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)
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.
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.