The Benefits of Downward Facing Dog Pose: Muscle Groups Targeted and Safe Techniques as Guided by Physical Therapists

Downward Facing Dog is the most classic and fundamental pose in yoga, but many people feel sore or have strains in the back of their thighs after doing it. How can we do a beautiful Downward-Facing Dog pose safely?

What is Downward Facing Dog, and which muscle groups are stretched?

Downward facing dog is actually an imitation of a dog’s stretch, with the hands and feet on the floor and the hips pushed up toward the ceiling, creating a full-body extension.

Upper Body Muscle Groups to Stretch

Pectoralis Major and Minor

These two muscles on the front of our chest are easily tightened by sitting or using a computer, causing problems such as a hunched back and chest tightness.

Latissimus Dorsi

The latissimus dorsi extends from the upper arms down the back and connects to the pelvic floor, which is a large muscle. If it’s too tight, it will not only affect your shoulders, but also cause back pain. In downward-facing dog, the arms are extended to the sides of the ears, which can stretch the wide muscles of the back.

Lower Body Muscle Groups that can be stretched

Gluteus Maximus Muscle Group

The gluteus maximus is the main muscle group of our buttocks, and exercises such as squats, hip thrusts, or bridge poses all target the gluteus maximus for training. Therefore, downward facing dog can also be a good stretching exercise after hip training.

Hamstrings and Calf Muscles

The muscles at the back of the thighs and calves often become tight due to prolonged sitting and walking, and Downward Facing Dog can be a good stretch for them.

What is the ideal downward dog pose?

When flexibility is sufficient, the ideal downward facing dog pose is shown in the figure below.

Upper body without shoulder shrug and hunchback

Keep your shoulders away from your ears and your spine straight to avoid shoulder shrugging and hunchbacking, so you can effectively stretch your upper body muscles and train your upper body support and shoulder blade muscles.

No overbending of the waist

If the thigh and calf muscles are not flexible enough to reach the heel on the floor, overly tight posterior thigh muscles will pull the pelvis and cause the lumbar spine to curve, which can easily lead to lower back muscle strain and pain.

Other variations of Downward Dog

Knee Bend

While still keeping the heel on the floor, you can stretch the deeper muscles of the lower leg and repeat the knee bend and straighten exercise.

Single Leg Raise

Because you must maintain body stability while lifting your foot, you can stretch one leg at a time, work your core muscles, support one foot, and challenge your upper body stability.

Usually, downward dog is most likely to cause injury due to the desire to pull too tight, forcing the heel to the ground beyond the limits of flexibility, or the lumbar spine being too bent, causing back pain. So, do not rush it and slowly and gently stretch to keep the spine upright to avoid injury in downward dog.

Reference: Kinesiology of the Musculoskeletal System: Fundamentals of Rehabilitation, 3rd Edition

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