I must confess: when I used to see any article with the word 'posture' in the title my eyes would glaze over. This is boring stuff, right? I eat healthily so I'll feel good and lose weight. I get vitamins and minerals to avoid getting ill. And I work out so that I can build awesome strength and physical ability, and maybe a little bit so that I can look buff and intimidating. What I don't care about so much is standing up straighter.
But then I did some learning and I realised that posture is actually crucially important for a well-rounded and powerful physique. And it has a myriad other benefits besides…
The Benefits of Correct Posture
For instance, want to immediately improve your abs? Then just stand up straighter! The moment you do that your mid-section will look more impressive and you'll lose that pot belly. Meanwhile you'll look more confident, your chest and shoulders will look broader and you'll give off a more impressive aura.
At the same time, improving the balance between the muscles on the front of your body and the muscles across the back will make you faster, it will give you more control and it will improve your balance.
Then there's the fact that a good posture is instrumental in informing your mood and your general health. I actually wake up most mornings with an achy lower spine – which is a sure fire sign that I need to fix my posture.
Hopefully it's made you sit up straight and take notice.
Where a Bad Posture Comes From
The first thing we need to look at here is which muscles in particular are responsible for our posture. Which ones do we need to develop to encourage more erect gait?
Well, really all the muscles in our upper body contribute to our posture, and what we want ideally is a balance/equilibrium between the muscles at the front of our body and the muscles at the back.
Unfortunately most of us are much more interested in the muscles on the front because those are the ones we can show off – we tend to be far more interested in developing big pecs and flat abs than we are in developing traps, lats, specular retractors, erector spinae or quadratus lumborum. Be honest now: you probably didn't even know half of those existed.
At the same time, we also have a tendency to lean and reach forward a lot of the time. The best example is using a computer – during which time we will be leaning directly forward with our arms out straight and our shoulders rolled in. This leads to our pecs 'tightening' and becoming less flexible, while the specular retractors (which pull our shoulders back) become weaker. Other than leaning forward when working at the computer, we also do it when we drive, use our mobiles and read.
Our hips also play a role. Because we spend so much time sitting down, our anterior hip muscles (muscles attaching to the front of the pelvis) can become shorter. This then causes them to pull on the pelvis which tilts it forwards, exaggerating the curve of our spine and creating even more problems. Let's face it… we're a mess.
So what's the solution? Well according to many sources, the answer to all our problems is to do a number of stretches and exercises. These include things like the 'back reliever' which have you drop down onto one knee while thrusting an arm up in the air. Supermans meanwhile involve lying on your front and then raising your hands and legs up behind you.
Unfortunately the reality for most of us is that we're not going to actually stick to this kind of training. How often have you been given stretches to do by your physio and then actually done them?
More to the point, if you really think a few measly stretches is going to undo the damage caused by years of sitting wrong then you're in for a nasty surprise…
The only way these exercises are really going to work is if you treat them as a stretch and take them seriously while working towards the goal of increased flexibility (as you would if you were working towards being able to do the splits). This requires regular stretching and the best way to use this is at the start/end of a workout.
Using massage balls on your chest and back meanwhile can help to ease acute pain in the short term, but it's not going to cause all that much difference in the long term.
Working Out and Lifestyle
More realistically the way you're likely to see changes is through two methods:
• to design your workouts in order to train the muscles that act as 'counterweights' to those pulling you forward
• to change your lifestyle so that you spend less time sitting down and less time leaning forward
The second point is the most powerful and important, but it's also probably the most difficult…
To change your posture through your workouts, as mentioned you need to focus on the muscles that will pull you back up straight and prevent that hunched position and leaning forward.
One way to make a big difference for instance is to strengthen the specular retractors – as mentioned these are the muscles that help you to pull the shoulder blades backwards. Now actually the specular retractors are trained whenever you use a rowing movement, a pull up or anything else where you pull things towards you. Unfortunately they don't tend to get much engagement in the movement though as we stop short of pulling the shoulders back. So just make sure you are including as much lat work as you are pec work, and when rowing make sure you roll the shoulders all the way back at the end of the movement.
Looking for a move that will seriously work the erector spinae while also doing your workout a ton of good generally? Look no further than the deadlift. These will also train your hip flexors and quadriceps which will help to fend off that tilted hip. Using squats on the other hand is a fantastic way to improve your hamstrings and glutes to further help straighten out your spine.
Likewise back extensions (hanging over the end of a bench and lowering and raising your upper body) can also be very effective and are a good alternative for those who are anxious of lifting heavy weights in the gym.
Finally, when training pecs, consider using flyes as well as the typical presses as this will help you to stretch out your chest and avoid the tightness that causes you to roll forward.
Improving your posture at your desk is one of the most efficient ways to improve your muscle balance and to avoid back pain that can affect your sleep and well-being generally. Sometimes this will be out of your control, but if you are experiencing back pain then you should discuss getting a new set up.
Bring your chair closer to the keyboard, set the monitor to be eye level with your head looking straight up, and find a chair that offers support for the lower back.
More important still is getting up regularly to move around – and in fact you can even try checking e-mail while standing up which more and more offices are now doing.
Better yet though is to find something else to counteract some of the damage done by sitting down at work all day. This needs to be something you will do often and in enough quantity to make a marked difference – a great example would be to take up walking as a serious hobby (or running). Joining a dance class, yoga or Pilates could help a great deal too though – especially if you are regularly practicing.
Whatever you do, just be sure to be conscious of your back and your position. Remember to roll your shoulders back, puff your chest out, look up straight and maintain a slight curve in your spine. Between all these methods you should see some positive improvement.