The Arch Body Hold (Shalabhasana in Yoga) is an old, excellent, and difficult position to master.
Most people experience strong cramping in the lower back when they try this, and this is likely to be your experience too, without the right self cues.
This tutorial is the last exercise in "Master the Full Back Bend" (one of the five elements of the Mastery Course).
Olivia takes Craig though the subtleties of the ABH, from the easiest/simplest version to the strongest, and you can literally see Craig's form improving over the 16 minutes of the tutorial.
The Stretch Therapy method itself is on display, too: meticulous, precise cueing, whose results are instantly visible in Craig's body shape (and no back pain!).
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00:00 - Intro
03:41 - 1st cue, legs straight
04:07 - 2nd cue, squeeze legs together
04:17 - 3rd cue, squeeze the glutes
04:28 - 4th cue, tail tuck
04:47 - 5th cue, press legs away (not lifting)
06:19 - 6th cue, legs float up
This exercise is called the arch body hold. In many systems it's used, and it has different names depending on which system you learned it through. But we're going to call it the arch body hold. It has the potential to be an absolutely fantastic activation and strength exercise for all of the muscles on the back surface of the body. And it also is a fabulous active flexibility movement because you're using that same musculature to pull your body up off the floor, lower body and upper body, and pull your body into a backbend or extended position. This is the last element in our full backbend program. And the rest of the program has taken you through a whole range of stretches to stretch all the musculature on the front surface of the body, principally the hip flexors and all of the tissues through the front of the rib cage.
The final element of the exercise actually involves the capacity to pull the arms behind the line of the spine, otherwise known as shoulder flexion, and that brings a whole 'nother set of muscles into the equation, principally these big muscles underneath the armpit here. In our experience, practicing the whole exercise is not an efficient or indeed an effective way to develop the strength to do the exercise. So the way we cue it is to break the body down into basically lower half, spine, and then add the shoulder flexion element as a third element.
Typically, people overuse the extensor muscles of the lumbar spine to do the exercise, and don't really use the glutes and don't really use any of the muscles that extend the middle and upper back. I'm going to cue Craig to do the exercise – he's going to be my lovely model. And the reason we've got him topless is because I want to show you the capacity to cue all of the muscles that extend the spine to overcome the usual pattern where people only use the lumbar extensors.
What's the disadvantage, Liv, of only using the lumber extensors?
First of all, it'll just make your lower back sore. And it's just not efficient; there's all this other musculature, particularly the glutes, the biggest, most powerful muscles in the body, that should be doing the work of lifting the legs off the floor, extending the hip joint. So are you ready, Craig?
Let's do it.
Okay. Now, Craig is just going to lie comfortably on the floor. Actually, let's have him show you the full exercise just in case you don't know what it looks like. Basically, he's trying to pull the upper and lower bodies, lower halves of the body, evenly off the floor. So you might notice that Craig's actually got the upper body a little bit higher than the lower body, which gives me a little bit of a cue that he's a bit stronger in the upper body and probably a little bit weaker in the glutes.
Also tighter in the hip flexors.
Because he's probably a little bit tighter in the hip flexors. Thank you. And that is the typical pattern that we find, people can't activate the glutes. I'm going to forget about the upper body completely to begin with and just show you how we break down the exercise to get the glutes activated. And in a strength situation, the muscles need to be active before you can actually get them to work and then strengthen them. So the way we're going to cue the exercise today is all about activation of all of the muscles on the back of the body. And then over time, you'll be able to hold the position for longer and develop strength in all of that musculature.
So Craig, you can just lie there comfortably. I've tend to cue it with this position, so just make a little support for your head. And so here we go. The first cue is for Craig to press the legs straight. Not just kind of looking straight, but actually use the quads to press the legs straight. The legs stay on the floor initially; we're not even going to think about lifting the legs to start off with. So his first cue is press the legs straight. And because it looks prettier, we also do the toe point and get the whole lengthening effect through the body. And then I'm going to ask him to squeeze the legs together. This is really just cuing the idea of lower body activation and initial lengthening effect through the body.
