When anyone hears the word, “posture” they immediately sit or stand up straighter. I watch this in the clinic all of the time. Why is your body having difficulty attaining or maintaining that “perfect” posture? It’s not always as simple as remembering to sit or stand up straight. You might need to stretch some overly tight muscles, or strengthen some overly weak ones. Even the most fit, strong, body aware individuals could find a way to grow in their postural awareness.
Awareness is the first step to improvement of your posture, but stretching and strengthening specific muscles is key to making sure you can maintain this long term. Having good posture allows your joints to be in proper alignment, which minimizes abnormal wear and tear; makes you look taller and more confident, helps you appear thinner and good posture can help strengthen your muscles!
The trunk and core muscles are the important postural muscles. The trunk includes everything from your shoulders to your hips. So how do you know where you are tight, or weak or what exactly needs attention? One of the easiest ways to check this is standing against a wall. You want to make sure your head, shoulders, low back and butt are all touching the wall, bonus if your heels can touch too! If you aren’t able to do this easily, pay attention to what is difficult or tight, and that is where you can focus first. As for weakness, when you are trying to sit up or stand up tall, what feels the most difficult? Is it hard to keep your shoulders back? Your head and neck in good alignment? Your abdominals engaged to support your low back?
The muscles in your upper back are typically weak. These muscles are called your scapular stabilizers, which means they are responsible for controlling movements of your shoulder. As a society, we are really good at strengthening the big movers, because we use them everyday. But we tend to forget about the little guys that help us control movements, and eventually that catches up to us. The core is the support of your trunk, which supports the rest of your body. It provides support for your low back, arms and legs with movement and allows you to breathe properly. All of this is possible, but only when you have a properly functioning core. The final important detail on these muscles is that they don’t have to function full force. These muscles can turn on at a low level but then stay on for longer to help support your posture and movements. These muscles need more endurance training then strength training.
So, let’s get practical on posture. What are some easy ways we can stretch and strengthen these important parts of our body?
Stretches for posture will target any muscles that keep you flexed or bending. These can include your hip flexors, core muscles, pecs and thoracic spine. The thoracic spine tends to develop a kyphotic deformity, which is a flexed posture. Think Quasimodo from Hunchback of Notre Dame, which is an extreme example of this posture. Feel free to use whatever stretches make you feel good, but my recommendations include:
Foam roller stretch: thoracic spine, pectorals and abdominals
Hip flexor stretch: hip flexors, abdominals
Prone press ups: abdominals and hip flexors
Chin tucks: thoracic extension, cervical extension
Strengthening will need to focus more on extensors or muscles that help keep you upright. These include core muscles, back extensors, scapular stabilizers and deep neck flexors ( I realize this one contradicts the extensor piece, but these little guys are important!) Examples of exercises include:
Posture correction: Sit up with extra perfect posture and then relax about 10%, hold this position for 5-10 seconds, slouch and repeat 5-10 times.
Shoulder blade squeezes: Sit upright, pull your shoulder blades down and back, hold
for 5 seconds and relax, repeat 10-15 times.
Bird Dog: On hands and knees, engage your abdominals, raise the opposite arm and leg and lower back down, making sure that your back doesn’t rotate. Alternate with the opposite side and repeat 10-15 times.
Scapular strengthening: rows, lat pull downs
Core strengthening: the focus should be neutral positioning, compared with a sit up or crunches. Examples include bridges, planks (modify if needed!) and supine marches.
Chin tucks: perform seated or lying down, keep your nose looking straight ahead, pull your chin back slightly without moving it up or down and relax. Perform 10 repetitions.
Posture support is critical for allowing proper sitting or standing mechanics. Think about your desk set up, or whatever daily tasks you spend most of your time doing. Are you driving a lot during the day with terrible lumbar support in your car? Do you perform a job that requires a lot of rotation in one direction? Adjust your daily tasks and work station to allow for improved support in good posture.
Lumbar support: purchase a lumbar roll or roll a small towel to place in the small of
your back while you are sitting or driving.
Work station: Make sure that while you are sitting your hips and knees are at 90
degrees with your feet on the floor, your elbows are at a comfortable position and resting on arm rests, your computer is level with your eyes and your hands can rest comfortably on your keyboard. You may need to prop up your monitor or get a wireless mouse or keyboard for a laptop. Sit to stand desks are also becoming more popular and can offer a way to change your position throughout the day. If you are on the phone a lot, look into a headset so you aren’t hurting your neck.
Hopefully these tips help you develop a plan to improve your posture and prevent long term complications. These tips can help reverse changes your body is experiencing from being bent over your laptop for the past year while you work from your dining room table, couch or even if you are still in your normal space but feel like something isn’t working right. Even small changes can have big long term impact!
Katie Larsen, DPT
Katie is a Physical Therapist in Alpena, MI who enjoys her job, spending time with her husband and 3 kids and all things outdoors.
I am a passionate, adventure-seeking, fitness entrepreneur who loves having fun, my family and friends, a challenge, and creating a positive impact (to name a few :))!