Lifting the Back Ribs and Bending the Spine Backwards

Basic body elements and relationships are parts of the body that we can practice moving and feeling so that we can use them as part of larger movements or positions.

By learning to control these relationships or do these actions individually we can more easily call them up like functions as required and as part of a larger program.

In this article the focus is on bending the spine backwards using the spinal erectors while sitting, standing or bending forwards, and on lifting the back ribs to create space in the back of the body.

Bending the Spine Backwards

Bending the spine backwards, particularly the lumbar and thoracic spine, can result in the front of the belly being lengthened and the front of the ribcage being opened. We can cause this action by using the spinal erectors, located at the back of and to either side of the spine.

To use the spinal erectors to bend the spine backwards, we can focus on this area of the body while bending our spine backwards. We should then be able to feel our spinal erectors contracting. This can be especially important while bending the spine backwards in a standing, sitting or bending forwards position.

Bending the spine backwards can cause the side and front ribcage to lift and expand. Likewise, lifting and expanding the sides of the ribcage can cause the spine to bend backwards. If we learn to differentiate between these two actions we can also learn to differentiate between the muscles that we use to cause them.

For example, we can use the intercostals, the muscles located within the spaces between each set of ribs to expand and lift the ribcage. (These same muscles can also be used to “contract” the ribcage.) We can thus use the intercostals to bend the spine backwards slightly. Or we can focus on using the spinal erectors. Once we can feel the effects of using these sets of muscles individually, we can choose which ones to use depending on the situation we are in… or we can use them both together.

Because the spinal erectors can be used to deform the ribcage, they can thus be used to assist in the act of breathing. As a result, while breathing we can practice activating them and deactivating them. We can first focus on using the spinal erectors to bend the lumbar spine backwards. Then we can focus on using them to bend the thoracic spine backwards also.

Experiencing the Spinal Erectors and the Lumbar Spine

In a seated position, either on a chair or on the floor, slowly bend your lumbar spine backwards as if bending around a barrel that is behind your body. While exhaling allow your lumbar spine to bend forwards. While bending your lumbar spine backwards your pelvis will tilt forwards. When bending your lumbar spine forwards your pelvis will tilt backwards. If you have tight hip muscles or tight hamstrings (which cross the hips and the knees) you may find this easier to do while sitting in a chair.) Because in this exercise we are trying to focus on feeling and controlling the spinal erectors, focus on the movements of your spine rather than on the movements of your pelvis.

The Lumbar vertebrae are about three inches wide from side to side, so limit you awareness to an area about an inch and a half to either side of the center line of your spine. Contract this area while inhaling and bending backwards, allow it to relax and lengthen while exhaling.

Move slowly and smoothly, so that you can notice the sensations that occur when your lumbar spinal erectors contract and when they relax.

Experiencing the Spinal Erectors and the Thoracic Spine

When bending the Thoracic spine backwards we can focus on an area about three inches to either side of the center line of the spine. That is because in this area the spinal erectors connect to the ribs as well as to the vertebrae of the spine. If we start by tilting the pelvis forwards, we can then slowly and smoothly contract the lumbar spine spinal erectors so that the lumbar spine bends backwards.

Working upwards, we can contract the spinal erectors to cause the thoracic spine to bend backwards. The feeling created can be like drawing the spine forwards into the ribcage. Also note, that because of the design of the thoracic spine, it may actually just straighten instead of assuming a backwards bent shape. However, the direction we are moving in when using the spinal erectors is a backwards bending direction.

To stretch these same muscles, we can then bend the spine forwards while exhaling, allowing the back to round.

The Head and Neck

Although the spinal erectors to extend through the neck and head, in this exercise we can focus slowly on feeling and controlling the lumbar and thoracic spine. However, rather than ignore the head and neck, we can pull the head back and up and the chin in towards the chest each time we inhale so that the back of the neck lengthens. You may notice that a side effect of this action is that it assists in lifting the front of the ribcage. While exhaling we can allow the head to move forwards and down.

Side Effects of Activating the Spinal Erectors

With enough practice (slow and smooth) you should be able to both feel and control your spinal erectors. You can then expand your awareness outwards to notice the side effects of using these muscles. You can notice and feel how when you bend your lumbar spine backwards you move the front of your ribcage away from the front of your pelvis, causing your belly to lengthen. You can feel and notice how when you bend your thoracic spine backwards your front and even side ribs lift and perhaps expand.

