seems to be bothersome to those with back injuries (just ask anyone with back issues).

Even walking around can be considered load-bearing for the spine, because gravity effectly compresses it with your bodyweight. If you hurt your knees through running, and walking still bothers them, would you still walk around all day? No. So, why do that to your spine? Unless you’re lying down, gravity is still compressing your spine. Why not give it a break through decompression?

While there are a bunch of fancy machines that doctors can charge you to use as to decompress your spine, you can easily do it on your own by hanging from a pullup bar. Just grip the bar, and let your feet dangle freely.

Louie Simmons, a huge advocate of reverse hypers (or, possibly the inventor?), extols the benefits of using spinal decompression for his athletes who have back problems. I think that says a lot when it comes from one of the most prominent powerlifting coaches in the nation.

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