What's the Secret to a Pain-Free Backbend? 3 Tips from a Physical Therapist

I can't claim to be an expert yogi, but I have been practicing for over a year with a fantastic instructor (shout out to Joanna Wilson). Yoga has added much value to my life. As a physical therapist and former Division 1 softball player, most of my fitness has come in the more standard forms of weight lifting and running. I also did some Pilates to build core strength and coordination after sustaining an injury of my own.

I always shied away from yoga because I didn't think I was flexible or graceful enough. But, when I started seeing clients for pain they developed in their yoga practice, I had to better understand how they were pushing themselves, and what they were experiencing in their bodies. I also had to find out why people were getting so excited to do a handstand! So I signed up for my first lesson.

Today, a year later I am still at it. After countless hours of training, I can fully appreciate the simultaneous strength, flexibility and balance required for yoga practice. This was something that was lacking from my previous fitness routines.

So let’s unpack one of the poses that I hear about most — the backbend. Many of my clients come to me reporting pain while doing a backbend. They are searching for a solution to find joy in this pose again. Here are my top 3 tips:

1) Balance the stability versus mobility of your shoulders

Oftentimes, I hear people say their shoulders are too tight for a backbend. It’s true that in order to achieve optimal positioning for a backbend, your shoulders must be able to get to a certain amount of flexion range of motion overhead — allowing you to push your chest through your arms, open your heart, and stack your joints so the muscles don’t have to work as hard. However, just as important as flexibility is your ability to stabilize the body, spine and shoulder joints through their available ranges of motion.

When your hands connect to the floor, your rotator cuff muscles co-contract to support the glenohumeral (shoulder) joint. As a ball and socket, this is one of the most mobile joints in the body, requiring a great deal of rotator cuff strength to perform a backbend. Your shoulder blades should then provide a stable foundation on your rib cage to adequately support you through the exercise. Proper sequencing of these two forms of stability is essential to maintaining pain-free shoulder function. In other words, don't forget to balance flexibility with strength and motor control of your shoulder girdles. It’s just as important as stretching!

2) Use your glutes to save your back!

A backbend asks all joints of the body to extend (or open) — your shoulders, upper back, lower back and hips. The joints that do this the easiest typically are the shoulders and lower back. They are inherently more mobile, while the upper back and hips are more stable joints. This makes sense given their functions in daily life. For example, your low back is mobile to allow you to bend and twist, while your hips must be stable to bear your full weight with each step. Therefore, in a backbend you may find yourself trying to use your lower back to get the shape you need because it is a more mobile region. You might be able to get away with this for a while, but eventually you will ask too much of your low back. This will inevitably become a source of pain if the rest of your body isn't helping out enough.

The simplest thing you can do to support your low back is use your glutes. They are a powerful hip extensor, which will help to drive your hips up and open. This should help to create more of an arched form, rather than a hinge at one point in your back. Remember that engaging your glutes does not mean tucking your tailbone! You can use your glutes to power your hips open and relieve strain from your low back, without inappropriately rotating your pelvis. Try simply squeezing your cheeks together in your next backbend and notice how it affects your low back.

3) Press through all four corners of your feet, especially your big toes

Think of your feet like a rectangle with your big toe, pinky toe, and the inside and outside of your heel as the corners. Particularly applying pressure through your big toes will help you engage the inner thighs. Your inner thigh muscles are a gateway into the deep stabilizing system of your body, via the deep front line. This is a line (or chain) of muscles connected via fascia — meaning, activating one muscle can allow carry over to other muscles in that same chain. Did I totally lose you here? You can learn more about the deep front line as well as the many other chains of muscles that exist throughout our bodies by clicking https://www.anatomytrains.com.

In the case of performing a backbend, your inner thighs connect via fascia to the deepest layer of spinal core stabilizers. This includes the pelvic floor, transverse abdominis, and multifidus muscles in your pelvis and low back, all the way up to the longus colli and capitis muscles in your neck. This deep stabilizing system is essential for spinal support during a backbend, taking stress away from the bony structures of the spine. Next time you are in a yoga class, try engaging through the inner line of your foot to help access this key system for providing spinal stability from head to toe.

Disclaimer:  The views expressed in this article are based on the opinion of the author, unless otherwise noted, and should not be taken as personal medical advice. The information provided is intended to help readers make their own informed health and wellness decisions.

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Dr. Elizabeth Dalrymple

Lead Physical Therapist | Doctor of Physical Therapy
Elizabeth Dalrymple is a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) and board certified Orthopedic Clinical Specialist (OCS) who specializes in overhead and rotational sports like softball, baseball, golf, volleyball, swimming, tennis and gymnastics. She works both at Activcore in Atlanta, GA (near Emory University) and at Activcore in Cumming, GA (inside Studio Lotus Pilates). As a former varsity softball player and Ivy League Pitcher of the Year award winner at Cornell University, Elizabeth has a special interest in treating both overhead and rotational athletes.
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