Mastering Movement of the Spine: Extension
- The Benefits of Spine Extension.
- Tips and Techniques for Increasing Spine Mobility.
- Exercises to Practice Spine Extension.
- Practicing Extension with Pilates.
Extension (As defined by the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary)
Pronunciation: ik-‘sten(t)-sh&n Function: noun
- The action of extending : state of being extended
- The total range over which something extends
- An unbending movement around a joint in a limb (as the knee or elbow) that increases the angle between the bones of the limb at the joint
Extension the spine is the opposite of flexion. From a terminology standpoint, it’s helpful to be specific. If the cue is “bend the spine” it could move in one of three directions. Forward (spine flexion) Backward (spine extension) or Sideways (lateral flexion). The other direction our spine moves is to rotate or twist. Normally “bending” means flexion, or moving the body forward towards the legs. Extension would be taking the body backwards in the opposite direction.
The 3 Natural Curves of the Spine
We have three normal curves to our spine: A cervical curve at the neck – which is slightly extended; The thoracic curve, through the upper and middle back, which normal position is slightly flexed; and the lumbar curve in the lower back, which is also slightly extended. These three curves work in harmony to provide shock absorption when we are upright and help provide us proper balance and posture for efficient use of our shoulders and arms, and good mechanics for moving our bodies through space.
A Back Out of Balance
Without active thought during daily life activities, we can lose these three important curves, and all of a sudden our posture is well – kind of poor. Our head may be sitting forward on the neck from too many hours straining to look at a computer screen. Our shoulders and upper back may be hunched forward from slumping in our chairs, or spending all day doing things bending forward. After all – we really don’t do anything in daily life with our arms behind us! If this upper body slump is extreme it’s called kyphosis. If we’re standing, we may get lazy and forget to maintain some support through the mid-section. With the abdominals hanging farther out to the front, the lower back will get pulled forward too, creating a more noticeable lumbar curve. If extreme this sway in the low back is called lordosis. The body will strive for balance. If there’s too much going on at one end – it’s going to make some changes at the other end to compensate. Over time it will tell the brain that these changes were done to be in a normal, balanced position. At some point, the brain will accept the changes as the way it’s supposed to be, and voila! You now have a body that won’t fight for a better position, because it thinks it’s placed where it should be.
The Importance of Spine Extension
Spine extension is very important for posture and health. Since there is very little in life that we do bending backwards, taking time with exercise to move this direction can help keep our backs in balance. Our necks and low backs tend towards extension easily since that is their natural position. However, the mid back is normally in a flexed position, so getting it to move into extension is more of a challenge. Ideally, every segment of the spine should move freely and easily in all directions. If any segment, or a whole section of the back gets stiff, stuck, and immobile the joints above and below the stuck segments will become hyper-mobile, or start to do more than their fair share of the work to compensate for the stiffer sections. The real goal with good spine extension is to get the entire spine actively participating, which means the middle back has to learn how to extend – movement away from its natural curve. Practicing extension exercises also provides an opportunity to stretch and lengthen through the front of the body. In the long run this will help improve movement of the spine in all directions. A great quote from Joseph Pilates is, “If your spine is inflexibly stiff at 30, you are old. If it is completely flexible at 60, you are young.” Practicing sequential, segmental spine extension will help keep you feeling young!
Tight Muscles Restricting Good Spine Extension
If you tend to a Kyphotic posture position, the muscles through your chest, arms and front of the shoulders (pectorals, anterior deltoid) may be tight and will restrict your ability to practice good spine extension. It will be important to stretch prior to practicing spine extension. The muscles in the front of your body will need to learn how to relax, to allow the spine to bend in the opposite direction. A great tool for letting gravity assist you with this is a Full Foam Roller. Lay on your back, with your head to hips on the Roller. Feet and knees bent in a hook-lying position for balance. Place the arms long by your sides and breathe. Stay in this position for 5-10 breaths or longer, Then move the arms away from the body to a low diagonal. If you visualize a clock overhead, your hands would point to 4 & 8. Hold here and breathe. Move your arms and hands to a 3 & 9 position and hold. Move to a 10 & 2 position and hold. While you are breathing, feel the muscles of the chest and arms relax and open spreading away from the breastbone. (If you don’t have a full foam roller, stack two bath or beach towels and roll them up like a log, to lay on running the full length of your spine.) With this exercise, gravity is assisting you with a stretch, and learning how to get your spine to a flat position, so that you can begin to strengthen it by practicing extension exercises.
Weak Muscles To Strengthen for Efficient Extension
If your upper chest is tight, your upper back will be weak. Practicing exercises to glide the shoulder blades downward (depression) is the first place to start. The muscles under the armpits and at the lower end of the shoulder blades should be active in moving the blades down. (latissimus dorsi, and lower trapezius) Be sure as you pull the shoulder blades down, that you’re not pinching them together behind you. Pulling the blades together will give you a false sense of spine extension and actually limit your ability to bend backwards.
A Preparatory Exercise to Improve Spine Extension
To help mobilize the upper-middle back, it may be easiest to begin practicing spine extension by starting in a position where the chest is below horizontal and work up to a flat position – before continuing from flat into true extension of the spine. You can practice this by laying over a box, or bench. (A raised mat, the edge of the Trapeze Table, or Long Box on the Reformer all work well.) Dianne Miller calls this exercise The Snorkle.
- Lay over the edge of your box so that the bottom of the breastbone is right at the edge.
- Curve the upper body forward and relax the neck.
- Place the arms long by the sides of the body.
