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Golden Rules of Back Bending

Spending most of my life as a professional performer back bending has been a part of everyday life for longer than I can remember. Going on stage every single day is a beautiful thing that gives you a great reason to stay healthy and in shape. Yet, it also forces you to be ready to perform 6 days a week.

As a professional athlete you max out every so many months for a competition. As a performer you are asked to show at least 85% of your abilities up to 3 times a day. In my case trying to feed my ego it’s obviously gotta be at least 98%. Usually attempting to show 110 😉

Now this also means that I have to bend backwards on a daily showing Mexican handstands and one arm flags. This comes easy when you are in a show somewhere warm and tropical but becomes significantly harder when living or working in a colder climate like for example Montreal winter. 

The topic of back bending is long and deep and it is impossible to sum everything up in 1 short post but here is a short list of what is most important in your training to have a flexible, strong and especially healthy back.

Warm Up Well and Stay Warm

Warming up before any kind of physical activities is crucial and this of course also counts for your back. Your muscles stretch significantly easier when they are nice and warm. Picture an elastic band you use for training. Place it close to the heater or leave it in the sauna for a while. You’ll see the latex almost starts to melt a bit and the elastic stretches much easier. Same for your muscles. The warmer they are, the easier they will stretch.

You also want to make sure to stay warm whilst stretching. If you are training in a colder room make sure to wear lots of clothing. In general I don’t recommend exposing your lower back and the stretches area as sweat created during warm up can quickly cool you down if combined with a light breeze!

Prehab exercises

If you take away only 1 things from the entire article let it be this: 

Don’t ever skip your prehab exercises!

If you don’t have time to do a full back bending workout only do these. 

If your back is sore or you want to do something good for your back on your day off only do these. 

If you want to mobilize your full body a bit after a hard weightlifting session or general training because you feel stiff. Go do these prehab exercises. They will help you feel better, move freer and over all have a healthier back. 

Great back prehab exercises for daily use are hamstring bridges with the heels close to the glutes, bent knee windshield wipers with pointed feet where only the toes touch the floor and knees stay together and gentle half snow angle drills.

Always start small before going big

This counts in general but really goes for every single training session. Start by working your smallest and easiest progressions and slowly work your way towards deeper stretches. This comes with a variety of reasons and advantages. First and foremost the back takes quite some time to open up. You can not expect to walk into the gym and pop your deepest bends out cold. By going through many small progressions your back will gently open up and you will minimize risk of injuries. Additionally you will get to refine technique as you go along. Take the cat n cow exercise for example. If you are at the beginning of your journey there is not much here to feel. The more flexible and the more aware you get the more you will understand how to use your entire body to push into the two opposite directions. Use all of these small progressions along the way to your deeper stretches to learn new things about your body, focus well and make the most out of every single exercise.

Use proper technique & reasonable programming

This one goes without saying I believe. If you stretch wrong you will injure yourself. It is that simple. Technique is not just there to make movements efficient but especially to make them healthy. Analyze exercises precisely before getting started and don’t just jump right in. When working on your back try to always:

  • Use your internal muscles to pull into deeper stretches and not just external force like pushing the floor or wall with your hands
  • Keep your feet in parallel. Do not let them externally rotate
  • When working on the whole back chain, work on creating an even arch with your entire back. Don’t just push the parts that open easily
  • Always leave enough juice in the tank to come out of the stretch in a slow and controlled manner

Just like technique, smart programming is essential when it comes to back stretching. Again not only will your training will bring significantly faster and more sustainable results but also will this help you to stay healthy. You need to make sure that you are working, you are working your basics and more fundamental stretches significantly more than the deep ones and that you place extra attention and focus on prehab drills during your warm up and cool down. Whatever your goal, break the move apart to its core. Where does your body have to open? Where does it have to stay closed? Where does the pressure go and you have to develop more strength? Make a list, find progressions, spread them out over a 3-9 month period and make safe and consistent gains.

Finish with strengthening and cool down drills

Here I got some work to do myself. The double life of an acrobatic performer and coach can become very busy very fast. (or at least I find myself making excuses like that) I tend to warm up, do my training, go hard and go home. Then for the next few days, weeks or sometimes even months I suffer. My back will be sore and I won’t be able to train more and get grumpy. One would think that after the first, second or at least fifteenth time I would learn my lesson but no. Little Sascha proves to be more lazy and stubborn than ever.

Every now and then I have my wife nagging me when training (Don’t worry, she doesn’t read my articles) She would make sure I do all the boring stuff at the end and miracle, miracle, my back does not get sore and I am a happy camper.

Take away here is that the closing part of your back training is the most essential part of your entire training. If you don’t have time for a long session just do the warm up, prehab exercises and the closing part. This will get you mobilized and keep you healthy.

The cool down part of your training consists of 2 sections.

First the strengthening of the back muscles. Superman lifts or upper and lower body lifts are both great examples. Go slow and make sure to stay in control at all times. These will help you keep and gain control in your back bends. 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps should be sufficient in most cases.

After that, the very last thing to do are actual closing exercises. Basically gentle drills where we bend the back in the opposite direction. These will significantly reduce the amount of soreness you will feel in your back after training. 3 sets of 8 reps of slow and controlled rounded sit ups, sky ups or laying overhead floor touches are good examples of what to do here. 

After stretching the back you can often feel wobbly in your entire body and walking down the stairs or running for the bus can literally become a hazardous experience. These two protocols combined together at the end of your back training session make a powerful combination to pull your body back together and to go into the rest of your day with strength, confidence and stability.

Stay consistent

Your back just like your diet loves consistency. Don’t train 3 days in a row for 2h due to a sudden spur of motivation and then rest for the next month. Instead start by training 2-3 times a week. Keep sessions short and tight with a maximum length of 30 min. Get consistent for 2-3 weeks and start building on that. If you want to stop training your back, stop slowly. Don’t go from 5 sessions a week to none. Train your way down by doing shorter sessions and 1 less per week until you are truly done! This is important in order to keep your body healthy and not to shock it!

Training your back is essential. It gives you all over body control and freedom of movement. If done correctly you will be able to increase your back health whilst getting more flexible. Yet, if done wrong you can get severely injured. Be respectful to your body, follow these core rules and don’t bend over backwards for anything but your own goals.

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