Have you ever experienced pain or discomfort in your body that you suspect was related to your posture? Or maybe it wasn’t your posture as such but more a result of simply spending too much time in one fixed posture? After all, your body was designed to move! Perhaps your default “poor” posture only started causing you problems when you began working out or tried out a new sport?
Do any of these questions ring true for you? If so, you are not alone!
“Poor” static posture may or may not cause you to experience pain and discomfort in your body. But even if it doesn’t cause you pain, there could be other implications for your overall health, which we’ll get onto shortly.
We are all unique and complex beings. The nervous system is full of intricacies so the way your body responds to certain default postures will be different to another person’s experience. Let’s start to look deeper into this fascinating topic and first find out how your posture can relate to your overall health.
Why posture is important for health
Posture can simply be described as the position that the body is in while sitting or standing. Dynamic posture refers to the position the body is in during movement. Although “poor” static posture may not cause a person to experience more pain in their body, it’s important to realize that static posture can impact how effectively the body moves.
To a large extent, static posture, and effective movement are a reflection of each other. If the body is out of alignment and certain muscles have become weakened and/or tightened over time, the effects might not be noticeable when you’re simply going about daily activities.
However, load yourself up for a squat or deadlift and suddenly a whole lot of extra stress gets placed throughout the body. Your body may not be able to safely or effectively absorb the loads required for exercises such as these. The same problem could pop up during any sport or activity.
The added strain on tissues and joints that results can cause
- Pain as a result of weakness and/or tightness from muscle imbalances
- Frustration, and perhaps an increased likelihood of wanting to ‘give up’
- An inability to move through the required range of motion to complete the exercise effectively
- Increased potential for injury
Hmm, so maybe you’re considering avoiding that exercise program altogether now?
Stop right there! Your exercise program is a crucial part of your overall physical and mental wellness plan. So let’s explore the ways that you can build a great foundation for “good” posture. Some of the benefits that can come with better posture include:
- The ability to move with more confidence and ease
- A decrease in functional deficits
- Reduced likelihood of injury and discomfort from an exercise program
- Improved ability to breathe properly!
- Aesthetic benefits – yep, it can even help you to look leaner. For example, an anterior pelvic tilt can cause the belly to protrude and look bigger than it really is. Work on getting the pelvis to sit in a more neutral position and your belly may well look flatter without any weight loss occurring!
Lifestyle factors that contribute towards default postures
Lifestyle factors can make posture more pronounced over time. Perhaps you were born with a predisposition towards a certain posture. However lifestyle factors will have a huge impact on how your posture develops over time.
As a young child you probably found it easy to move your body in a variety of ways from climbing to running, jumping, twisting and turning. Over time certain habits likely led you to create a more exaggerated default posture. For example, you started spending progressively more time in a seated position as you grew older. You also developed a habit of carrying around a heavy bag over one shoulder day after day, month after month and year after year.
The compounded effects of these lifestyle related habits led to inefficiencies in movement and more strain on some areas of the body as opposed to others. As a result your posture adjusted over time.
“Good” versus “poor” posture
You may have noticed quotation marks around the words “good” and “poor” in this article. This is because these words are somewhat dubious. Posture is subjective to some extent. Someone with “poor” posture may move and function relatively efficiently, whereas someone with “good” posture might not.
However, there is a good possibility that more pronounced postures can cause a person to sit, stand and move less efficiently. Pronounced postures that may lead to issues include:
- Kyphosis – a forward rounding of the upper back
- Lordosis – an increased inward curve of the lower back. This is usually associated with a forward tilt of the pelvis
- Sway back – a shift forward of the pelvis, but without a tilt. This posture is often seen in conjunction with a kyphosis
- Flat back – a backwards tilt of the pelvis, which removes the natural curve of the lower spine
- Scoliosis – a sideways movement of the spine
- Neck poke[vi] (or ‘text neck’ ) – a shift forward of the head which can be common for people who work in front of a computer all day
There are a number of possible causes behind these more pronounced postures. Some may be easier to treat than others, depending on the cause and the lifestyle adjustments a person is able to make.
Overall, postural improvements need to be personalized. A focus should be placed on making the best of the natural curvature in the spine and your pre-disposed alignment. Over-compensating while striving for an unreachable ‘perfect’ alignment could cause additional issues.
Learn to love the body you have and to tweak your habits and exercises according to your own unique needs. Work on developing the best posture for YOU that will provide you with the amazing potential benefits that were listed above. Hands up who wants to move better and feel amazing?!
How to measure changes in posture so comparisons can be made
It’s important to recognize that improvements in default posture should be seen as a long term plan. Your posture is a result of subconscious maps that your brain has learned and repeated over time. Sorry folks but there are no ‘quick fix’ ways to correct it!