The next cue is to squeeze the glutes as firmly as you can, and ideally as much of the glutes. And that's why I'm poking just to see whether as much of that tissue is active as possible. And here's the key cue. I'm going to ask him to do a strong tail tuck or posterior pelvic tilt – many of you know that term – to the point that he's actually got his lower abdomen pulled up off the floor. So maximum tail tuck. This is all just cuing the activation of the glutes. Then what I'm going to ask him to do is work out how he can actively press his legs away from him, no raising the legs yet, it's a lengthening or tractioning effect to begin with. You're getting a bit of a cramp in the foot there?
Yeah, in the arch.
Yeah. That's very common. So if all you get is a cramp in the foot, don't worry too much about the toe point aspect. So the key thing here is we have set the position of the pelvis to bring these muscles into awareness, but also to effectively turn off the lower back muscles, which I said in the beginning tend to want to get involved in the activity. And then the cue was to work out how to press the legs off the body. No lifting yet, not even lifting them off the floor at this point.
A good mental cue to use in your body is imagine someone's holding your ankles and drawing the legs out of the hip joint. Of course, if someone does it for you, you don't get the muscular activation, but that's the mental idea you have of a real lengthening via the glutes. So Craig's actually just doing it, holding it for a couple of counts and then wriggling around and relaxing. And this is all activation, remember. So you just bring the muscles into awareness, set the pelvic position, just practice the lengthening effect. That's the first part.
The second part would be as well as everything you just did. So squeeze the legs together, press them straight, maximum pelvic tilt, press the legs away. Then say to yourself, "My legs don't really weigh much and they're just floating up off the floor." Good. So you can see a lot of activation here from Craig's glutes, but you can also see the lower back muscles are starting to come into play. That's okay. That's always going to happen, but we want to make sure the glutes are involved as well in the leg lifting or hip extension movement.
How does that feel?
Yeah, it's getting strong in there, especially just under the glutes. Yeah. Down in the bottom by the glutes.
Excellent. Good. So just look at the size of these muscles. There's a huge amount of muscle here that can get involved in the exercise. I tend to feel it up a bit higher in the top of the glutes, but Craig's pointing out that he feels it right at the base of the glute. And there's also a little bit of hamstring involvement and that's okay. So that's the way we would cue the glute activation to develop this strength. Now, we're going to move into the back muscles themselves. So Craig, I'm going to ask you to bring your arms down next to your hips, totally out of the way. So we're taking the whole shoulder element and that long lever out of the equation. We're just going to focus on all of this. In particular, we're going to focus on how we get the feeling of the middle back getting involved in both drawing the shoulder blades together, pulling the shoulders back, and getting involved in the spinal extension.
So Craig, I'm going to recommend that you do a gentle tail tuck. Same idea. As soon as the tail is tucked, it impedes or inhibits his capacity to use the lower back muscles too much. First cue for you, Craig, is to simply try and draw the shoulder blades together. Just pull them together. Now, Craig's done a lot of strength training, a lot of pulling activity where he's got these muscles active, but for some people you'll find that's quite a difficult exercise to start off with. As well, and Kit's just signaling off camera because this is one of the things that is always going on about, we don't want internal rotation of the arms in the shoulder joint because that's the opposite of the chest opening aspect of this pose. So the cue is to do the external rotation. And of course, that also accuse all of these external rotators of the shoulder joint. And it will give you an additional sensation of all of this musculature drawing the shoulders back.
So the first cue was to pull the shoulder blades together. Then we think about rolling the shoulders back and then you can have a little rest.
Or you could just hold it for a couple of hours and that's all right. No. But truly this is an activation exercise. So we do short, sharp, then relax. Okay. So have a go at that again? Little tail tuck, so you're not tempted to always involve the lower back muscles. My first cue was to pull the shoulder blades together and there's a structural limit there, that's the end of their range of movement in this movement pattern. And then he's trying to also externally rotate the arms and that will draw the shoulders off the floor. Also, he has to be able to breathe. It's pretty awkward to breathe into the bits that are contacting the floor. So cue yourself to breathe into the back of the body. I find that way more effective. And have a little rest. Good.
