We all know good posture is important. It’s better for our bodies, and it looks better!
A lot of this is likely primal; “straight and tall” is typically interpreted as healthier and more powerful than hunched over and slouched. But I’d argue that there isn’t an ideal postural look; we shouldn’t feel frustrated if we can’t look a certain way.
That said, we all can benefit from working toward improving our posture.
Posture as a feeling of ease
Because we habitually sit and stand, it’s easy to understand why we settle into postures that require less effort. It’s also why making ourselves sit and stand taller doesn’t last long if it requires more energy, or worse, it hurts.
It’s important to find positions that do not place excessive strain on your body. Maintaining a position that is assumed to be “good posture” but is painful doesn’t make sense.
However, just because it’s easier to sit and stand a certain way doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s good for you. Though it may take less energy and doesn’t hurt at the moment, it may cause issues in the long term. You may not necessarily be “breaking your body down” by having poor posture, but you may be limiting your positional and movement options.
Posture as a foundation of good movement
This leads to another way of framing what “good” or “better” posture means. How does your posture affect how you move? Does it require a lot of effort to change positions or to manipulate your limbs when reaching for things while you are sitting or carrying/moving objects while standing?
For example, when you lift something up overhead to place it on a high shelf, would you do so slumped over? Of course not! Excessively rounded shoulders and a craned-forward neck not only cause unnecessary strain but also put you in a poor position to exert force. Just as you want to sit and stand still with ease, you also should want to move with as little strain as possible.
With this in mind, you should start to think about posture as less of an ideal static position and more in terms of how you can be aligned and ready to move well. It’s better to think of “good” posture as proper alignment. Reframing it in this way makes it more personalized for who you are and what you need. Being able to move well in and out of a variety of alignments makes you more capable and functional in your daily life.
So what do you need to work on?
What do you need to do to improve your posture in a way that’s best for you?
First, it helps to understand how you currently hold yourself while sitting and standing, which is a result of how you’ve adapted to the demands placed on your body. Your habits and what you do every day literally determine your shape. You build strength and flexibility where it is needed to deal with particular stresses and lose strength and flexibility where no stresses are applied. (This is also the reasoning behind why exercising works and why we work out!)
So the same reasoning applies to how to change your posture in a beneficial way. Like in any good movement program, you need to start with assessing your weaknesses and prioritize improving them.
There are three areas to assess and work on to improve your ability to stay still and move with ease.
- Body awareness
Every exercise you choose to do to improve your posture aligns with at least one of these purposes, whether that is gaining better strength, range of motion or body awareness.
The strength exercises that you’ll need will make intuitive sense; they’re working the muscles on the back side of your body. The muscles that pull your shoulders back (rotator cuff and scapular retractors, latissimus dorsi), as well as your lower back and glutes, are important for attaining and maintaining a more upright posture.
There are a lot of great choices out there for improving the strength of these muscles, but we’ve found that these three are a very efficient use of your training time for postural improvement. They’ll help you improve your strength endurance for an improved standing posture and counteract sitting for long periods.
Perform three to five sets of five to 10 repetitions (each side).
In this exercise, focus on pulling your shoulders down and back and lifting your chest up. You can start by keeping your legs on the ground if it’s too difficult. Hold for a count of five to 15 seconds.
This move works in the same way as the back extension above, but it is more difficult because of the leverage of having your arms overhead instead of by your side. Hold for a count of five to 15 seconds.
Glute extensions work on both back and hip extension but also emphasize your buttock muscles. You should be able to hold this longer than the previous two exercises, so work on a count of 20 to 45 seconds.
Here is another concept that becomes pretty clear based on what we’ve talked about so far. The front of your body needs to be able to stretch and open up out of the rounded and slumped posture. Your chest, shoulders, abdominals and even the lower body such as the hip flexors should be flexible enough to allow you to move freely without a lot of effort.
Again, there are so many good options for stretches, but the three below are a great starting point and will work many of the most common problem areas. Give them a try and see how they feel for you!
You can do these stretches as many times throughout the day as you like, for one to three sets of 20 to 60 seconds. It’s more beneficial to do these more often and at a lesser intensity than to do them “harder” and irregularly.
This standing extension will stretch your chest, shoulders and abdominals all at once. Start by standing close to the wall and place your hands and forearms on it. Then slowly move your feet back as you slide your arms down the wall and bend at your hips. Go to the point of a bit of discomfort, and hold the stretch for 20 to 60 seconds. If you can’t hold for that long, you’ve stretched too far! Be easy on yourself in the beginning.
This is a classic stretch that targets the front of your hips and thighs. When they are tight, they tend to pull your pelvis in a position that makes it more difficult to sit and stand tall, so this is a very useful exercise. Position yourself so you can feel stable and supported; have a chair, table or couch by your side. Again, find the stretch that is tolerable for 20 to 60 seconds.
This position is a great combination stretch. Start by standing next to a wall an arm’s length away. Place your palm on it at just above the level of your hips. Now sidestep toward the wall, keeping your chest up and shoulder pulled back and down. Just as in the other stretches, go far enough that you feel a stretch but not so much that you can’t hold it for 20 to 60 seconds.
Next up are exercises that aren’t necessarily about stretching or strengthening but are more for gaining a better perception of how you are holding your body. You develop habits over time and can quickly lose sense of how your body actually “looks.”
These body-awareness exercises will have you go into the move as far as you can in one direction and settle into it, to “feel” the sensations you have there. With enough practice, you’ll be able to remember and notice what your body is doing throughout the day in your different sitting and standing positions.
On your hands and knees, see how big you can make a downward curve with your back. This is different from a stretch in that you don’t need to hold this position very long. Simply get into it for a few seconds and take note of how you feel. What areas of your body do you notice? Can you move every part of your back? Then go back to a more flat back position and notice if that feels different now. Repeat a few times and work on capturing some “memories” of the feelings.
This is the opposite positioning in which you work to get as rounded of a back position as you can. The same instructions apply: Get into the position and analyze what you are feeling in the various parts of your back and the rest of your body.
This position is a fully exaggerated posture in which you throw your shoulders back and rotate your arms, lift your chest up and push your hips forward. This is obviously not an optimal posture to maintain! But it can teach you a lot about what full extension of the body means. This can most definitely be a stretch if you hold for longer, but for now, just use it as a chance to explore how your body feels.
Use these awareness movements to break up the times in your day when you may be sitting or standing still for a while. Give yourself an opportunity to improve your awareness of your body.
These exercises, along with many others, are described in more detail here.
Photo credit: Courtesy of GMB Fitness