Lifting the Back Ribs

“Lifting the Back Ribs” is a slightly vague term. If we lift the back of a rib the whole rib lifts.

In this article, the term is used to convey how we direct our attention.

By focusing on the back of the ribcage, we can more easily activate the levator costalis and more easily notice the effect of using these muscles.

A set of muscles that is closely related to the spinal erectors in terms of position is the levator costalis. They can be use to lift the back ribs. These muscles reach down from each thoracic vertebrae to the first and second set of ribs directly below the relative vertebrae. Their bodies are located in a space about two to three inches either side of the center line of the spine.

If you can feel your spinal erectors activating in this region, then in may be relatively easy to then use a similar feeling to cause the back of the ribs to lift.

As mentioned before, we can use the spinal erectors to cause the ribcage to expand. We can also use the intercostals. Now we are going to focus on using the levator costalis. The purpose of this exercise isn’t to say that one set of muscles isn’t better than the other, rather it is to learn to use them all so that they can all act freely or so that we can choose which ones to focus on given what we are trying to do.

Experiencing the Levator Costalis

If you can already feel and control your spinal erectors, especially in the area of the back of the ribcage, then the levator costalis may be easier to feel since the feeling of the muscles contracting is quite similar although the effect is different.

(When the spinal erectors contract the spine bends backwards. When the levator costalis contract the back ribs move away from the pelvis or towards the head.)

Start with slow rhythmic backbending of the spine using the spinal erectors to cause the spine to bend backwards as you inhale. Relax slowly each exhale. Once you are comfortable with this action focus on reaching the back ribs upwards each time you inhale. Lengthen your neck first, pull your chin to your chest and then move your back ribs towards your head.

If you have a friend handy, you can have them place the palms of their hands on your back ribs. Have them slowly and slightly lift their hands as you inhale and try to move your ribs with their hands. Have them move their hands down while you exhale. And then you can switch.

You may notice that you entire ribcage lifts as a result. So that you know that you are using you levator costalis to cause this action, focus on pulling upwards on the back of the ribs (to either side of the spine.) As mentioned, the feeling is very similar to that of activating the spinal erectors.

Using the Levator Costalis and Spinal Erectors Together

The nice thing about using the levator costalis is that they help to create space in the back of the body. Not only do they cause the lower back to lengthen by drawing the back ribs away from the pelvis, they make it easier to bend the spine backwards because of the change in angle between the ribs and the spine. (Note that in this case, lengthening the “low back” actually means the “muscular lower back, the space that is filled with muscle to either side of the lumbar spine. This space is in part filled by the quadratus lumborum which attaches the top of the back of the pelvis to the lowest rib.)

This action can also cause some of the spinal erectors to lengthen, particularly those fibers that attach the pelvis to the back of the ribs, making it then easier to contract these same muscles.

Try doing wheel pose with or without the spinal erectors, but in either case while using the levator costalis.

See for yourself whether this helps to deepen your backbend or at least make it more comfortable.

Because of all of these factors, it can often be helpful to use the levator costalis and spinal erectors together. The former create room so that we can bend the spine backwards while the latter cause the spine to bend backwards. But even in back bending postures where we aren’t using the spinal erectors, using the levator costalis can still be beneficial, creating room for the thoracic spine to bend backwards passively.

Forward Bends

Apart from in backbends, where else might the spinal erectors and levator costalis be useful?

In forward bends for the hips.

For beginners especially, and for anyone with tight hamstrings, the tendency in a standing or seated forward bend is to focus on bending the spine forwards in an effort to get the head to the knees.

However, if they learn to feel their spinal erectors and when they are active, they can focus on keeping this feeling while at the same time tilting their pelvis forwards. In addition, if they keep their hands on the floor and slowly bend their elbows, they can use the weight of their upper body to slowly help to lengthen their hamstrings.

If you do try engaging your spinal erectors while in a forward bend (or some variation of a forwards bend) I would strong recommend pulling your head back and up (relative to your ribcage) and you chin in towards your chest so that the back of your neck lengthens.

You may find that this action helps to further accentuate opening your chest.

As a final note, when using the spinal erectors to bend the spine backwards while forward bending at the hips, you may find it helpful to engage the side glutes to widen the thighs slightly. Or you may find that this happens naturally when we bend your spine backwards.

If you do try this action, try reaching your thighs forwards at the same time, as if pulling your thigh bones our of your hip socket.
Take some time to feel both the action and the result of the action. Try engaging and then disengaging your side glutes (gluteus minimus and medius.) See if forward bending happens easier as a result.