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Is Horsestance The Best Exercise For Treating Back Pain?

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 02 June 2016
Hits: 6128

You must be thinking what is this exercise? Well it has many names depending on where you learned how to do it. Being CHEK Practitioners we tend to refer to this as Horsestance, Pilates instructors refer to it as Quadruped, and many Americans including famous back pain researcher and author of great books on back Stuart McGill call this Bird-Dog! While the name may differ with different institutes, they all agree that this movement is one of the best you can do to treat injured back pain and also prevent it! This exercise not only targets the back but also the hip extensors, which in many cases is the whole problem. The lack of hip mobility and stability forces the spine to move too much with simple movements like bending and squatting. The spine is saved from high compressive loads in a four point position and allows people to work on creating stability and good extension of the back. McGill has found from his research that this exercise is a major contributor to desensitizing back pain!

How To Do Horsestance Correctly

  1. Start with wrists directly below the shoulders, elbows turned back and knees directly below the respective hip joints. The legs are parallel and the elbows should remain turned back toward the thighs, with the fingers directed forward.
  2. Place a stick on your back and try to hold perfect spinal alignment, with the stick parallel to the floor. The space between your lower back and the stick should be about the thickness of your hand. Activate your abdominal stabilizers by gently drawing the belly button inward.
  3. Raise one arm to a point 45° off the mid line of the body, in the same horizontal plane as the back.
  4. Elevate the opposite leg to the point at which your leg is in the same horizontal plane as your torso. Keep the shoulder girdle and pelvis parallel to the floor.
  5. Hold for 10 seconds and switch sides.
  6. Aim to do about 10 reps all together.

This is covered in great detail in our Back Pain Secrets video and ebook program you can download. Click here for more information and at the bottom of the page I have a few Free Reports you can also download straight away.

Key Technique Points

  • If you find it too hard or painful to do the exercise with arm and leg, break the exercise in half and use only the leg or only the arm and then integrate the arm and leg when you improve.
  • Be careful not to lift the leg too high as this will cause you to twist your spine too much and compress your spine. I like to tell my clients to imagine they are pushing a wall with their heel. This then gives them more feeling of using their butt muscles.
  • Aim to build up your endurance by adding reps if your form is still good. A lack of endurance is often a key contributor to back pain.


This is where many people stop with the use of this exercise but there is many other variations you can use to fully prepare your body for the demands of exercises and movements performed standing up that may still be causing you pain. Remember the four point position allows the spine to be decompressed and feel much more stable at the hip and the shoulder joints.

Watch the video below for some ideas on how we do this.

Here is some of our more popular progressions.

Horsestance Alphabet:

  1. Begin in the same position as the horse stance horizontal.
  2. Elevate the opposite leg to the point at which your leg is in the same horizontal plane as your torso. With the extended leg draw the letters of the alphabet. Start with small letters and progress to larger letters.
  3. Perform as many as you can with good form. The goal is to work the entire alphabet for one set.  

As you improve, try to increase the letter size to bigger circles and then progress to adding the alphabet with the arm.

McGill's "Sweep The Floor" Technique

In McGill's "Low Back Disorders" book and his more recent "Back Mechanic" manual he talks about using the sweep method.

Very similar to the alphabet exercise, this one has sweeping movement above the ground with both the hands and the knees. I like to add the extra challenge of a BOSU to force more stabilization from the abdominal muscles and shoulder. The motion itself helps create a smooth dynamic movement and also lets the back muscles relax momentarily to avoid cramping which sometimes happens with the original exercise. It is important to remember that we must try to get away from "robotic" movement and trying to always stiffen our back. While we do need to do this to some degree, many programs and methods over do this, Pilates being a classic example where an over use of abdominal bracing and activation now makes a person, "robotic". This is why I like the sweeping movement as it prepares for what we would do next which is - CRAWLING!

Using Infant Development Exercises

This is quite a complex exercise series to explain and you can read more about this in one of our previous articles Core Strength Training Using Infant Development Exercise. When you analyze the horsestance movement it really is crawling without moving forwards. Using opposite arm and leg to create motion with the trunk or "core" the glue that holds everything together yet at the same time expands like a spring to create motion! It is the first time your body learned how to use big moving muscles in combination with stabilizing muscles to produce movement. Once it was practiced enough and the strength was built up in all areas you were able to stand. By applying this logic to someone in pain is very useful as it allows your body to Re-Learn how to move again. A bit like rebooting your computer. And the best thing with these exercises they rarely produce pain.

I like to place a plastic cup on my client's back and ask them to crawl across the floor with their knees about 10cm off the floor. Their goal is to not let the cup tip off their back for this would indicate twisting in the spine and poor hip mobility. When the hips are producing good movement there will be no movement in the spine! So you can see how this can be an excellent test to use as well as very demanding exercise. If you don't believe me how hard this you need to try this. Three sets of 20 meters crawling and you will know you have done a good workout.

You Must Find The Cause & Evolve To Standing Up

We say this all the time, and for good reason because it is where you real answers are going to be found. Unfortunately people are stuck in the mindset of treating symptoms so much they stop once the pain is gone as if everything is fine. Failing to find the cause often leads to repeated cases of back pain and regularly worse each time! Eliminating your cause and learning how to bend correctly, lunge, squat and integrate your arms and legs together is so important for having a long term success with your recovery program. There is countless articles and You Tube videos where we show you how to do this. You can see how 3 examples of real case studies applying our method of floor to standing by reading our article "How These 3 People Beat Chronic Back Pain". It is important to follow your own specific program based on your needs. The horsestance exercise is just a stepping stone to getting to this stage.

Again if you are someone suffering with chronic back pain the assessments to determine what exercises you need to do are all covered in our Back Pain Secrets program.


Without a doubt the Horsestance is a key exercise for all types of back pain conditions. This is what makes it so unique for many exercises we use for people with a disc bulge may aggravate the person with SIJ dysfunction. Whereas horsestance exercise being so closely related to how we move when crawling which is so closely related to how we walk provides the body with the tools and skills needed to correct faulty movement and compensation. I hope this article gives you some good ideas and gets you one step closer to being pain free and healthy.

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