We all know how important posture is. And by now, you probably realize that yours is, well, not so great. You sit at a desk all day, spend hours sitting in traffic or hunched over your phone on the train. You may feel a nagging stiffness in your low back, and your shoulders could be drooping forward into a permanent hunch.
Aside from projecting confidence, and better displaying all that hard work you’ve put in at the gym, posture is important in avoiding or even reversing chronic pain and injuries. Likewise, “prolonged postures can wreak havoc on the body, leading to stiffness and pain over the course of years,” says Joe Gambino, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., a New York-based physical therapist, trainer, and founder of Par Four Performance.
But posture is a bit more complicated than good or bad. “In my opinion, there is no such thing as perfect posture because all postures place a low-level force over a long period of time causing increased stress on tissues that can cause dysfunction,” Gambino explains. Even healthy activities, like running road races, can put your body through the same ranges of motion again and again, leading it to favor certain muscles.
Related: 30 Best Back Exercises of All Time
That’s why experts focus on bringing people back to “optimal” posture, when your ears, shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles are all aligned while standing, Gambino says. “Think about dropping a plum line from your ear down. All these points should line up.” In this position, you reduce the amount of stress you’re placing on your tissues, allowing your body to work, well, optimally.
What Is Kyphosis? And Do You Have It?
One caveat: Your work ethic may not be the culprit for a slouched posture. It could be your spine itself. You may be suffering from a disorder known as kyphosis.
Kyphosis involves a significant rounding of the thoracic spine (the vertebrae between your neck and lower back) when standing, crouching, or bending over. Try a test now: Stand sideways to a mirror. Next, without bending your knees, reach down and touch your toes. Don’t worry about keeping a flat back to do it. Once you’re down there, look in the mirror to see what part of your back is doing the most rounding. If your mid-back resembles a camel’s hump, there’s a good chance your spine is a little kyphotic. This issue can affect your shoulder mobility, especially for overhead work. It can also add to lower back stress due to compensation.
The 9 Best Moves for Better Posture
Kyphosis or not, we can all benefit from tuning up our posture. The aim is to train the muscles responsible for lifting your ribcage and extending your spine to help you stand taller. That means targeting the back, of course, but doing so smartly. Break up your routine with these nine exercises. They can make all the difference in preventing overuse injury from all that harmful standing and sitting you’ve been doing.
Chest Supported Row
How it works: Using an inclined bench and light dumbbells, this move is superior to a bent-over row in its classic form, because the chest support discourages the body from entering a deeper slouch as the body fatigues during the set. It allows you to focus on keeping the shoulders back on each rep, extending the mid-back, and lifting the chest when pulling.
What to do: Place the inclined bench at 45 degrees, and focus on sets of 12 to 15 slow, controlled reps with a held squeeze at the top. It’s a good idea to start with a prone grip and rotate the wrists to neutral at the top of each rep. This will help the weights clear the bench you’re lying on, but also place the shoulders in an even more favorable position of external rotation, which is great for posture.
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How it works: For most people, training the traps directly involves some kind shrug pattern, which sounds the alarm since too much upper trap work can exacerbate posture imbalances. But the lower traps (also known as the trap-3) contract in the opposite direction of the upper traps, and can act to improve spine extension and positively affect posture.
What to do: Find a bench to rest your forearm and head on, placing your upper body parallel to the floor. The weight you select should be very light; if you grab a 10-pound dumbbell, you’re at the upper limit. Think about setting your shoulder and lifting the straight arm upward and slightly diagonal to really squeeze the upper back. There can be a slight swing to this pattern so the deltoids and upper traps don’t take over the lift. Focus on sets of 12 to 15 reps per arm.
Bent-Over Reverse Fly with Supine Grip
How it works: The bent-over fly is a classic, but it’s usually performed with a prone grip, or at most, a neutral grip. These hand positions ask a lifter to be very careful to avoid entering a range of motion that’s too great for their actual shoulder mobility. Often, lifters exceed that range and enter a dangerous position called shoulder glide. That’s where the head of the shoulder starts to shift forward in its socket, rather than staying centralized in the capsule. When this happens, it can work against the effort you’re putting into truly targeting the back muscles with nothing impeding.
What to do: Turn your hands to face the palms forward and away from you during the set, which allows the shoulders to roll further back and stay in place through the entirety of each rep. Since the rear deltoids will be more active for the entire set, you’ll also notice a better squeeze when you lift. Sets of 12 to 15 reps are ideal, and again, focus on a strong paused contraction at the top of each rep. It shouldn’t take much weight to feel these when done properly.
How it works: This simple move, involving no weights, targets your shoulders. It can help you to correct your pesky hunched posture.
What to do: You can do this using body weight alone, before progressing to light loading. Lie on your stomach, with elbows bent and the hands at ear level, in line with the shoulders like you're going to do an overhead press. Face the palms toward each other and lift the entire arm and hand off the ground. Slowly extend the arms overhead until they’re fully straight. Your hands will want to drift and fall to the floor. Don’t let them. Squeeze the upper back to keep the arms from falling, and slowly return to the starting position. Try to focus on keeping your hands as high off the floor as the elbows. Perform 10 slow reps without letting any part of the arm touch the floor.
Foam Roller T-Spine Extensions
How it works: Though this is more of a mobility training tool, it deserves a spot in your plan, particularly if kyphosis is at play. Most exercises and drills rely on muscular strength and active contractions to create better range of motion and spine health. With this, a lifter can rely on using their own weight and gravity to train the spine to extend manually.
What to do: Lie face-up on a foam roller with it placed width-wise under the shoulder blades. Plant the butt down and interlace the fingers behind the head. Next, try to “wrap” the shoulders around the roller, reaching for the floor on each rep with the shoulders, encouraging a nice arch through the mid-back (which should be in contact with the roller) and flaring the ribcage up high. Try not to arch strictly through the lower back. Return to your starting position. That’s one rep. Focus on sets of 6 to 8 slow reps. Remember to breathe through each rep to help open yourself up.
Standing Band Resisted T-Spine Rotation
How it works: “This exercise is used to help restore thoracic rotation which often becomes stiff when sitting for long periods of time,” Gambino says.
What to do: From a standing position grab a light resistance band. Grab one end in each hand, and without letting your belly button change its orientation, pull with one arm to rotate your head, neck, and upper back while maintaining straight elbows. Repeat for 1 to 3 sets of 10 per side.
How it works: Sitting all day places us in hip flexion. Stretching into extension helps counterbalance that.
What to do: Set up in a lunge position. Place rear foot on a wall, chair, or couch. Tilt your pelvis upward to increase stretch to the front of thigh. Hold for 2 to 3 minutes daily.
Single Leg Glute Bridge
How it works: Again, it puts you into hip extension (countering that hip flexion) and activates the glutes which are constantly placed on stretch throughout the day because of prolonged sitting.
What to do: Lie on your back with one foot near your butt and the other leg extended. Press through the heel to raise your hips, engaging your glute and hamstring. Repeat for 1 to 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps on each side.
Band Pull Apart
How it works: “Sitting places the muscles of our back in a stretched position,” Gambino adds. If not addressed, that could led to weakness. Band pull aparts actively engage the back muscles.
What to do: Start in standing position and grab a moderate resistance band. Hold arms straight out in front of you. Pull band apart while squeezing shoulder blades. Once fully retracted, slowly return to starting position. Repeat for 1 to 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps.