The erector spinae (EE-rec-tor SPEE-neh) muscles are primary movers and shakers (okay, not shakers) in backbends. Why? Because it’s a set of back muscles that runs the entire length of the spine connecting the hips, spine, ribs and noggin (that’s the non-medical term for skull) working to help support the entire back body. I’m cheating though, because the erectors are actually comprised of three groups of muscles that combined are like many small ropes layered together running from the temporal bone at the mastoid process (back of the noggin) all the way down the back connecting at sacrum (two dimples between the hips on someone’s backside is the top of it).

The erector spinae group run like strong cables the length of your spine.

Prepare for scientific names. The three sets of muscles that make up the erector spinae are the spinalis, the longissimus, and the iliocostalis. Now… onward.

The spinalis run along the back of the spine connecting at each of the little humps sticking out of the back (these are also known as the spinous processes of your vertebrae). The second set, the longissimus, runs a little outside of the spine but connect at the back of the noggin (okay, technically the mastoid process) all the way down to the sacrum connecting to the ribs and sides of the spinal vertebrae as it goes. The final set, the iliocostalis, is the furthest away from the spine but as it connects at the sacrum and the neck has a bit of a curved look to it, like a bow that connects to each rib.

Looking at these more finely, they can contract to straighten the spine (e.g. tadasana), spill the pelvis forward as they pull up on the back of the hips, and of course there’s the aforementioned support in backbends. As a significant number of the layers run parallel but to the side of the spine, the erector spinae can also contract one side at a time to assist side bending (assisting lateral extension in the opposite side) and can produce a rotational effect in twists. Take a step back for a second. Imagine a professional tennis player serving. Holy erector spinae.

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Matt Sharpe

As a kid Matt Sharpe attempted almost every sport imaginable. As an NCAA Division I athlete he was exposed to almost every training method imaginable. After graduate school Matt found yoga nursing a injury and never looked back. Nothing matched the mental and physical aspects of yoga. Matt uses yoga as a tool to create balance between strengthening and stretching to prepare for whatever life wants to throw into the disco party. YTU was a natural extension to tie together a previous life as an athlete and his 200 hour traditional Yoga Alliance Certification to more fully integrate anatomy and movement into every day life. His classes reflect a mix of traditional principles and poses tied to a strong flow of movement with an easy philosophical approach. Matt is a product manager in Silicon Valley, a traveler, a coffee snob, and an outdoor lover much of which is reflected in his classes.

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Elaine Jackson

Thanks. I often tend to forget that the erectors are so wide (i.e. cover so much territory) and also tend to forget about the neck when I’m talking about them. And also, the word “noggin” takes me right back to childhood. It’s a word my Dad always used.

Shai

Excellent and concise review. Thanks

sue okuda

Fascinating that these strong muscles running the whole length of the spine and responsible for keeping the spine “erect” are rooted in the noggin – I would love to hear more about how that makes sense in the overall system! Anybody have any ideas?

Kat

Fun facts about how the erector spinae support your back. Thanks for the info

aniela eva

Anatomical connection with movement. Great to know about this grand muscle and how its used in yoga postures.

Suzanne Drolet

I am slooooowly learning more about the intricacies of the back and the many many layers of tissue that provide support and assist in the ways our torsos twist, flex and extend. I’ve got a funky clunky back that my chiropractor, PT and rolfer all say is not made by bones (it’s so loud that I’d think it’d be bones!) but muscles or ligaments slipping over each other! Weird and awfully unnerving when it happens. So I’m on the hunt to learn more about those tricksters in my back. Thanks for lightening it up with your fun post! I got… Read more »

Cathy Corkery

Great imagery of the muscles as a “rope”. That really helps to visualize them. I learned a lot from this.

Monica

I’m currently studying more about the Erector Spinae Group. Your paragraph describing the location of these muscles was extremely clear and written in ‘layman’s’ terms so I could quickly grasp a visual. I also used to Balls to help locate. Thanks a bunch!

Jean Eng

Definitely important to highlight these muscles as you don’t often hear them mentioned. I love using the Yoga Tune Up balls tol roll up and down the spine to awaken those erector spinae muscles.

Jen Wende

Thank you for making the anatomical terms and functions accessible. I appreciate the understanding, and your effort to not just cheat and stick with laymen terms. This is very helpful for me to gain a deeper awareness of my bosy

Kristin

Thank you for this information. I like what Jennie said about the changing of positioning in back bends that activate the erector spinae. What are we doing to strengthen these neglected muscles? Why not do low cobra verse upward facing dog in salutations. Why not do salabhasana? Is it because these poses are hard and humbling or is it because they are not as flashy as the up dogs. Is it because we cannot see our back? If we could see that these were weak like we can see when our abs are weak would we work them more?? More… Read more »

Jennie Cohen

While I agree that the back muscles get short shrift in core workouts (they are, after all, part of the 3-D core), it’s important to distinguish between backbends performed primarily by the erector spinae (like locust pose) and those performed primarily by gravity (camel) or by other muscles groups (the quads lift you into bow pose, for example, by kicking your shins into your hands). The erector spinae can be recruited to deepen backbends performed by other agents (they can increase thoracic extension in camel pose, for example), but here they’re backbend refiners, rather than the primary backbenders.

