How to improve your posture Techniques & Exercises that work
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How to improve your posture Techniques & Exercises that work

Bad Posture? Does your Back or Neck Hurt? Do you have Stress or Tension? Learn Realistic Methods That Help!

Take a look around in any public venue and you will see it. You will observe people walking with tension and have their shoulders up near their ears. You will find people seated and their shoulders rolled forward. You will notice people have their back hunched. You will also see ‘gym rats; with the ‘gorilla’ look and severe protraction of their shoulders too (shoulders look to cave in towards their chest.) You will also find people with their heads jutted forward and necks lowered like a giraffe about to feed on carrots.

  • Bad posture runs rampant in our neighborhoods, in our communities, and in our cities, states and country!

The first thing you need to do to improve your posture is become aware. After your awareness, you must become educated. Once you accomplish learning the knowledge, you must then take the most difficult step in improving your posture: You must take action. You have to integrate the techniques and exercises that you learn into your everyday life!

How does bad posture occur in the first place? There are a variety of reasons that bad posture can affect you. Stress is a common factor. Laziness is another. I’m not going to focus on all the reasons why bad posture is present. I’m instead going to focus on finding the solution to improve your own posture. There are exercises, techniques, and methods that will assist with your unique body issues.

There are four basic types of posture: Standing, sitting, walking, and lying down. I’m going to focus predominantly on posture while sitting, as most of us identify with that stationary position quite well.

Let’s first take a look at what good posture looks like.

Photo courtesy of Miguel Folch, Photographer. “Mission Creeps”

Drummers can exemplify good posture. They need to be balanced and seated in an unsupported body position for long periods of time. As observed in the above photograph, this performer is seated upright in a relaxed position. His head is comfortably over his waist. His shoulders are midline without an awkward tilt forward, otherwise known as shoulder protraction. His back is clearly straight and does not have a hump in it by slouching. His abdominals are activated and he has adequate muscle balance to remain in place with great posture.

Contrast these next photos to the performer and see if you can identify the imbalance causing poor posture. 

  • Chiropractors say, “Good posture is the correct alignment of body parts supported by the right amount of muscle tension against gravity. Without posture and the muscles that control it, we would simply fall to the ground.
  • Several muscle groups, including the hamstrings and large back muscles, are critically important in maintaining good posture. While the ligaments help to hold the skeleton together, these postural muscles, when functioning properly, prevent the forces of gravity from pushing us over forward.
  • To maintain proper posture, you need to have adequate muscle flexibility and strength, normal joint motion in the spine and other body regions, as well as efficient postural muscles that are balanced on both sides of the spine. In addition, you must recognize your postural habits at home and in the workplace and work to correct them, if necessary.
  • With much practice, the correct posture for standing, sitting, and lying down will gradually replace your old posture.” *1, American Chiropractic Association (ACA). 
  •  
  • Medical Doctors say, “Posture is the position in which you hold your body upright against gravity while standing, sitting or laying down. Good posture involves training the body to stand, walk, sit and lie in positions where the least strain is placed on supporting muscles and ligaments.
  • Proper posture: Keeps bones and joints in the correct alignment so that muscles are being used properly. Decreases the stress on the ligaments holding the joints of the spine together. Prevents the spine from becoming fixed in abnormal positions. Prevents fatigue because muscles are being used more efficiently, allowing the body to use less energy. Prevents backache and muscular pain.
  • Proper posture requires: Good muscle flexibility. Normal motion in the joints. Strong postural muscles. A balance of muscles on both sides of the spine. Awareness of your own posture, plus awareness of proper posture which leads to conscious correction.
  • With much practice, the correct posture for standing, sitting, and lying down will gradually replace your old posture.” *2Cleveland Clinic
  •  
  • Exercise Physiologists say, “Do you spend all day sitting in front of a computer? Do you spend hours and hours on your feet? Do you frequently work in awkward positions? Have you neglected to start that exercise program you promised yourself you would? If yes is the answer to any of these questions then you may be heading down the road to poor posture.
  • Working professionals who spend long hours in front of a computer or on their feet all day leave themselves vulnerable to a host of back and neck problems.
  • Lack of physical condition. Muscle tone helps hold the body in correct postures. Any deficiencies in conditioning translate to poor posture.
  • Problems with posture can often start in childhood and adolescence. Physical activity is the best way to prevent these problems.” US Department of Energy, AdvanceMed Hanford, Occupational Health Services.
  •  
  • Certified Personal Trainers say, “Strengthen the abdominal and back muscles. You’ve heard it before, but strengthening the abdominals really does help protect the back. In fact, a strong core—which includes all the muscles of the trunk—is important for avoiding injury, whether you’re cleaning your house, playing tennis or sitting at a desk all day.
  • Strengthen the leg muscles. Along with the core muscles, the leg muscles play a vital role in helping you maintain good posture and body mechanics. And strong leg muscles can take much of the burden off the back when you’re lifting heavy items.
  • Stay flexible. Inflexibility in the form of tight hamstrings and a limited range of motion in the trunk can increase your risk of injury or make existing back pain worse. Some forms of exercise, such as yoga, Pilates and tai chi, may help relieve or prevent back pain by increasing flexibility and reducing tension. These exercises should not be done, however, if they are uncomfortable or place a strain on the back.
  • Maintain good posture. Correct posture and body mechanics play a vital role in preventing back pain because pressure on the discs and strain of the muscles, ligaments and back joints is aggravated by incorrect posture and body mechanics. When your posture is good and you move your body correctly, you reduce the strain on your back.” *3, American Council on Exercise (ACE). 

