Over several years of movement screening, I’ve noticed a common pattern with nearly every (but not all) dancer: Missing spinal flexion, meaning, being unable to round your back (note that I’m referring primarily to the aspiring/pre-professional, college level, or competition dancers, which is also the world I come from).
The most relevant example of spinal flexion from the dance world is the Graham contraction, as pictured to the right (complete with contraction hands!) —> Check out the position of her lumbar spine. That’s some nice looking flexion!
In particular, it is quite common to see difficulty flexing from the lower back (lumbar spine).
Check out these forward bends. Can you see what’s missing?
Can you see the chunks of spine that aren’t rounding, but remain completely straight? Ideally, we would like to see a uniform, round curve of the spine, whether you’re able to touch the floor or not.
Because of the coveted spinal extension dancers train for (backbends like Svetlana), if flexion is not also trained (or it is avoided), it can become forgotten and denied.
But you can get it back! And don’t worry, training flexion will not affect your ability to back-bend, in fact, it will probably enhance it.
Consider that you need to experience both ends of the spectrum– flexion and extension, to increase your total range of motion and have a happy body with happy joints and unlimited potential for movement.
Flexion and extension are two sides of the same coin, but there is a third side of the coin which is the world of unlimited movement possibilities that opens up when you can see this.
Much of the teachings and literature on how to train the spine and “core” (ugh that word I hate!) is dedicated to stability– Keeping things still, preventing movement, bracing, controlling, tightening, engaging, etc.
What if we flipped that upside down. What if having the ability to move to both ends of the spectrum with your spine- flex and extend equally (in the sagittal plane), you wouldn’t need to try so hard to stabilize because your body would have the information it needs to react according to the given situation.
Take a lawyer in a trial, for example. Imagine if the lawyer hadn’t read the chapter of the lawyering text book that he needed for this particular case. He would have to stop time, read the chapter, and then proceed with caution, thinking his way through it very carefully (and probably quite stressfully), and it would be anything but effortless. If this lawyer had had the opportunity to explore the missing territory before the case, things would flow much more easier, with less thought and tension.
Your spine is craving to read the chapter of the book on flexion.
Think of spinal mobility as a prerequisite for stability.
Stability is a result of mobility. Stability is an illusion created by perpetual motion. Just look at the world around us, and one can see that complete stillness is impossible. Should we be training our bodies to deny the inherent behavior of the natural world?
Your spine has 33 joints which move through 3 planes of movement. Would you agree that our spines were designed for movement? Put another way, do you think your spine has 33 joints because it was designed to be rigid?
What else in life is made of many small parts that, as a whole, compose something that was designed for movement?.
Does a bicycle chain come to mind?
A bicycle chain is made of many small links. Each link needs to have full mobility to articulate with its two neighbouring “joints” in both directions, and if even one link in the chain gets jammed, you’ll notice. To get the chain links unstuck you can manipulate the stuck links and restore movement and bike function. Sounds like a spine to me.
I was amazed at how much more effortlessly I could ride my bicycle after I mobilized a stuck link in the chain (I lied, I got a friend to do it for me because I’m useless with tools and bikes).
Just as with a human body, we can a bicycle faster and, with increased speed, we seem to feel the stuck link in the chain less, and happily ignore it- “I’ll deal with it later”. It is also easy to ignore to chunks of vertebrae that don’t move, go faster, and dissociate from it instead of taking the time to address it.
What a spine in need of segmental mobility really wants is for you to slow down, feel the missing movement, and claim it back (more on how to do that a bit further down).
Also consider the verbiage many dance teachers and personal trainers are drawn towards when speaking about the alignment and use of the spine:
Why is spinal flexion important?
Just to clarify, because there are people who will say that flexion is bad (just like there are people who say ankle pronation, knee valgus, and hip internal rotation are bad).
Flexion, when missing from a movement in which your spine should flex is not ideal. However, if flexion is present in a movement in which it shouldn’t happen, or it happens too soon or too fast, this is something to be aware of.
