Do you remember doing back bends as a kid? I do–and with such ease!

As we age, we lose some of that flexibility in our back, especially if we spend much of our day hunched and slumped while we are focused on our work. We stand up and feel extra stiff as we encourage our bodies to come back into neutral–never mind beyond neutral and arching our backs into a spinal or back extension!

Sitting at a desk isn’t the only reason back extension can be limited.

If you have endometriosis, bladder pain, and other types of abdominal or pelvic pain, you may have days where you are not able to extend your back very far.

Or, you may find that when you walk while wearing a backpack you lean forward, shorten your stride length, and decrease hip extension when your leg is behind your body. Because the fascial system in your body is all connected, extending your back is good for your hip and vice versa.

There are many scenarios where arching your back could be uncomfortable or painful at first and easing into it would be beneficial.

Spinal extension and spinal flexion: the yin and yang of your back

When you arch your back, you are performing spinal extension. The Cow Pose is a good example of this.

Cow pose for spinal extension

The Cow Pose is one of several back extension yoga poses

Back extension postures help counter the curled position of your back when your shoulders are hunched forward, which is called spinal flexion.

There is nothing inherently bad about spinal flexion. In fact, we often practice spinal flexion with Cat Pose.

Cat pose for spinal flexion

Spinal flexion isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We do it in Child’s Pose or Cat Pose as shown above.

Another example is Child’s Pose, which is useful for stretching the back, hips and thighs.

Where we run into problems is when we don’t have the full range of motion available to us that we are trying to use. We often see this when picking up something heavy with a curled spine. If you can’t extend your back and hold it straight to use your legs to lift, then you are at risk of injury.

Easing into back extension with the Extension Progression Flow

Choosing extension-based yoga postures and stretches offers us the choice to mobilize into the opposite direction of where most of our daily movement occurs.

I put this progression together for my patients who have limitations with back extension or need to grade the amount they extend their back from day to day.

The progression starts with lying prone on your stomach. Sometimes, this just enough extension. In fact, when I hurt my back last weekend, this was all the extension I was able to do for a day.

If you are able to move beyond lying prone on your stomach, the next step is to add some movement, like wipers.

From wipers, you lift your shoulders into Sphinx Pose and then Seal.