This is a guest post from personal trainer extraordinaire Angelo dela Cruz of DailyVitaMoves.com. Join me, veteran PrimalCon presenter Angelo, and numerous other presenters and Primal enthusiasts from around the world at PrimalCon Vacation Tulum (Mar. 1-6) and the 5th annual PrimalCon Oxnard (Sept. 25-28) in 2014.
“Movement is life.” – Moshe Feldenkrais
When someone asks me to help them get out of pain or improve their muscle and joint function, it’s important for me to see the possibilities for them to be pain-free and return to the activities that they enjoy doing. For us to do this, in terms of musculoskeletal issues, one of the first things that I check is the state of their spine. It can tell us a lot about a person’s overall health.
The reason is because the spine is the main hub of our bodies. It’s the gateway from where our brain is able to communicate with the rest of our body. Major nerves and blood vessels branch out from the protection of our spine to all of our vital organs and limbs. When something goes wrong with the spine, it can negatively affect other parts of our body. When our spine doesn’t move properly, we could develop shooting pain down our leg, or tightness in our hip, or recurring shoulder injuries because of stiffness in our upper back.
Through targeted movement we can make a positive impact to improve the function of our spine, keep it in a healthier state, and hopefully prevent painful issues from developing in the future. Today, I’ll be taking you through a few movements that will release tight muscles in your back, stimulate common weak areas, and help mobilize and lubricate your joints. To increase the quality and effectiveness of these movements, let’s take a look at what we’ll be working with.
How ‘Bout Dem Bones & Joints
Nearly 30% of our joints in our entire body are found in our spine. The bones of our spine are called vertebrae and most of them are shaped like short cylinders with a bony arch on the back side that surrounds the spinal cord and spiny projections coming from the arch where muscles attach. There are 7 vertebrae that make up the cervical (neck) region and 12 that make up the thoracic (mid-back) region. Attaching to the thoracic vertebrae are our 12 ribs that house our heart and lungs. Making up our lumbar (low back) region are 5 larger vertebrae. Below that are 5 vertebrae and another set of 4 that have fused during adolescence to form the sacrum and coccyx respectively. Some of us may have one more or one less vertebrae in any region due to natural variations.
Sandwiched between each of our unfused vertebrae, with exception of the the first two cervical vertebrae, are intervertebral discs that are rings of firm rubbery material with a gelatinous middle, something like a jelly doughnut. (By the way, these are the most Primal sandwiches and jelly doughnuts you’ll ever come across!). These discs provide shock absorption and, along with spinal ligaments that connect each vertebrae to the next, allow our spine to bend or rotate and then come back to a resting position.
Connections That Move You
About 120 muscles attach to the spine that work to stabilize our body and, at the same time, allow us to create movements in many directions. Covering all of these muscles are web-like layers of connective tissue called fascia. Have you ever noticed that clear “plasticky” wrapping around a raw chicken breast filet? This fascia envelops our brain, our gut, our vital organs, every muscle fiber, bone, and joint of our bodies.1
There’s a special piece of fascia layered in the mid- and lower back termed the thoracolumbar fascia that connects deep spinal muscles to superficial ones. It also connects our mid- and lower back to our neck, arms, hips, and legs allowing these parts to coordinate movement together.2
(Side note: One of the most valuable investments you can make is to learn and discover the structure and function of your body. It can be fascinating and transformative. You can go to your nearest library and pick up any book on anatomy and physiology or surf the web for 30 minutes… or just dance!)
What These Moves Will Do For You
Our spines have the ability flex (curl), extend (arch), laterally flex (bend to the side), laterally shift (move left or right), and move in different combinations. We’ll be doing all of the above with the moves below. Our joints rely on movement for their health because there’s no direct blood supply to them, so immobility, chronic static stress – such as sitting in a chair – and repetitive stress can contribute greatly to dysfunction or premature degeneration. In the same regard, your muscles and fascia can suffer the same consequences. The purpose of these movements is to safely expose your spine to ranges of motion that they otherwise may not get during your regular day. Their aim is to decompress joints, stimulate snyovial fluid production (the “oil” of your joints), and improve the surrounding pliability and extensibility of the muscles, tendons, ligaments, & fascia. Also, they may help to restore the ability to contract your muscles in a more coordinated fashion.
The Magic Moves
Just as the number (and shape) of vertebrae and muscles will vary in each of us, so will the way we are able to move. These movements are simple, but may require some patience. Also, they should be done slowly, with control and ease, but with increasing challenge. It’s not about stretching or contracting vigorously as that won’t produce the outcome we’re aiming for. There should be no pain while performing any of these movements. If so, do not proceed.
We’ll be using multi-joint movements and isometric contractions (holding contractions with no movement) to calm down or release unconscious tightness in muscles3, decompress joints, and begin to stimulate weak muscles. (For proper strengthening of weak muscles, a strength training regimen is recommended.) Before we begin, let’s check in.
Stand with feet hip-width apart and close your eyes. It’s important to get our own internal sense because no one can do it better.
