Shortly after learning to hold your head up from your stomach in the periscope position, you learn how to prop yourself up using your arms from the same position and here’s where things can get a little more interesting. You now have the space for arm movement.
Above the starting position of Sphinx. Below is the top position. Going up and back down is one repetition.
Resembles the sphinx in Egypt no?
I love this position as a warm-up drill for people who have flexion based flat back postural strain (discussed in the posture section) or excessive upper back curvature. If your shoulders are rounded forward excessively, this might also be a good place for you to visit. I like to coach it by encouraging people to imagine squeezing a quarter or coin between their butt cheeks as hard as they can, before they prop themselves up. This prevents people from feeling this movement too heavily in their lower back. If your low back is cramping, or twitching, or seizing up on you, try relaxing and then resetting with your butt clenched. Usually this fixes things, if it doesn’t, you should probably see someone in the rehabilitation field or a skilled coach for a more specific hack. In any case, a lack of ability to comfortably get into this position, should be an indication that you’ve got a little work to do.
Another great aspect of this drill, particularly as a warmup exercise, is that you start with your shoulders in the fully retracted position and finish with them fully protracted. Many people have difficulty expressing the ability of full protraction and retraction of the shoulders. Often because their upper trap handles most of their shoulder movement and is constantly trying to pull the shoulder upward towards the ears, rather than forward and back. This synergistic dominance can lead to problems down the road, things like neck pain and tension headaches. Notice how my shoulder blades at the bottom are pinching together towards my spine, this is the relaxed position. Then notice how my shoulders are as far forward as I can get them in the contracted top position. I’m trying to actively push my chest as far away from ground as I can in this position, to strengthen the muscles that are today often ignored by modern conveniences. These muscles would normally do a lot to prevent shoulder pain by providing appropriate stability to the shoulder and provide more control of it’s movement.
Like periscope, I like to get to the top position, take a big inhale/exhale, then relax back to this position and emphasize repetitions over duration. The ability to breathe means ownership. If you find yourself straining, again, this is a developmental ground pattern, it’s a low threshold movement, you shouldn’t be straining too much at such a low threshold. Strain is a red flag that you need additional help. If you can execute six to ten repetitions with ease, then you probably need a movement that is slightly more challenging, but you can always use the sphinx position to check in on shoulder health.
Level 2 – Neck Turn
Once you’ve mastered the first part of the movement you can integrate it into some more difficult movement patterns as you did before with periscope. It is easiest to begin with additional head movement. If you found periscope too easy, but now find sphinx with head rotation difficult, that could be a further indication that you’re the type of person who needs to train sphinx for a period of time before progressing.
Look to the right. Inhale. Exhale. You should be able to remain fairly relaxed in this position. It can also help to be mindful and take note of the difference in rotational ability from one side to the other. If you have a significant restriction turning left compared to turning right, this may be something you can manage ahead of time before it leads to injury, with some kind of manual therapy.
Look to the left. Inhale. Exhale. If you notice that you cannot hold the shoulder position particularly well, while you create movement with the head around a still torso, or you shift your weight a lot to look, then this may be an indication that periscope with head rotations should remain in your warm up, along with level 1 sphinx.
Level 3 – Reach
Like I said, this is now where things can get interesting. Desk posture often translates in a loss of extension and rotation through the thoracic spine (T-Spine), and I can’t think of a better active position to improve stability through that range of movement.
Having an appropriate amount of extension through your T-Spine, will allow you to squat better, do any overhead movements and participate more effectively in any throwing based sports. It also generally does wonders for shoulder health, which next to low back pain and knee pain is probably the third most likely type of pain a person will experience.
Sphinx with a reach to the right. Again, notice how my eyes are following my hands, this is a critical habit to get into for various mobility drills of this nature. Using my visual driver like this allows me to get more range of motion because human beings are incredibly visual with our nervous system feedback loops. I also like to reach with the thumb towards the ceiling, to train some of the external rotators of the shoulder. Now I’m also strengthening a lot of the posterior shoulder stabilizing muscles, in an extended posture (again generally great for people who have a flat back posture, or sit in a posterior pelvic tilt too much), while building some rotational core stability.
Sphinx with a reach to the left. Don’t forget to inhale and exhale. I don’t necessarily have to reach out and to a 45 degree angle. You could reach straight out to the side, or reach down towards your thigh, or reach straight out in front of you. The key remains keeping your torso still, avoiding any shifting of your weight, breath holding or strain.
If you feel significant strain in your neck while doing this (or periscope) you may benefit from additional therapeutic exercise for the neck and/or manual therapy. It could be that your forward head posture just makes this extremely difficult to do well, but it could be another issue altogether. Play it safe and consult a rehab professional when dealing with the neck.