Often credited to Joseph Pilates, the phrase "You're only as young as your spine is flexible" should be taken to heart by everyone hoping to extract more value from life.
But I contend that flexibility deserves an equal valuation to the others and holds its own among them as a key pillar of Weightlessness Training. I go into great depth in The Essence of Lightness as to why that is, but I'll summarize it's value as youth.
If you're over the age of 25 you've likely noticed your mobility decrease year on year - the back feels stiffer, the legs and shoulders feel tighter - unless you've been actively stretching... the consequence of sitting for extended periods of time.
People wrongly assume that some people are flexible, and others not, and that's just the way it is. When you came out of the womb you were as malleable as the rest, and you let it fade away. But all is not lost, you can get it back, if not in entirety, at least to a meaningful degree. And it doesn't have to be excruciating to get started.
The two most important stretches by far are the forward bend (or Uttanasana, in Yoga) and the deep squat (ass to grass, splayed knees, with neutral spine). These two stretches counteract the hours upon hours of hamstring shortening and hip closure that the body undergoes at work and leisure while sitting, and they create much needed space for the spine to flex as it should.
How to Perform Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend):
- Starting Position: Begin in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Stand with your feet hip-distance apart, grounding through all four corners of your feet. Ensure your spine is straight, and your arms are resting by your sides.
- Inhale Preparation: As you take a deep inhale, lift your arms overhead, stretching upwards.
- Exhale into the Bend: On your exhale, hinge at your hips, keeping your spine long as you fold forward. Think of moving your chest towards your thighs rather than aiming your head for the ground.
- Hands Positioning: Place your hands next to your feet, on your shins, or if flexibility allows, grasp the back of your ankles. If your hands don’t reach the floor without straining, feel free to bend your knees slightly.
- Relax Your Neck: Let your head and neck hang heavy, releasing any tension. Your gaze should be towards your legs or behind you.
- Engage Your Muscles: Even though it’s a forward "bend", think of it as an active stretch. Engage your quadriceps (front thigh muscles) to help release your hamstrings (the muscles at the back of your thighs). This will enable a deeper stretch.
- Hold and Breathe: Stay in the pose for a few deep breaths, working up to holding for a minute or more as you become more comfortable. With each exhale, see if you can fold a bit deeper.
- Exiting the Pose: To come out of Uttanasana, bend your knees slightly, and, with a straight back, rise up to a standing position, reaching your arms overhead on an inhale. Exhale and bring your arms back down to your side, returning to Tadasana.
How to Perform the Deep Squat:
The Deep Squat, often referred to as the "Asian Squat" or "Third World Squat", is a fundamental human movement. Here's a step-by-step guide to performing the Deep Squat with perfect form:
Deep Squat Technique
- Starting Position: Begin with your feet shoulder-width apart. The angle of your feet can vary, but generally, a slight outward turn (about 15 to 30 degrees) is most comfortable for many people.
- Initiate Movement: Start by taking a deep breath and then, as you exhale, begin bending your knees and pushing your hips back, as if you’re sitting in a chair that's far behind you.
- Keep Your Chest Up: As you lower yourself down, keep your chest lifted and proud. This will help maintain a neutral spine.
- Knees Over Toes: As you squat down, allow your knees to splay outwards. They should be tracking in line with the angle of your feet. This splayed position can help accommodate deeper hip mobility and reduce joint stress.
- Neutral Spine: Your spine should remain neutral throughout the movement. Avoid rounding your lower back or excessively arching it. Think of keeping your tailbone slightly tucked under and the crown of your head reaching upward.
- Depth: Aim to lower your hips below the level of your knees, so your thighs are past parallel to the ground. However, depth can vary depending on individual flexibility and hip anatomy. Go as low as you can without compromising your spine's neutrality.
- Arm Position: As you descend, you can extend your arms out in front of you for balance. Some people also choose to press their elbows against the insides of their knees, helping to open up the hips.
- Foot Stability: Ensure that your entire foot stays grounded, especially the heels. Avoid lifting your heels off the ground.