After seeing what a spine looks like (video), imagine the spine in your body. How does it feel? Does it feel stable? Balanced? Mobile? Does it feel like it leans to one side, rotated to the left or right? Is there an area of tightness? Also, how is your breathing?
Another way to check in is to bend at the hips and reach your fingertips toward the ground in front of your feet. How does it feel going down? Going up?
Hip Flexion Hold
This will help release muscles in the chest, shoulder, hip and low back.
Stand with feet hip-width apart, bend and lift one knee until your thigh bone is 90º to your body.
Place your opposite hand on your knee keeping your arm straight with fingertips pointing to the outside of the knee.
Gently try to press knee and opposite shoulder towards each other.
Press the standing leg into the ground to make your leg “long”. You should feel your buttock contracting.
Hold for 3-5 seconds. Repeat for 3-5 repetitions each side.
Bird Dog/Crawl Lift
This will contract the buttock muscles and muscles along your spine, also targeting the lower trapezius muscle.
Get into a quadraped or bear crawl position.
Lift one straight arm 45º away from your head with thumb pointed to the sky. Try to bring your shoulder blade towards your opposite hip.
At the same time, lift your opposite leg, trying to bring the heel and the thumb of your lifting arm towards each other.
Also, turn and lift your head and look towards your thumb or, if you’re on your knee, towards your lifting heel.
Count 3 seconds as you lift as far as you can comfortably go and 3 seconds down.
If you’re feeling ambitious, hold the lifted position for 3 seconds.
This will help release the muscles on the side of the neck and the quadratus lumborum muscle in the low back which has tendency to be tight and add a sustained compressive force to the spine.
In a quadraped position bring one shoulder and hip on the same side towards each other.
Also on the same side bring the ear towards the shoulder.
With your eyes, look towards the hip on the same side (you might not be able to actually see it).
Hold for 3-5 seconds and repeat 3-5 times each side.
This will move your spine in a circlular motion (circumduction) and will mobilize your joints in all directions. It will also massage your gut and internal organs. (Don’t be shocked if you need to run to bathroom after this.)
In a quadraped position pick a point on your spine in the lumbar region.
Gently and slowly move that point towards the sky and then circle to the left, then circle down towards the ground, and then to the right and back up to the sky making 3 revolutions one way and then the other.
Choose 3-5 different points working up your spine and repeat.
Windshield Wipers (with Head Turn)
This will contract stabilization muscles of your trunk and help decompress the spine by relaxing deep muscles that interveawe with the facet joints of your spine. This will also work the thoracolumbar fascia.
Lie on your back with your thigh bones 90º from your body and knees bent at 90º.
Place straight arms 45º from your body on the ground with palms faced down.
Keeping the thighs 90º from your body, let your knees slowly drop to the right and at the same time turn your head towards the left.
Rotate them as far as comfortable and trying to end their movements at the same time but not letting the knees rest on the ground.
Then bring your knees and face back towards center trying to have them meet in the middle (but not stopping) as they continue rotating to the opposite sides.
You can opt to hold at each side for 3-5 seconds.
Repeat on both sides 3-5 times each side.
Squat Push-up Circle – All Body Parts Active, Nothing Limp
This will massage your organs, mobilize the thoracolumbar fascia and help coordinate the use of many muscles and joints from head to toe at the same time.
Stand with feet a few inches wider than shoulder width and hands on knees.
Keep your spine and head in neutral position (the same position it’s in when standing) and begin to shift your weight to the left.
Let your arms support your upper body weight as your pelvis slowly lowers and circles to the right.
Push your feet into the ground and hands into your knees to circle your body back upright. It should take approximately 5 seconds to complete one circle.
Repeat in the opposite direction for 5 repetitions each side.
Stand with feet hip-width apart
How does your spine feel now?
How does it feel to bend at the hips and touch the ground? Coming back up?
If you didn’t notice much change, you might not need to do these movements too much. If some of these were challenging, that’s indicative of needing to do these more frequently and consistently. I would suggest most people to start with one round of this “ritual” in the morning and then another round one hour before bed time. If you notice any soreness, wait until it subsides before you try it again. Also, feel free to do more repetitions or hold the contractions longer if you need more challenge.
There are many more movements that you can do to help keep a healthy spine, but I’ve tried to put together a good set of them that are safe and can be done by just about anyone, anywhere, anytime with nothing but your body and a little floor space. I hope these movements serve you well. Please feel free to share them with your friends and family.
1 – Schleip, Robert, et al. “Fascia: The Tensional Network of the Human Body.”The Science and Clinical Applications in Manual and Movement Therapies. Churchill Livingstone, Edinburgh (2012).
2 – Hoheisel, U., T. Taguchi, and S. Mense. “Nociception: The thoracolumbar fascia as a sensory organ.” Fascia: The Tensional Network of the Human Body.(Eds: Schleip, Findley, Chaitow, and Huijing) (2012): 95-101.
3 – Chaitow, Leon, ed. Muscle Energy Techniques+ Videos. Churchill Livingstone, 2013.