Tag: hip flexibility

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!

 

Advanced Hip Flexibility: Swim Through Splits Tutorial

The swim through splits (not sure where this term originates, I may have made it up but I don’t think so), are a beautiful transitional movement requiring advanced hip flexibility, strength, and control. I love this transition which can quickly and dramatically take you from sitting on your rump to laying on your belly and, with a little more effort, back again.

Below please enjoy a tutorial that breaks this movement down into stages, demonstrating the swim through both with and without assistance from the arms.

I only recommend this tutorial to folks who already have an established practice of hip stretching and strengthening and are close to 180 degrees on both straddle and middle splits. I have seen this transition used as a training tool for folks who are still far off the ground in middle splits and I’ll be honest that it isn’t my favorite. I feel that it can put too much pressure on the hips and, without adequate control, its a bit risky for my taste.

If you are still working on getting those deep straddle and middle splits, check out our free splits workouts on YouTube or full-length workouts on the Fit & Bendy Video Club Membership.

For those of you ready to tackle swim throughs, my recommendation is to start with the straddle slides and the no-hands leaning forward to pancake. These two movements build strength in the external rotators (piriformis and friends), outside butt (gluteus medius and minimus), and upstairs butt/lower back (upper gluteus maximus and spinal extensors) that you will need to successfully execute the full movement.

The most common misadventure I see in learning this movement is to heave your hips up and over to transition into the middle split. If this is you, continue to build that active flexibility in your hips with side leg lifts in a tucked position. The goal here (which I admit I do not execute to perfection in this tutorial but am continuing to work towards) is to be able to do the entire movement without lifting the pelvis off the floor at all.

As always, enjoy the process and many happy bendings!

-Kristina

 

What is the Difference Between a Straddle Split and a Middle Split?

The straddle split and the middle split are similar, and there can be some confusion between the two. However the relationship with gravity makes these two splits feel very different, especially for newer benders. Knowing the difference is very important for ensuring proper form and developing the strength, flexibility, and control in your lower body.

The primary difference is in the position of the pelvic bones. Pay attention to the alignment of those bones and you will know whether you are in a straddle or a middle split.

The Straddle Split

In a straddle split, the pelvis is in “anatomical” position. This means it is aligned as if you were standing up, with the three bones in the front of the pelvis—the hip bones and the pubic bone (anterior superior iliac spine and pubis)—facing forwards.

The bones at the base of the pelvis are on the floor. These “sit bones” (ischium if you want to get formal about it) take the weight of your body so that you are not supporting yourself with your legs.

The legs move apart to the extent that they are able. If your straddle has the shape of a small slice of pizza or if your feet are so far apart that they are behind your hips, it’s still a straddle.

It is also still a straddle split if you are leaning forward. That means that if you start to lean forward and the only way that you can get your chest towards the floor is by allowing your sit bones to come up off the floor, you are losing your form. Wherever you move your torso, you want to have the strength and control to keep that pelvis in the same alignment. That separation between the pelvic position and the torso is part of the gift of training straddle splits.

The Middle Split

In a middle split the entire pelvis rotates 90 degrees forward.

Now those sit bones are not on the floor, they are facing back behind you. Your hip bones and pubic bone are now facing the floor. The body is usually aligned parallel to the floor, however you will see middle splits with a backbend that brings the body back to vertical. Either way, it’s still a middle split because of the pelvic position.

In this position the relationship with gravity means that your legs are now supporting your body weight unless you are flexible enough to get to a 180 degree split. This is why the middle split is so challenging for newer benders.

The inner thighs are receiving contradictory messages to “relax” and lengthen, and to hold you up. They may get confused and start to scream. This is why, for so many folks, middle splits are unpleasant and even emotionally draining. A careful ramp-up is necessary to avoid misery and potential injury.

Graded Training is Required

If middle splits are your goal, start by getting comfortable in your straddle splits. The work of learning how to control your hips in this position, anchor your legs while moving your torso, and develop the strength in your butt and inner thighs, will prepare your body to start training middle splits with more awareness and capacity for that stand-off with gravity.

For a visual on the difference between straddle and middle splits, please check out the video below. If you would like a graded set of workouts to get comfortable in your straddle and middle splits, our Video Club Membership includes a series of four workouts to get you there!

Jean-Claude Van Damme doing a box split between two trucks.

Pro Tip: There is a third type of split that looks similar called a Box Split. This type of split is common among martial artists and was made famous in the 80s by Jean-Claude Van Damme who famously used it to suspend himself between two walls or moving trucks. In the box split the sit bones face the floor, the hip bones face forward, and the inner thighs face the floor.

I do not do or teach this split, not because it isn’t awesome, but because it is inaccessible to a lot of people based on the structure of the pelvis. For many humans, particularly those whose pelvises are prepared for childbirth, the head of the femur is sits too deeply into the pelvic socket to achieve the box split and pushing into it can dislocate the hip. However, if you find a good coach and wish to train it safely, it is pretty bad ass!

