In this position, “the upper back is in extension, which can open up the rib cage a bit and allow for more expansion (as opposed to being rounded forward),” says Leada Malek, PT, DPT, CSCS, board-certified sports physical therapist and strength and conditioning coach. The more your ribs can expand, the more room your lungs have to inflate as you breathe in, while being propped up on your forearms or elbows assists in this effort too by grounding the pose. “Fixing the elbows or hands allows for a stable shoulder and the muscles that attach to the rib cage can help expand it with better breathing too,” Dr. Malek says.
While this stretch seems to be popular, there are some drawbacks, according to Dr. Malek. “I see some limitations in it—ie. too much pressure from the ground onto the lower ribs, [for example]—but it's always nice to encourage people to move and breathe,” she says. “It’d be like breathing with a heavy weight on your chest, which makes it harder.”
As an alternative, “The easiest stretch to do for this would be a prone press up,” says Malek, which would be called cobra pose in yoga.
Watch this video to see how to do cobra pose (as well as the bigger version of the same backbend, up dog):
You can also try these types of backbends while seated, Dr. Malek says, placing your hands or elbows on your knees instead of the floor. “This has been found to use muscles more effectively in people with asthma,” she says.
If lying on your stomach is uncomfortable, a second option is to backbend over a foam roller. For this deep breath stretch, you’ll lie down on your back on the floor with your knees bent and a foam roller across your shoulder blades so that you can open your chest and bend back over it. “This facilitates extension of the thoracic spine, where our ribs attach, and this will facilitate a more mobile ribcage,” says Dr. Malek. Do as needed or once a day.
Another good stretch to incorporate is pursed lip breathing. “Pursed-lip breathing helps provide relief for shortness of breath and helps people regain control over their breathing,” says Malek. Breathe through the nose and exhale through the mouth with your lips together like you’re trying to whistle. Make your exhales a slow, controlled flow, practicing daily for three minutes total to see the most benefits.
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