Barbara Treves

Sometimes when I move into full Ustrasana or Urdhva Dhanuasana I sometimes have to calm an urge to panic, as I imagine my back breaking in two in these positions of extreme vulnerability. It’s helpful to know there is a strong rope of muscles holding all of those tiny little vertebrae together. I actually did not know that the erector spinae was more than one muscle. Now that I know it is made up of three intertwined muscles makes me feel even more secure!

Ronald Todorowski

As someone who is working through a recent back injury I am naturally fascinated with the spine, its muscles and functions. I found this description of the erector spinae fun and clear. I’m brand new to this deeper study of anatomy. It’s incredible to me how little space there is in there with so much going on.

Rachel

I will never take the erector spinae for granted again as just a set of little muscles running the length of the spine. I guess I just didn’t think much of them because they are so deep within the body and not visible from the outside, but so important to our spine. I guess this is where I could use your phrase “Holy erector spinae” (I just love this!)

Steeve

What’s that nursery rhyme “Dem Bones” say about the head bone again? Since I base my Anatomical Principles on this song, you can imagine my confusion when I started reading your blog, and you talked about this thing called the Noggin. Then you went really deep, and started talking about (EE-rec-tor SPEE-neh). Far out! I need to go look at the creator of this “Dem Bones” song, and double check his facts and compare them with what I’ve just learned about the human body today. As for the Spinalis, the Longissimus, and the Iliocostalis. Is that even English? I guess… Read more »

Marion

Would be cool to see these muscles pop up from under the skin. Too bad they are deep to the Trapezius, QLs and external obliques and transvers abdomenals.

Jane

Wow! Lots going on in there. I love the feel of strengthening these muscles with side planks and asymmetrical bends, then rolling them out with the therapy balls. Thank you for breaking the Erector Spinae group down so clearly and reinforcing the idea of how a strong back holds up our precious noggins!

Kevyn

This is a wonderful breakdown of the back body erectors. We do spend a lot of time on the front of the body but i definitely feel all these cords that need love when I roll on my tune up balls. The tennis player serving is a great visual as well.

Nicolette

Great post Matt!

Thanks for breaking down the erector spinae, had no idea there were 3 different muscle groups. I now have a much better sense of where each one lives and love the visual of a tennis serve.

Thanks!

Yi-Hsueh Lu

As I was reading this article and looking at that picture, I realized there are a lot more superficial muscles at the kyphosic thoracic spine, and not so much at the lumbar region. Suddenly I understood why we were taught to “backbend” from the upper back, because that where are the actions happen! This post is really an enlightenment! Thanks.

Megan

Thanks for the great article! The explanation was clear and allowed me to have a better idea of how to landmark the erector spinae group on my own body!

Aida

I really enjoy the, fun simplicity of how you explain anatomyI had no idea the mastoid process was the noggin! Thanks for clearing that up! : )

Lori Gunnell

Matt, I enjoyed your very clear and simple explanation of the functions of the erector spinae muscles along the spine. The importance of stretching and strengthening this muscles cannot be over-emphasized, especially in our culture of sedentary office workers and chronic back pain. Thanks again for the clarity.

Judy Swens

This reminded me that the Errector Spinae also helps in backbends! We tend to do so much forward flexion of the spine I totally forgot to think this also involved backbending!!!

Allison Shapiro

Mushing into these muscles with the Yoga Tune Up therapy balls and the lift off into a back bend gives me the energy boast I need for the 2:00 slump!

Giancarla

What a cool set of musculature. I agree with Helen and Ariana, they really do need to stay supple to be able to laterally extend and flex…I have only just started to extend my proprioception of the back body and these erector spinae have always been very sensitive points even before I got my Yoga Tune Up balls on them. I find that in times of stress the Spinalis become especially tight roped and inflexible…better get rollin!

Heather Lindsay

First off I would like to say that I love the title of this article and back of the noggin wording. Makes this post fun. Off to work on and refresh my erectors after much sitting today with my priceless therapy balls.

Lori Wieder

I’ve realized how “knotty” these ropes can become and how and why this is affecting my neck and mid-back — YTU Balls to the rescue! 🙂

MaryBeth Frosco

I’m becoming more aware…more fascianted….by the “back body”. We seem to pay so much more attention to the front of the body and opening it (isn’t the back of the body as critical as the front of the body in most asana??) Usually my attention is only brought there when my students complain of pack pain (piriformis, SI, sciatic) instead of bringing attention to the back, the muscles of the back, and the importance these muscles have in movement and stability. Maybe we can help our students prevent these injuries in the future if we give them this knowledge eariler..

Ariana

I love that you refer to the erector spinae as many small ropes layered together. I also like to think about them as super strong cables. You can actually see this cable like action if you watch someone’s back as they extend their spines from a prone position into a pose like locust. I have seen these two rows of cables pop up to create this motion. It is fascinating how strong those muscles are. We should do our best to KEEP them strong and supple.

Helen McAvoy

In reading this blog it really opens my eyes to the involvement of each of the three erector spinae muscles . Especially the attachements into the “noggin”. Inlearning where each of the three attach one has a new understanding to make sure to move in all directions to keep them all supple.