 

 

How Long Should I Sit in My Split? How Long Should I Hold a Stretch? Learn About the Stretch Reflex

 

 

I wish I had a simple, straightforward answer to this question like: hold your split for exactly 45 seconds then take a 60 second break and hold it again. It would make this blog post nice and short, and everyone would go away knowing exactly what to do. Unfortunately I can’t give that advice because it would be wrong and even potentially damaging, depending on where your body is with flexibility training.

The only way to truly know how long to hold your splits, or any other stretch, is to learn to listen to your body and the feedback it gives you. The body has it’s language but we are often conditioned to ignore or override its voice with the conventional, and in my opinion terrible, adages: “mind over matter” and “no pain no gain”.

 

Let’s go over what happens in our muscles when we stretch:

-When we first enter a stretch, our nervous system senses that the muscle is lengthening and, at a certain point, says “that’s far enough”. It sends a signal that contracts the stretched muscle to prevent it from going past the safety limit your neurons have set. This is called the Stretch Reflex.

-Various methods can be employed to convince the nervous system that it’s safe to go a little deeper: you can contract the opposing muscle, wiggle a little, gently contract and release the stretched muscle, do some deep breathing and mentally (or out loud) tell that muscle that everything is going to be ok.

-Depending on your nervous system, your experience, your body, it is possible that at some point the neurons will feel reassured and allow the muscle to lengthen a bit more. This is that lovely feeling of “sinking” into a stretch, when you feel that split get a little closer to the floor. It is that “ahhhhh” moment we love.

-As you go deeper into the stretch, at some point the muscle will lengthen to the point that the neurons get alarmed again, and the Stretch Reflex will kick in again. We have now entered the Danger Zone.

 

I highly caution folks against pushing your body past this second Stretch Reflex, when you feel your muscles contract against the stretch a second time. This is where injuries are most likely to occur and, in my experience, when we start to lose control of our form and control. We are also training that Stretch Reflex to go away, thus creating conditions for hypermobility and decreased muscle function at our end range. Our muscles start to lose their springiness and reactivity.

My best practice advice: when you feel your muscles contract into their second round of Stretch Reflex, come out of the stretch. Take a short break, move, feel your muscles work, jiggle them around, and then try again for 2-3 repetitions. 

You will find that over time the neurons are comfortable accommodating a larger and larger range of motion without fighting back, while still retaining their functionality. This gives us the optimal mix of strength and flexibility and control/body awareness that we need for healthy, yummy, beautiful movement.

So while I acknowledge that this isn’t the simplest answer to a common question, I maintain that it is the most honest and useful one that I can offer. And if all that comes out of this is that you get better at listening to your body and respecting what it has to say then I will feel my work here is done!

For some visuals, please check out this video below. You can learn more about what to do when you are stuck in your splits progress from my previous blog post and get splits workouts from our Video Club.

Happy Bendings!

-Kristina

 

The Tensor Fasciae Latae (TFL) Can Cause Hip and Back Pain: Here are Some Ways to Help

WTFL???? What is the Tensor Fasciae Latae (TFL)

The Tensor Fasciae Latae, or TFL to its friends, is a small muscle in the outside front of the hips that works very, very hard. The TFL is a multi-tasker. It does hip flexion, hip abduction, internal rotation, and it even internally rotates the lower leg through its attachment to the IT band.

The TFL is an important hip flexor muscle

 

Moving the leg out to the side in parallel inspires the TFL to work in hip abduction with the gluteal muscles

 

The TFL is also one of the primary muscles working in internal rotation

 

Because the TFL has so many abilities, it is often overworked. It’s just so easy for other muscles to lay back and let the TFL take over. The TFL is also not one of those sexy muscles that we pay a lot of attention to when we go to work out, so it may not be strong enough to do everything we need it to do.

As a result it is not uncommon for the TFL to get sore and/or tight, contributing to problems in the lower back, hips, and knees. The TFL is also one of the common culprits in what is often interpreted to be a tight IT band. Because the IT band is fascia, and doesn’t stretch, it can’t be tight. For more on “tight” IT bands and my rant about the futility of foam rolling check out this blog post (link).

 

How do I Find my TFL?

Sitting on the floor with both knees bent and the feet more than hip width apart, let both knees fall to one side. If your hips are very tight you may want to sit on a block to start. Focus on the leg that is internally rotated (the back leg). Place your thumb on your hip bone then move it around to the outside of your hip about 2 inches, then down about 2 inches. Poke around for a lumpy muscle.

As you are poking, begin to sink your right hip back down towards the floor, rotating towards your back leg. You will be able to feel the TFL contracting and shortening under your thumb. If this is unpleasant, then you probably have a cranky TFL.

Poke around the front outside of your hip feeling for the TFL. You should feel it compress and shorten as you sit your butt down and rotate towards the back leg

 

How do I Release a Tight TFL?

