Little matters more for mental clarity, energy, mood and performance than having your back and neck in good working order. Here is a morning stretch and exercise routine that is designed to support good back and neck health.
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Think back to the last time you had a sore, throbbing neck and headache—and hopefully that’s not happening for you right now! I’m sure you’ll agree that when your back and neck are sore, your moods are affected, your energy is low, and it’s generally not a good place to be.
If you’ve read the previous blog article and/or watched the related video—it was on desk setup, posture and exercise—you’ll know that the guiding principle for back and neck health is to be contracting those muscles as often as possible, and not overextending them. When you contract them you bring blood supply and elasticity to those muscles, and you want to be doing that as often as possible during the day.
The key for back and neck health is a good lordotic curve
As I mentioned in that video, I learned those principle and practices from Dr Athol McLean, a renowned chiropractor. The most important thing that he insisted upon for good back and neck health is a good lordotic curve, or lordosis. That’s the curve which we also call the small of your back, or your lower back. Essentially, you want that to be “in” and not “out”. In other words, you want that curve to be concave and not convex. When it’s concave, it means that those muscles are flexing and they can get that blood supply and elasticity.
A healthy neck and back—and the discipline of regular exercise—provide the foundation for personal effectiveness.
In addition, I discovered that the best way to keep your lordosis in, is to stretch your hamstrings , as well as the muscles of your legs and hips. If you’re not convinced, take a look at old people who struggle to walk, or who need to use a walking stick. Nine times out of 10 their lower back is convex and not concave. Their lordosis is out and, I say, that’s due to them having tight hamstrings, which in turn is the result of not having stretched out those muscles of the legs and hips.
I clicked that my poor lordotic curve was because of my tight hamstrings
Now, when I was in my 20s — I’m 53 now — I had a terrible lordosis. It was way “out”. I didn’t know this at the time. I only knew that my back was very tight. I started meditating in my early 20s, and I struggled. Even when I sat in a chair, I struggled to maintain an upright position for the required 20 minutes. My back would get very tired and I would have to lean back. And somewhere in all of that, it clicked that this had to do with my hamstrings.
After all, I had started gym when I was about 11 years old. I did bodybuilding, played rugby, and cycled all through my teenage years and into my early adulthood, and during that time I did very little stretching. Also in my 20s, I tried a bit of yoga and when I did that, I realised I had very little to no flexibility. And so I started to put these things together, and I thought maybe it had to do with my hamstrings and the tightness of the muscles in my legs and hips.
The knock-on effect of these stretch exercises was a much better lordosis
So, I started these stretching exercises, and I got tremendous gains out of that. It also had the knock-on effect of helping me to develop a much better lordosis, and I was able to sit for much longer periods when I meditated. I have a little story which I’ll share with you around that, that serves as evidence of how effective this can be.
In fact, later on, in my forties, I learnt another form of meditation, called Vipassana. You learn this form in a ten-day silent retreat, where you sit for 10 hours a day, two hours at a time, on a mat, on the floor, with only a little cushion to support you, and you meditate. As you can imagine, it’s exhausting, it’s painful, and it’s very tiring on your back.
The surprising thing was that having done these exercises and the desk exercises, I found that by the end of the 10 days, despite being the tallest person in the room, I was one of the few who was able to sit upright. I seemed to experience the least impact in terms of back pain. Certainly, my buttocks were sore, as were my hips and my knees, however, my back was strong, and I attribute it very much to these exercises.
I hope that story just inspires you to take these on and make it a regular practice, whether you’re meditating or anything else that you’re doing. I hear stories of cyclists having tremendous back pain. Well, cycling really shortens up those quadricep muscles and those hamstrings, and my question to them is, are you stretching enough to compensate for that?
When I do these exercises in the morning, I see it as money in the bank for when I get old. When I have that little bit of pain in the morning, I always think this is going to save me a lot of pain and provide me with a lot of energy and mental clarity when I’m much older. A healthy neck and back—and the discipline of regular exercise—provide the foundation for personal effectiveness. I hope and trust that you will give it a try and find that out for yourself.
The Exercise Set (Instructions)
Here is the set of morning stretch exercises. You’ll get most benefit if you do these first thing when you get out of bed. However, you can them at any time during the day. The core set only takes about ten minutes, and you don’t need to be in gym clothes, you can just take off your shoes and roll out your mat wherever you are. You might also decide to use them as a warmup—or warm down—for your main daily exercise routine.
Here is the core set of stretch exercises.
1 Hamstring Stretch [Video start time: 03:04] First up is the hamstring stretch. This is pretty straightforward. I sit on the yoga mat and hook my hands over my toes for a count of 100. Then I hook my hands around the side of my feet in order to get a deeper stretch, for another count of 100. You may need to start out by wrapping a belt around your feet and pulling yourself forward. No shame, I started like that. You’ll be surprised at how quickly you progress.
