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Anatomy of a Backbend - Part 1

Updated: May 20, 2023

Welcome to our next anatomy series on the backbend. Due to the shear volume of information in this series we will be breaking it up into 3 bite size sections to understand.

  1. Basics of a back bend & the cervical spine (neck)

  2. The thoracic spine (upper back) & shoulders

  3. The lumbar spine (lower back), pelvis & hips

Let's begin!

When someone mentions a backbend the usual thought that comes to mind is the backbend bridge position.

But back bending comes in all different shapes and sizes and can include tricks both on and off the pole. There are some backbends that are assisted by gravity and others that are resisted by gravity.

And there are some that require a long shoulder lever (open shoulder position), others that require a short shoulder lever position (aka closed shoulder) and others that require no shoulders at all! (We will talk about these later on!)

So, you can imagine when sitting down to write this blog we wanted to talk about the specific anatomy of a backbend but also wanted to make it applicable to backbends of all the above positions.

But most importantly we want to help you understand the concept of mindful movement when training flexibility or contortion based skills. Mindful movement, aka kinaesthesia, is simply defined as a person's awareness of the position and movement of the parts of the body by means of sensory organs (proprioceptors) in the muscles and joints. Engaging certain sequencing of muscles in a backbend will assist in smoother quality of the movement, provide greater control, likely reduce risk of injury and lead us to the desired shape of the end position.

So by applying the anatomical and kinaesthetic knowledge to the physiological movements of back bending, we can train and get flexible smarter.

We have divided this anatomy series into the key areas of a spine and will work through each section individually. These anatomical and kinaesthetic foundational knowledge can then be applied to each type of backbend.

The Ground Rules

When learning any trick, we want to establish ground rules to begin learning and progressing in as safe a manner as possible. Afterall, safety is sexy.

When working on any back bending trick/position it’s important to listen to what our body is telling us. And as soon as we begin to place our body in these positions, we need to be cognisant of our muscles and joints along with any confusing or distressing symptoms our body may be giving us.

For each area of our body we will flag symptoms that we do not want to be feeling either during or immediately after our back bend. These are listed in each section as yellow flags (ie. stop movement immediately, monitor the symptoms and speak to a healthcare professional) or as red flags (i.e seek medical assistance immediately).

Whilst the risk of these symptoms occurring is low, we are working with contortion positions (particularly movements like chest stands), so these symptoms may occur. Not trying to scare everyone reading this blog away from back bending, but just being mindful there are symptoms we need to constantly be on the lookout for and listen to if they do occur.

If you have a pre-existing medical condition/injury or you’re unsure as to whether back bending is suitable for you, then chat to your healthcare professional and contortion/flexibility coach to decide. This blog is not tailored healthcare advice nor does it provide you with tailored advice so that you can determine if you’re medically clear to backbend. And remember, pain is never ok in contortion.

Ok, now that the ground rules are set, let’s begin!

Pot of gold

As mentioned earlier when I first think of the classic backbend, I think of the rainbow or bridge position.

Our goal in this position, like in every other backbend, is to try to touch every part of the rainbow with our spine. We do this by distributing the load through the whole curve of the spine and focusing on creating length in the spine before creating depth in our arch.

When back bending we want to avoid compression of any area of the spine, commonly referred to in the physio world as ‘hinging’. There are 4 common places we hinge in the spine when performing a backbend which are:

1. The alanto-occipital joint (joint of the skull & first point of the cervical spine)

2. The cervico-thoracic joint (joint of C7-T1)

3. The thoraco-lumbar joint (joint of T12-L1)

4. The lower lumbar spine (between L1-5)

Facet Joints in Motion

We will discuss the anatomical reason why this occurs in each relevant area of the spine later on. But what’s important to understand right now for back bending is that adequate intervertebral joint movement needs to occur of every joint.

In layman’s terms, intervertebral movement refers to the amount of accessory motion (involuntary) that occurs between every joint of the spine. When our spine moves correctly our joints will slide and glide on top of each other to extend. And what’s really interesting to note is the amount of movement that occurs at each level of the spine is different!

Representative values for range of motion of the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spine as summarised from the literature. (Data from White AA, Panjabi MM: The lumbar spine. In: White AA, Panjabi MM, editors: Clinical biomechanics of the spine, ed 2, Philadelphia, 1990, Lippincott.)

So, to all those out there wondering why their upper back (thoracic) doesn’t bend as much as their lower back; well it’s not supposed to! And this is why when we aren’t utilising the maximum range of our entire spine, we will have points that attempt to take up the slack. But more on this later.

This concept of avoiding hinging or compression of the spine at one particular joint throughout a backbend takes us back to our earlier point of bending with mindful movement. Improving your mind to muscle connection when training for a backbend will help to:

1. Ensure good entire spinal intervertebral movement to create a beautiful rainbow backbend appearance, and

2. Keep you clear of injury

How do we improve our body’s natural kinaesthesia and ensure we are activating the correct muscles in our backbend?

By learning from a good flexibility coach of course! And using great resources like this blog to help understand more about your body.

So let’s now focus on spinal anatomy, and correct mechanics of each key area.

