Jump to content

Use of back muscles in backbends


Recommended Posts

I am prompted to address this (1) because it has been in my mind for a long time, and (2) because of a recent comment (by Edd) in relation to Kit’s L3 Floor Backbend video which deals with this issue and recommends relaxation of the back muscles in backbends.

 

In addition, many yoga instructions say to keep the back muscles relaxed in a backbend. Kit has always said to keep the back muscles relaxed. So clearly, some people think it is a good idea and therefore it must work for some people.

 

However, I disagree strongly, at least as it relates to some others (including me). If I try a backbend and do not control it by using the back and abs muscles correctly (see more below), I tend to “crunch” the lower back. In fact, in my 20s, when I did not know anything about stretching, I damaged a facet joint in this way (shown on a much later CT scan). By keeping the muscles tight and in control, I experience a safe and comfortable bend. Some other people have also found that keeping the muscles relaxed leads to pain, which disappears when the muscles are activated.

 

In addition, backbending contortionists use the back muscles enormously to control and support their bending.

 

What muscles are being used? I find two types of muscle action. (1) The abs – probably via their fascial connections, which seem to tighten a girdle around the waist, which then supports the spine. (2) The spinal muscles – and these are probably the deep spinal muscles, the multifidus and rotatores. Developing conscious control of these muscles takes time but is well worth it.

 

In contortion work, an essential component is the feeling of “lifting” and “lengthening” the spine by use of the spinal muscles when in a backbend.

 

I am currently spending time on an exercise to particularly develop this feeling – it is like the yoga camel with arms overhead, but unsupported. Kneel up, and have a pile of yoga blocks on the floor behind you (I start with 4 high). Arch over backwards with arms overhead, remove the top block, come up, go over again, remove the next, etc, until you have removed all the blocks and touched the floor and come up (this feels better than a common similar exercise from standing, because you don’t have to worry about balance and if you cant hold the arch, you just sit back onto the floor). Repeat as many times as you can.

 

If you manage to get the “lifting and lengthening” feel in the back muscles (most strongly in the upper lumbar/lower thoracic region) then when you are coming up out of this bend you get a lovely strong feeling as though someone has their hand behind your spine and is lifting you up. It is a strong feeling in a position in which we normally feel weak (I am currently using this exercise for an aerialist who needs to develop the use of her deep back muscles to control her backbends).

 

Why do different people find different patterns of activation useful? I wonder if it depends on the degree of muscularity and pre-existing flexibility. Maybe an unmuscular loose lanky person like myself needs strengthening and stabilising, whereas a less flexible and more muscular person needs to get the back muscles out of the way somehow, and can push their (less flexible) spines quite safely when relaxed.

 

Note that Iyengar says contract the buttocks when in the camel (Light on Yoga, ex 16) – we expect that this will lead to a chain of activation including the deep spinal muscles.

 

In this context, I’d be interested to see what Craig thinks, as he is quite muscular, and also seems to have quite a flexible spine.

 

For deeper bends (head onto feet) then I need to contract the spinal muscles in the thoracic area hard to deepen the stretch in the upper spine (I have not done this for a few years now by the way; I have lost some spinal flexibility over the years, but then I am nearly 70).

 

Jim.

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Note that Iyengar says contract the buttocks when in the camel (Light on Yoga, ex 16) – we expect that this will lead to a chain of activation including the deep spinal muscles.

 

Jim, you have misquoted me: my recommendation to keep the back muscles relaxed is one made only to beginners, for their first back bending attempts.

 

And what I actually say on all workshops and at all classes I teach is that I quote BKS (your citation above) and say that this advice for many beginners is a misdirection because following it cramps the deep spinal muscles and/or quadratus lumborum. And if any beginner has had back problems, spasm in these muscles will be experienced as a return of the problem.

 

Further, I say that the capacity to contract the glutes and keep the lower back relaxed is the mark of an adept; no beginner can do this. Finally I always say try back bending both ways (contacting the glutes, which has the effect of at least slightly flattening the lumbar spine, so moving the point of the bend further up the spine) and not contracting the glutes, and see what feels better.

