Fitness Tip of the Month: Exercises to build a better back (part 2)

By Heather Sansom, July 30, 2012

Stability before mobility' can be a handy way to remember the order of training priorities for riders, especially those suffering from any back pain. Actually, creating straightness and protecting the spine is important for anyone. In work I do teaching on spine stability, we always start with techniques for stabilizing the spine prior to any work that introduces motion or loading. Participants in the course are usually sent by their physiotherapist due to back issues, and participants range from relatively sedentary lifestyles, to marathon athletes.

Sometimes the more athletic participants are at greatest risk because they challenge their bodies more.

A common trait among the athletes is that their bodies are so good at finding ways to meet demand that they have developed very interesting compensating patterns. The patterns eventually work against them. The more athletic and successful the person is, the longer they tend to go without addressing the negative pattern, because they don't need to. Finally an injury or chronic pain stops them, and then they have to work hard to re-train muscle patterns for healthier movement which will allow them to continue to be an active sport participant for future decades.

The more sedentary or less active participants have also developed negative patterns, and usually experience or are more at risk for acute injury than the athletes. On one hand, they do not have the strain issues of the athletes because they just aren't doing enough to create such issues. On the other, being blissfully out of shape is no help either since they are at higher risk for illnesses and complaints related to sedentary lifestyle choices, and for acute injury.

Since riders are first humans, it is no surprise that I observe the same tendencies among riders as I do other athletes and clients. With age, the leisure rider loses muscle tone, range of motion and ability for speedy response. Combined with less frequent riding, this rider is more at risk for a sudden injury from an incident such as a spook, or a particularly tough riding day. While the more full time athlete or professional has more skill and does not have the same risks as the amateur or leisure rider, eventually compensating patterns catch up and I see seemingly unconnected larger issues such as need for hip replacement, deep tissue therapy, frozen shoulders, and the often laughed-off complaint that ?I can't walk (or insert other activity), but I can still ride'.

In the spine stability group, the problems are occurring in the participant's backs, and so the course is about re-teaching participants to properly stabilize their spine using more effective muscle firing patterns for core activation. When stabilization can become more automatic, they can shift to movement and increased loading or effort while maintaining the stability in their spine. This helps them shift back to the sport or activity they need to do, but this time with a much stronger and more engaged core so that they can reduce the possibility of injury and even increase performance or enjoyment of life because they are moving the way they were designed to.

Given the heavy time investment required of all riders, whether riding occasionally for leisure or more full time, the good news is that the rider can make significant improvements in joint and posture supporting strength with very little equipment and relatively little time as long as one is diligent. When you think about it, you may only ask one horse to do serious work for at most half an hour out of his entire day. The rest of his workout is warmup, cooldown, and lengthen/stretch/relaxation between exercises. So, except for riders in disciplines requiring extreme levels of stamina, most riders can improve their performance and reduce their risk of injury and pain (acute or long-term) with fairly minimal additional effort.

Clearly frequency is important. One session a week would be insufficient. The horse that you expect to progress, needs to be working 5-6 days a week. Similarly, someone in re-habilitation has exercises that must be done daily. As the workload increases, the frequency in the week drops a bit, and harder days are alternated with lighter ones. When the goal is reached, maintenance is quite easy with a few times of exercises per week and generally more active lifestyle. So, a rider that wishes to make significant improvements in things like core strength, posture or supportive strength around problem joints can expect to start with very short daily exercises, and gradually reduce the frequency as the output increases.

Five minutes a day of postural or core work can become 30 minutes, 2-3x a week in several months. The key is diligence. For riders in particular, posture and technique are more important than the output (number of repetitions or resistance/weights used if any). Never sacrifice correct execution for volume or speed.

Also, try not to overthink. A goal is to be able to train automatic correctness so that you can rely on correct muscle engagement for torso support while riding without thinking about it. Participants in other sports train their throw, swing, race start, kick (name any movement), but at a certain point they have to reach the point of automating the elements so they can actually perform in the sport. Constantly overthinking movements in your unmounted exercises (or on the horse) blocks you, and is not the goal. (The sometimes unfortunate irony is that the rider who pays attention to these details and is interesting in using groundwork in their training plan, is often the same person who has a tendency to overthink their work both on and off the horse.) A rider using groundwork exercises such as those described in these articles, is using the ground time to slow movement and engagement down to train better movement and stamina, so that when they are in the saddle they can focus on the riding and not which muscle is doing what, and especially not on exerting force consciously.

