Do you wish you knew how to do upper back extensions without hurting your neck or lower back? How to extend smoothly from start to finish?
Read on, I’ve got your back!
(I love puns. I know they’re the lowest kind of humour, but really, life can’t be serious all the time!)
As I’ve been doing recently, I’ve got options for you.
You can watch the video tutorial below or you can go further down and read all about it, whichever you prefer.
And if you’re a movement teacher, keep going to the bottom, there’s some extra stuff in there just for you!
So let’s talk about:
- Basic anatomy
- How to wake up your upper back and why
- How to decide which is the best cue for your brain
- A bonus shoulder move
- Why your hand position matters
- Whether you “should” do one version or another of the exercise (spoiler… no. You do you!)
It’s not about doing Swan or upper back extension exactly the way everyone else is doing it. Find the range and the precision that best serve you, your body and your WHY.
Let’s explore 6 steps of how to do upper back extension that works perfectly for you!
Ok, let’s take a look at how to do upper back extension extension from beginning to end.
Step 1 How is your spine organised?
Your neck and lower back curve inwards, in a lordotic curve. Your upper back curves outwards in a kyphotic curve. (You may have heard these terms as a bad thing, but actually they’re just words describing a shape. Hyperlordotic and hyperkyphotic are the words for an excess of curve in either direction. Just so you know)
All that means that if you’re stiff and less mobile in your upper back, as you move into extension the natural thing is to get that extension from your neck and lower back, which already curve that way to begin with. Totally makes sense. But we want to get some juicy moves from your upper back!
How do we manage that?
By starting with small ranges and by waking up your brain’s connection to your upper back.
You can’t see your upper back, it’s hard to reach and we don’t spend a lot of time moving into extension, so let’s make Step 2 getting in touch with it.
Grab a ball, a pool noodle, a rolled up towel, a cushion… something you can put under your upper back and roll around. No particular choreography, just get some contact with your back so your brain knows where it is!
Now you can get down on your belly and explore how to do upper back extension without pulling into your neck and lower back. Step 3 is exploring tiny movements and seeing which cueing works best for your brain.
Lie on your front with your nose hovering just off the mat, your legs long and heavy. Think about the front of your body.
Roll your eyes, nose and chin forward, then shift your attention to the front of your neck. Ease your throat forward (not so much up as forward), then your collarbones, then your sternum (breastplate). That’s as far as you need to go before you very deliberately roll each part back down again.
Think about keeping everything else still: your lower back, your pelvis and your legs. You’re just creating a gentle slide forward of each segment of the front of your torso to create a comfortable upward curve. That might mean it’s really teeny! How does that feel?
Now shift your attention to your back. Think of rolling the back of your skull slightly towards your shoulders. Imagine your spine (which goes right up to the base of your skull) and each vertebra sliding a wee bit down towards the vertebra below until you get to the tips of your shoulder blades. Can you do it without moving your lower back vertebrae? Your low back muscles can certainly be working here, but we’re trying not to actually change the position of your spine.
Or maybe thinking about your internal body parts doesn’t work for you! Think about your front and back peeling away from and back towards the floor instead. It’s all about options. Use the strategy that suits you best, that most connects you to the movement.
Step 3 is how the fronts of your shoulders might be affecting your extension. Still lying on your front, bend your elbows like a cactus and slowly lift and lower them. The key here is to keep your hands, wrists and elbows all level. Harder to do than it sounds!
Ok, are you ready to go a bit higher now? If you’re still trying to feel the work in your upper back, getting comfy with your neck and low back working as part of the team and not dominating, you might stay with the baby swan shape. And that’s cool. You’ll progress, just maybe not today!
Step 4 is about making good decisions that serve your own personal progress, not doing something because everyone else is, or because your teacher says you “should” or because you feel like you aren’t doing the work if you don’t take it on. Phooey to all of that! Move at your own pace.
Step 5: hand position. In some poses or moves, it makes sense to have your hands by your ribs and your elbows off the ground. That brings lots of excellent arm strength into play, but it can actually take away some of the upper back work. Try doing your extension with your forearms flat on the ground.
Step 6: come up a little higher! Start with the same precision you brought to the baby swan as you come up as high as you can go only moving your upper back. Then transfer some weight into your hands as you keep going up, lifting your lower belly as you go. Now you are definitely moving your lower back and it’s ok to feel work there! What you want to avoid are feelings of compression, pain or distress. Work is great. Trying new things is also great. Pushing yourself far past your boundaries because you think you should… not so much! Stay in a range where you feel strong, confident and exhilarated.
Come back down with the same attention to detail. Bend your elbows, lower your belly, lengthen your spine and finish by pivoting your head on your neck so your eyes and nose end up directly above the mat again.
You may go all the way up until your arms are straight. You may not. I have lots of clients who stop with bent elbows at the height where they feel good all through their backs and shoulders, where they are strong through their arms and able to actively hold all their weight up without feeling saggy or collapse-y.
There you go, 6 steps to excellent extension. Maybe having read this, it makes sense to go and watch the video after all… some visual cuing is often really helpful!
Extension can be one of the trickiest moves to teach as well as to execute. Here’s one of my fave ideas for helping your clients succeed.
Instead of going straight for extesnion, start with a very measured process of articulating from flexion into neutral (-ish, knowing that actual neutral is extremely challenging for most of us!)
If you’re in person, using your hand to give external cues is great. Start your student seated on a chair, pelvis and lumbar stacked as best as is possible, rolled forward from skull through to T-12. Palpate T-11 and T-12. Ask your student to draw your fingers together without moving anywhere else. To bring all of their attention to those two spots. Continue up the spine, bringing T-10 to T-11. You could choose to stop and go back down again once you get to the place where they can’t articulate and repeat that section several times. See if they can go further with each repetition. You could also choose to continue up the spine, helping the student recognise the changes in the freedom of movement as you go up and down and notice any increases in mobility or sensation over the course of 3 voyages up and down the spine.
To be clear, this is not about correction. There is no right or wrong here. We’re striving to help imcrease awareness, mobility and control and meet the client where they are! The beauty of this work is that there is no way to do it “wrong”. There is only exploration and play, even though we’re talking about such tiny movements. Tiny moves can still be fun!
If you aren’t with the student in person, use a wall instead of your fingers. It’s less precise, but it can still be a powerful tool. The student sits on a bench, box, ball or stool with the bottom ribs on the wall, lumbar curve present, head neck and shoulders eased forward. Go through the same up and down the spine process (no pun intended), helping your client really zero in on when and how they feel each vertebra moving relative to the neighbouring bone and the wall.
In either case, a good bit of rolling on balls and such will be a good prep to wake up the brain and the tissues before such detailed movement.
Still not really connecting? Check out this recent blog post and video for extra help with students who have a hard time “feeling” their backs or the movements.
And grab my guide to online cueing (that works for in person as well) for more ideas on external focus cueing!