Backbends are incredibly challenging, because they require the whole body to be strong, mobile and flexible. When thinking about backbends, don’t just think of them as a spinal stretch, because they do way more than just stretch the spine. Below are some of the key areas of the body that need to be strong and open in order to safely get into poses such as full wheel, bow pose, camel and king pigeon pose. I’ve also shared some of the exercises I teach my students to help them build strength and stability around the shoulders and spine, as well as my go-to moves to increase shoulder, spinal and hip flexor flexibility.
Consistency is key with backbends, so the more you can practice the following exercises, the better. I would aim for 3x a week minimum.
Tight quads are many people’s nemesis when it comes to backbends. When your quadriceps are tight, it’s almost impossible to find that upward movement needed to find lift in backbends because the quads are essentially limiting you from lifting up. Make sure you’re stretching out your quads before you go into a backbend – here are my favourite exercises to do this (google the name of each for an image and more detailed explanation).
Camel Lean Backs – I explain this exercise here. This is a more active version of traditional camel pose, as it uses the strength of your quadriceps to keep you lifted and really challenges the whole body.
Bow Pose with feet together – Come into bow pose but press the soles of your feet together and lift your thighs as high as they can go, squeezing your glutes. Hold for 20 seconds x 3.
Bridge – Start in regular bridge pose, with your feet hips width apart on the floor. Slowly lift your hips off the floor, seeing if you can lift them as high as you knees. Keep pushing your thighs up to the ceiling to help strengthen and stretch the quadriceps – hold for 30 seconds x 3 reps
Reclined Hero – This is a Yin stretch for the quads, meaning it’s a passive hold. You can either practice full or half reclined hero depending on how your knees feel in this pose - I have demonstrated both in the photos. You shouldn’t feel any pain in the knee. Hold for 3-5 minutes, switching sides if you’re doing the half variation. Use a bolster to lean back into, sitting it under your back so it supports your whole spine. The knee tends to lift up in this pose if you’re tight in the quads, so you can place a rolled up blanket under it to support it.
SHOULDERS AND CHEST
The shoulders play probably the most important role in backbends such as urdvha dhanurasana, king pigeon, bow pose and natarajasana, so it’s so important that you have enough stability in the shoulder joint, scapula strength, scapula and rotator cuff mobility and shoulder mobility to practice backbends safely. Try the following exercises to help:
Heart Melting Pose – This is such a great asana for opening up the Anahata (heart) chakra. It encourages the chest and shoulders to open, which is the area that most people struggle with in full wheel, so practice holding this for 1-2 minutes. Breathe deeply, keep stretching the arms straight and imagine that you are melting your chest down into the earth.
Heart Melting Pose Variation (palms up) – I love this variation because it works into the deltoids down the sides of the arms, while encouraging external rotation in the shoulders. Come into heart melting pose with your palms facing up and imagine that you have a pound coin in each of your hands and don’t let that pound drop! If it helps, hold a block in between your hands to encourage your arms to stay apart. Stay here for 30 seconds x 3.
Shoulder Floss - Ok, I made this name up. Probably my favourite shoulder exercise as really helps to pull the shoulders back, whilst twisting the spine which feels amazing. Lie on your stomach, take your right arm out in a straight line to the right, palm in line with your shoulder, and then roll on to your right hand side. Bend the left knee and place the foot on the floor, wherever it will reach. Think about squeezing the shoulder blades together and relax the neck, looking down towards the floor or place a cushion under the head for support. Hold for 3-5 minutes then switch to the other side.
Side Plank - A simple but effective way to build up scapula strength. The scapula plays a crucial role in stabilising the shoulders in backbends, and without sufficient scapula strength you risk miss aligning your shoulders in asana such as full wheel while not utilising the correct “push” muscles around your shoulder. To modify come down on to your forearms. Try to hold for 30 seconds to 1 minute x 3 reps, then switch sides.
Dolphin Pose – Another great asana to build strength in the scapula, arms and the shoulders. Come into downward facing dog and drop your forearms to the floor, shoulder with apart. Try holding a block lengthways in your hands to encourage the arms to stay open. Hold for 30 seconds x 3.
Shoulder Dislocates – Using a light gym bar or a strap (not an elastic one), hold the strap above your head with your hands roughly 2 x shoulder width apart. Try and bring the strap behind your head, without arching your back, and bring it all the way down to your hips, and then back up. Try for 3 sets of 20. This really helps to open the front of the chest, sides of the arms and is highly effective for mobilising the shoulders. Gradually, get the hands closer together on the strap to challenge yourself.
Downdog Variation (against wall) – A very simple move but highly effective in understanding the external rotation of the shoulders. Stand with your feet under your hips, about 1 metre away from a wall, and press your hands into the wall, shoulder width apart. Drop your head in between your arms and push strongly through your hands, heels down. Keep pushing and start to rotate your arms clockwise, towards the right and down, drawing the shoulder blades down and back away from your ears. Hold for 1 minute x 3 reps.
Thoracic spine opener – This is a great way to open the top of the spine, the thoracic. Use a foam roller and lie back on to it, so that it’s directly under your shoulder blades, so high up the spine. Feet are flat on the floor, knees bent. Reach your arms behind your head, head off the floor if you can, otherwise let it rest on the ground if your neck isn’t happy. Keep pulling back with your arms and allowing your shoulders to melt into the foam roller. Hold for 30 seconds x 3.
Locust Pose – Probably my favourite strength building pose for the middle and lower back. Lie on your stomach, bring your arms to L shapes either side of your ears, and lift them as high as your shoulders or higher. Feet Then lift your chest, looking down towards the floor with a long neck. Squeeze your shoulder blades together while lifting your chest as high as possible. Hold for 30 seconds x 5. You can also try lifting the thighs from the floor as well to make this more challenging.
Wild Thing - This is a great way to build the strength in the arms and shoulders you need for full wheel pose. Start seated, place your right hand behind you, just near your hips, with the fingertips pointing to the back of the room. Feet hips width apart. Slowly start to push into your right hand and lift your hips off the floor, keeping your chest pushing forwards. Lift as high as you can get, trying to get the hips as high as the knees. While you are lifting up, start to rotate your hand so that the fingers point directly to the back, to bring your shoulder into external rotation. Drop your neck and allow it to relax, as you let your left arm reach back, finding a deep stretch across the front of your chest. Hold for 3 slow breaths and then slowly lower down, and repeat x 3. Then repeat on the left hand side.
Full Wheel Variation (feet on a bench or sofa) – If you find full wheel impossibly hard, this will really help you find that lift. Place a bench in front of your feet (you can also do this using a sofa that’s not too high), and place your feet close to it because you’ll be stepping your feet on to this bench. Place your hands under your shoulders, finger tips pointing towards your feet. Come up on the inhale into full wheel, or on to the back of your head first. Then step your feet on to the bench / sofa. Press up with your thighs, and walk your hands closer towards your feet. Then start pushing your chest towards the back of the room to help open your shoulders and front of the chest. Try and stay for 5 deep breaths, then repeat x 3.
I hope these exercises, help, let me know how you get on or if you have any questions in the comments!