Category: Flexibility

Step by Step Introduction to Back Bridge/Wheel Pose

Back Bridge, or Wheel Pose as it is called in yoga, is a beautiful foundational element of the back bender’s practice. There are so many benefits to this position in strengthening the entire back of the body while opening the hips, chest, and shoulders.

I also love Back Bridge because it requires your body to reconfigure itself and learn some new skills. So much of what you need to do to have a comfortable Back Bridge feels counter-intuitive. 

We are so used to a forward-facing orientation with our body. We push with the front of our body and pull with the back of our body. In Back Bridge we have to push with the back of our body, which is where so many new back-benders get stuck. If you try to push up into Back Bridge with the front of your body, it will feel pretty much impossible.

Here are two preparatory exercises that you can do, before you are upside down and bent over backwards, so that your body has some idea of where to engage and how to behave in Back Bridge. These are both isometric holds, which are very useful for re-training your nervous system to create new patterns of muscular contractions. I recommend holding each of these for about 30-60 seconds for 3 sets if you are new to Back Bridge or feeling stuck, prior to pushing up into Back Bridge.

For the visual learners, please check out the video at the end of this post.

 

Lower Back Bend Isometric Hold

This hold will look very familiar to most of you. It is a simple shoulder bridge, focused on the muscle groups that you will need in Back Bridge. Both knees are bent, hip width apart with feet parallel, and the heels are close to the butt (exact distance will vary but find something comfortable for you).

They key components of this hold are:

  • Start by pulling your heels and butt towards each other to fire the muscles in the backs of your legs
  • Extend your hip flexors by using the lower glutes to lift just the tailbone up off the floor, keeping the rest of the back flat
  • Make sure that the hip flexors stay in the lengthened position as you lift higher off he floor (for more info on why it’s important to lengthen the hip flexors to protect your lower back see this blog post on back pain in backbends)
  • For bonus points extend the arms up overhead and press them gently down into the floor while keeping the chest opened

Hold for 30-60 seconds, repeat 2-3 times

 

Upper Back Bend Isometric Hold

The upper body hold is often less familiar to the body, which makes it especially important. This hold does require a certain amount of wrist flexion, so if your wrists are tight I definitely recommend a good wrist warm-up and the addition of yoga blocks under your hands to help mitigate the pressure on your wrists (see the video at the end for a visual, the blocks come in at  4:03).

The key components of this hold are:

  • Place your palms flat on the floor or on the yoga blocks just above your shoulders, spread out your fingers to engage your wrist muscles, and make sure your fingers are pointing towards your shoulders not out to the sides
  • Forearms are parallel to each other, not opening out to the side like little wings, while the elbows reach back past the ends to upwardly rotate the shoulders and decrease pressure on the wrists
  • Keep your head and hips resting on the floor while just your upper back lifts, opening the chest towards the ceiling
  • The dream is to feel the engagement in your upper back, not your neck, chest, or shoulders. If you are not feeling your back muscles, keep your upper back on the floor and just work on pressing your hands down until you get acquainted with those back muscles

Hold for 30-60 seconds, repeat 2-3 times

 

Pushing Up Into Back Bridge

After doing these isometrics, you are ready to attempt pushing up into your Back Bridge! The push up happens in three stages.

  • First, start your lower body isometric hold.
  • Second, start your upper body isometric hold but this time continue to push up until your head starts to lift, pausing with the top of the head gently resting on the floor (make sure that most of your weight is in your hands, not pushing down into your delicate neck vertebrae).
  • Align your arms so that your forearms are parallel and re-engage those same back muscles you felt in your isometrics, then use them to push your arms straight.

Ideally, this should feel like a lot of work on the back side of your body while the front side of your body gets to open up. If it doesn’t feel that way, it’s ok! Keep working on your isometrics and the muscles will start to learn their new jobs.

Check out the video below for a visual guide to walk through the exercises, and happy Back Bendings!

4 Things You Can Do to Address Back Pain in Back Bends

Back bends can be a glorious part of your body’s movement practice. A healthy backbend feels great, benefits your spine, opens the front of your body, and can fill you with feelings of well-being. Plus it looks pretty.

Back bends can also cause back pain. The spine is a complex apparatus requiring care and understanding, and back bending puts a lot of pressure on the muscles, ligaments, discs, and joints. Proper preparation and technique in back bends can help you get the most out of your backbend without damage or pain.

