How to teach a backbend safely

There’s an article going viral online that has dance parents and teachers a little scared. “5-year-old paralysed-after-gymnastics-move“. The little girl was practising backbends with her sister, lost feeling in her legs, and became paralysed.

It’s a terrible accident, and a rare one, but it doesn’t mean we have to stop our children from trying such things. Children need to learn how to take risks as part of a gradual increase in independence; they need to learn what their limits are. They are physical learners, which is why their learning starts with this kind of play.

What we don’t know from the article was whether the young girl had a congenital disorder of the spine (which can go unnoticed until an accident like this occurs) that may have contributed to the injury, or how much supervision was occurring at the time.

Any parent who has ever asked me how they can help their child learn a Backbend at home has always done so nervously. “I’m scared she’ll hurt herself. I tell her to wait until class, but she won’t. Is there something I can do to help?“. Sure, there is a lot you can do to help. It involves common sense, supervision, and a little education, rather than cotton wool and helicopters.

Please note though, that there is always potential for injury.

By practising backbends at home they are going to learn a lot quicker than waiting for that one time a week a coach is available. Always be present in the room, preferably less than a metre away, or holding onto them.  This way you can help them, catch them if they try something a little too daring they are not ready for, and to tell them when to stop. Don’t let them overdo it.

Here’s how to start:

Ensure a safe Push-up Backbend can be performed

There are two ways to get into a Backbend – from lying on the ground (a Push-up Backbend), or from standing and bending back onto the hands (a Backbend from Standing).

A Push-up Backbend is where the child lies on their back, puts a flat hand next to each ear (finger tips facing feet), and push on their legs and arms to make a bridge (Figure 1). The head should not be touching the ground, and they should be able to lower slowly and without a thud, by tucking their chin into their chest and slowly bending their arms and legs until they are laying flat again.

Photo 19-03-2016, 10 31 50 AM
Figure 1: This 5-year-old has just learned a push-up backbend. She has a nice, even curve throughout her spine (no ‘hooks’) and just needs to work on getting her hands in vertical alignment with her shoulders. She’s ready to start training the ‘backbend from standing’.

If they cannot keep their elbows straight and feet flat on the ground with plenty of air space between their head and the floor (see Figure 2), they are nowhere near being capable of learning the backbend from standing.

Photo 19-03-2016, 5 25 14 PM
Figure 2: This young lady is going to take a while longer yet before she can do a Push-up Backbend.

Even if they are capable of a Push-up Backbend, there is quite a distance between it and learning the Backbend from Standing. To bridge that gap, some flexibility and strength training is required.

Strength and Flexibility exercises

To increase their strength, encourage them to count how long they can stay in a Push-up Backbend with nice, straight arms, or let their friend/brother/sister army crawl carefully underneath them – i.e. make it a fun challenge!  Don’t let them do this more than 5 times and always roll out the spine in the other direction by slumping or slouching forward or rolling their whole body into a ball shape in between each try.

To increase flexibility, they need to stretch the shoulders and torso. Spinal rotations, cobra and ‘pat-yourself-on the back’ elbow holds (no sway backs please!) all need to be done to increase the flexibility of the whole spine and shoulder girdle. Consult your coach to learn more about these stretches if necessary.

More advanced strength exercises

Once they have mastered the above, they will still need to develop further strength and control in their torso (especially the abdominals) and arms, to learn a Backbend from Standing, .

I have provided here three (3) options to choose from:

  1. Upside down pushups
  2. Walking down the wall
  3. Backbends onto the couch

In all of these exercises, it is extremely important that you hold them safely and securely.

How to hold a child during Backbend exercises

The most secure holding position is your hands clasped together and in contact with their lower back (Figure 3). You will at first take weight of their body as they attempt the exercise, and gradually can take less of their weight, while still holding them securely.

Push up bckbend held supported
Figure 3: The most secure holding position. Your fingers are clasped together, you are holding the child at their lower back, and are ready to take the full weight of their body to counteract their movement into the Backbend

At some point, you will feel that they are almost completely in control of the exercise/movement, so you can take away the contact with their back – whilst still keeping your hands clasped underneath them (Figure 4).

Push up backbend supported
Figure 4: A holding position for a stronger child – your hands are clasped behind the child’s back, but there is no contact between your hands and any part of their body.

Now for the exercises:

  1. Upside Down Push-ups

Practising good ol’ push-ups are great for developing upper body strength in general, but to target strength for the backbend from standing, something more specific is required – ‘upside down push-ups!’ That’s right, upside down! This develops torso strength, by training the abdominal muscles to contract eccentrically – that is, gripping on in a stretched position, such as when bending backwards to do a Backbend from Standing – this is how they will develop the control needed.

