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Anatomy of a Backbend - Part 3

Updated: May 20, 2023

Here we are at the part 3 of our backbend blog! If you haven't read part 1 (here) and part 2 (here) yet, make sure you check them out before continuing with part 3.

Part 3 will cover the lumbar spine/pelvis and tie up the rest of this back bending series. Let's begin!

Lumbar spine and pelvis

The lumbar spine is made of 5 vertebrae with shorter spinous processes than the thoracic spine, and joins to the 5 fused sacral vertebrae and coccyx bone.

Unlike the thoracic spine, the lumbar spine doesn't have the same level of passive stability (aka there is no ribcage) and the joints in this area of the spine lend themselves heavily to back bending. The orientation of the lower back joints is in the sagittal plane which allows for a significant amount of back bending.

Therefore the stabiliser muscles of torso, hips and pelvis need to work together to protect the lumbar spine throughout back bending movements and avoid areas of hinging.

Now jumping to the more extreme back bending shapes that we can make and it’s easy to see why people are often put off by the large amounts of lumbar extension that can occur. However, these movements are for a better word unjustly vilified by healthcare professionals or coaches that don’t understand these movements.

But these contortion shapes come back down to two key factors:

  1. There needs to be active engagement of the stabiliser muscles of the spine to prevent hinging or dumping into specific joints. This will keep the back happy and avoid injury

  2. The artist will have the ability to actively choose to distribute movement to that area of the spine. I.e mindful movement. These movements need to be done with correct intent and engagement throughout the entire range of motion.

So remember, whatever shape you’re training for, you need to have the ability to actively use your spine and stabilise it.

The moving muscles of our spine are our lumbar paraspinals, gluteals, obliques, quadratus lumborum and latissimus dorsi, whilst the stabiliser muscles of our lumbar spine are the: multifidus, rotatores, pelvic floor, diaphragm, transversus abdominus and internal oblique muscles.

Lumbar kinematics in a backbend

For many it may seem counterintuitive to use your core muscles when we backbend, but that’s exactly what we want to do. Together these muscles can stabilise intra-abdominal pressure and create lumbar stability.

Our core stabilising muscles can be engaged through a few cues such as:

  • Saying shush

  • Imagining you’re drawing your stomach in whilst zipping up a pair of tight jeans

  • Engaging the pelvic floor

  • Fogging up a mirror

Once you’ve mastered the first step of engagement, then you’ll need to work on keeping these muscles engaged whilst moving the spine. A nice way to work on this is in a pelvic tilt to start and then can be progressed to various back bending positions.

If we activate too firmly (i.e bracing), this increases intra-abdominal pressure to create a false sense of stability for the lumbar spine. This increase in intra-abdominal pressure has been linked to a variety of injuries and symptoms such as stress incontinence, pelvic prolapse, abdominal hernia, disc and nerve injuries.

So instead of contracting the abdominals firmly or softening the abdominals completely we want to think of lengthening them whilst maintain a light contraction in a back bend.

What about my glutes?

Well there’s a few different camps of thought when it comes to engaging the glutes with back bending. Let’s talk through it all.

It is thought that pinching of the lumbar spine in a backbend may be a sign of hinging through the lower back which can be addressed by engaging the glutes. Activation of the glutes will help to extend the hips and externally rotate them which reduces pressure off the lumbar spine. It is helpful to know that we can access greater hip extension in slight hip external rotation which can assist our back bending. So if you experience discomfort in your back, you may find it helpful to try back bending with your feet rotated outwards to start to increase gluteal contraction and hip extension.

But for some people they find this position actually loads up their lumbar spine more because they are now pushing into newly found range. Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that glute activation with the thighs parallel will use all of the gluteus maximus, compared to an externally rotated position which mainly fires the superior part (Selkowitz, 2016). So in an ideal world, it would be great if we could keep the legs parallel. But for some people when first learning they might find it challenging to use the glutes and to keep the legs parallel in this position.

There is a third camp that actually suggest a light gluteal activation is helpful to reduce pinching, along with a light adductor squeeze of a yoga block, to maintain a neutral/parallel thigh position.

And honestly, jury is still out on this one as to what seems to be the best. I have my theories as to who responds better with one position compared to the other. But it’s kind of like a squat, there’s many different types of squats out there and some people’s bodies just prefer the sumo (rotated) squat much more than the parallel one.

Yellow Flags of the Lumbar Spine from backbends:

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

- Pins and needles, numbness or tingling

- Pinching pain or discomfort

Red Flags of the Lumbar Spine from backbends:

Any of the following symptoms that persist after back bending:

- Urinary incontinence or urgency (in the absence of a full bladder)

- Bowel incontinence

- Pins and needles, numbness or tingling

- Loss of strength or weakness of the legs

- Severe pain

Back bending aftercare

There has been a longstanding thought that after back bending we should do lots of abdominal strengthening to correct the muscular imbalances that we’re created with our body. There is zero proof to suggest this is correct, however you do put your nervous system and joints under a lot of stress when you’re back bending, so in your cool down perform some gentle flow including flexion and rotation style movements to decompress the back and let it relax back to normal state.

The wrist

On a final anatomy note, the wrist can be an ongoing source of pain and discomfort for some with back bending. We won’t go into anatomical detail of the causes of this in today’s blog but if this is you, ensure you are using your shoulders correctly as described in the upper back section and get your wrist seen to by a healthcare professional asap.

If you’ve been given clearance to backbend by your healthcare professional then you may wish to use a modified setup position that deloads the wrist joint such as on yoga/foam blocks, a wedge or mini paralette bars.

Key take home messages

Well done for getting through this monster of a blog. Here’s a few great take home messages that will help you on your back bending journey.

  1. Get yourself a great coach that understands flexibility and contortion

  2. Upper back flexibility is harder to gain because of anatomical limitations

  3. Your whole body is utilised in your back bend, not just the spine

  4. Mindful movement is key. Always check in that you’re controlling what your body is doing

  5. Consider the role of the stabiliser and mover muscles at each part of our body and how they help to contribute to your backbend

  6. Stop focusing on outcome based goals like touching your head with your foot and focus on sensation based movements such as whole spine movement (linking back to point number 2 and 3)

And don’t forget: mindful movement will lead to better mind muscle connection, better training results and lower risk of injury!

Join us for one last blog as we provide a range of conditioning exercises to help you bring out your best backbend. Want to get first access to these exercises? Sign up to our mailing list here

Lacking flexibility or experiencing difficulty with your back bending?

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Until next time, train safe

The Pole Physio


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