The New England Journal of Medicine cites studies in support of acupuncture as a form of alternative or complimentary therapy for low back pain,

  • “A number of clinical trials have evaluated the efficacy of acupuncture for chronic low back pain. A meta-analysis in 2008, which involved a total of 6359 patients, showed that real acupuncture treatments were no more effective than sham acupuncture treatments. There was nevertheless evidence that both real acupuncture and sham acupuncture were more effective than no treatment and that acupuncture can be a useful supplement to other forms of conventional therapy for low back pain.” *4

Since back pain seems to be almost synonymous with postural issues, it stands to reason that a close analysis of acupuncture should be considered as a potential aid in your overall approach to improving your posture.

Furthermore, Chinese Medicine may have alternate paradigms that the Western World may shun that could potentially affect your posture. Physicians reporting for Medical Acupuncture, A Journal for Physicians by Physicians, relate the following:

  • “In very cold temperature, the body posture includes raising the shoulders up and drawing onto oneself, a position similar to experiencing fear. Note that cold and fear are both associated with the Water element: the body assumes a stiff bracing posture in wind, similar to that assumed when determined or angry. Again, both wind and determination (or anger) are Wood associations. In chronic stress, a fixed tension in constitutional muscle groups is adopted, resulting in a predictable set of muscle-holding patterns and resulting body habitus.8.” *5

Note: I’ve spent a significant part of my studies in college, and as hobby, delving into the unusual philosophies of the East. I cannot objectively discount many of their approaches to health. The difficulty has been to identify verifiable scientific sources that are recognized by the world as reputable sources, however. There are many self-promoting entities that can be referred to, but to date, I would compare them to U.S. diet and ‘nutrition’ companies. These companies love to use their paid M.D.’s recommendation for their nutritional pill or supplements. They then use these recommendations at face value even though they are from their own internal biased studies. These studies clearly identify biased information that they then call science. In reality, their conclusions are nothing more than a spin of the truth used as a marketing ploy in order to get you to buy their product. Due to the lack of verifiable reputable sources, I can’t in good conscience refer to any particular source with regards to a true peer reviewed scientific journal, emanating from Chinese medicine, at this time.