If you’re going to work through some of the suggestions below for improving your static and dynamic posture, here are a couple of tips for measuring the improvements that you make over time:
1. Take photos
As soon as someone around you starts talking about posture, it’s very easy to suddenly sit up tall with your shoulders pulled back! Perhaps you have even started reading this article and have adjusted your posture without thinking about it consciously?
Similarly, if your brain knows you are going to have photos taking to illustrate your posture, it may be difficult to maintain a truly natural posture. Photos can be a good way to notice changes in posture if you can maintain a relatively relaxed, natural position.
It will still be a subjective measure, but try to stand naturally in both the before and after photos! They should be taken from the front, side and back. This will help you to observe your natural body position – does one shoulder sit lower than the other, or do your shoulders roll forward?
2. Use a personal trainer or physical therapist
Ask a personal trainer or physical therapist to carry out some tests to assess your posture. They will likely carry out postural assessments while you are moving through certain positions. For example, by watching you sit down on and stand up from a chair they will be able to observe whether your knees drop in, you lean to one side or you bend forward excessively.
This provides insights for the trainer in terms of which muscles might be tight and/or weak. From there they will be able to recommend personalized stretches and strengthening exercises to help you. After you have completed the recommended stretches and strengthening exercises the trainer can then reassess your basic movement patterns to measure changes and improvements.
How to improve your posture while sitting or standing
There’s a little bit more to improving posture than simply ‘pulling your shoulders back’ like you may have been told from time to time! Environmental factors, lifestyle factors and an awesome exercise program can all work together to help improve posture.
Ergonomics is all about fitting the workplace environment to the worker. It involves setting up desks, chairs and tasks so that a person can work more comfortably and efficiently. Many people spend a large portion of their life at work, so it’s an important consideration when you want to find out how to improve your posture while sitting. Find ways to create a comfortable static posture that will minimize strain on various parts of the body.
If you are looking for ideas on how to improve posture at desk-based jobs, ergonomics should be one of your first considerations.
Some ergonomic considerations:
- Consider using a sit-stand work station so that static posture can be altered regularly
- Try alternating a traditional chair with a stability ball. This will allow a natural curve through the lower back and will help encourage an upright posture through a light activation of the core muscles
- Consider ergonomic supports that help reduce the load on the spine. Examples include foot rests and back supports
- Get a professional to set up your workstation to fit your own unique body so you can place your feet comfortably on the ground and be able to look straight ahead to minimize strain through the neck and spin.
2. Lifestyle tips
Humans can be very habitual. This causes us to repeat similar movement patterns day after day for years on end. It can take a while to adjust habits that are deeply ingrained, but with a bit of awareness the brain can learn different patterns and a new way of doing things.
Here are some of the areas to be aware of in your everyday life
- When standing, distribute weight evenly between each leg and between the front, sides and back of the feet.
- Be careful of unbalanced postures that place more strain on one part of the body. For example, sitting down and leaning to one side with the legs crossed.
- Consider using a bag that sits evenly over both shoulders, rather than one. If you must use a single shoulder bag (after all, there are some pretty stylish ones out there!) then practice switching shoulders throughout the day
- If you spend a large amount of time working at a desk, get up and move often! Even if you have “good” posture, a single position can become tiring over time, so change position regularly. This could include getting up for breaks and moving the body in a different way, or changing position on your chair. Ergonomics AND the way you position your body will both impact on your goal of how to improve posture at desk related jobs.
- Consider your footwear. High heels and “pretty” pointed toe shoes may be a great complement to your outfit, but what are they doing to your posture? Help your feet and body to function the way nature intended. Select footwear that allows the toes to spread, the muscles to function effectively and the body to move naturally
- Be aware of your smartphone usage, which can negatively impact both posture and respiratory function
- Instead of the traditional advice of ‘pull your shoulders back’, try a more effective adjustment called the ‘palms up’ approach. Turning the palms to face upwards while sitting or standing can effectively help to open out the chest and roll the shoulders back
- To create a ‘taller’ posture, imagine you have a string attached to the top of your head, which is gently lifting you upwards
3. Specific stretches
Stretching tight muscles can help to lengthen the areas of the body that are being restricted by default postures. It’s important to realize that an area which feels tight or painful may not necessarily be the area that needs to be stretched.
It’s a case of symptoms versus cause. For example, the classic forward rounding posture of the shoulders could cause pain to be experienced in the back of the shoulders and neck. A common reaction may be to stretch the muscles that are experiencing pain or discomfort (i.e. the neck and shoulders). However, these muscles could already be over stretched, and stretching them even further may cause additional problems.
The cause of tight shoulders could in fact be tight chest muscles that are being created as a result of the forward rounding posture. Therefore, a more positive impact on pain levels, aesthetics, and the functional capacity of the body may be experienced by stretching the chest muscles.