Firstly, get to know your spine (you can get a nice overview in my Spinal Anatomy blog post) and what your spine likes to do. Everyone’s spine behaves differently, but most people feel their back bend in their lumbar spine.

If you take a photo or video of your back bend from the side, look at where you are bending and where you are sticky. Take special note if you have one spot that is doing the majority of the bending. In contortion we call this a folding back. Folding backs are particularly prone to wear in that one spot, requiring folders to focus extra hard on strength and technique.

With great flexibility comes great responsibility!

It is important to note that back bending should NOT be painful! A small amount of muscle soreness the next day from an intense back bending session is acceptable, but ongoing feelings of bruising, sharp pain, pain in the spine itself, feelings of being unable to bend forward after training, are all warning signs of over-bending. It is vital to take care of your back and address this pain, don’t push through it. Injuries from over-bending can be quite unpleasant.

For all you back benders out there, these four things are my guideposts for taking care of my spine while continuing to indulge my passion for backbends:

1. Warm up for Strength and Stability

Back bends require a thorough warm-up. My ideal back-bending warm-up includes:

  • A full body movement session to elevate body temperature
  • Waking up the core muscles especially the illiopsoas, transverse abdominus, obliques, and pelvic floor
  • Hip extension stretches and movements like lunges, back kicks, quad stretches that lengthen the front of the hips and energize the butt muscles
  • A thorough opening of the chest and shoulders that opens the pecs and diaphragm, prepares the shoulders for weight bearing in extension, and warms up the neck muscles
  • Movements that take the spine through all of its different ranges of motion including forward bending, twisting, and side bending before initiating the back bending
  • Starting the back bending with primarily active work (ie sliding into cobra, kneeling back extension, supermans, and other exercises where you lift into the back bend against gravity)

If you want to see some of my spine warm-ups please check out the FaB Video Club Membership or the free, shorter versions on my YouTube channel.

2. Extend the Hip Flexors before Back Bending

If you have a naturally bendy lower back, odds are that you also have tight hip flexors (see my blog post on Bendy Back/Tight Hips for more info). But regardless of your anatomy, consciously lengthening your hip flexors prior to and during your backbend works to protect the lumbar spine.

When the hip flexors are shortened the spine has a much longer journey to get to the same depth of backbend than it would when the hip flexors are lengthened. This places extra pressure on the lumbar spine, asking it to make a sharper, tighter bend.

If you’re having difficulty visualizing the difference please check out the video below to see the difference in action

Lengthening the hip flexors also inspires the butt muscles and pelvic floor to act as a strong base for the spine and it helps you use your illiopsoas muscles to support the lumbar spine.

Drawing of backbend with short hip flexors

Shortened hip flexors create more stress on the lower back in backbends

Extended Hip flexors in back bending

Extended Hip flexors enable more length in the lower back

3. Slow and Controlled Movement

I advocate for a warm-up that includes active backbends because as soon as we back bend from a vertical position it is terribly easy to just let gravity take your body down and lose control of the movement. This is never a good idea in a backbend.

In an ideal world, you should be in perfect control of your back bend at every stage of bending. This means you can go very slowly with no areas where you couldn’t stop, hang out, take a breath, reverse direction, and feel stable.

It is much harder to move slowly into a back bend than to move quickly but it will help you build the strength to keep you safe and make your backbends graceful. Train with patience, friends!

4. Move Your Spine in All Directions, Not Just Backwards

There are some coaches who advocate for avoiding during a back bending session.

Personally, I strongly advocate for incorporating strong twists and sidebends and even some gentle forward bending into your back bending sessions to give your back a break from all that compression. The muscles that we need for backbending are the same that we use in side, twist, and forward bending and the other movement can help to keep them dynamic and engaged.

Plus, I feel that if we are so deep in our back bending session that other movement becomes inaccessible we might be going too hard. I’ve seen too many back injuries over the years because of over-training and while it may feel like pushing hard will get you where you want to go a little faster, injuries really cramp your style and can take a long time to heal.

I particularly advocate for ending your session with these movements, especially forward bending, to decompress the spinal muscles and make space between the vertebrae.

