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
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.
The 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.
The 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.
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
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.
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.