- Hold and Progress: Once at the bottom of the squat, hold for a few breaths. As you become more comfortable and seek to progress the stretch, you can increase the duration of the hold.
- To Stand: Engage your core, press through your heels, and push your hips forward to return to a standing position.
Tips and Progressions:
- Mobility: If you find it challenging to keep your heels on the ground, it might indicate tightness in the calves. Stretching and foam rolling can be beneficial.
- Assisted Squat: If balance is an issue, hold onto a stable object, like a pole or door frame, as you squat. This can also allow you to focus more on hip mobility.
- Squat Pulses: Once you're comfortable with the deep squat, you can perform small pulses at the bottom of the squat to engage and strengthen the leg muscles further.
The depth and foot position that feels comfortable and sustainable may vary between individuals. Prioritize form and comfort over trying to force a specific look or depth to the squat.
Now, as someone who's watched and counted more squats... than I can count, the deep squat is, well... rather ugly for most people. Some are blessed with fluid range, and for those who aren't, merely practicing more doesn't seem to bridge the gap.
What will bridge that gap is a stretch that gets honorable mention - the hip flexor stretch. Now I know this is a post on spine flexibility, but this speaks to the core of the problem. Your body is not a composite of isolated parts. You don't regain functional mobility with one or two stretches, or trying to address tightness is isolated pockets. You need to unlock and release tension up and down-stream of the spine - namely in the shoulders and hips, to create space for fluid spinal flexion.
So not only is the hip flexor stretch a critical transition into the deep squat for those who lack the flexibility, it also addresses fascial tightness in the hips, creating more space for spinal flexion.
How to Perform the Hip Flexor Stretch / Low Lunge (Anjaneyasana)
- Starting Position: Begin in a lunge position with one foot forward and the other extended straight back. The front foot should be flat on the ground with the knee bent at approximately a 90-degree angle.
- Hip Positioning: As you settle into the lunge, push your hips forward and down. This action increases the stretch on the hip flexors of the extended (back) leg.
- Upper Body Alignment: Keep your torso upright and your shoulders stacked over your hips. This ensures that the stretch remains focused on the hip flexors and doesn't put unnecessary strain on the lower back.
- Foot and Knee Positioning: The back foot can be positioned in two ways. Either have the top of the foot flat on the ground or, for a more active stance, tuck the toes and lift the heel. Ensure the back knee is either hovering just above the ground or lightly resting on it, depending on your comfort.
- Engaging the Glutes: Slightly engage the glute of the back leg. This action not only stabilizes the hip but also deepens the hip flexor stretch due to the antagonist relationship between the glutes and hip flexors.
- Maintain Position and Breathe: Once you've settled into the stretch, take deep breaths and try to relax into the position. Holding the stretch for 20-30 seconds (or longer, as comfort dictates) can be beneficial.
- Switching Sides: Slowly exit the stretch and switch to the other leg to ensure balanced flexibility and muscle engagement.
Key Stretch Benefits:
- Primarily targets the iliopsoas, a deep muscle that connects the lower spine to the upper thigh. This muscle often gets tight from prolonged sitting.
- Secondary benefits include stretching the quadriceps of the back leg.
- The slight engagement of the glutes can also offer strengthening benefits while providing a counter-stretch.
If you find yourself, after working these stretches for a while, that accessing the deep squat is still out of range, it's likely a problem with the ankles, and this article on ankle tension will provide some insight.
Incorporating These Stretches for Spine Health and Youth in Your Daily Routine:
The forward bend (with locked knees and bending at the hips to max depth before the rounding back) and the deep squat can be worked through for one or two minutes in the morning and again in the evening for an incredible shift in dynamic flexibility and general mobility. It doesn't take much.
They can be done while you're brushing teeth or watching TV. And they will add years back on your life - if not actual ones, at least ones that matter.
Stay classy ya'll, and be weightless!
Tom Fazio | Performance Coach & Owner @ Weightlessness