Inversion Tables: How to Use Them for Workouts and Recovery

Inversion Tables: How to Use Them for Workouts and Recovery

Is your back sore? Are you suffering from sciatica pain? Do you experience tense back muscles or back muscle spasms? You're hardly alone. An estimated eight out of ten American adults will experience back pain at some point in their lives, reports the American Chiropractic Association, with back pain ranking as the number-one cause of disability in the world. Instead of relying on over-the-counter pain medications to get by, and before you turn to more invasive procedures like lumbar surgery, you may want to give inversion tables a try.

Inversion Therapy: What Is an Inversion Table?

Inversion tables are a core part of inversion therapy. 

As the name implies, you strap yourself into a specialized "table" with ankle straps. Then, you slowly flip yourself into an inverted (i.e., upside down) position. 

How vertical you choose to go is up to you. Most inversion tables let you select from a variety of inversion settings, such as:

  • 20° (ideal for beginners)
  • 40° (better for experienced users)
  • 60° (best reserved for those who are well accustomed to inversion therapy)

How Do Inversion Therapy and Inversion Tables Aid in Recovery?

The scientific concept of inversion therapy is simple:

  • Gravity and your body weight puts a lot of pressure on your spine, nerves, back muscles, joints, and discs
  • Flipping your body upside down relieves this pressure
  • The inversion itself creates spinal traction and spinal decompression (put simply, you're stretching and elongating your spine, joints, and muscles)
  • Spinal traction has been shown to help improve a variety of back pain factors

Secondary beneficial factors may include:

  • Improved blood flow and circulation to your upper body, helping to flush sore muscles and joints of metabolic waste while delivering more nutrient- and oxygen-rich blood
  • Increased muscle relaxation, which may soothe muscle spasms and tense muscles

The Real Science: Do Inversion Tables Improve Workout Recovery and Back Pain?

The science is mixed. For example, one study found that inversion therapy significantly reduced the need for surgery in people with sciatica (the painful irritation or compression of nerves in your lower back). 

Another study found that when used for eight weeks, inversion tables set at 60°:

  • Reduced back pain
  • Increased lower back flexibility 
  • Improved trunk extensor muscle strength 
  • Enhanced overall trunk flexibility

And while other studies have reached inconclusive results, most back pain experts agree that inversion therapy can be a very important part of an overall back pain treatment plan

As with any workout recovery strategy, there's no one-size-fits-all answer for everyone. Whether or not inversion tables help relax your muscles, reduce your pain, and improve your spinal mobility can be answered in only one way — by giving it a try for yourself!

Inversion Therapy Stretches: The Best Exercises to Do With an Inversion Table

Most inversion therapy studies focused solely on people who lay stationary on an inversion table. Technically, you don't need to do anything other than relax while being inverted.

However, many athletes and fitness enthusiasts find it useful to incorporate gentle movements, stretches, and exercises while they're using an inversion table. With reduced pressure on their back and greater decompression, they find that these stretches help them reap even more therapeutic benefits out of inversion therapy. 

Example inversion table stretches for back and neck pain include:

  • Grip and stretch: While inverted, grab the table above your head and pull yourself gently downward toward the floor to further increase spinal traction.
  • Neck mobility: Turn your head from left to right, up and down, and in circular motions.
  • Shoulder and upper back stretch: Do a classic triceps stretch with a hand on an elbow, but do it while inverted.

While there have been no well-designed studies showing that inverted exercises activate and recruit your muscles better than while done in a more traditional way, some believe that the inversion creates more resistance via gravity. Popular exercises done on an inversion table include:

  • Ab crunches
  • Ab twists
  • Sit-ups
  • Inverted squats 

How to Safely Setup and Use an Inversion Table for the First Time

Always talk to your doctor before using an inversion table, especially if you're turning to inversion therapy as a treatment for back pain. Inversion therapy is not without its risks, especially for those who are:

  • Pregnant
  • Have high blood pressure
  • Have unhealed injuries, fractures, etc.
  • Suffer from joint diseases, such as arthritis 

If your doctor clears you as a candidate for inversion therapy, the following tips can help you get used to this unique modality and get the most workout and recovery benefits out of your inversion table. 

1. Do a Trial With a Physical Therapist

Inversion tables can easily cost hundreds, and even thousands, of dollars. Before investing in these pricey machines, contact a local physical therapist who practices inversion therapy. 

Not only will you get to see first-hand if inversion therapy works for your specific concerns, but you'll also get expert guidance from a trained professional before doing it at home by yourself. 

2. Bring a Friend

The internet is filled with humorous stories of people who got stuck in their inversion table or couldn't figure out how to get themselves back into an upright position. 

While funny in retrospect, first-timers should ensure a friend or family member is in the room with them for the first few uses until they're used to operating their specific inversion table. 

3. Ease Into It

While most inversion therapy research has centered on users going right to the 60° upside-down setting, don't rush yourself. It takes time getting used to being on an inversion table and feeling all the unique sensations that come with this treatment. 

Start with a 15° or 30° angle at first, and slowly increase the degrees as you become accustomed to your inversion table. 

Likewise, don't overdo it. Each daily session should only be 45 to 60 seconds for your first few days. You can slowly increase your inversion time to the five-minute mark as your body adjusts. 

4. Return to Your Upright Position Slowly

When your time is up, slowly return to the upright position. Doing it too quickly can cause the blood to drain from your head too fast, making you dizzy or lightheaded.

Get Started With Inversion Therapy Today

While inversion therapy isn't for everyone, an inversion table can be a unique addition to your workouts and to your recovery plans. Keep checking in with your body, don't expect overnight results, and don't push yourself too hard when first attempting this treatment approach. 

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