We have such high expectations for how our bodies should look, right down to our postures. As we walk down the street and catch a glimpse of ourselves in a store window, we immediately stand up taller, suck in our tummies, and pull our shoulders back. Have you ever noticed that holding these “postures” doesn’t feel very good? Maybe that’s the reason why we aren’t able to hold this position for long, or more to the point, maybe that’s proof that we shouldn’t hold this position at all!
The problem isn’t with straightening up, it’s how we are straightening up. By striving for good posture, we are instead over-correcting by moving into hyperextension or hypershortening through the postural muscles. We’ll first examine what is happening when we try to “correct” our posture and then I’ll give you five exercises to enhance proper posture without pain
When we attempt to stand up taller, we often lift up from the low back first. This in essence puts us into a backward lean that exaggerates the curve of the low back and places tension on the lumbar extensors and supporting muscles. In addition, this sends the pelvis into a forward tilt causing even more tension on the low back and pelvis, ouch!
Notice that when you try to stand up straight, your ribs pop forward. This lengthens the abdominals and eliminates the support needed in the front to counterbalance that overextension of the lumbar in the back. Finally, at our most upright point, we tend to lift up our chins to feel as tall as we can. This forces the cervical extensors to work overtime as they are held in a shortened position. Imagine how that may negatively affect the neck and shoulder pain you may already be feeling from sitting at your desk all day!
We have all probably heard someone say “Stand up straight, pull your shoulders back”, but what happens when we do pull our shoulders back? The answer is both too much and not enough. The postural role of the shoulder blade muscles is to lay these bones flat onto the back of the ribcage when we are upright, but squeezing them does not allow the muscles to do this effectively, it just creates a holding pattern. Try squeezing your shoulder blades together and up. How great does that feel? You’ll probably find that it feels pretty awful.
To be effective, this job should be accomplished in combination with the extension of the thoracic spine to bring us to a comfortable upright neutral. However, while we attempt to straighten up from our low backs, we often fail to straighten up enough in the upper back. Consequently, when we pull our shoulders back, we are doing so from a flexed forward upper body, which creates a significant over-contraction of these poor shoulder blade muscles with no support from the upper back.
So if standing up taller hurts the low back and causes more neck tension, why are we walking around like this for the sake of trying to have “good posture”?
Try these 5 exercises to help you stand up taller more effectively:
1) Thoracic Spine Extension – For Extension of the Upper Back
Lie flat on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Prop a stability disc or firm throw pillow under your upper ribcage and shoulder blades, and interlace your fingers behind your head to support your neck. Gently lie backward over the disc or pillow allowing your ribs and breastbone to follow as the back of your head reaches towards the floor. Return to a neutral spine with head hovered, and repeat 10 times.
2) Thoracic Rotations – For Thoracic Mobility and Lumbar/Cervical Stability
Resting on that same stability disc or throw pillow, place a support under your head to rest your neck in neutral. Extend your arms long towards the ceiling with palms together like you are making the shape of a triangle or steeple. Keeping your nose in line with your thumbs, and elbows extended throughout, rock to one side of your back ribs then to the other like you are gently swaying from side to side. Repeat 8 times in each direction.
3) Pulling Shirt Overhead – For Shoulder and Scapular Mobility
Remove the disc or pillow and lay flat on your back. Place your right hand on your left hip bone, and your left hand on your right hip bone so your arms are crossed across your torso. Without lifting your arms, drag them up your body and overhead towards the floor behind you, then open your arms out to the side and down to the side of your hips. Cross your arms over again, and repeat 6 times in one direction, and 6 times in the opposite direction.
4) Side Leg Circles – For Hip Mobility and Lumbar/Core Stability
Roll onto one side with the both legs angled slightly forward and resting on the floor. Lift the top leg to hip height, then externally rotate the thigh bone. Arc that leg forward and up to complete the first half of your circle, then internally rotate the thigh bone as you arc your leg back and down toward the bottom leg. Keep your pelvis and ribs still by using your abdominals. Repeat 6 times in each direction.
5) Ankle Circles – For Ankle Mobility
Sit in a chair with your feet resting flat on the floor directly below your knees. Roll to the front of your feet as your heel gently lifts, then roll onto your heels as the front of your feet peels off the floor. Repeat 4 times, then return your feet to flat. Now roll to the outside edge of your feet then to the inside edge, trying to keep your knees from swaying side to side. Repeat 4 times, then circle around the edges of your feet: front, outside edge, heel, inside edge, and back. Circle 4 times in each direction.
A highly-trained Pilates and Therapeutic Exercise specialist can provide valuable tips and tricks to help effectively improve your posture.
Holly Wallis, Certified Movement & Rehabilitation Specialist, PMA®-CPT
Director of US Operations, Body Harmonics Pilates & Movement Institute
Studio Director, ReActive Movement, 6200 LaSalle Ave, Oakland, CA 94611
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