Yes, Adults Can Do Back Bends!

FULL DISCLOSURE: I have been able to do a back bend since I was a child, and I’ve maintained that ability into my 40s.

Since I spend more time these days sitting at a desk and staring at a computer, I have to work harder at maintaining this flexibility.

Our lives and bodies are accustomed to spending time doing things that are in front of us. Sure, forward flexibility is great! But back bending takes more effort. Why would you need to bend backward, anyway?

My yoga teacher used to say that spine health was a great indicator of overall well-being. “Happy spine, happy life” she would say.

Her goal with this was to challenge us to move our bodies in all different directions around our spines.

This is a great thing to do, adding flexibility into your spine in all directions is great.

But, like everything, there’s more to it.

In yoga, in its full form, it’s called a wheel. In gymnastics, we call it a bridge. Whatever your term, being able to balance on all fours with your chest and belly reaching upward is an exhilarating and wonderful feeling!

Spinal range of motion as we age

My yoga instructor wasn’t off when she said that spinal flexibility was a key factor to our happiness.

Considering that our spines are made up of the longest set of continuous small joints in our body and they are so centrally located, maintaining both strength and flexibility in the spine should be a priority.

Our careers and life activities predispose us to lose spinal mobility and strength. Chairs, desks, cars and their steering wheels, cell phones, video games, and even in the kitchen or at the dinner table are all places where we spend our time facing forward with our hands in front of us.

Our muscles, ligaments, and tendons are there to set in the patterns that you do.

If the pattern involves tying on a keyboard, your shoulders, upper back, and chest build strength in this posture.

If you spend much of your day sitting in a chair, your hip flexors, hamstrings, lower back, and core relax and constrict in just the right places to ensure that you can sit.

And this patterning is what makes spinal mobility even more crucial because there are many cofactors that can limit movement in your spine.

In the short-term, our bodies can adapt and deal, but in the long-term, it can mean limited happiness as we age and our spinal health can help determine if aging is pleasant or unpleasant.

Don’t wait until you’re older and starting to feel the aches and pains of aging. Practice things now that could potentially remove that possibility, or at least help to improve your quality of life overall.

Working up to a strong back bend

I’ll start at the base and work my way up. Now keep in mind –

I am not a doctor, I am a fitness and movement practitioner. Consult with your doctor before doing any activities that are new to you, and always listen to your body. None of these recommended exercises should cause pinching or pain. If they do, stop immediately, and find one that’s better for your body today.

Hip flexors

Since many of us spend so much time sitting, and just keeping ourselves upright, our hip flexors become truncated and tight to allow for our hamstrings and glutes to stretch. Tight hip flexors and hips in general offer limited mobility in the lower back and spine because they ratchet down and do not let the other supportive tissues do their equally important jobs. There are many things you can do to tight hip flexors including:

  • Couch stretch – there are several variations. Here’s one to try.
  • Foam rolling the quads – if your quads are tight, your hip flexors likely are, too.
  • Low lunges – start small and increase your range of motion as you loosen up.

When doing a back bend, you’re going to need to use your glutes and hamstrings to squeeze together and provide a little platform for your spine. The tricky thing is isolating your glutes to fire without also constricting in your front hip flexors. Build up this strength with:

Lower back

Like two devils on your shoulders, your low back is likely working in cahoots with your hip flexors to prevent you from falling forward while sitting. While our spines do offer a small amount of shock absorption and padding, the compression that gets added to the lower back over the course of the day adds up. Stiffness in the low back can be remedied through:

  • Rolling on a peanut (it does better than a foam roller because it can get to the fleshy extensor and oblique muscles in your low back as the peanut straddles the spine)
  • Hip circles (seated or standing)
Mid and Upper back

You’ll need to engage your lats and rhomboids in the opposite direction from which they’re used to working. There are areas of the spine that are more mobile than others naturally. You want to encourage their mobility, but also challenge areas that are less mobile. Don’t pinch into the low back where there is already a natural curve and miss out on adding mobility to the upper spine.

  • Rolling on a peanut (again, it avoids the spine and gets into the fleshy rhomboids and lats)
  • Stretching over a soft bolster or pillows, yoga ball, or yoga wheel
Shoulders and arms

In order to do a back bend, you’ll need to have a decent amount of shoulder flexibility as well as strength to hold up your head. I think this could be one of the most overlooked parts of back bend practice.

  • Shoulder openers against a wall or on the floor
  • Overhead shoulder shrugs and presses with bands (I like this example because he’s keeping his elbows in closer to his body. It mimics where your hands would be in a back bend.)
Putting it all together

The above steps are great exercises to do in isolation to help with your back bending, but then, you’ve got to put it all together. One of my favorite ways to ease into back bending is using a wall. Something like is shown here. You get to feel the excitement (and little bit of fear) of bending backward, but with the support of a wall to prevent you from going too far too fast.

I hope these tips have helped give you ideas about incorporating back-bending into your life! Leave a comment if one of them really helped you.

If you’re ready to take your stiff spine down a mobility path, you could also consider checking out our series, Building a Resilient Spine where you’ll find all of the exercises mentioned above plus many more to reduce inflammation, increase mobility, and build strength in your spine. Or – go all-in with my 12-week coaching program.

Happy exploring the mobility of your spine!

Sometimes it can be hard to keep track of our mobility throughout the day. That’s why we added it as a healthy habit to track in The Agile Life Plan 4-week kick-start free course. Try it out for yourself 🙂

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