The gradual, controlled descent from standing to bridge is a foundation of the contortionist’s basic repertoire. It is more than just a transition, it is a means to build your strength, improve your spinal control, deepen your flexibility, and warm up your back quickly and effectively without pain or compression.
There are many approaches to the standing backbend, but our absolute favorite from a training perspective is the Waterfall Backbend (so named by our friend Jonathan Nosan over at Contorture). As a sequel to our post The Curse of the Bendy Back we wanted to let you know more about the Waterfall Backbend, why we love it, and how you can make it part of your bendy journey.
What is the Waterfall Backbend?
The Waterfall Backbend is a technique that bends the spine backwards one vertebrae at a time, like a slinky going down the stairs. It requires a great deal of core strength and control of the upper back muscles and can be a bit difficul
t to learn if you are used to a different technique. However your work will be rewarded since this technique vastly reduces the risk of the dreaded lower back ouch that all contortionists know too well. Its also a great training tool to help you get to know your back’s tender areas and ways you can improve your bend.
1. Starting Position: stand up straight and tall with the pelvis in neutral or even slightly tucked if you know you are a chronic lower back archer. Lower abs and downstairs butt are engaged, shoulders are down and back, spine is completely straight (no pelvic thrust), hands on the front of your hips like a gunslinger, weight is slightly forward into the balls of the feet.
2. Chicken Pose: Keeping the tuck in your pelvis, engage your upper back muscles to lift your chest up and forward as far as you can. Your rib cage should actually be sitting in front of your hips without sticking out your butt. Don’t lift your shoulders up or smoosh your shoulder blades together in back or Step 3 will be difficult.
3. Head Drop: Drop your head back completely, like a Pez Dispenser. Your neck should be fully relaxed and you should be able to breathe normally and shake your head “no” at the ceiling. If this is scary or difficult, start by finding this position while leaning forward with your hands on the table for support.
4. Roll Down: Keeping the lift in your chest and the tuck in your pelvis the entire time, slowly roll down one vertebrae at a time, as far as you can go without bending your knees at all. If you feel yourself collapse into your lower back you have gone too far for your current strength. Start small and slow and build from there. It can be very useful to video this process so that you can see if you are getting a nice smooth bend.
5. Arms Overhead: This is one of the most difficult parts for most people because as soon as your arms come up over your body you start to feel a whole lot heavier. Start by bringing your arms up just to your chest, then to your head, then over your head arms bent, then straighten the arms all the way. Use a spotter if you have one. Don’t collapse, your pelvis stays tucked and chest stays lifted the whole time.
6. Bend the Knees: Once your hands are reaching for the floor and you are as deep into the backbend as possible with the legs straight, start to bend your knees keeping your weight forward. If you are trying to use your quads to support your body weight here you will get a little ways down and then thump to the floor. The quads should be relaxed so that they can stretch, support your weight with your hamstrings and keep those hips tucked to maximize the stretch in your hip flexors.
7. Enjoy your bridge! You are down! Check to make sure that your hands are slightly turned out and that they are lined up evenly with your feet. If your back is lopsided you may notice that you land unevenly. Take that information and remember it for next time. Work on perfecting your control of the descent before starting to work on coming back up, which is harder since gravity will be working against you.
What are the Advantages of the Waterfall Backbend?
The spine is an amazing but delicate piece of equipment and it should never be mistreated. The good news is that most people’s spinal columns are capable of impressive flexibility without causing damage or pain. But this is only possible if the spine is supported by adequate muscular engagement and isn’t smooshed. Smooshing your back can cause all sorts of unpleasantness (muscle spasms, herniated discs, fractured vertebrae) that you would rather avoid.
The muscles that should be engaged throughout are the lower traps, an even balance between the rhomboids and serratus, the rear deltoids and external rotators of the shoulder, the meat corset (obliques and transverse abdominus), the pelvic floor, and the hamstrings. These muscles can be strong and engaged and you can still wrap your spine into a tiny circle, no smooshing.
Because this backbend technique is so strength-intensive it is a great way to warm up your back. Start with tiny backbends, gradually going deeper as you get warmer, treating them like a sit-up but in extension. Add a few twists and sidebends and bam! You are hot and bendy!