In fact, in 4 out of 5 phases of gait, your spine needs to flex. If “you need flexion to walk like a proper human” isn’t enough incentive, here are some other reasons to claim this important movement back:
Movement potential towards both ends of the spectrum= More range of motion into backbends. Give your body somewhere to back-bend from and it will back-bend further, more effortlessly. You can’t go much farther south if you’re already in Antarctica.
Having full flexion= Easier time finding “neutral spine”. For some dancers, just getting to neutral takes a maximum effort flexion. I am a good example of this (in fact, max effort lumbar flexion doesn’t even get me to neutral… Working on it).
More centered center of mass= Happy muscles and joints. Being stuck more extended (shifts your center of mass forward) or the inability to flex (which shifts your center of mass back) makes it more difficult to access that whole world of movement opportunities that exists behind you, not to mention can make your calves feel pretty tight from being forward on your toes all the time.
More reactive core= Less thinking, more effortless movement. If you can access both ends of the spectrum, metaphorically, you’ve read the whole spine book. You don’t need to stop to think about bracing or engaging your core, your body knows what to do and will do it reflexively without you having to brain your way through it.
How to improve spinal mobility and flexion?
1) Honestly evaluate your static position as well as your ability to actively flex and extend. Do a toe touch (as in the photos above), and do a back bend. Which feels like you move farther or is more comfortable? Take a photo or get a friend to give you some feedback on this. Also appraise where your weight sits on your feet (centered, more back, or more forward? More on one foot that the other?)
2) Take ownership of the long, full exhalation. Exhalation drives lumbar and thoracic flexion. Own the exhalation. Find opportunities to exhale two or three times as long as you inhale and feel the position it brings you into (hopefully one that is rounded, ribs depressed). Exhaling also helps to calm your nervous system and reduce chronic stress-related muscle tone (which is often the situation of the spinal erector muscles, making it even more difficult to flex forward).
3) “Unstick” the parts of your spine you notice don’t flex well. Mobilize the bicycle chain. My 2 favourite exercises right now for newbies to spinal mobility, shown below, both involve lying supine. The floor helps to feel which parts of your spine have trouble flexing down into it. You will also be using a long exhalation to encourage more movement into flexion. Try these two out:
Supine spinal mobility: Explore flexion and extension (Credit to Gary Ward and Anatomy in Motion):
In this drill you are simply arching and rounding your lumbar and thoracic spine, coordinating the flexion into the floor with a nice long exhalation. Use this time to explore whether there are chunks of vertebrae that move in one piece, or whether you can articulate them all individually. Go slowly and feel what’s happening, and what’s missing.
Take some time to luxuriate in the flexion and take a few long exhalations there if you find it difficult to round into the floor with any parts of your thoracic and lumbar spine.
Note that you should allow your skull and neck to move naturally (as you arch your back off the floor you should feel your chin slide down towards your chest, and as you round into the floor you should feel your chin lift to the sky).
Also, welcome to my kitchen floor! My favourite place to spend my exciting Friday nights…
90/90 hip lift (credit to Postural Restoration Institute)
Focus on maintaining a posterior pelvic tilt (tucked under tailbone), and rounding your lower back with ribcage depression. I like to visualize my spine as a hammock, sinking towards the floor. Attempt to exhale 3 times as long as you inhale with a pause at the end of each exhalation. Use a balloon, too. It’s lots of fun. If you’re a member of the Dance Stronger training program you’ll recognize this exercise from the breathing module.
Now, recheck how your forward and backwards bend feel. Is anything different? Have you claimed back any movement potential? Does your weight feel more even in the center of your feet?
Don’t expect instant miraculous changes or a quick fix, but it is incredible how consistent, deep practice towards more balanced spinal mobility can make a difference in the way you feel, both in terms of pain relief, performance, and feeling more grounded on your feet. Try these two drills before dancing as part of your warm-up and see if anything feels different (and let me know what you find!).