I work with people who are trying to improve their posture. Most of the time, they are not sure why they want to, only that they may have been told that their posture is ‘bad’. Maybe they are suffering from lower back pain or neck pain, or maybe they have been told they have round shoulders. Occasionally, they have just looked in the mirror and come to the conclusion that their posture just isn’t ‘right’. I also work with people who think they have ‘good posture’ until they come to me. And that’s the problem here, isn’t it? I find that most people, even fitness professionals; are not entirely sure of the implications and meaning behind ‘good’ posture.
I work with clinicians who for the most part, consider a lack of pain to be an indicator of good health and well-being. They are probably right, but an individual with weak musculature and so called ‘bad posture’ can only stay pain-free for so long and it might be knee pain, or shoulder pain for ‘no good reason’ that alerts that individual to the fact that they may have a dysfunction. However, they may only think that they have a problem with the knee and/or the shoulder, not their entire way of holding themselves upright.
Our musculature, sits from one point of origin, to another point of insertion; on either side of the body, on every human being. Each muscle is designed to have a particular function. An imbalance in the strengths of these muscles can create a dysfunction; where the muscles pull against each other on the skeleton, pulling us into a different shape. Habit, will maintain this dysfunctional/imbalanced shape and maybe continue to pull and upset the balance of muscles and joints elsewhere.
Consider the posture assumed whilst sitting at a desk all day. The muscles on the back of the body, become longer if you sit ‘slumped’, the muscles on the front; push out around the abdomen and tighten across the chest. The hips are sat in a shortened state, which makes them tight, pulling the pelvis into a forward tilt. This is just one scenario, another person may find that the backs of the legs become tighter and the lower back long and weak, possibly tightness in the neck extensors (at the back of the neck) from jutting the chin forwards.
What about repetitive activity like sport? Racquet sports player often create power from only one arm, one shoulder – creating an imbalance between the shoulders and pulling the body into a rotation, which affects the way that shock is transmitted through the pelvis legs and feet.
Whatever we do, however we do it; if it is repetitive – it will have an effect on muscle balance and our anatomical alignment i.e. posture. This in turn, can impact on our efficiency in breathing and therefore our ability to perform basic physiological actions like; remove the waste products of metabolism from within our system, creating toxicity and other symptoms like hypertension and IBS.
To address the imbalance cause by long term dysfunction and ensure sound physiological and anatomical function, Pilates is probably the best and easiest option. A generic group class will focus on creating balance between the muscles and improving alignment, for serious dysfunction, a course of private lessons is advisable.
If you plan on tackling the issue on your own, watch for these common and counter-productive mistakes.
- Lifting the ribcage
In an effort to ‘straighten that back’ people often lift the ribs to create the illusion of having a straight spine with shoulders back. In truth, all that does is create weakness at the top of the (superficial) abdominals attachment and create tension in the middle of the back. Individuals that I have worked with, who have favoured this ‘solution’ have ended up with chronic instability in the lower thoracic region leading to hyperextension and excessive tension and discomfort; plus an inhibition of movement in the upper spine and shoulder complex.
There is more value, if the ribcage stays low and calm, whilst the shoulders are gently trained into retraction at the same time as training the upper thoracic region to extend (speak to a Physiotherapist or Pilates Teacher for advice).
- Lifting the chin
To release the tension in a tight neck, lifting the chin is counter-intuitive. Tension in the neck caused by desk work, is as a result of excessive contraction of the neck extensor muscles at the back of the neck. Lifting the chin, shortens the back of the neck creating further shortening and discomfort.
Many years ago I read an article in a newspaper that shall remain ‘unnamed’, which showed pictures of people sat at desks performing such an ativity for the management of ‘Desk-based Postural Discomfort’. I can assure you that this is not going to benefit you, instead; sit with your back against a wall and press the back of your head into it firmly. Glide the back of the head up against the wall, as if you are giving yourself a ‘double-chin’. This will lengthen the tight neck muscles, so hold it and breathe in and out a few times to let the stretch take effect.
- Forcing the legs into parallel
Have you ever stood with your legs in parallel, with the feet perfectly straight and relaxed your thigh muscles? If you relax your legs with the feet in a perfect parallel, your knees will roll in. That is true for everybody! We are designed to function with our feet very slightly turned out, so that the knees face forwards. Practice this; take a moment to feel how your knees internally rotate when your feet are straight. Now turn the feet very slightly out and notice how the knees face forwards.
From this position, when you lengthen the spine, with the ribcage staying low and the shoulders gently drawn back; you will find a position that feels both comfortable and somehow ‘different’, it will feel ‘right’.
‘Good’ posture is found between the boundaries of balance, work and strain. You want to your muscles gently connecting, but you do not want to feel like you are over-working anywhere. The lower back in particular, should feel calm and long – as should the neck. This will take training and commitment to ensure understanding. I strongly recommend that you seek professional advice as you only have 1 body; it’s yours forever, take care of it.