It is an anatomical rule that when certain muscles in the body contract to achieve a particular action, another group of ‘antagonistic’ muscles will stretch; you cannot have one action without the other occurring. In back-bending, muscles in the back, such as the erector spinae and trapezius, contract, meaning muscles on the front of the body need to stretch. There are many front muscles that need to stretch, including the abdominals, deep hip flexors, and quads on the front of the thighs. But this article focuses particularly on the chest-opening muscles associated with the rib-cage.
The hardest part of the spine to open up in back-bending is the thoracic (mid-upper) spine. One of the main reasons for this is that each of the thoracic vertebrae is attached to a pair of ribs. So in order to open the thoracic spine up, you need to lift the ribs and stretch the intercostal muscles between each pair. Yet this can be difficult for many of us due to our lifestyles causing a tightening in this area over time.
Many of us spend a lot of time sitting down – at work, driving, watching the TV. All this sitting causes us to slouch forward so that, over time, our chest muscles tighten and our back muscles weaken. This in itself restricts our ability to breathe fully, and the resultant shallow breathing eventually causes the intercostal muscles in the rib-cage to tighten further – it’s a vicious cycle. The rib cage becomes more and more immovable, until it’s like wearing restrictive armour, preventing us from fully breathing yet alone back-bending!
So, the best thing we can do to assist with re-opening up the rib-cage is learn to breathe fully. Just five minutes each day breathing slowly and fully can help bring back movement and free ourselves up from our self-inflicted rib-cage armour. When breathing, try placing the hands on the rib-cage so you can feel the expansion on the inhale as the intercostal muscles stretch and the ribs move apart, and the contraction of the intercostals on the exhale as the ribs move back towards each other. And remember that the rib cage expands out in all directions when we inhale, so try these different exercises:
1.Place the hands on the side ribs, and focus on that outward expansion into your hands as you inhale. Try and direct the breath out to the sides, into your hands.
2. Place your hands on the front of your rib cage, fingers just touching on the sternum area. Focus on expanding the breath forward, so as you inhale you feel the fingers draw apart, then feel them lightly touch again on the exhale.
3. Finally, place the back of one of your hands against your thoracic spine (if your shoulder mobility allows this action). Now focus on expanding the rib cage out towards the spine, so you feel your back press into your hand on the inhale and descend again on the exhale. This one is the hardest to do, but is key to learning how to create space in the thoracic spine.
Then, once we learn to open the chest and rib-cage fully, we can truly start to access an opening in the thoracic spine, and our back-bending will come alive. Rather than other parts of the spine over-compensating and jamming up, the curve will be more evenly distributed throughout the whole spine, and we can enjoy the wonderful sense of freedom and rejuvenation that this creates.