- Legs apart hip-width for balance.
- Engage the pelvic floor to draw the tailbone down between the legs, elongating the lower spine.
- Then engage the lower abdominals to assist in supporting the spine.
- Contract the high hamstrings and glutes to continue lengthening the low back and help hold the position.
- Inhale to pull the shoulder blades down (depression) while elongating the middle and upper spine away from the tailbone.
Lifting into Extension:
- Exhale and begin contracting the muscles of the spine at the lower tip of the shoulder blade to lift one segment up to horizontal.
- Hold that segment, and lift the next higher segment to horizontal, linking the two together. To start you might need to inhale and lengthen, exhale and lift for each segment.
- Continue this process to work from the mid-back all the way through the neck and head.
- As the back muscles engage pulling downward to lift the spine into extension, the breastbone slides up the front of the chest to allow the movement.
- Watch to be sure the shoulder blades are not pinching together as you lift, but instead each segment of the back is moving independently to lift.
- Be sure that the work to lift is through the mid back. While the lower back is working to hold its position, it should not do all the work to lift the body up.
- The neck & head should only lift, after the entire middle and upper back have lifted. (Sequentially get to them, then use the muscles to lift.)
Lowering Back to the Start Position:
- Inhale at the top of your lift to pull the low front ribs farther away from your pelvis, and exhale to begin lowering the spine back to the start position – folded over the edge of your box.
- Be sure that you are sequentially releasing the back muscles to lower from the mid-back up to the head.
- This should assist in pulling the spine apart to create space to bend forward farther (with the assistance of gravity) and will make it easier to improve lifting on the next repetition.
- As you lower, the breast bone will stay lifted and reaching forward as long as possible. However, at some point it will have to release and slide downward to allow the spine to flex and bend forward.
- Maintain a good pelvic floor contraction and anchoring with the low abdominals and high hamstring/glutes to hold the body still and assist in pulling the spine apart as you lower the upper body returning to the start position.
- Repeat this exercise 3-8 times.
Are You Feeling Strain in Your Neck?
If you’re feeling stress or strain in your neck while practicing extension, you may be starting your lifting with your head, and cranking you head back and up too quickly in an effort to see ahead. Don’t worry how far forward you’re able to look. Allow the head and neck to go along for the ride with the lifting that’s happening with the upper-middle back.
Are You Feeling Stress in Your Low Back?
If you’re feeling strain in your low back, you may have done one of several things.
- Did you release your abdominals completely? As you lift the abs have to elongate and stretch, without completely letting go. Work to maintain a little more support.
- Are you doing all the lifting with your lower back? The work should be balanced throughout the entire spine. Don’t lift as high yet and focus on feeling the upper back do more work.
Safe Stretching After Extension Exercises
It’s always a good idea to stretch the spine into flexion after doing any extension exercises. This will release any unnecessary tension and ensures that there is adequate space between each joint, so when you’re ready to move your back will be ready too.
Child’s Pose – Rest Position
- This is a Yoga pose, but also the position we utilize to stretch the back after The Swan & Swimming in Matwork.
- Seated back on the knees – with the spine flexed. Inhale & exhale into the back.
*Note: If this is an unsafe position for the hips, knees, or back – lay on the back and hug both knees to the chest for a stretch.
Practicing Extension with Pilates
If you think that you are only practicing extension with Pilates Matwork when you’re doing Swimming or the Swan, I’m going to challenge you to think and feel things differently during your workouts. There is as much extension in every Pilates workout as there is flexion, regardless of whether you’re doing a Mat or equipment program! When you lay flat on your back, you are working on improving extension – gravity is assisting you. When you roll backwards in space, returning to your starting position in the Roll Up and Neck Pull, you are actively working from flexion to extend the spine back to flat. When you sit tall you are strengthening your back extensors.
Swan, Single Leg Kick, and Double Leg Kick are all active extension exercises in an increased range of motion. Shoulder bridge and any exercise that moves the legs to a front/back kick or bicycle contains an element of spine extension. Lifting the body tall in the middle of Open Leg Rocker, or Teaser is practicing spine extension. I could go on..I’m hoping you get the point.
We spend so much time thinking about what’s in front of us – because that’s what we can see easily, that we sometimes forget about noticing what’s happening behind us. Not as easily seen, so the trick is to learn how to sense and feel what’s happening.
Pay attention so you know what’s happening. It may not be practical for everyone to do giant backbends, or grab their ankles for the extended advanced Mat Rocking exercise, but if you actively thing about feeling those muscles work more correctly on all exercises where you’re moving to a tall or flat position, or farther backwards in space, you can be confident that you are improving your ability to mobilize the spine.
Think about all the exercises you are familiar with on the Reformer, Trapeze Table, Ladder Barrel, Spine Corrector.where you can actively think and practice improving your extension.
My goal with these publications is to provide you with a key resource for effective continuing education and training. Helping to increase your knowledge, enhance awareness, and further develop professional and practical skills through information related to mind-body movement for whole-body health. Inspiration for your continued success whether you are a teacher or student of the Pilates method!
My hope is that the information I have to share can add value and substance to your personal “bag of tricks” for ways to tweak your technique and help you get the most from your Pilates training, or any other exercise program you participant in. Please feel free to pass this information on to your friends, or anyone you think might be interested! For additional resources visit Centerworks Store at www.CenterworksPilates.com
Questions, comments, or topics you’d like to learn more about, Let us know what you think!
Have fun and enjoy practicing active, sequential articulation for extension of the spine. Go PLAY!
Peace & Blessings,
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