It is no secret that a lot of us suffer from bad posture. We are spending a lot of time sitting slouched in front of a computer, at a desk, on the sofa, in the car. We also spend a lot of time these days looking down at our smartphones. As a personal trainer, when we assess a client’s posture and functional movement, asking about any aches and pains, we see this on a daily basis. A lot of people come into a gym to lose weight, build muscle, improve their fitness. But doing exercises with bad posture can cause injuries, so this should be addressed in any workout programme first. Doing exercise can improve our posture. And a good posture makes us seem taller, stronger and healthier.
Common bad postures include slouching when sitting, rounded shoulders, cradling a phone, sticking the bottom out, leaning on one leg, hunched over back – the so called “text neck”. Some of these can also be caused by exercise itself when certain parts are trained more than others and imbalances result. A bad posture doesn’t just make us look like Quasimodo, it can also lead to pain. For example, the natural curve in our lumbar spine (the lower back) is necessary to prevent lower back pain.
Nobody wants to look like the hunchback of Notre Dame. And nobody wants to get injured when exercising. The good news is that there are plenty of exercises we can do to improve our posture. Let me give you some examples here.
Uneven hips can be a result of tending to lean on one leg while standing or carrying heavy loads on one side. This leads to muscle imbalances around your pelvis as excessive pressure is put on one side of your back and hip. Bridges with leg lifts strengthen glutes, core and hamstrings. Make sure that when you lift your leg up that your hips don’t drop to one side. This requires your core muscles to work hard to stabilize your pelvis.
For a hunched over posture and the text neck, we need to strengthen upper back, neck and shoulders and stretch the chest. For example, at the pull up bar make sure your shoulders stay down and you pull the shoulder blades together and down to create a slight lift. If you can’t do it on a pull-up bar, do the same movement on the lat pulldown machine. Work on keeping the shoulders down while pulling the shoulder blades together and down.
A lot of women stick their bottom out as a result of pregnancy, high heels or weight around their waist. This Donald Duck posture can be corrected by focusing on exercises that strengthen the glutes and core and on stretches of the hip flexors and quads. Bridges, planks and a conscious effort to pull your abs in to keep the spine’s natural curve help to get the body’s natural alignment back.
To strengthen the core you should focus on slow controlled movements. We want to avoid jerky movements that use momentum and only activate a limited range of muscles. Bicycles are a great exercise for example when done slowly with control.
Rounded shoulders are often a result of bad posture and muscle imbalances. People who focus a lot of training on their chest muscles doing tons of bench presses, but neglect the upper back, end up with rounded shoulders. So the tight chest muscles pull the shoulders forward, but the lower trapz and rhomboids are not pulling the shoulders back. In this case, we want to do exercises that strengthen the back and stretch the chest. Seated rows or pull-ups are good exercises.
This exercise is great for strengthening your back. Lay face down on a mat or flat surface, with arms outstretched. Keep your hands and arms straight throughout the exercise. Raise your hand and legs 10 cm off the ground (the Superman position). Hold for 5 seconds, then return to starting position.
If in Doubt, Plank
Planks are great for strengthening your core and shoulders and thus address a lot of those bad postures. If you are leaning on one leg, standing with a flat back, have a Donald Duck posture or tend to slouching and rounded shoulders, you should do these often. Planks are often done incorrectly as people try to hold them for longer and longer. I would suggest you focus on proper form instead of length of time in the plank position. Have a break when you start getting tired and your form is compromised. The bottom and hips are in line with shoulders and heels – make sure your hips don’t come up (it’s not a downward dog) or sag (not good for your back). Make sure your glutes and abs are tight and your elbows under your shoulders.
The Cat Cow flow is a great stretch for the back, neck and chest. Start on your hands and knees with your wrists directly under your shoulders, and your knees directly under your hips. Put your head in a neutral position and look down. Begin by moving into Cow Pose: Inhale as you drop your belly towards the mat. Lift your chin and chest, and gaze up toward the ceiling. Next, move into Cat Pose: As you exhale, draw your belly to your spine and round your back toward the ceiling. The pose should look like a cat stretching its back. Repeat 5-20 times, and then rest by sitting back on your heels with your torso upright.
The Bird Dog stretch starts in the same position as the Cat Cow flow. Inhale, exhale and simultaneously lift your right leg and your left arm. Try to keep your torso as steady as possible.
If you really pay attention to your form, you’ll probably find this not as easy as it seems. Slowly bring your leg and arm back to their original start position and then repeat with the other leg and arm.
The doorway stretch is one of my favourites to stretch tight chest muscles. Hold onto the doorway with one hand at shoulder height with your arm fully straight. Turn your hips until you feel the stretch across your chest.
Neck stretches and rotations are great for issues that result from cradling the phone between shoulders and ears. Gently lower your left ear towards your left shoulder; hold for 10 to 15 deep breaths, then repeat on the right side. For neck rotation, slowly turn your chin towards one shoulder, hold for 10 to 15 deep breaths, then repeat on opposite side.
Just a word of caution here: If you have severe back pain, an injury or medical problems, always check with your doctor first before you start doing any exercise or stretches. Also, if during an exercise or stretch you feel pain (and I don’t mean in a good way) then stop doing it.