If there is one physical thing that never fails to make me envious, it’s not chiseled abs, Gisele-like butt etc–it’s a flexible back. I could tell you about some amazing, flexible backs I’ve seen (Paloma Herrera in yoga class; Alina Cojocaru on stage) the way other people geek out over…other body parts. Alas, while I can’t ever remember a time in my life when I couldn’t do the splits, I was born with a frustratingly straight and inflexible spine.
But should non-dancers even care about the upper back? Like other body parts, one benefit of toning and strengthening your upper back is just functional fitness and wellness. Your upper back consists of latissimus dorsi (along your side and bra strap area), trapezius (from the neck to mid-back), and rhomboids (in the center), and these knit together to enable you to do things like swim, do push-ups, or lift and pull. Adults working in front of their desk, and even kids with heavy backpacks, are all prone to hunched shoulders and rounded upper back, which can cause headaches, pain and soreness, even depression.
Having a supple and open back keeps your air passage clear, which helps bring more fresh oxygen to your system. Personally, I always experience a huge improvement in mood and clarity after making conscious effort to open my spine. Plus, there is also the fact that a supple back looks amazing, whether you’re dancing, doing yoga, or just hanging out in a strapless dress. These exercises for upper back will tone and stretch this often neglected region. They may seem “basic,” but what really helps is to pay attention to the small details of the poses and movement to get the most benefit. Just a basic push-up can tone upper back muscles, but to truly get a supple and lithe back you need to articulate each vertebra as much as possible.
Stand either heels together toes apart (1st position in ballet) or one foot crossed over the other (5th position). Lift your arm over head as you draw your spine to its fullest height. Hold your core in as you *open up the chest* and slowly bend your back one vertebra at a time, as though rolling over an invisible bouncy ball. Make sure to keep lifting and lengthening the spine so that it doesn’t “crunch” in the lower back. The point is to create a C-curve rather than breaking at your lower spine so focus on form rather than how low you can reach. Hold the top of your head as an extension of the spine, rather than holding your neck stiffly. Slowly come back up to stand.
Begin from plank position with your hands underneath your shoulders. Gently tap your knees on the floor, and hug your elbows into your sides as you touch your chest to the floor. Straighten your legs as you pull yourself forward to just raise your upper back off the floor in a baby cobra. Both legs are straight and glued to the floor, palms flat and elbows pointing to the back, keep drawing in your shoulder blades toward your midline as you visualize pulling yourself forward by activating your hands. Push yourself back on your hands and sink into your hips for child’s pose.
Locust pose variation
Start by lying on your stomach, feet together. Spread your arms in a W position, elbows pointing in toward your back midline. With an exhale lift your legs, upper and middle back off the floor. Open your chest to lift it up and lengthen through your neck. Lift-pulse your back one to two inches using your back muscles.
Start on your knees, hip distance apart. Lengthen through the spine and place your hands on your lower back. Open up your chest and articulate the arch beginning from the upper back, one vertebra at a time, until you can reach your hands behind and rest them on your heels or ankles. Hold your navel flat into the spine and press forward with your hips, as though pressing your thighs into an invisible wall in front of you and you’re peeling off the wall from navel up. Carefully release the head and neck.
Start from crossed legged (padmasana) position, each foot placed on top of the opposite thigh. Carefully lower your back down flat on the floor. Exhale and arch your back to bring the crown of the head to the floor. Wrap your arms around your head so that you can grab the opposite upper arm with each hand. Breathe deeply here for thirty to sixty seconds and then repeat with the other leg on top.
Start seated, with both legs straight in front of you. Fold in your right leg underneath and cross your left thigh over the right thigh so that both feet point backward and heels and ankles are as close together as possible. Raise your right arm overhead and bend it at the elbow, as you reach your left arm behind you. Clasp your hands together if it is available. You may also use a strap or grab onto your top. In addition to opening your chest, this pose stretches out and tones your latissimus dorsi. Repeat on the other side.
Do you have a naturally flexible back? If so, lucky you 😀
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Photo: Peaceful Dumpling