Nothing gives away your age, or your state of mind more than your posture. Drooping shoulders, sagging tummy, dragging feet, all shout out . . .
In contrast, good posture and fluid, graceful movement can take years off – not to mention centimeters.
But that isn’t all.
Restoring your body’s equilibrium in terms of strength, flexibility, and function, allows it to work efficiently and without strain. This enables you to perform at your best, whether you’re standing, sitting, running or bending over to pick up something heavy. Good posture also minimizes muscle tension and back pain – and, quite simply, feels good.
Put Your Posture to the Test
Posture is what we do when we stand, sit, lie, walk or move in any way – it isn’t simply what we do when we are standing still, although this is the easiest position in which to assess it, and get a snapshot of what may or may not be wrong.
It is ideal if you can get a friend or partner to help you with this exercise, otherwise you can do it alone, with a mirror.
March slowly on the spot for a few seconds, with your eyes closed. Allow your body to come to a natural standstill. Do what feels natural for you. Now open your eyes and take a look, and answer the specific questions below, or get your friend to jot down some notes:
- Does the head tilt left or right?
- Are the shoulders resting at the same height, or is one higher than the other?
- Are the shoulders hunched up?
- Do the arms rest in line with or in front of the thighs?
- Are the hipbones level?
- Is there more weight on one side than the other?
- Which way do the palms face? Are the ‘windows’ between the torso and the arms equal on both sides?
- Do the knees point forwards, like headlights, or out to the sides, or in towards each other? Check both knees.
- Is there equal weight on both feet? Does either foot turn in or out, or are both at the same angle?
- Is the head jutting forwards from the neck?
- Is the chin sunken or lifted?
- Are the shoulders ‘protected’ (curving upwards) or hunched up? Check each one separately.
- Does the tummy protrude?
- Does the pelvis tip forwards or backwards?
- Are the knees ‘locked’ so that the calves appear to bend backwards?
- Is the weight mainly on the heels or balls of the feet?
Classic Faulty Postures
There are three main less than optimal postural positions, and they tend to be accompanied by specific patterns of muscle weakness, tightness or shortness:
Anterior pelvic tilt, deep lumbar lordosis, tight hip flexors, weak (often protruding) abdominals, weak glutes, tight overactive glutes and overactive hamstrings.
Head extended, normal curve in neck flattened out, rounded shoulders, concave chest. Associated muscle tightness includes oversight chest and front shoulder muscles, lengthened trapezius muscles, internally rotated shoulders and over-extended neck.
‘Teenage’ posture, with body hanging on the hip flexors, the tummy being the furthermost point and the thoracic spine the furthest backwards. A sharp curve towards the lower part of the lumbar hollow. Associated muscle tightness includes overtight ITB, hip flexors, short hamstrings, overlong back extensors and obliques but short, tight rectus abdominis.
The Posture Perfecting Exercise Prescription
You’ll notice the following sequence is a mixture of stretches and strengthening exercises. This is because allowing shortened muscles to regain their former length is just as important to posture as strengthening weak muscles. If, for example, you have a lordotic posture, there is no point in strengthening the abdominals if the hip flexor and lower back muscles are so tight, they tip the pelvis forward. That way, your body is just fighting against itself. By stretching first, and then strengthening, joints can be put back to their ideal position.
Top Three Posture Workouts for the Upper Body
Straight Arm Row
Why?: To get the shoulder retractors and mid-back muscles functioning properly without allowing the arm muscles to take over the movement.
How? If you know the seated row machine in the gym, this will be familiar. But in this exercise you don’t bend your elbows to bring the bar (or resistance band) towards your chest; you simply open the chest and draw the shoulder blades together.
Hold the end position when the shoulder blades are squeezed together. Do one set to fatigue with palms facing each other, and one with palms facing down to focus on the back of the shoulders.
Why? To reduce tightness in the chest muscle that pulls the shoulders forwards. This is typically very tight in women, due to a combination of a lot of reaching forwards and the protective position many women adopt to hide their breasts or in breastfeeding.