In the last two pieces in this mini-series on the rider's back, we looked at some of the significant muscle groups involved in a rider's posture, as well as an exercise for building strength along the postural support line from a rider's seat to their upper back using an exercise that promotes correct firing sequence and complete engagement along the chain (the bent over forward reach). The exercise from the previous article ( is a good starting point because it takes a rider completely out of positions used in riding. The rider can concentrate on the execution of the exercise and is less at risk for automatically falling into compensating patterns. As the movement becomes more automatic and there is visible improvement in muscle tone and stamina, it's time to introduce additional challenges that will help transfer to riding.

Challenge #1: Transfer the movement back to a vertical plan with lateral asymmetry.
Moving to an upright posture from a horizontal one can be a challenge for some people. All call these transfers from one plane to another ?brain gym' for neuro-muscular connection. The goal is to use the exact same firing sequence as was used for the bent over reach. The feeling of doing the exercise should be the same except that the rider is vertical and the removal of gravity for loading (weight of the rider's arm) necessitates loading by other means (resistance tubing works well). The rider also has to actively neutralize the spine by tucking the tailbone under and consciously engaging core strength to do so in order to resist all tendency for the back to hollow or shoulders to be thrown back during the exercise. It is best to ensure correct form and motion with no resistance before introducing resistance. If tension is felt in the shoulder/neck area, remove resistance and persist until the movement can be made with only softness in the shoulders. Most riders I give this exercise to have been compensating with upper trapezius (tight neck/shoulders) and their first tendency when back in a vertical plane is to shrug the shoulders and try and use upper body strength, rather than stabilize their spine through a solid base around the middle with the arm only an incidental extension of their body. It can take a week or two before introducing resistance.

The horse's back is never symmetrical in motion under the rider, so putting your legs in a split lunge to do the exercise helps replicate the situation with riding where a rider can be tempted to collapse one side of their hip. Maintaining horizontal straightness in the hips, in spite of asymmetrical leg position forces a rider to properly engage torso stabilizers that control lateral and rotational support.

The exercise: overhead raise in split lunge. Step into the lunge, stabilize or neutralize the spine with good core engagement, and raise the arm straight overhead without throwing shoulders back or hollowing the lower back. The ear, shoulder and hip socket should be aligned as required for riding. A rider with bound shoulders will have trouble raising their arms straight overhead and may need to spend a few weeks opening the shoulders with stretches and other mobilizing exercises first.

Challenge #2: Overhead raise seated on a ball. Return to seated position, minus old compensating patterns. In this variation , the rider maintains the vertical posture, but is seated on an exercise ball. The challenge will be to resist whatever collapsing pattern previously used, and maintain the same engagement discovered through the other exercises. Use of mirrors or a training partner is important for these exercises so that you can have an accurate observation of alignment. A rider correcting a faulty pattern typically has an offset internal sense of straightness, which needs to be re-set as the rider achieves more correct straightness.

Fitness Tip of the Month: Exercises to build a better back (part 1)

By Heather Sansom, July 30, 2012

The previous article on building a better back for riding described some of the areas in a rider's torso which need to be strengthened to support the spine in correct posture.? (View article here:

The majority of riders in North America started riding later in life, which means that they start riding having bypassed the opportunity to train their own straightness and posture when it might have come more easily. Additionally, the majority of riders are also in an age group (30-60yrs) when the rider's postural muscles and ability to respond to sport requirements are impacted by age. As discussed at length in the previous article, riding in an upright posture on a horizontal moving horse introduces a significant load to the rider's spine.

The best physical circumstance for the rider is to have strong and supple postural muscles (also shown in the previous article). Just as for a horse, suppleness in the rider pre-supposes both flexibility and strength. It is sometimes helpful to think of muscle as an impact buffer. Tendons and ligaments do not have much relative elasticity, nor are? they meant to. Bones have even less. When movement or impact introduced to the body travels quickly to the bones and ligaments due to lack of muscle tone, the opportunity for long-term and even acute strain and injury are increased because tissues that are not designed to manage a load, are asked to do so many thousands of repetitions throughout a ride, a week of riding or a season of riding.

Protecting the joints (including the many spinal joints) and bones (disks in your spine included) requires sufficient muscle to manage the loading to the rider's body from the horse's motion, as well as the rider's chosen responses (aids) and unconscious responses (constant posture re-balancing and re-organization of readiness for aids throughout the ride).

