Good vs. Bad Movements
Before delving into the Cat/Cow movements, it is important to think about the construct of 'good versus bad exercises' in general. In my opinion, there are not many examples of inherently bad exercises that are commonly prescribed during a therapy session. If an exercise addresses a patient's impairments, it is likely a beneficial movement. However, I often see good exercises being poorly executed and prescribed. When teaching my patients about their corrective movements, I always emphasize quality over quantity of motion. A good exercise is any movement that addresses the patient's impairments, minimizes pain, and is performed correctly.
Cat/Cow Exercise: How It Should Be Performed
Cat/Cow is a good exercise! I believe it is good because of it's simplicity. However, it is often performed incorrectly, which significantly diminishes it's effectiveness. The purpose of Cat/Cow is to mobilize the spine and pelvis & retrain spinal movement patterns. When moving into the Cat exercise (Left picture), the entire spine should round, creating a uniform spinal curve. Contrarily, during Cow pose (Right picture), the thoracic spine should extend without hyperextension in the lumbar spine.
Cat/Cow Movement Analysis
During the Cow exercise (Right picture), a clear hinge point is noted in the junction between the thoracic and lumbar spines as indicated by the blue arrow. This hinge point occurs because the person cannot isolate the mid thoracic spine as she moves into the posture. If my intention is to improve thoracic mobility, and I do not correct this movement pattern, it becomes a bad exercise. With proper movement retraining- including engaging the Transversus Abdominus (TrA) and extending through the upper chest- she was immediately able to perform the movement correctly.
During the Cat exercise (Left picture), the woman is unable to reach a uniform spinal curve. The lower thoracic spine remains flat throughout the motion with an inability to flex through the region. Movement retraining including focusing on pelvic mechanics and proper breathing, assisted in improving this pattern.
Clinically, try not to get caught up on 'good versus bad exercises.' If it is addressing the patient's pain, minimizing their irritability level, and can be linked to a future functional activity, it is a good exercise. Remember, always focus on quality over quantity when it comes to prescribing movement.
Jim Heafner PT, DPT, OCS
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