The Cervical Spine (Neck)

The cervical spine contains 7 vertebral bodies (C1 – atlas, C2 – axis, C3-7), with the atlanto-occiput joint being the joint of the skull and the first vertebral body. This first joint allows for ~25 degrees of total spinal flexion/extension which can explain why it is commonly a hinging point of the spine during a backbend. The other joints in the cervical spine provide between 10-20 degrees of movement each, allowing for a total of ~120 degrees of cervical extension. The neck is able to provide so much extension because of the orientation of our facet joints.

Cervical Spine Extension

Next thing that’s important to know is that every area of our body has stabiliser muscles and mover muscles (check out our core blog, if you haven’t already, to learn more!). Our stabiliser muscles are often our deepest muscles positioned right over or next to the spine, crossing ~ 1-2 joints at time, whilst our moving muscles are much larger, sit on top of our stabilisers and are a great deal bigger in size.

To perform a backbend correctly, we need both groups of muscles to work. Specifically, we need our deep stabiliser muscles to control and assist the accessory movements of the joints to allow our bigger muscles to perform the bulk and power of the movement.

In the cervical spine our stabiliser muscles are our:

  • Multifidus

  • Rotatores

  • Suboccipital muscles (rectus capitis posterior major/minor, obliquus capitus superior/inferior)

  • Deep neck flexors (longus capitis, longus colli)

The multifidus, rotatores and suboccipital muscles sit on the back of the spine whilst the deep neck flexors sit in front of the spine. The key to know here is that our deep neck flexors sit right on the cervical spine, behind the trachea and oesophagus. This knowledge is important to know for later on. Together these muscles supply local support as we move our neck through range of motion from flexion to extension.

Cervical kinematics in a backbend

So now we understand anatomy, we want to take a look at where can things can go wrong in a backbend. Because our first joint of our neck has a great deal of extension, it’s common from back benders to try to lead into a backbend with this movement first. But initiating a backbend like this is less than ideal!

Leading with the upper cervical spine can lead to hinging and compression of the atlanto-occipital joint which may cause localised joint pain, visual disturbances, dizziness, nausea and you guessed it - headaches! This occurs from compression of our nerves that exit underneath the skull via a process of convergence of pain signals onto the nerves that supply the skin of our skull.

Headache Convergence Pattern

Furthermore, placing the neck into upper cervical extension first reduces active contraction of our deep neck stabiliser muscles, which means they won’t be able to perform their job correctly. And what we know well enough now is if our body can’t access our stabiliser muscles to support the joints it will create a fake sense of support with our mover muscles!

Unlike our stabilisers which sit behind our trachea, our mover muscles sit on top. So when we start our backbend incorrectly, the bigger scalenes, sternocleidomastoid and hyoid muscles will incorrectly contract to protect you. Sounds helpful right? Unfortunately not! This contraction can lead to compression of the trachea in an already stretched position, which for many people can explain why the sense of panic, the breathlessness and even the sensation of choking in these positions!!

Mind blown moment, right?

Now it’s certainly not an instant fix if we’re experiencing these symptoms, but beginning with re-training our cervical spine engagement patterns is a good way to start working towards the end goal of breathing easier in backbends.

Whilst backbending we want to aim to maintain engagement through our deep neck flexors through a slight chin tuck movement. This way, even if we are extending the remainder of our neck to look at the floor, the trachea isn't as compressed and will be able to pass a greater amount of air through it. And we won't feel so puffed out!

Once our head extends to its maximum range with our retraction, we no longer keep our chin tucked in, but instead aim for length in our spine. This allows for full cervical extension whilst keeping the deep stabilisers engaged.

Ever wondered what to do with the neck in a chest stand? In these movements it appears the neck is passively taken into full extension to allow a backbend. But weight bearing gravity assisted backbends are never fully passive! Even in these positions we are aiming to engage the deep neck flexor stabiliser muscles by pressing the chin gently into the floor. We always want to find a way to keep our muscles active and reduce passive end of range load on our joints

Yellow Flags of the Cervical Spine from backbends:

Any of the following symptoms that appear during backbends but don’t persist afterwards:

- Pinching pain of the neck

- Headaches

- Light headedness

- Visual disturbances such as dots, tunnel vision or stars

- Tingling of the arms/hands

- Ringing or a rushing sensation of the ears

Red Flags of the Cervical Spine from backbends:

Any of the following symptoms that persist after back bending for more than 5-10 minutes:

- Pinching pain of the neck

- Severe headaches (without a past history)

- Light headedness

- Tingling of the arms/hands

- Ringing or a rushing sensation of the ears

Please note symptoms that require immediate medical attention are (call 000 or 112):

- Facial weakness

- Arm weakness

- Difficulty speaking/swallowing

- Visual disturbances such as loss of vision, dots, tunnel vision or stars that do not ease after ceasing the activity

Well that's a wrap for part 1 of our backbending series. As you can see there's quite a lot to it! Join us over the next few weeks as we breakdown the rest of the backbend & delve into a range of conditioning exercises to help you bring out your best backbend.

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Lacking flexibility or experiencing difficulty with your backbending?

Online telehealth appointments can be booked with the Pole Physio via our ‘Book Online’ page that can be found here. Assessment and tailored rehabilitation are provided in accordance with best practice and evidence-based treatment to help you unleash your 'poletential'.

Until next time, train safe

The Pole Physio


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