 

I believe that back bends are not just fun and pretty, they are a range of motion that is natural to the human body and can promote our overall health and mobility. The difficulty is that they are not part of the movement repertoire that we learn in most fitness classes and back bending instruction is limited. They also challenge our nervous system and feel scary.

As a result many people experience back bends and painful and inaccessible. I’m hoping that with more information and a solid, patient practice you can find joy and pleasure in your spine’s natural extension.

Happy Bendings!

 

Got a Bendy Back and Tight Hip Flexors? Try this Short Workout

Five years ago I wrote a blog post titled The Curse of the Bendy Lower Back that laid out many of the difficulties facing people with a naturally bendy lumbar spine. One of the most unpleasant consequences is shortened, weak, painful hip flexor muscles.

This phenomenon has been well documented. In 1979 Dr Vladimir Janda coined the term “Lower Crossed Syndrome” to describe the postural condition where the back arches and the pelvis tilts forward. This results from and further contributes to tight muscles in the lower back and the front of the hips, and lengthened muscles in the abdominals and glutes/hamstrings.

At the root of the problem is inefficiency. Our bodies are designed to move from a stacked spine where the S-curve rests directly on top of a vertical pelvis and very little muscle is required to hold us up. When our spine is not neatly stacked the muscles and connective tissue have to work much harder to hold us up, resulting in angry, resentful, tight muscles.

In the case of the bendy lower back, the spine pulls the pelvis into a forward tilt (and sometimes the pelvis pulls the spine). This makes the back muscles have to work very hard to hold up our upper bodies, and compresses our illiopsoas, the largest and deepest set of hip flexor muscles. It also aligns us in a way that makes it our quadriceps muscles over work and makes it harder to use our abdominal muscles and glutes. Left unchecked over time this creates chronic postural problems, tightness, and pain.

I’ve had a pretty severe case of Lower Crossed Syndrome for most of my life. I do exercises every day to counter its effects and it has decreased my back and hip pain and increased my hip mobility. I’ve also seen these exercises help other people with the same issues, so if you’re in the same boat, perhaps they will prove useful for you too!

The video below contains specific exercises that I find useful, but here are some guiding principals that can help you design your own workouts and adapt your current workouts to make sure that you aren’t reinforcing your imbalances.

1. Know Your Dominant Muscles and Try to De-emphasize Them

For many folks with bendy back issue, the quadriceps muscles are bossy as hell. When designing your exercises, find ways to reduce input from the quads in favor of the illiopsoas, glutes, hamstrings, and core muscles. Basically, anyone but the quads. It may mean going lighter with your effort in order to find those quieter, shyer muscles.

2. Just Because a Muscles is Tight Doesn’t Mean it’s Strong

The back and hip flexors do not want to lengthen. They may feel tight as a bridge cable, but that doesn’t mean those muscles are good at contracting either. Often those muscles are just stuck at one length, not getting shorter or longer. When that happens, I recommend working on contracting the muscles first, before trying to stretch them. It is easier to make a muscle contract than relax, and once you get them to contract they gain some confidence and are more amenable to relaxing and stretching.

3. Just Because a Muscle is Long Doesn’t Mean it’s Weak

Those glutes and abs may be stuck in a long position, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t strong in a long position. When I was doing backbends all day my abs were very strong, they just didn’t want to get shorter. The key to making sustainable change was to get away from the crunches that I was used to and find exercises that forced me to use my abs when they were in a shortened position, with my spine in forward flexion. This resulted in lots of shaking, and some sustainable improvement in my bendy back issue. Putting a squishy ball or pillow under the hips for ab work is a great way to start.

4. Changing Posture is a Daily Practice

Posture doesn’t change overnight. It’s likely you’ve had this posture imbalance for much of your life so doing exercises once in a while isn’t going to make a noticeable difference. Changing posture and maintaining that change means doing exercises to address the imbalance almost every day, possibly for the rest of your life. But hey, at least you’ll always have something to do.

For my fellow hyperlordotic (bendy lower back) friends, I hope that some of these tips and exercises are useful for you. I know many of you may be dealing with back and hip pain, and all I can say is that there is hope for relief with consistent dedication to this small, undramatic, exercises.

Happy Bendings!

 

Spinal Anatomy for Back Benders

Back bending is one of the most challenging areas of the flexibility arts. The spine is an extremely complex structure consisting of bones, cartilage, connective tissue, and tons of nerves. You are essentially bending your brain’s tail.