When a muscle is very tight and angry, its usually because it is stressed out. It feels overworked and unappreciated. Sometimes when you start with rolling out or stretching a muscle like this it just gets more stressed out and, while there may be momentary relief, it will just get tighter again when you start to move.

Beginning with a very gentle TFL contraction will help the muscle feel more confident, loved, and appreciated. Here are three very kind TFL exercises to get you started.

 

Strengthening a Weak TFL

TFL Internal Rotation Exercise

Laying on your back, bend both knees with both feet more than hip width apart. The wider the feet the more difficult the exercise. Put your hands on your hip bones to remind you that the hips will not move at all. One leg at a time, gently internally rotate your femur, dropping the knee in towards the floor. Feel that little TFL gently contract at the end range of motion to push your knee down towards the floor. Remember, keep this gentle or you will start to feel other muscles (glutes, inner thighs, back) and you want just the TFL. Do 10-15 soft, sweet pulses in this position on each leg.

    This exercise directly targets the TFL by internally rotating the legs.
TFL Flexion Exercise

Still lying on your back move both legs to parallel, just at hip width apart. Pick up both legs to table top (knee at a 90 degree angle), internally rotate the leg slightly keeping the knee still and moving the foot out, then begin to pulse the knee in towards your chest. It is very important not to let the pelvis move. You may notice that the pelvis wants to tuck under as you pulse. Don’t do it. You are in charge. Do 5-10 pulses on each side.

    Combining slight internal rotation with hip flexion really gets that TFL fired up
TFL Abduction Exercise

Lay on your back with your legs together. Your abdominal muscles will be working a bit here to keep your body still so only your legs will be moving. Externally rotate both legs, turning the feet out but keeping the knees straight. Without bending the knees, start to slide the legs apart as far as you can go without twisting the hips or arching your back. You will feel your TFL work as a team with your side butt. Teamwork! Do 10-20 pulses apart in this position. Don’t arch your back, even though that feels very tempting.

External rotation biases the TFL when doing hip abduction (moving the legs away from the center of the body). Don’t worry if you don’t go as far as Natalie when you first start, she’s a pro.

 

How to Stretch your TFL

Its really easy to miss the TFL when you are stretching your hips. Its in a weird spot on the front outside of the hips and its often so tight and grumpy that your body would just rather skip it. Hopefully giving it a little strength will help it feel more relaxed, but the form on your lunge will still have to be impeccable to get into the right spot.

  1. Start in an upright lunge, back knee down and hips perfectly square and slightly tucked under.
  2. Slightly externally rotate the back leg. It doesn’t have to be much for most people to feel it. Just move that back foot across the body a few inches and that should be enough.
  3. Make sure that when you rotate the back leg you don’t rotate the pelvis, those two hip bones are still in one line.
  4. Gently push the hips forward and slightly out to the side, extending the hip of the back leg. If you don’t start to feel a stretch in that TFL keep checking on your form. Hips must be tucked, square, and the back leg externally rotated to get the right stretch.
  5. Lift the arm up over your head and lean sideways away from the back leg, sticking your hip out to the side a little bit. That’s just a bonus bit of juicy goodness to get a little deeper into the stretch.
  6. Be sure to do both sides and if one side feels tighter, do it again. It’s best to hold the stretch about 30 seconds or so but less if it is very painful. You can do some gentle, soft pulses into the stretch if the muscle needs some movement to help it relax. No momentum.

This delicious TFL stretch is a variation on the square lunge. Be sure to keep your hips square!

 

What Else Can I do to Relax my TFL?

As mentioned above, the TFL can become overworked because it is compensating for sleepy muscles in other places. Two of the most common muscle groups that could be slacking off are the illiopsoas, and the gluteal muscles.

Check your Psoas

The illiopsoas is also a hip flexor and an internal rotator so a sleepy psoas can heavily overburden that TFL. To test out your psoas strength do the hip flexion movement listed above but with the leg slightly turned out. This should move the work in the inner hip. If that feels difficult, work to strengthen that psoas.

Are the Gluteus Medius and Gluteus Minimus Working?

The gluteal muscles are right up next to the TFL and also attach to the IT band. If you have a sleepy butt then your TFL has to work very hard as a hip stabilizer, and that might make it resentful. To find your glutes do the leg sliding apart exercise mentioned above but with the legs internally rotated. See if you can find that side-butt work. If that feels week the more side butt strengthening should help support your pelvis without so much contribution from the TFL.

Doing the same leg slides into abduction with the legs internally rotated will bias the glute muscles. If this feels weaker than the TFL exercise you may need to strengthen your side butt!

Remember that our muscles are tight for a reason. They are tight because they are trying their best to hold our bodies together and do the work we ask of them. Treating them with kindness and figuring out how to support them is the best way to get them to relax and stop screaming at us so we can be stronger, more flexible, and have less pain.

 

Happy Bendings!

Kristina