Improving posture is seldom at the top of anyone’s list for going to the gym, but perhaps it should be?
Florence P. Kendall, one of America’s most influential physical therapists, defined posture as “a composite of all the positions of all the joints of the body at any given movement.” As such, she concluded that ideal posture enables the body to stand, sit, and move more efficiently with less effort.
The benefits of good posture are obvious in athletics, regardless of the sport. One reason many gymnasts, figure skaters, and even golfers and football players practice yoga is to improve their posture so they can move more efficiently and reduce their risk of injury. Posture also has an overall positive effect on the quality of life, most notably in reducing the likelihood of developing low back and neck pain.
One reason many individuals fail to achieve optimal body alignment is that they look for a single stretch, exercise, or therapeutic tool to resolve the issue. Sometimes this works, but it’s best to take a multi-faceted approach. With that background, here are three common postural faults and proven ways to correct them.
Round Shoulders. Among the characteristics of round shoulders are forward displacement of the head and exaggerated curvature of the upper (cervical) spine. Such a posture is often attributed to a sedentary lifestyle and increased use of computers and smartphones. Athletes involved in sports such as swimming (which strongly work the lats) or boxing (which strongly works the pectorals and anterior deltoids) often display round shoulders.
Chronic misalignment of the upper spine accelerates degeneration of the discs. Round shoulders is also associated with chronic tension in the muscles that externally rotate the shoulders (specifically the infraspinatus and teres minor) and may cause shoulder impingement and increased risk of shoulder dislocations.
A basic tenet of corrective exercise is to strengthen muscles that are weak and stretch those that are tight. For round shoulders, the muscles that often need specific strengthening exercises are the deep cervical flexors, serratus anterior, rhomboids, mid-trapezius, lower trapezius, teres minor, and infraspinatus. Among the most effective exercises to work these muscles are face pulls, prone Superman, bent-over dumbbell rows, and cable rows.
Seated neck machines can certainly strengthen the cervical flexors, but there are many manual exercises that you can perform yourself to work them; however, it’s best to consult a professional trained in corrective exercise, such as a physical therapist, before performing neck exercises as these muscles can easily be injured with improper exercise form.
Among the muscles that are weak with round shoulders that could benefit from stretching are the teres major, levator scapulae, superior trapezius (the traps have three distinct parts: superior or upper, middle, and inferior or lower), sternocleidomastoid, scalenes, latissimus dorsi, subscapularis, pectoralis major, and pectoralis minor. Coaches trained in yoga, dance, and gymnastics can be good resources to consult with to learn how to stretch these muscles; along with physical therapists, chiropractors, and elite personal trainers. Also, soft tissue work such as ART may help accelerate the process.
Excessive Lower Back Arch. Having an excessive arch in the lower back (hyperlordosis) affects the shock-absorbing qualities of the spine and increases the risk of lower back pain and disc degeneration. It also increases the stress on the hamstrings, making an athlete more susceptible to hamstring injury.
Strengthening the glutes and abdominal muscles can help create a more natural posture of the lower back. Glute exercises include deadlifts, good mornings, back extensions, and pelvic tilts; abdominal exercises include Garhammer raises, planks, and variations of sit-ups and leg raises.
The antagonists (opposing) muscles of the glutes are muscles that flex the hip, such as the psoas. If the hip flexors are tight, this can cause the glutes to be inhibited. Glute activation exercises such as pelvic tilts can help, but often the fastest way to restore optimal glute function is to stretch the hip flexors. In addition to specific static stretches, dynamic exercises that work the hip flexors through a large range of motion, such as lunges, can help correct this condition. Also, consider that one way to avoid chronic muscle tightness is to reduce how long we sit; for this reason, adjustable standing desks are a wise investment.
What also needs to be considered with hyperlordosis is bodyfat, as excessive belly fat can increase the arch in the lower back. We are facing a worldwide problem with overweight and obesity at all age levels. What’s especially disturbing is that in the US, it is estimated that approximately 1 in 6 young people between the ages of 6 and 19 are considered overweight or obese.
Faulty Knee Alignment. Poor alignment of the knees can increase the risk of many types of knee injuries, such as injury to the ACL. Further, one of the most common types of surgery in modern society is knee replacement. Approximately 600,000 knee replacements were performed about five years ago, and one study suggests that by 2030 that number will increase to 3.5 million!
It’s true that imbalances in the lower leg muscles and weakness in the glutes (especially the gluteus medius, the upper glute muscle) can affect knee alignment. It’s also true that one of the simplest ways to correct this relative weakness is to perform full-range leg exercises, such as full squats and lunges. Along with these exercises would be stretches for muscle groups such as the piriformis, quadriceps, and adductors. However, often the cause of faulty knee alignment is valgus feet.
Valgus feet is a condition where the feet collapse inward so that the ankle does not rest directly over the foot. This collapse causes the bones of the ankle to internally rotate, which in turn causes misalignment of the knees. There are three levels of valgus, with the more extreme level being considered flat feet.
One approach to correct valgus feet is through the use of orthotics, which will reform the arch so that the ankles are resting directly over the feet. There are, however, exercises that can often help reform the arch of the foot. One of the most important muscles to strengthen is the extensor hallucis longus, a muscle that creates lateral tension on the foot. One example of such an exercise is to perform step-ups while keeping the big toe up.
Correcting postural issues can be a challenge, and the longer postural imbalances are not addressed the longer it takes to correct them. Consider the advice in this article, and see if you can work with a qualified trainer or health care professional to help you achieve postural perfection!