3 Back Extension Exercises That Whisk Away the Effects of Sitting at a Desk All Day

Photo: Getty Images/sandsun

I'm surprised that my back isn't permanently in the shape of a C by now. The majority of the time, I'm hunched over my desk as I type away all day, or I'm curled up on the couch as I binge-watch something on TV. So night-after-night, I turn to back extension exercises to help me counter all of the curved spine sitting I do each day.

"Spinal extension is the opposite of spinal flexion, which is curling forward—think crunch or articulation," explains Helen Phelan, a health coach and Pilates instructor. "In extension, the spine is bending backwards, recruiting the muscles that are responsible for standing, lifting objects, and overall spinal movement like twisting."

If you're anything like me, pushing your shoulders back to engage the trapezius muscles doesn't come as easily as rounding them. "Back extension is a movement that's more limited and comes a lot less naturally," says Jeff Brannigan, program director at Stretch*d.  If you're not combatting all of that arching with back extension exercises, you're most likely going to wind up with an imbalanced body.

"Spinal extension helps correct this muscular imbalance that's basically unavoidable in the modern world." —Helen Phelan

"Daily life can encourage the development of imbalances in the front and back body," says Phelan. "Spinal extension helps correct this muscular imbalance that's basically unavoidable in the modern world." Her take? There's a high chance people aren't extending their backs nearly enough for good spine health. And "enough" is, I'm sorry to report, about as often as you exercise. "It should be included in every workout program barring any contraindications," says Phelan.

Brannigan agrees, stating that he strongly advises doing back extension exercises daily. "We're putting stress on our bodies day in and day out, so time combatting that should be just as consistent," says Brannigan.  Why put in all the work? Alignment issues can happen from ignoring your back. Phelan often sees a tight, weak frontal line and an overstretched, weak posterior chain. "Extreme muscular imbalances mean you aren't functionally strong and your daily life will be affected," she says. "This could manifest as chronic back pain or limited mobility."

Now that I'm sure you're ready to try back extension exercise moves for yourself, keep scrolling for 3 star examples.


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It is so hot in New York that the mat keeps sticking to my stomach sweat ?. This series helps correct posture and sneaks a little extra tricep burn in. Tips: -slide your shoulder blades down + keep your traps soft! - don’t force height- I am naturally flexible to the point of hyper mobility and this is actually me trying to rein it in (once upon a time a had a killer arabesque) but it’s definitely not necessary to extend so much and you won’t lose any work if you keep it small and safe! -shave the sides of your ribs when you bend the elbows -push the sliders through the floor as you bend + stretch the elbows to engage your arms more Drink SO MUCH water today please and keep your doggies off the street ?

A post shared by helen phelan (@helenvphelan) on Jul 20, 2019 at 8:30am PDT

1. Spinal extension with sliders: Phelan loves this stretch for your back, which is a mat variation of the classical swan exercise that Joseph Pilates designed. Lying prone, arms extended straight in front of you with one hand on each slider, pressing your pubic bone into the floor to stabilize the pelvis, un-shrug your shoulders to relax the trap muscles.

Exhale, draw the abs in as you slide your arms straight in toward your body, lifting your chest off of the floor to accommodate the movement. Inhale, and control it on the way down, resisting gravity. Try not to squeeze your butt. If you feel compression in your low back, you've probably arched too much in the lumbar spine or come up too high in extension—modify the range of motion until you feel a challenge in the upper body, but not a "crunching" of the low back.

2. Reverse crunch into spinal extension on sliders: Another fave back extension move that Phelan likes is a combo move: A reverse crunch that glides into a spinal extension. Put your knees onto two sliders or towels, and take your bellybutton into your spine for a reverse crunch. Think of cat pose in yoga. Then flow from that flexion into an extension, sliding your legs all the way out, dipping your hips, and looking up as you extend your spine. Try to keep your shoulders over your wrists rather than letting them come forward.


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A post shared by NIUSHA???? (@niufittrainer) on Nov 22, 2018 at 12:34am PST

3. Superman: Brannigan recommends doing the "Superman," which he notes is a simple way to strengthen the back extensors with no equipment. Lie face-down on the floor, and with your arms straight above your head and legs straight out side by side, lift your upper body off the floor while simultaneously engaging your glutes to lift the legs. The end result should you be forming a "U" shape with your body, so the only thing touching the floor is the front of your hips. It will look as if you're trying to fly, hence the name.

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