A Practice to Strengthen your Upper Back and Shoulders

This week’s Yoga for Strength and Conditioning Sequence is focused on the upper back and shoulders. There are just a few quick pointers I want to make before we dive in with the sequence itself.

 

  1. Strengthening the upper back is key to improving posture.

When it comes to improving our posture, appropriate strength training plays a vital role. I get a lot of clients who come to me with the classic desk-bound posture – for example, rounded upper back, hunched and rolled forward shoulders and a forward head position. If that’s then combined with time in the gym hammering out push-ups and bench presses you have a recipe for imbalance – a tightened, shortened front body and a weakened, over lengthened back body. This can play a huge role in that knotty feeling between the shoulder-blades that is so common and is also a huge contributor to symptoms such as headaches.

I teach my students to find a more upright posture often by using a wall as a guide and by helping them to open up the front of their shoulders by stretching out their pecs and chest. But equally important is to balance out this process of opening and lengthening the front body with strength and conditioning of the upper back and of the muscles that keep the shoulder blades onto the back.

In the following sequence I’ve tried to choose poses that serve to both lengthen and open the chest whilst simultaneously engaging and toning the muscles of the back body.

 

  1. We need to incorporate shoulder-pulling movements into our upper body strength training regime.

I honestly believe that yoga provides for the most part a very balanced, comprehensive training system for the body and mind. However, if we look at the modern asana practice you’ll notice that most of the poses involve ‘pushing’ motions – think plank, crow, downdog – but very little in the way of ‘pulling’ movements where you’re pulling against some sort of resistance such as your body weight.

I have included in the sequence below a few forward bend variations that require you to pull up on your feet to help address this imbalance but this is probably not load bearing enough to balance us out.  Therefore I do recommend people to introduce other pulling movements into their exercise routines to cultivate more balanced and integrated shoulder strength. Think exercises such as rows using a resistance band or variations of pull-up exercises.

 

  1. When you do chaturanga, do not let the front of your shoulder dip lower than your elbow.

When I used to teach Vinyasa 101 workshops, I would often spend well over half of the workshop teaching the importance of proper shoulder alignment when practicing chaturanga. It’s important to note that when done well, chaturanga is a great upper body strengthener – similar to a push-up. However, done with poor awareness chaturanga is responsible for a lot of yoga-related injuries including bicep tendonitis and rotator cuff injuries – I speak from experience.

Chaturanga is undoubtedly best learned in front of the experienced eye of a yoga teacher who can check that your shoulders remain in good alignment as you lower your body down (many people will find their shoulders start to round forwards putting unnecessary stress and strain on the front of the shoulder). However a few tips I can offer here:

  • Bring your knees to the ground when learning this movement – it takes much more load off the upper body so that you can concentrate on maintaining good form.
  • Don’t’ lower too low – your shoulder should be at the same height as your elbow or slightly higher.
  • Keep your chest broad and your collabones wids as you lower down, don’t let the shoulders round forwards.
  • A great practice exercise to help build strength is what I lovingly call (joke) chaturanga push-ups. Essentially you come into a modified plank position with knees on the ground and place a block on the high or medium height under your chest. You work on dipping down just to the point that your chest taps the block before pressing back up. Repeat 5-8 times before taking a break in childs pose and then repeating another set.
  • At no point should you feel strain, discomfort, soreness or achiness in the front of the shoulder either during or after your practice – if you do it’s a sign that your shoulders are rounding forwards and/or you are lowering too low in your chaturangas.

 

For a printable version of the sequence please click here.

Why you need to include glute strengthening in your yoga practice (and of course a sequence!)

Has anyone noticed that Instagram seems to be full of images of people in their gym kit showing off their derrieres? Having a firm and rounded booty seems very much in vogue these days, which is kind of ironic as our more sedentary lifestyles are causing our glutes to weaken!

 

Aesthetic reasons aside there are some really good reasons why it’s worth introducing regular glute strengthening work into your yoga practice, particularly as this is an area that I feel is often not given much emphasis in many yoga classes. So here are just a few incentives followed by a yoga sequence that will help you to cultivate greater strength in your glutes and more stability in your pelvis.

 

  • You’re less likely to get injured and glute strengthening can prevent injury recurrence

The job of the glutes is to provide stability for the pelvis as well as controlling and providing power and propulsion for lower body movements as walking, running, climbing stairs and squatting. Knee injuries, shin splints, hamstring tears and tendinopathies usually respond well to a program of regular glute strengthening as well as helping to reduce the risk of repeated injury.

 

 

  • You may feel less tightness, tension and pain in your lower back

A common postural pattern these days is to have weak glutes (partly because we sit on them all day!) and tight, overworked spinal extensors. Sometimes this can lead to tension, discomfort and pain in the lower back. Targeted exercises that strengthen the glutes whilst simultaneously teaching us not to grip with the lower back muscles can really help to bring some much-needed ease to the lumbar spine.