Back bending is also special because most of the flexibility gains come from shortening the muscles of your back. Most flexibility training focuses on lengthening muscles. That is why back bending feels so different than other types of stretching and why it requires a specialized, primarily active (strength-based) approach. For ideas on strength-based spinal mobility check out the Video Club series.

Back bending is intense! Moving those bones and nerves around can create all sorts of unexpected responses. Dizzyness, euphoria, nausea, headaches, intense emotion, muscle spasms, and exhaustion are all common responses to back bends. My coach used to say that one hour of backbending taxes the nervous system like eight hours of normal exercises.

And of course back bending can be dangerous. Overtraining risks the possibility of fractured vertebrae, herniated discs, pinched nerves, and chronic pain.

Lest I sound like a total downer, I still love to teach and practice back bending. I just have strong feelings about the need for education and safety around the pursuit of the back bend. So let’s start with understanding the basics of how the spine is constructed.

 

The Three Segments of the Spine

Outline of the Spinal Anatomy

The spine is made up of 24 boney chunks (vertebrae) that are hollow in the middle to allow the spinal cord to pass through. In between each vertebrae is a squishy disc to allow for movement and protection, and there are tough cords of ligaments that keep everything held together. To nerd out more deeply on the anatomy of the spine check out this good introductory article from the University of Maryland Medical Center.

Vertebrae change shape as they go up the spine. Based on that shape the spine can be divided into three different sections. Each section has a different kind of movement function.

Lumbar Spine

The Lumbar SpineThe lumbar spine starts at the sacrum, a flat shield-shaped bone that attaches to the pelvis. The five lumbar vertebrae (some people have six) are the largest of the three sections and naturally curve into a back bend shape. Some people have a lot of natural curve, some people have less.

The primary muscles supporting the lumbar spine are the illiopsoas, transverse abdominus, obliques, and the pelvic floor muscles. The muscles in the back that need to shorten for backbends are the multifidi, quadratus laborum, and the large muscles on either side of the spine that connect the spine and the ribs.

The shape of the lumbar vertebrae makes them more mobile going forwards and backwards although they also allow for twisting and side bending. Your lower back is part of the support system for your entire upper body, so it is important to keep it strong and mobile even if backbends aren’t your passion.

If back bends are your passion, beware over-using your lumbar spine. Because it has a natural back bend curve it’s easy to dump into your lower back, especially if you have a lot of natural curve and/or tight hips and upper back.

 

Thoracic Spine

The Thoracic SpineThe thoracic spine is the longest section of the spine, starting in the mid back and extending up to the base of the neck. The shape of the vertebrae differs considerably from the lumbar spine allowing for less mobility. The thoracic vertebrae are also the anchors for the ribcage, further limiting movement potential.

The muscles that support the thoracic spine in backbends are primarily upper back muscles including the lower and mid trapezius, the serratus anterior, and the rhomboids. The diaphragm is also involved in upper back bending and a tight diaphragm can limit upper back mobility.

The thoracic spine has a natural forward bend that is often exaggerated by modern posture. This is why learning how to find a backbend in the thoracic area is valuable even if you aren’t a back bender. And if you are a back bender it is extremely important to develop the muscles that reverse the natural curve of the thoracic spine to avoid over-using the lower back and neck.

The thoracic spine is very good at twisting, so one entry point it to work on twisting motions.

Cervical Spine

The cervical spine is in the neck, providing the bridge between the skull and torso. There are seven cervical vertebrae designed for maximal movement in all

Cervical Spine Illustration

directions: forward, back, tilting, and twisting. This is necessary for us to have the mobility we need but it does mean that back benders (and everyone else) need to take very good care of our necks.

Like the lumbar spine, the cervical spine also has a natural backbend shape. That makes the neck another vulnerable place for back benders. I often teach backbending without including the neck at all until some amount of thoracic bend is present to lessen the pressure on the cervical vertebrae. Strengthening the neck muscles is also essential, especially for those planning to practice chest stands (locust pose) or shoulder stands.

 

It is important to strengthen all of the neck muscles evenly because it is so mobile. Don’t just work the back bending range, work forward, tilt and twist with resistance. That head weighs about 11 lbs. It’s heavy!