To have suppleness, a rider needs sufficient muscle mass because insufficient mass will result in tightening responses in the muscles, and harder tissues like ligaments, fascia. Sufficient muscle mass is like having margin in your budget. You can relax, and the same works physically. When the rider has sufficient muscle to absorb demand and respond easily, the body does not introduce tension (provided other mental factors do not cause the tension). This is easy to understand when thinking of your horse's conditioning. It is the same with the horse who is typically conditioned to a capacity much greater than the actual movements and length of time required in competition. Trotting up hills uses a horse's hind end more than may be needed, and over more time than needed for a dressage test. By training him this way, he will be more capable for powering from behind on the flat and asking him to push himself on the flat will not be so difficult or stressful for him physically or mentally.

Suppleness is not only a function of strength, but relaxed strength. Muscles tend to knot when strength is trained in short range of motion. This is why a horse that is working in high level collection does not spend his entire training session in high collection. He is kept lengthening to ensure that he does not develop tense bunchiness. The same principle applies to human training. An observation of dryland training sessions for any sport will show the athletes moving in all kinds of patterns beyond those used in the actual motions of the sport. Since riders - especially in dressage- have fairly short range of motion while mounted, it is especially important to use exercises that work the required muscles along their complete length. I have seen many shoulder and hip issues which were the result of a rider being too many hours in a small range with those joints (too much saddle time in ratio to other activities), resulting in locked down or frozen shoulders, and hip tension patterns which worked against the rider's performance.

So, when choosing exercises to work the rider's back stabilizing muscle groups, I usually recommend exercises that will stimulate activation of the relevant muscles along more length, and in different planes than are used in the seated riding posture. Once the rider is sure that the muscles are working along their length, and that the right muscle groups are activating for torso stabilization, then it is effective to bring the new physical capability back to the seated posture. Each individual is different, but often if a rider does an unmounted exercise from a replicated riding posture to start with, they reproduce the same inefficiencies and problems they show in the saddle, on the ground. Then the exercise loses it's benefit because the rider ends up reinforcing the muscle patterns and weaknesses we are trying to untrain.

The following exercises help a rider first activate the backline torso muscles from the seat (gluteals) up to the shoulders, then maintain the same activation while shifting to the upright position used in riding. The third step is to then move to a seated posture, without losing the correctness in torso stabilization and use of back muscles. This month we look at the first exercise. Watch next month's issue for the remaining two in the sequence. In each of these exercises, the rider lifts their arm overhead, without compromising spine neutrality: the spine is always held in a neutral position and is not allowed to hollow. When the exercise can be peformed correctly with no resistance, the difficulty of the exercise can be enhanced by increasing the loading at the furthest end of the physical lever- using resistance tubing of different weights held in the hand. The more the rider uses resistance, the more there will be temptation to hollow the back, or to power through the shoulders. Male riders should be particularly careful of allowing the shoulder and arm muscles to take over. All riders need to remember to push the shoulder blades down their back during each step of the exercises in order to avoid compensation by the upper trapezius (big shoulder muscle area connecting shoulders and neck which is often an area of tension for riders).

Exercise of the Month: Bent over Forward Reach

This exercise demands that the rider straighten their back, using body weight as the first resistance while the rider engages their entire backline to achieve a straight back posture parallel to the floor. Riders with locked forward shoulders or locked upper backs will find this exercise quite difficult. If achieving straightness as the first step is quite difficult, it is sometimes helpful to place your hands on your thighs just above your knee and push your upper body upwards. Lift the chin and look up. The rider's back is a long lever with its base at the rider's hip. Bend your knees slightly and sit back into your seat a little to engage the gluteals. They are the anchor for the lower back. Lengthen the back as long as you can make it, and then lift up your head and chest. When you can hold the posture without a problem, and you can feel or see the length of your long back muscles engaged from the tailbone to the bottom or your head, you are ready to introduce more resistance to help build strength and stamina.

Reach one arm forward and parallel with the floor in a straight line with your torso. I recommend working with mirrors or a partner until you are very confident that your subjective awareness of straightness is accurate. The exercise is performed best with a slow raising of the arm, slight pause and slow lowering. A slow and rhythmic speed gives you the opportunity to engage your core to support your back, and build some endurance because you cannot just cheat with momentum and gravity. When 10-15 repetitions with good form are fairly easy, you are ready to introduce more loading by holding a light object. The amount of weight you use is limited by your ability to hold correct form, and to keep your torso and long back correctly engaged. As soon as you find that these are being compromised so that you can achieve lifting the weight, then the point of the exercise has been lost.

