The Key to Thoracic Mobility: The Pilates Swan

There’s a lot that can go wrong when you have poor posture, and I’m not just talking about looking like the hunchback of Notre Dame.

If you’re a meathead like me, crappy posture makes lifting a heck of a lot harder by creating:

  • Neck pain brought on by excessive forward head position
  • Back pain due to poor spinal mobility
  • Stiff, achey, or constantly beat up shoulders
  • Really bad weight lifting technique

And that’s just the short list!

Side note: This is part 3 of the Pilates for Meatheads series. Read part 1 and part 2 to catch up.

The good news is that we can fix these things, it simply takes consistent practice and patience. This is why I drill teach spinal extension in the form of the Pilates swan to all of my clients. Every. Single. One.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a CrossFitter or a high school track athlete, learning and practicing extension can unf*ck your posture and turn you into a magical unicorn.

Whether you're a CrossFitter or a high school track athlete, learning and practicing spinal extension can unf*ck your posture & turn you into a magical unicorn.

Back extension is not what you think it is

I’ve spent a week dipping my tired feet into yoga classes and one thing that stood out to me, other than the fact that IS IT REALLY NECESSARY TO TURN THE TEMPERATURE UP A THOUSAND DEGREES IN A YOGA STUDIO?! is that the majority of people don’t know how to extend their spines. Rather, they back bend into their lumbar spine (our default mechanism) and wonder why the hell their backs hurt.

Enter….the Swan.

The swan is a back extension exercise that appears a million times over in Pilates. It’s a lot like the C-curl in reverse, and it builds the foundation for Pilates practitioners to mobilize their spine for more difficult, advanced back bending exercises.

While it is a Pilates-based exercise, I use this with all my clients regardless of sport or activity, so you can use similar cues with yourself or your clients.

If you’re struggling with shoulder health issues, poor posture, back pain…or just life in general (haha) incorporate the swan into your life.

How to execute and cue spinal extension

Coach’s notes:

  • Palpate the area where you want the client to lift. I like to touch 2-3 vertebras at a time. Most people can’t do this well, and start jamming their shoulder blades together or moving down into their low back. It takes patience and practice to get this right.
  • If you’re doing this for yourself, a good marker of where the movement should come from is the bra (bro) line.
  • Avoid lifting the head. It should just travel along with your spine.
  • Don’t turn this into a push-up. The hands should feel fairly light in the beginning.
  • Keep space between the shoulder blades. A common mistake is jamming them together as one lifts.
  • Cues I like to use: “Pull your chest apart” and “Take your boobs through your arms”. Works every time.

The swan with foam roller

Coach’s notes:

  • This is ideal for someone who already gets the Swan and can extend from the mid-back.
  • Ideally, the foam roller moves naturally towards you while you lift the sternum up and forward.
  • Feet stay down the whole time. If they start to kick up, it’s a clear sign you’re starting to lift with your low back.

Considerations for Meatheads

I’m sure I could write a book on this topic, but for now, let’s stick to the highlights:

The body works as a chain. A stiff mid and upper back creates compensations elsewhere, which ultimately leads to changes in how the upper or lower body moves.

For barbell sport athletes:

Decreased mobility in the thoracic spine (where extension is meant to happen), makes it harder to get under the bar for squatting, and if you’re a powerlifter, you can’t afford to lose power in this lift because your chest can’t expand or your hands must be set too far wide. The same can be said with Olympic movements like the snatch or jerk. The shoulders, which work synergistically with your thoracic spine, needs to move well in order to maximize the lift and prevent injury (more on that below).

If Crossfit, powerlifting, or general meatheadedness is your thing, the Pilates swan is a great tool to use for yourself or your clients.

Preventing back pain and shoulder injuries:

The thoracic spine and shoulders work as a unit and should be treated together in how we learn or coach movement.

They work together when we squat, press overhead, twist to hit a tennis ball, or swing a bat. Training the two together can go a long way in developing overall back strength and flexibility, which ultimately takes care of the nagging back and shoulder issues many people experience.

Extension for better posture:

Working on extension with exercises like the Pilates swan is a surefire way to open up the chest caused by the computer-guy-desk syndrome pose. By relieving the chest and improving back strength, you’ll start to alleviate the constant tension in the head, neck, and shoulders, as well as allowing adequate movement of the shoulders and spine.

Get Started On Your Pilates Journey. Get the online Pilates FloWOD course now!

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