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Posture 101: How to Improve Posture

Reading Time: 16 minutes

We’ve been busy working on some poddyCs and some other cool stuff for you recently, but we’re back with a Propane original. As always, if you want to see us cover a specific topic, give us a shout.

This week I’m covering the what, why and how of improving your posture.

I’ve come a long way in undoing the embarassing, grungey teenage habits. As a general rule there’s more to be learned from people who previously struggled with the trait you’re looking to develop, as opposed to those who naturally display the skill.

Improvement takes time, but identify your sticking points and you’ll lubricate the process.

Posture: The ‘What’

Posture is simply the position of your spine and limbs when standing or sitting. It is also aptly defined as ‘approach or attitude’, given the two-way influence of posture on our psychology.


From a side view, the spine follows an S curve. The ‘S’ comprises of the natural curvatures of the spine’s subsections: cervical lordosis (extended/anteriorly convex shape), thoracic kyphosis (flexed/concave), lumbar lordosis and sacral kyphosis:

Abnormal length-tension relationships between antagonistic muscles in the body will affect the resting position of that joint, and ultimately your resting spinal position.

While they say curves are beautiful, there is no perfect posture. Improving yours isn’t necessarily about straightening the spine: these curves are crucial to its stability and function.

Returning to ‘neutral’ for you could be about regaining some of of the natural curves, while in someone else it could be about reducing an excessive curve, like slouching or ape-bum.

The muscles that contribute to posture & stability:


These muscles are generally designed to provide stability rather than powerful contraction, but they are capable of generating stiffness when challenged. : aberrant or delayed activation, or hypersensitisation to pain, where stimuli to spinal positional receptors are interpreted by the CNS as pain, even in the absence of tissue damage. .


These are “guy wires”:

They’re designed to reinforce a pole or mast’s stability. The spine is much the same. Antagonistic muscles pull on opposing sides of the spine to stabilise it – hence anything that loosens one guy wire and tightens the other, such as being asymmetrically weak, having big boobs, or walking around in anterior pelvic tilt will destabilise the spine, .

From McGill’s Ultimate Back Pain & Performance

The idea of the spine having a finite degenerative capacity comes from Dr Stu Mcgill, who claims that our spines have a fixed number of flexion cycles available in their lifetime before herniating, so we shouldn’t be wasting capacity on poor movement choices. He also posits that when we lift weights, we can end up functionally repurposing some of the deep lumbar erectors, which are postural, oxidative and slow twitch fibres, into fast-twitch, power-generating fibres. As a result, the muscles lose their endurance and spine-stabilising role in favour of strength. They fatigue more easily during general activities, again wasting spinal capacity and predisposing us to injury. .

Control of posture

Posture is subject to vestibular, emotional, visual, cortical/somatic, and mechanical control. Like breathing, its one of these funny body processes that can be either autonomic or voluntary; influenced by your balance, level of stress, mood, neurochemical state, muscular tightness, ‘trigger points’, threat perception and even your self-belief. And that’s just when standing at rest. Functional postures, sprinting/lifting stances and posture under load are wrapped in another layer of complexity, but let’s reserve that for coaching an athlete’s technique.

Its never simple with the body is it? This always flipping happens. Like last time I sat down and thought ‘hey, . Surely can’t be too complex, I could bash it out in an afternoon’.

Before you know it you’re 20 feet down a physiology rabbit hole in a fetal position surrounded by textbooks singing about neuropeptides to yourself.

I’m setting the scene here because the classical mechanisms don’t always give us the full box of tools to play with. The holistic perspective tips the scales in our favour to make a change.

Why

So we’re up to speed on what posture IS, and what modulates it… (basically everything). Most of the factors below are a chicken-egg scenario, i.e. pain affects posture as much as posture affects pain, which is actually an advantage, considering slumped posture is associated with being tired, old, depressed, contracted and shallow breathing. The opposite is also true, so by changing your physical position, you open the possibility of being more youthful, happy, expansive and energetic with deeper breaths.