Often, gently stretching the body into a ‘counter’ position can help bring the body back to more of a neutral posture. For example, stand up and do a gentle back bend after you have been in a forward slouching position. Similarly, after sitting for long periods of time, stretch the quads, hamstrings, hip flexors and buttocks to help ‘reset’ the body.
Stretches for exaggerated default postures
- Lordosis: stretch the quads and hip flexors
- Sway back: stretch the hamstrings
- Flat back: stretch the hamstrings and abdominals
- Kyphosis: stretch the chest muscles
- Scoliosis: stretch through the sides of the body
Stretching your neck
If you want to know how to improve bad posture (neck specific) with a simple stretch, try the ‘chin tuck. If you spend extended periods looking at a screen during the day, you may find that you have a tendency towards the “poke neck” posture described earlier in this article.
To help reset the body from this position, sit upright and gently draw the chin back to lengthen out the back of the neck. You should feel a gentle stretch through the back of the neck. If you look in the mirror while you do this one you might notice that you’re creating a “double chin”. This is a good indication that you’re probably doing it correctly!
Ideally your neck should be able to move in an adequate range of motion to avoid straining it. A multi-factorial approach should always be taken when you’re trying to figure out how to improve bad posture. Neck stretches like the one above, or simply tilting the ear down towards the shoulder and turning the head from side to side are simple ways to get started.
Also consider that your issues could be stemming from another area of the body so you may need to address that. Remember that the symptom is not always the cause. For example, tightness in the lower back could be causing tightness all the way up the spine, resulting in neck pain.
4. Specific resistance based exercises for muscle balance
Your default postures can cause certain muscles to ‘switch off’ and weaken over time. Work on correcting posture by strengthening those that aren’t working as well as they should be. If you spend long periods of time in a seated position, it’s likely that your gluteals (buttocks!) may have decreased in strength and you could be placing added strain on other areas of the body.
Isolated exercises to help strengthen the buttocks
- Bridges/hip raises
- Glute extensions either using bodyweight alone, resistance bands, or a cable machine
- The clam
Compound exercises such as squats and lunges should also effectively strengthen the glutes. However inefficient movement or muscle imbalances can make it more difficult to activate the glutes during these exercises.
Resistance exercises for exaggerated default postures
- Lordosis: strengthen the hamstrings and glutes
- Sway back: strengthen the hips flexors, glutes and obliques
- Flat back: strengthen the hip flexors, glutes and lower back
- Kyphosis: strengthen the upper back muscles
- Scoliosis: Try the superman exercise whilst on hands and knees or lying on the stomach. (Extend opposite arm to leg)
Other considerations to improve posture with resistance based exercise
- Focus on the correct start position for each exercise. If you start in a “good” posture, it will be easier to move through the desired dynamic posture when you perform the exercise
- Pay more attention to body alignment when you start to fatigue. Correct form should always be prioritized over lifting a heavier load
- Always warm up before and cool down after a resistance based workout. A warm up should include a specific component where you take your body through the movements that it is going to do during the work Stretch out any muscles at the end of your workout that have been overly contracted during the session.
5. Core strength
The core muscles are those that support the mid-section of the body. A strong core unit provides important stability and protection to the body when it moves. It is important to strengthen the deep muscles of the core, as well as the more superficial ones.
Too much emphasis on superficial mirror muscles such as rectus abdominus (the “six-pack” muscle), can over-shorten the abdominal muscles and contribute to muscle imbalances and poor posture. Therefore focus needs to be placed on the entire core as a functional unit.
Ideas for increasing core activation and strength
- Include exercises like the plank in your program. This activates the front, sides and back of the core when done correctly
- Try exercise modalities such as Pilates, which place an emphasis on strengthening the deep core muscles, and integrating effective breathing with movement
- When you are sitting, or walking around, focus on drawing your belly button in towards your spine for periods of time. Imagine you have a string attached to your spine, behind your belly button. As you draw that “string” back, your belly button draws in. Make sure you continue to breathe freely while doing so
- Get a trainer to teach you which exercises to brace your core muscles for and which to draw your belly button in for (as described in the previous point). Some exercises, especially those where you are lifting heavy loads, require a different, bracing
- Try exercises using a stability ball, which require the core muscles to become activated
Final take-home points to improve your static and dynamic posture
Do you have an exaggerated posture that causes you problems either when you are stationary or when you carry out certain activities? Which posture is characteristic for you? What are one or two things that you are going to do to move towards a stronger, more neutral posture?
The areas to consider are:
- Ergonomics, and your environment in general
- The everyday habits that are part of your lifestyle
- Stretches and strengthening exercises to help balance out tight and weak areas
Focus on small, gradual changes one at a time so that you can feel better and move better. Consult with a physiotherapist or physical trainer if you need specific, personalized advice.