 

And I am only talking about a beginner's initial attempts. Intermediate and advanced students can never been given blanket one-size-fits-all prescriptions, in any movement pattern.

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Hi Jim

 

Context is everything, no? Kit has responded (above) with the context of his recommendation to keep the back muscles relaxed in back bends. Key point is, that it is a recommendation: there are no absolutes in Stretch Therapy, none at all. I've written elsewhere on this forum about what I've been doing in my own practise recently: one thing is that I have been deliberately trying to get muscles to cramp while in a stretch – I've been doing this in all my standing work where I'm trying to target psoas, and getting the back muscles to cramp to some degree actually feeds excellent ... in my body. Would I give that cue/recommendation to a beginner – no. Why? Because they don't typically have the control (strength) of the position, and there is potential to over-do the cramping aspect.

 

Related: just read Craig's latest article.

 

Cheers

Olivia

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Also back bends is kind of a vague term.  What kind of back bends?  A standing backbend will involve entirely different cues to a cobra-esque pose, which is different again from a bridge, and different again from the arch body hold.  Liv's excellent cueing of me in the arch body hold section of the mastery series (and it was the best I have ever felt in the arch hold!) is basically null and void for a standing back bend which will require significant control through the anterior tissues - again like Liv said the context of the practitioner is also important here, if they cannot demonstrate that control, then they may need different cues!

 

Yuri also wrote a great article on this topic where he talks about cues being polar opposite for beginners compared to advanced practitioners:

http://www.yuri-mar.com/blog/2015/6/1/simplicity-and-complexity-for-different-levels

 

The best part is the last part:

When learning or teaching skills, remember this:

Beginner:  Do Something
Intermediate: Do More
Advanced: Do Less

 

  • Like 2
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Thank you everyone for your comments - that clarifies the situation.

 

As for me, I have never experienced the back muscles cramping in a back bend, so it was never something to be avoided (or sought - but I will try now in view of Olivia's comment). I guess this reflects the degree of muscularity as I suggested - with prime movers that are relatively weak compared with the core, maybe because I have done hardly any weight lifting (next years resolution... as if....). Nor (more importantly) have my students, and I guess this reflects the type of person I tend to teach.

 

@Craig - re differences between backbends. Yes, a standing backbend will obviously tend to put focus on the anterior tissues. I suggest however that it might be a good idea to try emphasising the deep back muscles in this as well as other types of backbend. Once you have the control and strength in the (presumably) deep spinal muscles (getting the "lengthen and lift" feeling)*, it makes the whole position stronger and more comfortable - as I said, it is as though someone has their hand on your spine holding you up. And if you want to deepen the bend from what is otherwise your maximum, you can go further if you pull with the muscles, whatever type of bend you are doing.

 

Many thanks to everyone,

Jim.

 

*added later

Edited by Jim Pickles
  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

I'll just add - I very rarely include the cobra in my classes, but include the sphinx in practically every general class.

 

The reason? The lumbar area tends to get a workout anyway. Most people need to develop more flexibility, awareness, and strength in the upper back. Those who are less flexible, will get their lumbar extension anyway from the sphinx, in safe way. Those who are more flexible, will get lumbar extensions from other exercises.

 

Jim.

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

This isn't adding much but from my perspective as someone (a beginner, typical modern day stereotype who has sat too much) who has various muscles that need awakening / strengthening the cues are spot on.  That's not to say my lower back muscles aren't working in the back bend because they are and despite the cues they did feel like they had worked (spending 5-6 hours going through the videos / taking notes probably contributed).  I've never suffered with lower back problems in regard to spinal pain just the feelings of my lower back muscles being overused/sore because they are so over dominant in a lot of actions.  No doubt to protect my spine which they've done a good job so far!

 

Without the cues my overworking sore lower back muscles completely detract from the rest of the back bending.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
×
×
  • Create New...