Fitness Tip of the Month: Build a better back

By Heather Sansom, July 26, 2012

We hear a lot of discussion about improving the topline of a horse.? Riders can train for better posture by strengthening the muscles in the chain in their ?backline'.? Riders sitting vertically on a horizontally moving horse must unconsciously engage a chain of muscles responsible for maintaining spinal alignment on a moving horse.? When a rider does not have sufficient strength or stamina for using the postural muscles in their ride, they either collapse or force good posture, both of which shut down the suppleness needed in the hips and back for following the horse's motion.? Building strength and stamina in the muscles involved gives the rider the ability to maintain posture while constantly adjusting to the horse's movement. Many riders experience low back pain, or even develop issues with loss of integrity in the discs in their spine from excessive wear.

Figures two and three show two ways that a rider loses structural integrity (alignment). 1. collapsing forward in the pelvis while falling backing the shoulders (hollow back) and 2. collapsing forward in the torso pushing the lumbar area muscles into flexion.? In the first frame, the rider's seatbones point backwards.? In the second frame, they point slightly forwards.? In neither instance are they directly under the rider in a neutral position where the seat can follow the horse's motion.? In these compromised positions, there is a blockage to the flow of motion up the spine: areas that are locked down essentially allow any area that will move, to do more than it's fair share.

While a rider's position does change depending on requirement and discipline, the basic principles of do not change: the rider must be balanced with a neutral spine. Figure one shows a natural spinal curve with the rider's body and head nicely balanced over the seat.? The rider is vertically balanced, on a horizontally moving horse.? The movement forward creates a force direction which challenges the vertical alignment.? In a nicely balanced rider, the motion creates a soft undulation in the spine showing a fairly even distribution of the force of motion without blockage.? The rider must have the suppleness to both follow the motion, and also recover from it and re-find alignment.? This is ?balance in motion'.? If the horse were a stationary pedestal, finding balance would be static.? Since he is moving, balance is a constant adjustment and re-adjustment which involves soft joints but tone in muscles and ligaments.? Complete softness would result in floppiness.

The human skeleton of course needs soft tissues (ligaments, muscles, fascia etc?) to support upright posture.? The more load and demand, the more strength is needed. When a rider does not have sufficient muscular strength in the[gallery]

appropriate areas for the demand being placed on their body, the body will attempt to maintain stability by tightening ligaments, fascia or even muscles.? The rider becomes tense. When the rider has sufficient strength, they can actually relax more as their body is able to support itself against the requirements of the moment without having to introduce tension.

Figure one shows a structural weak point at the rider's waist: a small section of spine not supported by connection to other bones such as ribcage or hips.? This is the place where a rider without sufficiently supportive soft-tissue will tend to experience excessive load because the area can fold and bend too much. ?In other words, the rider will collapse, or have too much motion at the waist area which puts negative pressure on the area. The human frame just cannot manage the motion of the horse without being sufficiently stabilized and supported by soft tissues, particularly the core and backline muscles which support the vulnerable low back area.

Figure four is a visual depiction of how the midsection core muscles wrap around the midsection to provide stability.? The human midsection has to be flexible to bend, but it also has to have enough strength and tone to remain supportive of the spine in motion.? These diagrams are of course not anatomically correct, but they do give you a visual image for the points discusses.? The core muscles depicted in frame four include the diaphragm and transverse abdominus which support the pelvis and torso from all directions.

Figure five shows some of the vertically aligned muscles that help a rider maintain upright posture: the rectus abdominus (most referred to as ?abs'..the visible 6-pack muscle), and the erector spinae (long muscle responsible for keeping spine upright).? The vertically aligned muscles on both the front of the torso, and back need to be strong.? However, riders typically have an imbalance with more weakness in the back than the abdominals.? Working the backline can almost not be overemphasized in a rider fitness program.? Spinal alignment is the same, whether a rider is sitting upright with seatbones on the saddle, or has their seat out of the saddle in a jumping position.? The jumper must fold at the hips and maintain a straight back, using all the same muscles as the seated rider.? The important difference is that the rider who rides out of the saddle needs even more strength in the backline than a rider who is seated.

Frame six shows how the backline of muscles supporting spine alignment for a rider also include many other muscles on the rider's sides (obliques, and intercostals- small muscles between ribs), as well as the gluteals and hamstring muscles.? These muscles support hip posture, and good hip posture is vital to good spine position.? Also, good tone in these muscles helps maintain proper leg position as the rider does not have to struggle with a hip-flexor/hamstring imbalance to keep their leg underneath themselves.

Next month, watch for exercises riders can use to strengthen the backline muscles.

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