There are also genetic implications as to why your posture may not be ‘ideal.’ For example, my stepfather had a degenerative disease that severely limited his ability to have anything other than one solid frozen slightly hunched posture. His sons were also affected.

For otherwise healthy individuals, the cause of bad posture was not an overnight occurrence. It was something that happened over months and years of repeated training, otherwise known as lifestyle.

To improve your posture, after you’ve become aware and learned the techniques and modes to correct it, you must realistically expect the corrective action will also take months, if not years, to be retrained. Every body is unique down to the very last detail. Therefore, what may take just a few weeks for one individual using the same techniques, may take months for another.

Muscles Involved with Posture:

  • Trapezoids (upper back), 1, 2, and 3 (also referred to as: upper, middle & lower traps)
  • Levator Scapula (responsible for lifting the shoulder blade and neck flexion)
  • Latissimus Dorsi (Outside edges of your back, think of Bruce Lee’s ‘V’ shape)
  • Rhomboids (part of the shoulder complex that rotate & stabilize the scapula)
  • Middle & Lower back
  • Erector Spinae
  • Pectoralis Major (Chest)
  • Pectoralis Minor (Chest)
  • Gluteus Maximus, Gluteus Medius, & Gluteus Minimus
  • Hamstrings
  • Psoas Major (deep hip flexor- primarily flexes the hip and the spinal column)
  • Piriformis (external hip rotator)
  • Iliacus Muscles (deep hip flexors)
  • Adductors (inner thigh muscles)
  • Gastrocnemius and Soleus (Calves)
  • Abdominals (Transverse Abdominis, Internal & External Obliques)

 

Two of the most visual types of people with posture issues are computer users and gym rats who focus on their chest muscles (how much they can bench) with exclusion to their back muscles (how much they can pull.) Both of these types of individuals have severe protraction (their shoulders roll severely forward and looks as though they are caving in toward their chests.) This is, quite simply, a muscle imbalance.

How to Improve Your Posture: A simple explanation:

To improve your posture, you must obtain a balance of both the strength and flexibility of your body muscles. The action of getting this muscle balance, however, is not quite that simple (ok, I lied!) In addition to obtaining muscle balance and flexibility to aid in your posture correcting process, myofascial release can also benefit you and can be done alone with a foam roller. See my article How to Strengthen Your Knees that refers to the foam roller and its benefits.

As a Sports Therapist, I’ve found that there are several beneficial techniques that will aid in your endeavor to improve your posture. Most of the techniques can be done by yourself.

I’m going to give you two solid techniques that work well and can be done just about anywhere without the need for specialized equipment or assistance.

  • First, I’m going to guide you through a stress reducing and posture correcting method that you can ingrain in your brain.
  • Sit on a solid surface such as a bench or chair. Place your feet hip width apart with a 90 degree bend in your knee. Your heels should essentially be placed directly under your knees.
  • Next, allow your arms to hang freely by your sides. Note your shoulder and necks natural static posture. Your back doesn’t need to be against any surface.
  • I want you take to take a nice, slow deep breath in, and release. Relax.
  • I then want you to take a deep breath in as you retract your shoulders (as though you are trying to touch your shoulder blades together in the back) to approximately 85-90% of your maximum flexibility, hold the position and exhale.
  • Without holding your breath, I want you to follow up promptly with another inhalation and exhalation, this time with the simultaneous action of pulling your hands slightly toward the ground (dropping your shoulders) and keeping your shoulder blades slightly retracted.
  • Remain seated in a nice upright position and relax your retraction and depression holds
  • You may find yourself leaning back and your lower back uncomfortable. If this occurs, make sure your chest is up, your abs are firm, and your butt is back. Your head should be over your waist, not in front of or behind it.
  • Breathe comfortably and repeat 2-3 times. You will find yourself less stressed, more relaxed and better suited to recognize the weaknesses in your own posture when you do this. Repeat daily, especially if you are seated for a long duration for any reason.

