For most people, working to increase back flexibility into extension is no riskier than training other body parts. In general, flexibility training is a low-risk form of exercise (read the blog here).
Why does back bending feel bad?
In general, we are less familiar with moving into back extension than other directions. Most of us spend a good portion of our day sitting (spinal flexion), and we are rarely required to move into deep back extension. Our culture has a pervasive narrative that spines are vulnerable and need to be protected by limiting movement, particularly into extension. We have all been told at some stage to be careful about how we load and move our back, often by health professionals. Because of this, it’s very common to hold unhelpful beliefs about back bending and be sensitive to experiencing pain and other unpleasant sympathetic nervous system reactions (e.g racing heart, tight chest, nausea and anxiety) on back bending.
-Backs are designed to be mobile. A crucial role of the spine is to allow our body to move in fluid-like ways. This is why there are so many joints (In most adults: 96 synovial joints in the spine (excluding those in the pelvis) and 139 including rib attachments to the spine).
-Backs are designed to be loaded. Intervertable discs allow the spine to tolerate heavy loads from all directions in any alignment.
-Backs are strong. The spine is designed to protect the spinal cord.
-Backs are robust. As spines are strong, mobile and good at spreading load, it means they are capable of withstanding extreme and variable loads.
-Backs are adaptable. Like other parts of the body, the spine adapts to the demands that you apply to it. Loading the spine will increase the strength of muscles, intervertebral disks, spinal ligaments, and vertebrae.
-Backs can be sensitive. We are often more sensitive to experiencing back pain. Loading inputs are often interpreted as threatening because they are novel (new and uncommon).
-Back pain is common. Approximately 80% of people will seek treatment for back pain in their lives, and basically, everyone will experience it. For most people, most of the time, it isn’t anything to worry about and does not necessarily mean you have damaged anything. Pain when stretching is normal and to be expected (read more about it here).
The best way to minimise the risk of back pain and spinal injury is to use it and load it in progressive and variable ways.
Tips for training back extension
-Warm-up well. Pay attention to all levels of your spine (Extenxension, rotation and side-flexion), shoulder (flexion), hips (extension).
-Strengthen through range to reduce injury risk. Increase load gradually. Focus on articulation rather than static strength. You will probably need to start loading into extension with some support for your body weight. Don’t forget your shoulders, hips and wrists
-Train in a calm, low-stress environment. Consider the ambience of your environment. Don’t rush through your training. Take breaks as you need.
-Build up to more threatening exercises. You need time to grow in confidence and for your nervous system to become tolerant. In general, progress exercises from lower to higher load, sub-max to max-range, limited spinal involvement to full spine involvement (e.g. thoracic extension to full-back extension), less complex to more complex (e.g. bridge hold to bridge rotations), closed chain to open chain (bridge push up to active back extensions), supported to independent (wall supported backbend to standing backbend)
-Be kind to yourself. Back bending is challenging. It’s not uncommon to feel anxious, apprehensive, faint, and find your breathing restricted during training. The quality of your training can be affected dramatically by factors such as stress, illness, overtraining, poor sleep and inadequate recovery. Reduce the load of your training as you need. Lower intensity training is still beneficial, and sometimes a break can be helpful (read more here)
-Focus on what you find most challenging. This is how you make the most progress. If one particular section of your back for example your upper back is limiting you, focus on this. If you are more flexible than strong, work more on strength thorough range.
-Train to your skill level. High-level back extension contortion skills such as advanced chest stands can compromise your vascular system and restrict your breathing to the extent that you can pass out unless you have control and are adequately conditioned. These should be attempted with a knowledgeable coach until you can breathe and get safely in and out of these positions. Don’t rush to learn these skills, even if you believe that you have the required flexibility.