Having a healthy and happy spine is super important, but you might not really put much attention in that area until something gets out of whack. Be it a pulled muscle, a herniated disc, or something even more traumatic, one of the best things you can do for your future self is to spend some time each day building strength + stretching out the back of your body before a problem develops.
There’s an old saying that goes “You are only as young as your spine is flexible.” And if reading that gives you pause, don’t worry! I’m here with some ways to make you feel like a spring chicken.
One of the best things you can do for your back muscles and overall spinal health is to do a variety of movements that involve your spine. Now, side note: If you have a spinal condition and/or have been advised by a doctor to limit or completely restrict certain movements for your personal well-being, obviously you’re going to listen to them and ignore me.
Now that we’ve got that disclaimer out of the way – and please don’t ignore your doctor’s recommendations – adding in some basic movements each day will go a long way.
Let’s start with a basic spinal twist. Whether you’re laying down, sitting, or standing, a nice twist can feel sooooo good. One general principle is, when doing a twist, try to keep your spine straight, like a spiral staircase.
If you’re sitting or standing while twisting, think of your spine as a coat rack and your arms are like the coat. Keep your front ribcage drawing in so you’re not arching your back + your shoulders relaxed to avoid adding in more tension to those muscles.
An easy way to get some twists into your daily experience is to put your toilet paper on the tank behind you. That way, each time you need to wipe you’re doing a twist. Just be sure to twist in both directions to keep yourself nice and balanced.
Lateral flexion is another great way to boost your back and spine health. If that’s an unfamiliar term, it means leaning to one side and then the other. To do this, sit comfortably on the floor and place your right hand on the ground next to you, slightly away from your body.
Keeping your torso long (meaning not curved), and your front ribs pulling gently in, bend your right elbow a bit and lean to the right. The back of your neck remains long so that you’re not straining your neck muscles with your heavy ol’ noggin, and your left shoulder keeps opening slightly back. If it helps, imagine you’re leaning against a wall.
To come out of this position, gently engage your core (front belly muscles, side ribcage muscles, and lower back muscles) and return to being upright. Then do the whole thing on the other side the exact same way.
Daily stretching is another awesome way to help your back and spine. Whether you’re laying down or sitting up, take a bit of time and just organically stretch out. You can include some twists and lateral stretches here as well.
Strengthening is also a super important element for your overall health. When it comes to your spine, building strength in the back muscles, as well as the muscles at the front of your body, is a game-changer. A couple simple ways to strengthen your back muscles include doing bridge pose and a shoulder blade squeeze.
To safely do bridge pose, lay down on your back. Bend your knees, keeping the soles of your feet on the floor. Your feet and knees are hip-distance apart, and your toes are pointing straight ahead. These details are important, so don’t ignore them.
Your arms can be wherever they’re most comfortable. Personally, I like having mine down near the sides of my body but out a little bit, with my palms facing upwards. Find what feels best for you.
Keeping your head and neck neutral (again, super important detail), begin to press into your feet. Engage your buttocks muscles at around 60% or so (meaning you’re not massively clenching your glutes, but there is some engagement in those muscles) and slowly begin to lift your hips from the floor.
You get to determine how high up you lift. For me, sometimes it takes a minute to find the sweet spot so that my back is happy. Once up, do a micro tuck of your tailbone. You can envision that your sitting bones are reaching toward your calves. Again, this is another important cue, so don’t skip it. This action prevents you from dumping into your lower back, which is something we definitely don’t want to do here.
Feel your inner thighs engaging a bit, your knees reaching towards your big toes.
When you’re ready to come out, slowly roll your spine down and rest for a bit. You can do this a couple of times, eventually building up in the height and duration that your hips are lifted.
Be sure you’re engaging the glutes and doing the slight tailbone tuck (as well as the initial positioning) to make sure you’re not inadvertently aggravating your back.
To strengthen your upper back muscles, pretend that you have a pencil between your shoulder blades. Gently squeeze the shoulder blades towards your spine while keeping your chin parallel to the floor, your head slightly pressing back, and your front ribs pulling in. It’s easy to have this accidentally turn into a backbend if you’re not careful, so be mindful to really isolate the movements to the shoulder blades and keep everything else in check.
Strengthening your overall core is also very important when it comes to back/spine health. Think about it: If your core muscles are weak, then your back muscles are doing way more work to keep you upright and stable than they’re designed to do. This can lead to all sorts of crankiness in your body.
There are a bazillion core strengthening exercises online, so search up the ones that work best for your body’s needs and then do them. And, to be clear, when I’m talking about the “core,” in simple non-anatomy terms I’m referring to your front abdominal muscles, your side ribcage muscles, your low back muscles, your quads (front thigh muscles), and your buttocks muscles. When these all work together and are strong, you’ll be a superhero.
A couple final points on this topic. The first is to remember to lift with your legs every single time you’re lifting something (meaning bending your knees, keeping your back flat, front ribs in, and engaging your core/legs/glutes/back muscles). Also, notice the ways that you sit, stand, and lay down to sleep.
Our bodies accommodate our wonkiness, so certain muscles will tighten and others will weaken when we’re even slightly askew. It’s what we do on the regular that impacts us the most, so move with awareness, be kind to yourself, and activate your superpowers (and your core) daily.