Aesthetic

We often talk about not becoming ‘that guy’. The bore that goes out for a meal with friends and spends half the time tracking his macros and worrying about the accuracy of the menu, or talking about his deficit deadlifts rep scheme. Instead,we want you to be the enigma. The guy who is effortlessly in shape, where people can’t reconcile the pizza slice in your hand with the visible biceps vein.

And there’s no quicker way to stamp ‘meathead‘ on your forehead than the bench-press-ape posture, or Imaginary Lats Syndrome (ILS).

Conversely, if you can restore the length-tension relationships between your chest and back, you’ll have a tall & relaxed resting posture that displays your physique most symmetrically. Plus, there’ll be no need to force it: better to have an effortless natural posture than to constantly fight against your tight pecs to puff your chest out. Ironically you’ll actually look wider than Captain ILS.

Pain

The association between joint posture and pain/overuse injuries is more clear cut for feet, hips and shoulders.

Back pain, on the other hand, is a huge and messy topic and doesn’t follow the same rules. I’ll be covering it in more depth later this year.

. The emerging picture is that posture is instead the effect. The body is adaptive. So much so, that pain-free, high level performance is possible even in spite of clinically abnormal postures:

Saying that, we’re not invincible, and we would be prudent not to take the piss with our spines. Assuming our spines can only handle a certain amount of wear and tear in our lives, we would be best served saving it for lifting.

Unloaded postures: Sitting, standing

  • When sitting, change in posture is more important than a sitting in a specific way. Vary your position from time
  • “The ideal sitting posture is a variable one.” – McGill
  • Prolonged sitting/standing with the spine in end-range flexion or extension probably isn’t the best idea
  • “Sitting is the new smoking” is mostly scaremongering from a posture/pain perspective. Listen to Greg Lehman discuss this claim here.

Loaded postures: Lifting

  • Similarly, we do not want to load the spine at end range flexion or extension. Stick to lumbar neutral for any heavy loading.
  • Maintain intra-abdominal pressure in all directions when lifting. To get a feel for this, try wearing a belt, ‘breathing into your obliques’ and pushing out against it in 360 degrees. Many make the mistake of just pushing their belly out to the front. Never vacuum your abs under load! Your colon doesn’t do such a good job of stabilising your spine.
  • Mechanically, you can deadlift more weight with a rounded back, and there’s even some argument to doing so, but this requires an immense level of technical proficiency and spinal proprioception.
  • On balance, this is not recommended, and best reserved as a choice for the competitive lifter to weigh up. All of your deadlifting should be done in a textbook neutral posture.
  • More importantly, the spine must not move under load. The highest risk of disc herniation is where the spinal position buckles during a max deadlift, for example.
  • Finally, since posture is tied in with flexibility: say you lack ROM in your shoulders in a squat – this will manifest by compensation the next joint down, and the next, all the way down the kinetic chain and alter your lifting mechanics. And usually not in a good way. Your posture is then directly limiting your ability to lift with correct technique, possibly putting you at risk of injury.

But how do you find lumbar neutral?

Here are a couple of cues, taken from part of our Team Propane VIP weekly video calls:

The major mistake, especially when squatting is to overextend the lumbar spine – ass out. To correct for this without trying to float your pelvis about and ‘guess’ lumbar netural, simply squeeze your glutes when standing at lockout.

Left: Posterior pelvic tilt, Lumbar flexion. Right: Anterior pelvic tilt, lumbar extension

Neutral spine? But Yusef, I spied you doing Jefferson curls the other week…

Ya got me. Jefferson curls are a little controversial, but they’re not done as a heavy-loading movement, and are more to re-establish spinal proprioception and ‘lubricate’ the vertebrae to articulate more smoothly. I’ve been using this as a rehab movement to stop the whole lumbar section from wanting to move in one clumsy block.

Hormones?

You may have seen that TED Talk about how ‘power poses’ boost your testosterone:cortisol ratio, and the effects of posture on hormonal markers of confidence. Unfortunately, the study was replicated and failed to reach statistical significance.

