Back-Bending: Your Back Is Not An Elbow

I work with many students and clients who have a goal to increase their back flexibility. Some want to be able to do a backbend while others just want to feel a little more limber in their spines after too much sitting over their computers.

Whether I work one-on-one with a person or in one of the group flexibility classes I teach during the week, I am trying to help people find a nice global arch through their back.

For many people, when they bring their spines into extension (and hyperextension) they tend to hinge at one or two spots in their backs as opposed to creating an arch. A hinge looks more angular and like a kink in the hose, rather than like a smooth curve. We don’t want to hinge…our back is not a hinge joint (like our elbow); it’s multi-jointed and thus your spine should be able to move at each segment along its length, creating the arch as the sum of movements from each vertebra.

Take a moment and get out your phone and video tape yourself doing a few positions where you bring your spine into extension. This could be cow in cat/cow, cobra or up-dog or a full backbend, if you have one. Look to see if you have any areas in your spine that are hinging. Usually this will show up as a crease in your skin or clothes. See below for common places and what that looks like.

The Common Hinge Areas

  • Mid-neck or base of the neck. (The photo below not only demonstrates a neck hinge, but also a hinge at the thoracic and lumbar junction)
Copyright: gstockstudio / 123RF Stock Photo
  • Mid-back (The photo below demonstrates a mid-back hinge. It is also demonstrating a neck hinge too. Sometimes the hinge can be a little higher than this photo demonstrates.)
Copyright: fizkes / 123RF Stock Photo
  • Low back (This photo is demonstrating how the pelvis is tilting and hinging at the low back)
Copyright: fizkes / 123RF Stock Photo

When we continually hinge in our back to perform any back-bending or back extension movements, we are placing those vertebra under excess stress that could lead to injury down the road. One of the several injuries that can happen is herniation of the intervertebral discs-the fibrous shock absorber between each vertebra.

Creating a Global Arch

It doesn’t matter which back extension movement you are doing–cobra, camel pose, dancer pose, a backbend, superman or even cow in cat/cow–we want to work on finding the extension through the whole spine and not just one or two spots in our spine.

To help ensure you are creating a global arch while you are extending backwards, practice the exercises in the video below. The video takes you through how to distribute the arch and the load through the whole spine, focusing first on the spine and then specifically on the neck.

In yoga it is often discussed that you want to create length on both sides as you bend. When we think of the bend this way it helps reduce the likelihood of a hinge. Think of lifting up and out or up and away as you extend your spine.

Global Superman

  • Engage your deep core musculature. Lift your pelvic floor to fire up the transverse abdominals as you also feel a little external obliques activation to draw the rib cage together and in. This isn’t a hard brace like you are about to pick up your refrigerator, this is just a slight engagement to support your spine. Hold this engagement throughout the whole exercise and any back-bending motion.
  • Lift legs with glute engagement, not by tipping the pelvis forward. The “average” extension of the hip (femur in the acetabulum) is about 10-15º. Sadly many people, myself included, don’t have that and instead compensate by–you guessed it–hinging in the low back. The general compensation involves tilting the pelvis into ATP (anterior pelvic tilt) and not using the glutes to pull the leg into extension. This may take some time to get used to and it may take some time to create the strength in the glutes to be the initiator of the movement.
    • Notice in the video that my pelvis doesn’t tip down towards my front hip bones. This would be shown by an increase in my low back curve. If you are tipping your pelvis, what you will feel is either your hip bones pressing into the floor more or more pressure in your belly on the floor. Another feeling you may feel if your are tipping your pelvis forward is a crunch in your low back–this is what we want to avoid.
    • Perform 10 leg lifts with each leg really feeling the glutes contract to lift the leg. Don’t think lift leg, think contract the glute hard and as a result the leg slightly lifts.
  • Arm lifts with your upper back and shoulder muscles initiating the movement. You want to feel the muscles in your mid back working as well as your deltoids to lift your arms. We don’t want to feel this only in the upper traps. They are a little involved in this movement as they are part of the action of raising your arms over your head, but the upper traps should not be the only muscles involved. You want to feel this more in the mid and lower traps that help position your scapula into the overhead position.
    • You’ll want to make sure that as you lift the arms one at a time, that you are externally rotating the arms so that the palms face in towards one another and the thumb points to the ceiling. This sets us up for optimal movement of raising the arms.
    • Perform 10 arms raises with each arm. Really focus on feeling the mid back working to lift the arms.
  • Double arm raise with added upper back arch by contracting the same muscles you did for the single arms raises and then feel the muscles between your shoulder blades contracting more to lift the head and chest up a little bit.
    • Make sure to keep your head/neck in alignment with the rest of your spine, no need to tip your head up.
    • I imaging that I am trying to pull my sternum forward to create length and space through the vertebrae. This helps me create that global arch.
    • Perform 10 lifts with the arms and upper back, really focusing on pulling the sternum forward.
  • Full global arch.
    • Engage deep core and external obliques as described above.
    • Lift arms and chest as described above, feeling the lengthening of the spine.
    • Contract glutes to left legs.
    • Contract muscles along the spine to lift chest a little higher. Keep core contracted.
    • Keep head as an extension of the spine-not too much flexion (head down) or too much extension (head up).


  • When tipping the head back to create a global arch in the cervical spine think about  lifting the chin up and a little forward. This well help elongate the neck on both sides as you tip the head back and avoid the hinge.
    • To me if feels a little like a stretch on the back side of my neck as I tip back and not a compression of two spots together.
    • You could also place your fingers along the back of your neck to feel the lift and then feel your vertebrae slightly push into your fingers as you bend back. If you hinge the vertebrae will move forward and away from your fingers.

My hope with this post is that I had you take a few moments to examine how you are back-bending and hopefully you can use some of these drills to help create a more global curve as you move your spine into extension.

As always if you have any question, please do not hesitate to ask by leaving a comment. If you are looking for more personalized training, I train people in person and online.

Stay strong friends.~Theresa

5 thoughts on “Back-Bending: Your Back Is Not An Elbow”

    1. Hi, the answer is it depends. I say that because it really does depend on the individual. However below are some general guidelines for a yoga wheel. When I use the yoga wheel in class with students I will instruct them to support their head and neck and try to arch their upper back around the roller as much as possible. This means the roller is supporting the head and upper back and the thoracic spine is doing its best to curl around the roller. Pelvis is generally about an inch or two off the floor. I also ask folks to pick a roller that is a size that is close to where they can already curve naturally. I also only have folks stay in this position for about a minute. I also instruct having their hands on the roller above head so that elbows are facing up towards the ceiling and close to their face, trying to find some more stretch in their lats-which can help make raising arms overhead for a backbend easier. I also use some thoracic mobility drills (making sure that it is only the T-spine moving and not the lumbar spine). Here is another post of ours on that

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