2 Butterfly Knees [Video start time: 03:31] The next exercise is the butterfly knees. There are various ways you can do these. I prefer to hold my feet and pull my lordosis in, thereby flexing my lower back muscles, as I push my knees towards the ground. I do this for a count of 40.
3 Knee Cradle [Video start time: 03:47] Then comes the knee cradle. The first time I attempted this one I nearly died. It stretches your gluteus maximus. This muscle is often very tight in men, in particular, especially people who do weights and who cycle. I had done plenty of both. I experienced very quick gains and tremendous benefits from this stretch. Today I find it quite easy and comfortable. I do each leg for a count of 40.
4 Seated Shin Stretch [Video start time: 04:13] Then we come to the seated shin stretch. Sit with your shins flat on the ground for a count of a hundred, some days I take it up to 200 feel a tremendous deep stretch in the anterior tibialis, which you’ll experience as your shin, and possibly also in your quadricep, the front of your thigh.
Then there are two elements you can add to this stretch.
4a Twists [Video start time: 04:35] The first is to do some twists exactly like the ones you learned in the Desk Fitness video. Extend your arm and turn your torso gently, while keeping your eyes locked on your hand. Because there’s less pressure on the spine, you can get some nice resetting of the disks when you do these twists while seated in this position. Once again, always exercise care with your spine. Don’t overextend and be extra careful if you’ve had spine surgery or think you might be heading that way.
4b & 4c Deep Thigh Stretch [Video start time: 05:09] Then you can deepen the stretch to bring the focus to your quadricep muscle. Stage one is to lean backwards onto your hands and push your hips skywards. You’ll feel a good stretch in the front of your thigh. If you feel up for it, you can then lower yourself onto your forearms in what’s effectively a lite version of the yoga pose called Supta Virāsana. In my experience, this exercise has an added benefit in that it compresses the discs and that seems to release a tremendous amount of energy into the body. When I get up from this stretch, I feel like I’ve already had my morning coffee.
BE EXTRA CAREFUL IF YOU ATTEMPT THIS ONE as you can hurt your back. It’s important that you start slowly and only do what you feel comfortable with. Or substitute this exercise for another one. You could, for example, place your knee on the ground and pull your heel up towards your buttock behind you (4d).
So those are the core stretches that I developed and that I’m offering to. I also like to add, and few others.
Yoga Sun Salutation
[Video start time: 06:01] The yoga sun salutation offers an extra stretch opportunity and gets the energy flowing. Don’t use mine as the definitive demonstration, you can get expert instructions online. The conventional approach is to do a sequence of 12 of these, leading alternately with the right leg and the left leg, six times each. I just do a couple, and focus on the lower back contraction and hamstring stretch opportunities that it provides.
You can get a good stretch of the hamstrings when you come up, and again when you go down (1). Then comes the upward facing dog (3). If you can, lift your knees off the ground, and try to get a good contraction in the muscles of the lower back. In the downward dog position (2), focus on pushing your heels down towards the ground, and simultaneously roll your hips forward, making a good attempt to get a contraction in your lower back. You also want to try to push your chest towards your knees. The idea is that if someone poured a droplet of water at the base of your spine, it would run up along your spine, rather than off to the side.
Yoga Standing Poses
[Video start time: 07:20] And that’s not all! If you want a natural energy boost that lasts the entire day, the yoga standing poses are better than any supplement you could take. In fact, I find that when I do these in the morning, my energy during late afternoon / early evening is always much stronger.
These poses require—and develop—strength, endurance and suppleness. It will be best if you can get proper instruction on these, whether from a book, online video, or actual Coach. As with any yoga pose, there are fine details that you have to get right so that you can get the full benefit out of them. You can hold the poses for as little as a count of 10 or 20, and you can extend that to a minute or two. If you can hold them all for longer than that, then you’re moving into championship level.
I see these exercises as money in the bank for when I get old—that little bit of pain each morning, is going to save me a lot of pain when I’m older.
They’re great for the heart and, for the same reason, take it easy if you have a heart condition. If that’s the case, you may want to get medical advice before trying them. There’s not much more to say about them, except that they are way more strenuous than they look.
Aerobic and Strength Exercises
[Video start time: 08:24] And, guess what? That’s not all! When I can’t get to the gym during the week – which is pretty much every week right now while we’re on lockdown – I do a set of weights-free aerobic and strength exercises. This is just a short program that I found on the Internet, and I’m sure you can find one just the same. This one includes bodyweight squats (although I do use a bit of a weight there), push-ups, prone cobras, mountain climbers, and star jumps. It’s a timed interval training and you do as many sets as you can with 20 minutes between the exercises and a minute between the sets. I’ve included it here just to give you an idea of what a total program might look like.
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