This article's goal is to promote better posture, help you experience pain-free movement, and prevent future back pain issues!
Your spine is designed to move in lots of different ways. Different parts of the spine (cervical, thoracic, lumbar, and sacral) have differently shaped vertebrae and the safe ways we can and should move are partly based on how the vertebrae fit together, and how load is distributed along the spine.
Flexion, extension, lateral flexion and rotation are 4 simple movements that we need to perform in order to have a healthy spine. But what do we do most of the time?
Your muscles and connective tissues adapt to the positions you hold all the time, so it’s common to see limited (and uncomfortable) extension. Trying to go too far too fast can cause pain and damage too! Especially with back exercises, always listen to your body and don’t go into “pain zones.” Remember that automation, dysfunction, and obesity are very often stemming from how much we sit.
For us as trainers, it’s very common to have new clients complain of back pain or stiffness. These are back exercises that will very commonly be a part of the beginning of your program. Because we spend so much time in flexion (hunched over desks), we need to be gently moving in the opposite direction.
Basic Back Stretches:
Cat & Cow Stretch
Start from neutral (spine roughly parallel to the ground) and draw your shoulders down away from your ears and your shoulder blades into a bit of a V shape (retraction.) I recommend doing the cat & cow by moving from the feet first and gradually moving through the entire length of your body until you reach the crown of your head. Whether you are moving into flexion or extension always start from the tail end.
- Press the top of your feet down into the floor, tuck your tailbone under, pull your belly up, pull your ribs up, spread your shoulder blades apart (pushing your hands into the floor helps), and then tuck your chin.
- Tuck your toes under, gently turn the tailbone up towards the ceiling, let your belly button lower towards the floor (don’t drop, be controlled), lengthen your sternum forward (through your biceps), roll the shoulders back and extend the crown of your head forward and up. Try not to just thrust your chin forward––we want a long extension in the whole spine, not a crease in your neck.)
- Repeat this as a cycle until you’ve done 4 or 5 of each cat & cow. If it’s comfortable, each rep might move a bit farther/longer.
*Inhale during cat and exhale during cow is a more passive experience. This a good way to start mobilizing your spine, do a cool-down, or just add some gentle stretches to the end of your day.
**Exhale cat and inhale cow is more active; you’re matching core muscle activation patterns to the shape of your spine, and it's a great way to warm-up for a workout. You might lose a bit of range but you’ll feel “connected” and strong!
Progress to Quadruped Circles
I love this one and I’ve more recently added it to my mobility routine. You can see how it still incorporates flexion and extension, but now we’re adding a circular feel.
- The quadruped circles are designed to help you move the mass of your rib cage separately from the bigger block of your torso.
- I find it helps to visualize my rib cage as a ferris wheel (with one vertebrae of my mid-thoracic spine as the centre of the wheel.) I pick one spot (my left 6th rib is one seat on the ferris wheel) and try to move it in as big and smooth a circle around my spine as I can (without moving my head or pelvis.) Try to do 5 in each direction and use slow deep breaths to help stretch intercostal muscles!
Because we spend so much time in flexion it’s a great idea to add in some extension exercises to balance out your spine.
- Start lying prone on the floor with your hands under your armpits. Keep your elbows tight to your sides and pull your shoulders down and back. Inhale and lengthen the crown of your head away from your tailbone as you push your hands down into the floor and lift your head, then chest off the ground. Make sure your stomach/pelvis stay grounded for this first version. Pause at the top and then slowly lower chest first and then head. Work up to 10 slow reps. You can also increase the length of the hold at the top to strengthen and tone your back muscles.
Progress to Full Cobra
Make sure you’re pain-free before extending your range.
- With your elbows close to your sides, press down into the palms and use the arms to lift you up even higher. Drop the shoulders down and back and press the chest forward. Keep the legs and glutes strong, and keep the pubic bone pressing down into the floor. Slowly lower out, belly down, then chest, then head. 1-3 reps with a longer pause (2-6 breaths) at the top is great for full cobra.
To help your back you need a strong core!
Dead bug is my favourite core exercise (and I haven’t done a crunch or sit-up in years.) The goal of this exercise is to achieve a neutral spine and integrate diaphragm breathing with full 360 degree core activation.
- Start lying on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. You’ll have a small, natural arch in your low back. Exhale all the air out of your lungs and feel your abs tighten and the space under your low back shrink a bit. We also cue “ribs to hips” which means you want the bottom rib to pull down towards the top of your pelvis. This is called abdominal “bracing” which is much preferable to abdominal “hollowing” (when you suck your stomach up under your ribs.)
- Now that you’ve achieved activated neutral, keep it! Bring 1 knee at a time to 90 degrees above your hips. Then reach your arms towards the ceiling (but keep your shoulder blades on the floor.)
- Hold for up to 60 seconds without losing it (your ribs would pop up, your low back would pop up or you’d feel your tail bone drop down towards the floor.)
- You can progress the dead bug by adding arm, leg, or opposite arm & leg drops
Progress to hollow body hold
Now that you’ve mastered the dead bug, progress to a gymnastics core move – the hollow body hold.
- Keeping your neck neutral bring your head and shoulder blades off the floor. Extend your legs and arms only as far as you can keep your spine in a slight bowl shape (avoid the lower back popping off the floor.)
- Hold for up to 60 seconds – biceps beside ears and legs lowering to just a few inches off the ground will be the hardest!
These exercises will be a great place to start working on the health and strength of your spine. If you’re currently in pain I recommend getting the okay to exercise/stretch – there are alignment/disc issues that could need to be solved before you start these movements. (A chiropractor is usually the way to go, if you’re unsure.) Once you’re ready to go have at these exercises – even 5 minutes a day can get you moving better and feeling ready to exercise more fully at the gym.
Oh, and do yourself a favour: ask your employer about getting a standing desk at work!
Hopefully you’ve also had a chance to try out the “Feet First” exercises from my previous blog. With even 5-10 minutes a couple times per week you should notice that you have: better balance, 5 separate toes (instead of just a block for a foot), you’ve improved strength, stability or execution of your other exercises, and you are feeling muscles and movement in different and fun ways!