Photo 19-03-2016, 5 25 00 PM
Figure 5: ‘Upside down Push-ups’ in progress. A good cue is to tell them to ‘tickle their armpits’ and put their hands back down again.

To prepare, the child pushes up into a Backbend and you hold onto them securely.

Then they are going to lift their hands off the ground, and place them back down again, in a controlled manner, finishing with straight elbows. At first you will take much of their body weight into your hands, until they get a feel for the movement. Encourage them to press their feet into the ground as they lift.

They only need to take their hands off for a second, and the whole movement should be done in a controlled manner. Until they can do it in a controlled manner, continue holding them securely.

As they gain control, you can keep your hands locked underneath them, but away from their lower back, as previously described.

2. Walking down the wall

Standing with their back to the wall, they can put their hands over their head, press their hands into the wall, and walk their hands all the way down the wall until they are touching the ground and are – voila! – in a backbend position! At first they will not be able to walk down, like my demonstrator (Figure 6), so they can stand closer to the wall. Gradually, the child will need to stand further out away from the wall. Helpers, hold on securely until they can control the whole process.

 

Backbend walking down wall
Figure 6: Drill #2 – help them walk their hands down the wall until their hands are touching the floor. My hand is making contact with the child’s back but I could also clasp both hands around her waist.

3. Backbend from Standing onto the Couch/Bed

Do the same as for walking down the wall, but with a couch. The seat of a couch (or bed) is the half way point from the starting standing position to being in a Backbend (for a child about 120cm tall). If they can do a controlled Backbend and put their hands onto the couch, they are halfway there. Once they have mastered that you might find something lower like a step (put a pillow down!) or a mattress on the floor. Always hold them until it is very clear they are controlling their own movement and body weight.

Finally, it’s time for them to attempt a Backbend from Standing, with you holding them. Clasp your hands behind their lower back, and as they go down, take the weight of their body into your clasped hands and help them reach to the ground. As they get more proficient, take less of their weight into your hands, and gradually remove contact with your hands -but be there ‘just in case’ – always have two hands behind their back ready to catch.

If they can do a controlled Backbend from Standing with your hands ‘there’, but not touching, the rest is psychological. They need to be confident to take all the ‘supports’ away, and give it a go. They can still put a cushion or pillow down until they are 100% confident. Regardless, the helper must always be present, and be in the ready position, right next to them.

 

Before you go, some general advice for practising Backbends and Backbend exercises:

  • Don’t overdo it – children shouldn’t practise backbends for more than 15 minutes at a time.
  • Always warm up – have your child do all spinal and shoulder stretches you can think of – see my post about stretching to learn more about the best way to stretch for warming up, and flexibility increases.
  • Decompress the spine after each backbend.  When we bend our back (known as ‘extension’ – bending forward is called ‘flexion’), we compress the discs which sit between each vertebrae.  The facet joints and other articulating surfaces also get closer together, and if you bend without warning (i.e. warming up, or with little body control), you could jam them or lock them up, causing pain and/or injury. ‘Decompressing’ involves bending forward (flexion) in the opposite direction.  Slouching the shoulders forward until the fingers are touching the floor, or yoga poses like the ‘child’s pose’, or curling the whole body up into a ball are all good options.
  • Always supervise – until they can do a backbend by themselves, you need to be holding their back as described throughout this post, and as confidence is gained, hovering in less than an arm’s distance away, ready to step in the put your hand/arm under their back to catch or break a fall.
  • Set up a safe practise zone. Get all toys and furniture out of the way. Have a mat, cushion or pillow of at least 5cm depth underneath the head area (a body’s length away from the feet), but make sure their hands are going to land on the floor, not the cushion/pillow/mat.
  • Educate your child. In words they can understand, explain what bending the back does to the spine, how important warm-up is, and how an adult should always be present. Too much practise is detrimental, they will go backwards in their development. Rest is equally as important as practise.
  • Helpers, take care of yourself. Never help a child that is the same size, or bigger than you. Always be in a ‘ready position’, with a wide stance and abdominals braced (as per all the images in this post) – you don’t want to injure your back helping theirs!

I hope this has helped give many parents the confidence to help children who are keen to give Backbends a go.

The advice I have given is of a general nature and does not negate the chance of injury, or worse, occurring. Use your common sense and take responsibility for allowing them to practise with your supervision but in the absence of professional supervision, and know when you or your child may be out of your depth.

Finally, I wish little Eden and her family all the best and I too, hold out hope that she recovers.

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