How: Stand in a corner, facing where the walls meet, with your arms extended and one hand on each wall. Lean forwards so that you feel a stretch on each side of the chest/armpit. Don’t hunch the shoulders. Hold for 30 seconds.
Rotator Cuff Strengthener
Why? These deep-set stabilizing muscles help support and position the shoulder girdle and prevent injuries to the shoulder. They are typically very weak.
How: Take a resistance band and hook it round something like a closed door handle. Take a few steps away so that the band has some tension and position yourself so that your arm is in the ‘open’ position, and the resistance comes when you bring it across the body.
Do one set to fatigue on each side and then turn around so that the forearm is across the body and the resistance comes when you open the arm out to the side. Again, do one set to fatigue on each side.
Top Three Posture Workouts for the Abs & Back
Spinal Rotation with Cushion
Why?: To improve mobility in the spine and strengthen the obliques. Rotation is the least used direction of movement, and often the first to deteriorate.
How: Lie on your back with a cushion between your knees and your arms outstretched in a crucifix position. Drop the knees to the right, keeping the left shoulder on the floor and the abdominals contracted. Take a breath and, as you bring the legs back to the center, ensure the lower back stays on the floor, using the muscles at the side of the waist to assist the return. Take the legs to the opposite side. Repeat five times to each side.
Why?: To Improve strength endurance of the quadratus lumborum, a spinal stabilizer at the side of the torso. This also helps to nip in the waist.
How: Lie on your side with knees and hips stacked (the top directly over the bottom) and your weight resting on the lower elbow. Keeping the body in a straight line, lift your body up so that the weight is supported on the lower foot and elbow only.
Keep your elbows contracted and don’t let your bottom stick out. Hold each rep for 5-10 seconds and repeat for five on each side.
Bent Knee Fall Outs
Why?: To work on core stability rotational movement on the pelvis.
How: Lie on the floor with your right leg out straight and your left leg bent with the foot flat on the floor, next to the right knee. Engage the core and then slowly let the bent knee lower out to the side without allowing the pelvis to twist or rotate. Repeat to fatigue and then swap sides.
Top Three Posture Workouts for the Legs & Glutes
The Pigeon Stretch
Why?: Because the hip rotators often get very tight and this can pinch the sciatic nerve as it travels through from the pelvis to the leg, causing sciatic-type pain.
How: Kneeling up on a mat, cross your right call over your left, and extend the leg behind you. Sink down onto your elbows and allow the body weight to rest on the front knee and elbows. You should feel a stretch deep inside the left buttock. Hold for 30 seconds then swap sides.
Why?: To improve gluteal strength and pelvic stability.
How: Stand sideways on a step, with your support leg bent at about 25 degrees and the other leg hanging over the edge. Now ‘hitch’ the hip, so that the hanging leg rises up above the other one until the hipbone is higher. Hold for two seconds, then sink down and repeat to fatigue. Swap sides.
Single Leg Squat
Why?: To improve hip and knee stability and work the innermost quadriceps, the vastus medialis obliquus, by locking the knee out to full extension.
How: Stand with your feet 20 cm (8 inches) apart and arms out to the sides for balance. Lift the left leg off the floor and slowly bend the right leg, keeping the knee over the fourth toe and not allowing the pelvis to tip to the side. Straighten and repeat as many times as you can with good technique. Swap sides.
The Belly Breathing Difference
You have always been told to exhale on the ‘up’ phase of an abdominal curl or crunch and breathe in on the way down, right? Well, recent research suggests that, as far as honing core stability goes, this isn’t necessarily the best way to breathe. Here’s why:
If you always attach an exhalation to exertion, your nerve-muscle pathways learn to activate the stabilizing muscles only when you are exhaling. Then, in normal daily activities, when you may not be consciously breathing out as you exert effort, the abdominal muscles may fail to stabilize, putting your back at risk. The researchers suggest breathing in and out continuously during abdominal exercise to prevent this pattern being established.