Time to meet the erector spinae muscle group
If there are any muscles that are truly “back muscles”, it is the erector spinae muscles! This thick dense grouping of muscles runs the entire length of the spine. Surprisingly, this muscle is often overlooked when someone has back pain. They are overlooked in favor of more popular muscles such as psoas, gluteals, or the abdominals. There is a lot to learn in this group of muscles.
What does the name of the erector spinae muscles mean?
The name, erector spinae, refers to the function of these muscles. They are a powerful group of muscles. And, their job is an important one, to keep the spine erect, or upright. So, the word erector then refers to erect, or upright. And, the word spinae refers to the spine.
The erector spinae muscles are really three muscles: spinalis, longissimus, and iliocostalis. Each of these three muscles can be further subdivided into additional smaller muscles based on the region of the spine they are in. Spinalis comes from the Latin word spina which means “thorn”. It refers to the bumpy projections that you can feel along the length of the spine, the spinous processes. Longissimus is the Latin word for “longest”. The word iliocostalis comes from the Latin words ilium, which refers to the large pelvic bone, and costa which means “rib”.
Where do the erector spinae muscles attach?
Spinalis is the most medial of the erector spinae muscles. It can be further subdivided into three sections, the spinalis thoracis, spinalis cervicis, and spinalis capitis. The longissimus is the middle muscle of the erector spinae group. It can be further subdivided into three muscles: the longissimus thoracis, longissimus cervicis, and longissimus capitis muscles. Iliocostalis is the most lateral of the muscles in the erector spinae group. It can be further subdivided into two smaller muscles, the iliocostalis lumborum and iliocostalis cervicis.
Spinalis thoracis originates on the spinous processes from about T10 – L3. However, you’ll find that spinalis cervicis originates on the lower part of the nuchal ligament and spinous processes of C6 or 7. Longissimus thoracis originates on the sacrum and the spinous and transverse processes of all lumbar and thoracic vertebrae. But, longissimus cervicis originates on the transverse processes of T1 – T5 and longissimus capitis originates on the transverse processes of of T1 – T5 and the articular processes of C5 – C7.
The three iliocostalis muscle sections vary in their origins as well. Iliocostalis lumborum originates on the medial aspect of the iliac crest, the sacrum, and spinous processes of the lumbar vertebrae. But, iliocostalis thoracis originates on the superior border of the lower 6 ribs, just medial to the iliocostalis lumborum. Finally, iliocostalis cervicis originates on the angle of the ribs 3 – 6.
Spinalis thoracis inserts on the spinous processes from about T2 – T8, however, spinalis cervicis inserts on the spinous processes of C2 and sometimes C3 and C4. Longissimus thoracis inserts on the transverse processes of all the thoracic vertebrae. But, longissimus cervicis inserts on the transverse processes of C2 – C6 and longissimus capitis inserts on the posterior part of the mastoid process. You’ll find that iliocostalis lumborum inserts on the inferior borders of the lower 6 or 7 ribs. However, iliocostalis thoracis inserts on the superior border of the upper 6 ribs and the transverse process of C7. Finally, iliocostalis cervicis inserts on the transverse processes of C4 – C6.
What actions do the erector spinae muscles do?
Spinalis thoracis and spinalis cervicis function bilaterally to extend their sections of the spine. The three longissimus muscles all function bilaterally to extend their portions of the spine and/or head. Additionally, longissimus thoracis and longissimus cervicis also laterally flex the spine to the same side. Longissimus capitis can rotate the head to the same side. The three iliocostalis muscles all function bilaterally to extend the spine. Unilaterally they function to laterally flex the spine to the same side.
Poses where these muscles contract
Postures such as shalabhasana will cause all of the erector spinae muscles to contract. They help lift the spine into hyperextension.
In urdhva dhanurasana, we use the erector spinae muscles to concentrically contract against the resistance of both gravity and the front of the body.
Poses where these muscles are lengthened
Paschimottanasana will lengthen the erector spinae muscles and the whole back of the body.
In halasana, we are changing the position of the body, lengthening the back of the neck, and using the weight of the upper body and legs. This generally intensifies the lengthening of the erector spinae muscles along the back line of the body.