Okay. To continue the theme of trying to get maximum activation here, go through that one again, Craig. Draw the shoulder blades together, and he did the pelvic tilt. Beautiful. Then he's externally rotating. Now as well as thinking about lifting, because now he is having to actually lift the chest off the floor and right down to below the nipples. Imagine you've got a bit of string tied to your sternum and that string's being pulled out to the front. So this idea of a lengthening movement as you do the lifting. That tends to get more of these muscles involved, not just plowing up around the lumbar back, lumbar spine, I should say. Let's do that one more time. So he tilted the pelvis with the glutes, he drew the shoulder blades together, externally rotated the arms. You can also think about using here to draw the shoulders down or pull the shoulder blades down towards the hips. And in terms of the neck position, I'd recommend you just do a neutral neck alignment. So no pulling the head into extension to start off with. How'd that feel?
That's good. Getting into this middle region of the back very strongly.
Excellent. That's what we're going for, this part of the spine getting involved. It's not to say that this won't work. Of course, the lumbar extensors will as well. But as we said at the beginning, typically people only get the feeling of using here, not here, and not any of this. Okay. Which is why we broke it down into component parts. Okay. The way to progress this would be for me to get out of the way a little bit, because now we'll just do one more go on the upper body only, but we'll change the arm position. So he tilts the pelvis, he draws a shoulder blades together, externally rotates the arm. Think about actively pressing the chest to the front and then hold that position. And now bring your arms to aeroplane arms, or whichever kind of position you can get to with all of this still involved and breathe. Where can you breathe into? As you lie there, add the cue of pressing the legs away from you. So a little bit more of a whole body activation, but still not yet involving the leg lifting action. And rest. Good.
I'll just note to everyone who's watching, I didn't feel that in this part at all, it was all here and here.
Awesome. That's what we're after. Okay. Now, we're going to forget about the legs and the upper body, and we're going to work on how to progress the capacity to pull the arms behind the line of the body. So Craig, if you stretch your arms out to the front, what I'm going to do is stand over Craig and put my hands right on top of the shoulder blades, and put a little bit of leaning pressure so that when he does the task of slowly lifting the arms away from the floor, he's not tempted to use all the back muscles to just lift the chest off the floor. Rather, he's using all the muscles at the back of the shoulder to flex the shoulder joint, to bring the arms off. And also the traps are involved. Of course, the traps are involved in that movement as well.
And with this tactile cue, it's not really leaning in and pressing him on the floor. It's more of a tactile cue. He will also feel the upper, middle, and potentially the lower traps get involved to do the arm lifting action. Okay. Now, like a lot of our exercises, we do a quick partner version. So he gets the feeling of which muscles he wants to get involved, but then I could come away and my solo cuing of him would be, you actively press the chest down onto the floor. Beautiful. That's lovely. And rest. Okay. So we've isolated just the shoulder flexion part of the movement. How you doing?
After the back-bending yesterday, I wouldn't be using my back for a couple days.
We filmed the whole back bending program yesterday. So Craig gave this a lot of work, a lot mobilization. All right. So now, we come and have a go at the whole exercise, but we still cue it to emphasize the muscles that we know tend not to want to get involved in the exercise. So we're trying to train in a particular pattern. And I'll just make a side note here. I can do this exercise well, because I've got really good flexibility. There's no impediment flexibility wise, but unless I cue the glute activation, I still tend to overuse the lower back muscles. That's a really important point, I think.
So Craig, here we go. There's quite a few cues in the whole sequence, but let me just take you through them. So Craig, press the legs straight. Point the toes unless that makes your foot cramp. Squeeze the legs together, squeeze the glutes and pull on a little bit of a tail tuck, press the legs away from you. And then start to pull the shoulder blades together, start to lift the arms off the floor, and then slowly and smoothly lift both ends of the body off the floor at the same rate. Breathe. Keep pressing the legs away from you and keep pressing your chest out to the front. Beautiful. Breathe. And lower down and rest.
Fantastic. So that was a beautiful arch body hold. He definitely had his arms further back behind the line of the spine than he did earlier on in the test at the beginning. And he had a more even lift, the upper and lower body were lifted a bit more evenly off the floor. Anytime you get any sensation of cramping anywhere in here, all you need to do is do a little counter pose a little curl up. So you might just want to sit back in the pose of the child or any of those exercises. So have a go at all the elements of the full back bend program and then have a play with this particular way of cuing this exercise and see how you progress in the arch body hold.
Find the audio file of this video at https://supplementary-material.s3.us-west-2.amazonaws.com/Arch+Body+Hold_+do+you+REALLY+want+to+know+how+to+do+it_+_+Stretch+Therapy.mp3.