 

 

  • You will improve your athletic performance

Whatever your sport, strengthening your glutes will really help your performance by improving your hip extension (essential in sprinting and running) as well as enhancing your ability to accelerate, decelerate, switch directions and create speed and power in jumps.

 

 

  • You will bring more balance to your regular yoga practice

There is a lot of emphasis, particularly in many of the traditional yoga sequences such as Ashtanga, on stretching out the hamstrings and by extension the back of the hip. This in itself is not a bad thing but like all things we run into issues if this is not balanced by appropriate strength and conditioning work. Remember a healthy muscle is one that is relaxed, pliable and resilient – it contracts and engages when we need it to and relaxes when we don’t. Remember too that just because a muscle is tight, doesn’t mean it is strong. Strengthening your tight muscles will actually improve your flexibility and range of motion – they are not mutually exclusive as many people tend to think.

 

For a printable version of the sequence please click here.

 

A Yoga Sequence to build Core and Lower Back Strength

This core and lower back yoga sequence is inspired by Week 1 of my 6-Week Yoga for Strength & Conditioning Course. This week’s practice is designed to strengthen and condition the abdominals, muscles of the lower back, glutes and hipflexors.
When we talk about ‘the core’ in yoga, in reality we’re talking about a lot more than just the muscles that make up the abdominals. From a therapeutic perspective when I work on a client’s core I also address the strength and condition of their back muscles, hip-flexors, glutes, pelvic floor and adductors. Essentially all the muscles that help to keep the hips, pelvis, and lower back stable and supported as we move our arms and legs about in everyday movements.
For a printable version of the sequence click here.

 

There are a few key components that help with developing and maintaining core stability. I will be discussing each of these points in more detail in later blog posts but for now:

1) Breathe using your diaphragm
 When you breathe in feel your lower, floating ribs expand outwards front-to-back and side-to-side. When you breathe out, feel the lower, floating ribs hug in towards the center of your body front-to-back and side-to-side.
2) Strengthen the Transverse Abdominis and Pelvic Floor
 To access the Transverse Abdominis which is the deepest layer of the abdominal core (and a key muscle in lower back stability and health particularly post-injury) each time you exhale, imagine you’re drawing the two frontal hip bones towards the belly button. This should have the action of drawing the naval gently back towards the spine and firming the lower belly.

To access the pelvic floor envisage a diamond-shaped muscle that lies right at the base of the pelvic bowel spanning from the pubic bone at the front, to the tailbone at the back and from the two sit-bones left-to-right. As you exhale, imagine you’re drawing these four points towards each other. This will have the action of drawing the pelvic floor muscles slightly in and up towards the abdominal cavity.

3) Correct forward head positioning 
It’s easiest to develop core stability and control when we have good postural habits. Many of us have the tendency to sit and stand with our heads to far forwards which can disrupt our spine and hip positioning. To correct this, stand against a wall with your heels about 1″ away from the wall and your buttocks and back against the wall. Draw your shoulder blades and the back of your head to rest against the wall so that your ears stack over your shoulders. Notice what it feels like to be situated on this plumb-line with the crown of the head directly over the heels.
4) Develop contralateral, cross mid-line movement (e.g. crawling, or in this sequence Balancing Table Pose and Locust Pose Variation One Leg and Arm)
Movements and poses that exercise muscles on opposite sides of the body from one another are a very effective to develop core stability as well as enhance balance and proprioception. These movements often mimic the more realistic day-to-day movements we make throughout our day making them ideal functional exercises to incorporate into a yoga practice.
A couple of practice pointers for the sequence below:

– This sequence is designed for students who are injury-free and who are not pregnant. If you have lower back pain or injury some of the movements in this sequence may not be suitable.

 
– Make sure that you breathe deeply and evenly throughout the sequence. Come out of the pose if you feel any pain or if you find that you are holding your breath.

 

– The poses can be practiced with a combination of fluid movements and longer holds. For a stronger sequence stronger hold the more challenging poses for up to 5 breaths before transitioning to the next pose. You can also repeat more challenging movements or poses a number of times through for more intensity.

 

– There are several progressive options in this practice – start with the easiest version of the pose first and progress to the version that leaves you comfortably challenged whilst maintaining smooth, even breathing. For example start with knees down in your plank position until you feel strong and stable enough to explore lifting the knees for full plank.

 

– For best results, practice this sequence 2-3 times a week and remember building strength takes time, so be patient and above all enjoy the journey of exploring your body one yoga practice at a time.

 

 

Hope you enjoy and feel free to leave feedback/comments below. Stay tuned for next week’s sequence where we focus on glute and hip strength. 😀
 
Thanks to Tummee for the amazing sequencing software!
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