However, just because we aren’t able to find a significant physiological marker doesn’t mean the whole thing is bunk. Remember, the goal isn’t to change our hormones for the sake of changing our hormones. The point of measuring these markers is to find a proxy for how posture makes us feel. So let’s go straight to the horses mouth and look at measures of mood.

Mood

Testosterone:cortisol ratios aside, this is pretty cool:

The researchers found that how the students rated themselves depended on the posture they kept when they wrote the positive or negative traits. Those who were in the upright position believed in the positive and negative traits they wrote down while those in the slouched over position weren’t convinced of their positive or negative traits. They trusted their own thoughts whether those thoughts were positive or negative. On the other hand, when the students sat in a powerless position, they didn’t trust anything they wrote down whether it was positive or negative.

However, those in the upright position likely had an easier time thinking of “empowering, positive” traits about themselves to write down while those in the slouched over position probably had an easier time recalling “hopeless, helpless, powerless, and negative” feelings, according to Erik Peper, professor of psychology at San Francisco State University.

In a series of experiments, Peper found that sitting in a collapsed, helpless position makes it easier for negative thoughts and memories to appear while sitting in an upright, powerful position makes it easier to have empowering thoughts and memories.

It appears that posture impacts our readiness to think and accept negative thoughts.

It’s a two way relationship. Emotional stimuli can impact our posture, and vice versa.

“Adopting an upright seated posture in the face of stress can maintain self-esteem, reduce negative mood, and increase positive mood compared to a slumped posture. Sitting upright may be a simple behavioural strategy to reduce stress.”Nair & Sagar.

The same effect seems to exist in those with depressive symptoms.

The body-mind interaction stuff is a really interesting world – for more, check our interview with Kit Laughlin, and Robin Ramage.

Breathing

As expected, slumped sitting restricts your ability to breathe deeply. I’ve presented a module on breathing in our VIP client group; another one of those ‘surely can’t be too complicated’ topics. For brevity, remember we have parasympathetic stretch receptors in the base of the lungs, so deep belly breathing directly increases vagal tone, reducing heart rate and stress. Shallow, chest breathing does the opposite and puts you in a low level state of stress.

Adopting a default posture that lends itself to deep breathing therefore reduces that friction of having to constantly remind yourself.

Performance

Your spine is the axis of force-transfer between your appendicular structures. Except your willy.

The best athletes are the ones that can coordinate movement explosively about their spines.

As a lifter, and likely someone that sits at a desk a lot, the odds are you spend a lot of time slouching, with tight hip flexors, pecs and biceps, fuelling the fire of kyphosis, lordosis and medial humeral rotation. Don’t we all know that feel :(.

The spine and intervertebral discs are also structurally more stable in the neutral range, as opposed to end-range. By regaining balance and control of your spine and restoring those length-tension relationships, we open more capacity for sporting performance. You can then express that strength you’ve worked hard to build through more efficient coordinated movements.

By this point you’re hopefully convinced of the benefits of improving your posture:

  • Pain & Injury
  • Performance
  • Mood
  • Peoples perception of you
  • Your perception of yourself
  • Readiness to believe your thoughts

So here’s how you can get started:

How

Can you even change posture?

First we need to eliminate any obvious causes, such as excessive pressing:pulling ratio of volume in your training program, silly shoes, bad habits, poorly adjusted desk/chair etc. Once the low hanging fruit are out of the way, we can look at correction.

Generally, poor results are observed from stretching and strengthening alone, without your conscious input to repattern the posture. Mechanisms are not clear cut, but here’s what I believe is happening:

  • Stretching: New range of motion is created. If it is then frequently accessed, we remap the somatosensory cortex (our sense of what body positions are safely accessible) to integrate that as our new sense of our body’s limits.
  • Strengthening exercises, even non-specific ones, give the athlete confidence in the new positions, even if strengthening is not accompanied by an improvement in dysfunctional movement (improvements in pain can occur without improvement in dysfunctional mechanics: <1 2 3 4>)
  • With the newfound confidence and expanded sense of what is a ‘safe’ ROM or position, the body can settle into that new position if we are willing to consciously develop it.