 

 

Know Your Bend

Understanding the sections of the spine and how they work will aid you in improving the beauty and ease of your backbend and making sure that your back stays healthy and pain-free.

Pro Tip:
Take some photos of your backbend. Notice where you are bending: which areas of your spine are doing the work? If you notice that you are only bending in a few spots and other areas of the spine are not bending at all, or eve bending forwards, this is a good indication that you should focus your training on evening out that bend before going deeper into your flexibility.

Please watch the video below for you visual learners, and check out our video workouts and workshops for ideas on how to safely approach back bending.

Happy Bendings!

What’s the Difference Between Active and Passive Flexibility?

There are two different ways that we can measure our flexibility in any joint: active flexibility and passive flexibility. It is important to know the difference between them and how to use them to achieve your flexibility goals.

Active Flexibility

Active flexibility is the amount that we can use our own muscles to move into an end range position.

Active Flexibility Illustration

The active range is how far you can move into a stretch using your own muscles

So if I want to lengthen my hamstrings and the back of my leg, my active flexibility would be the amount that I could use my hip flexors to bring my leg closer to my body without touching it.

 

Active flexibility is the measurement of the shortened muscles’ ability to contract when it gets very short, which can be very challenging at first. Often active stretching doesn’t feel like a traditional stretch, it feels more like a strength exercise. Most of us aren’t used to strengthening our joints at our end range.

Active flexibility is essential for building strength and flexibility together, and keeping our joints stable. It’s important for addressing alignment, and correcting muscle imbalances that could be causing chronic tightness. It is also valuable for preventing injuries and making sure that our flexibility is helpful and useful for our chosen activities.

 

Passive Flexibility

Passive flexibility is the amount that we can move into an end range with help from an external force, whether it’s pulling with a strap, pushing from a coach, or gravity pressing us to the floor as it does in a split.

Drawing showing that passive flexibility is greater than active flexibility

Passive flexibility, using help to stretch, will almost always be greater than active flexibility.

 

 

To find my passive flexibility in my hamstrings/back of the leg, I would pull gently on my leg with my hands or a yoga strap, or have a knowledgeable coach push the leg into a deeper stretch.

Passive flexibility means that the resting length of your muscles and connective tissues is longer, and that your nervous system is comfortable with a larger range of motion. Passive stretching will increase those two factors and facilitate a feeling of relaxation and decreased pain.

Finding the Balance

It is very important to find the proper balance between active and passive stretching for your body and your goals. Passive stretching is often over-emphasized because it is better-known. Too much passive stretching can create unstable joints, less useful flexibility, and possibly injury, especially in hypermobile people.

If you are experiencing joint pain, difficulty with strength movements, or you are struggling to make any progress in your flexibility quest you may not be doing enough active stretching.

If there is a very big difference between your active and passive flexibility in any particular joint, incorporate more active exercises to decrease that difference. You will always have more passive flexibility than active flexibility, but it is our goal to minimize the difference in order to ensure the health of our joints and prevent injury.  FaB courses and Video on Demand service offer a variety of workouts combining the many approaches to stretching for optimal results.

 

Important Factoids about Active vs Passive Flexibility

1. Don’t let the name fool you, passive flexibility isn’t all about relaxation. When you are in a passive stretch you still need to engage your supporting muscles to hold your form. It is extremely rare that you want to be completely relaxed in a stretch as this can compromise your joint alignment and you may miss the tightest muscles that really need the stretch.

2. When it comes to passive stretching, more pressure does not mean more progress. Unless you are extremely muscled you don’t want to be pushing super hard on your stretches. Light to medium pressure is sufficient in almost all cases and more pressure can just cause tears and strains.

3. One of the reasons that active flexibility is so important is that the limiting factor in our flexibility isn’t always the muscle that’s stretching. Sometimes it’s the muscle that’s shortening. So that tightness in bringing your leg to your chest may be the result of hip flexors that don’t want to get shorter! If that is the case, contracting those muscles in an active stretch can be immensely helpful.

4. Active and passive stretching don’t have to be done separately, they can be combined. Play with alternating between the two, adding an active component to a passive stretch, and using movement in your stretches. For lots of ideas on how to do that check out our classes and video library.

Read more about the benefits of different varieties of stretching in this blog post, and check out the video below for all you visual learners who want to see these concepts in action.

Happy Bendings!

Kristina