Most of us in our contemporary world live in a world where our shoulders are unnaturally elevated and our shoulders are forced forward due to our lifestyles and activities. The above method will help begin to train your body to respond to better posture and may begin to alleviate some of your ailments.

  • Second, is a gluteus maximus, piriformis, and lower back stretch that will leave you feeling relieved, every time. Keep in mind that you must warm up at moderate intensity for at least 5 minutes before any stretch. A 10-15 minute warm-up, to a point of light sweating, would be better. Stretching with cold muscles can easily result in a strain, tear or cramp.
  • I recommend that you find a nice space that you can lay comfortably flat on, such as a thick carpet or yoga mat.
  • Next, draw your legs back toward your chest and cross one leg over the other at the knee. Keep your lower leg with a knee angle of about 90 degrees. There should be a space in between your thighs when you do this. Inhale with this motion.
  • Simultaneously with the above action, reach in between your thighs with one of your hands and reach around the outside with the other, and clasp your hands behind the knee of your lower leg.
  • Pull that leg and knee toward your chest and shoulder as you exhale.
  • I recommend to give yourself a safe stretch to only about 80-85% of your maximum stretch potential. This will eliminate the likelihood of a terrible strain or unnecessary pain. Breathe normally and hold the stretch for at least 15 seconds and release.
  • Relax your entire body and lay flat arms to your sides, then repeat on your opposite side.
  • Repeat 2-3 times for each side daily, as needed.
  • Also, you should never ever feel pain while stretching. If you are stretching to a point of pain, you are overdoing it. If for some reason you do experience true pain. Stop immediately and cease your stretching activity until another day. If you get injured, you will not benefit from stretching. Slow, easy progression is what you want.
  • Note: If your flexibility is so limited that you cannot reach behind your leg, that’s ok. Use a kitchen or bath towel to extend your reach for the grasp behind your knee.

I hope you enjoy these two techniques I have shared with you. There are many other methods that you can employ to achieve better posture. Below, I have included a few very good posture sources that I have come across in the past. I do not endorse the authors in any way other than to say that what they offer regarding posture is either good or excellent!

For optimum posture guidance, I recommend you get outside assistance through the hire of a certified personal trainer or exercise physiologist. These individuals routinely handle posture related issues directly in the daily performance of their duties and will most likely be able to help you one-on-one. If not, you can bet that they know exactly who to refer you to for your specific need.

  • Other sources related to posture:

The chiropractors, the medical doctors, the exercise physiologists and the certified personal trainers all mimic each other as far as what constitutes good posture. This Cleveland Clinic explanation gives you a simple summary of what they all recommend and identify as good posture.

This author accurately assesses needs associated with postural issues.

This is a you tube video that runs 9 minutes in duration. It’s a visual journey that allows you to give your eyes a break from researching postural issues and it‘s accurate. Skip ahead to the 2:10 point though! The speaker is no Charlton Heston, unfortunately, and otherwise may put you to sleep. The content is acceptable, the narration , not so much.

The Bowen Therapists have it right. Their description of the psoas muscle and the associated ailments warrant proper evaluation.

Thank you for your time, your attention, and your votes! I wish you optimum health and a great life!

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Comments (3)

very well presented and well written article. this is a very good read. voted up.

Very comprehensive article; excellent job! I credit my piano teacher who, for ten years in my youth, ensured I had proper posture...and it has stayed with me throughout life.

What an incredible piece of work this is! I should have known better, but I overworked my chest by too many "false starts" getting with a solid workout program. I didn't notice that my posture was bad. It's like food in your teeth, someone else has to tell you. Someone said "You walk like Shaggy"... (from Scooby Doo) I had chronic pain between my shoulder blades too. A physical therapist gave me some elastics and some pull exercises to do, along with some stretching and in six weeks I was as good as new.

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