The relationship doesn’t seem to hold as well for the transfer to functional/dynamic postures, and require sport-specific training. So, (warning: prepare for your mind to be blown) to improve your technique, you need to practice your technique.

With that said, we sometimes structurally need fixing too – if your pecs are chronically tight/short, you’re only going to be able to hold your shoulders back for about 30 seconds before your upper back is exhausted, no matter how strong your upper back is.

Are you really going to build your endurance from 30 seconds up to 24 hours?

Correlational studies have failed to detect a significant association between muscle strength and scapular position but found a significant relationship between muscle length and scapular position. Prospective intervention studies have shown that stretching the anterior chest muscles on its own or in combination with strengthening the scapular retractors can alter the position of the scapula at rest in individuals with abducted scapulae.

A review of the literature has found a lack of reliable, valid data collected in controlled settings to support the contention that exercise will correct existing postural deviations. Likewise, objective data to indicate that exercise will lead to postural deviations are lacking.


Propane Athlete Al asked the following:

Thoughts on exercises and treatment for desk-worker kyphosis?

Lately i’ve noticed of neck pain / pre-headache feeling when front squatting and split squatting as my upper thoracic and back fatigue, shoulders roll forward and thoracic spine curves forward, putting a lot of pressure on my thoracic spine and neck. – Al

Case in point ^. Remember what I said above about lacking ROM causing a cascade of compensation down the kinetic chain in a movement?

Whether or not you use those proprietary fancy screening tools, the general principle is this:

1) Pick the elements of your posture which you aim to fix

2) Determine the muscles that are tight, and their antagonists

3) Identify:

  • a) the new, desired pattern,
  • b) a cue
  • c) an action reminder to trigger you to restore the pattern when you slip into old habits..

3) Get to work stretching the tight muscles, strengthening the antagonists and consciously accessing and inhabiting that new range. This is your new home.

Some ideas to play with below, but this doesn’t need to be complicated. With a correct assessment and knowing a muscle’s origin, insertion and action, you can devise your own routine, and tweak it by tuning in to what is tight on the day.

Tight muscles:

  • Static stretching: Explore and feel your limits, breathing into the space created, and consciously relax into and inhabit that space. Rather than angrily holding a stretch for time, it’s much more effective to sit in the stretch for 21 breaths.
  • Mobilising the joint
  • Soft tissue work
  • Dynamic stretching

Antagonists

  • Activation
  • Strengthening

New pattern

  • Conscious control: Action reminder
  • Visualisation
  • Proprioceptive feedback, e.g. tape, paying someone to hit you with a stick etc.

Worked example: Hunchback

Assessment:

1) Take photographs from the front and side

2) Say you identify the most common postural defect in lifters: kyphosis & medial humeral rotation, i.e. hunched back and rounded shoulders. Often this is accompanied by lordosis: the spine is trying to maintain an S shape so you aren’t falling forwards.

3) Assess the major functional patterns in sequence, such as wall slide, shoulder internal/external rotation,flexion, extension etc. Stretching is both diagnostic and therapeutic.

4) Based on our assessment, we identify pec minor, biceps and lats to be tightest.

5) Since the lordosis may be contributing (or sometimes even the cause), consider the hips too: tight iliopsoas and lower back, weak/lazy glutes & abs.

A) Stretch the Tight Muscles

1) Select a static stretch for each muscle group, e.g:

2) Perform the stretches post-workout, twice per week for 21 deep breaths. The more you can open and release into the stretch, the better – floor positions are better where the limb is supported. This minimises the apprehension reflex.

3) Include warmup soft-tissue work, thoracic extensions on a foam roller. Lying on a foam roller longways can also be effective to reverse some of the kyphotic patterns:

B) Activate and strengthen the Weak Muscles

1) Abs & glutes:

  • When standing around: Consciously engage when standing (you’re not crushing a pineapple, just 10-20% to pull you out of a resting duck-butt and into lumbar neutral).
  • Warmups: Bird dogs or glute bridge variations as part of your warmup (keep your pelvis ‘tucked’ in posterior tilt)

2) Rhomboids, trapezius, teres minor

Strengthen: Face pulls:

 

Straight arm scapular depressions: These can be done on a pulldown machine or hanging from a bar

Wall slides:

Active hangs:

Dip-plus:

Band-pull aparts:

Use an underhand grip and actively externally rotate at peak contraction

Superman drill – Hold for 1-2 minutes, twice per day.

C) Conscious repatterning: Action reminders

Pick a tactile cue that works best for you. Be careful with the cue – don’t just think ‘chest out’ for example – if you’re lacking range in your shoulders and thorax, this is going to come from your lumbar spine, causing you to simply drill more lordosis!

A better cue would be to imagine you’re being suspended by your crown from a string. The Alexander technique is big on dynamic imagery with postural cues, such as ‘imagine the shoulders are spreading wide apart, the arms and hands falling like heavy rain’. These cues cause you to stack the vertebrae and straighten out rather than pull a single structure out of line.

Tactile cues:

Sellotape: A sellotape cross over the upper back is a classic Soviet-style reminder.

Ring: A more subtle reminder is to wear a ring, watch or a bracelet, and adopt your cue every time you notice it.

Timer: If you sit in an office for most of the day, set a timer or use a specific sound (e.g. phones going off nearby) to perform Brugger’s manoevre (below) to break up the pattern of extended sitting.

So there’s a worked example for kyphosis. Some other common mistakes and stretches to play with are as follows.

More fun stuff to play with

Test-retest is an important principle with this stuff: Observe, feel and photograph your posture before and after the following movements, adopt what works.

    • Be aware of “Text-neck” during the day – (or perhaps Instagram-neck, Tinder-neck, Candy-crush-neck). This is the perfect opportunity to use an action-reminder whenever you pick up your phone to ‘suspend from the crown’.

    • Shoulder stretches:

  • Pec stretches:


The partner crossbow stretch:

This is a very complete upper body stretch, must try if you can convince a partner to help you.

  • Dr Eric Goodman’s ‘foundation training’ to teach you to use your posterior chain:
  • Dr John Rusin’s thoracic mobilisations 1 and 2 for tight pecs. 10-15 reps per side with deliberate form.

partner hip flexor stretch

Another delightfully nasty one from Kit Laughlin:

  • Scalene stretch: These are little muscles in your neck that attach to the top two ribs. They are supposed to be accessory breathing muscles but when we’re stressed and hunched over they can take over a function they’re not designed for, making them tight and gnarly. Stretch them like this:

  • Ming Chew trapezius stretch:
  • Piriformis stretches: Another hip muscle that can feel tight from sitting and squatting.
     Perform these twice per week for 21 breaths, keep it simple, and you’re more likely to stick to it.


     

‘No unnecessary tension’


The above is a principle that we discuss at length in the interview with Kit Laughlin. We’re looking to develop the ideal positions with as little tension as needed, which can only be done once we have that ROM easily accessible to us.

What about systems like pilates, Alexander technique etc.?

The data suggests that Pilates reduces back painor wait.. no it doesn’t. What’s likely happening here is that we all have different patterns, so applying the same approach to everybody is likely to have mixed success.

Pilates is also primarily a strengthening protocol – which as we’ve seen is only a third of the components in improving posture. That’s like only having a protein target with zero attention to carbs or fat. You might get leaner.. you might not.

Likewise, the Alexander technique is fantastic for cueing and repatterning, but we have to be able to access that new range first! We can attack posture on many fronts.

The tools of stretching, soft tissue work, strengthening and cueing are all at our disposal, so why not use them?

Finally, any modality is only as good as its teacher. To ensure the most success you’ll need individual assessment from a perceptive coach.

Conclusion

This article is already pretty long. I’m exhausted, you’re exhausted. Let’s call it a day: you now know the what, why and how of posture, and now have an effective framework to start fixing yourself. Using the core principles above, explore the stretches, mobilisations and cues for yourself. Develop some action reminders and a stretching schedule and get to work to unlock a taller, happier and niggle-free you.

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