Right now, in all likelihood, you're hunched over a laptop, or maybe you're sitting on the train, your head tilted down at your phone, trying to read this article. And you know it's not good: When it comes to so-called “bad posture,” we can basically blame everything on the fact that we spend the majority of our time in one position—generally with our heads cranked forward, down, looking at something bright and shiny.
You also probably know what you're supposed to be doing: Traditionally, experts have thought of "good" posture as positioning yourself so that all of your joints are stacked over one another. In other words, your head is above your shoulders, shoulders over your hips, hips over your knees, and knees over your feet. In that position, the spine and the muscles that surround it have maximal stability, and the body doesn’t have to fight gravity [to remain stabilized], says Alpesh Patel, director of orthopedic spine surgery at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
Patel says that when the spine is in this “neutral” position, it’s not actually straight but has three gentle curves. The lowest, in the lumbar spine or low back, curves inward toward the front of the body. The middle, in the thoracic spine or upper back, curves outward. The top, in the cervical spine or neck, curves back forward. It’s a yin and yang relationship that promotes balance to keep us upright, Patel says, explaining that if you look at animals that hang around on all fours, they don’t really have the same curves; they don’t need them.
Humans do need them, but we don’t use them to our advantage. After all, a lot of our days take us out of this neutral, “good” posture. For example, when we sit, the curve in the low back tends to disappear, while the upper back and neck jut more and more forward. Gravity pulls us forward, and the muscles surrounding the spine get overworked—trying to keep us from face-planting. Case in point: Research shows that, while the average human head weighs about 10 to 12 pounds, if you tilt yours forward down to look at your phone, it puts up to 60 pounds of pressure on your neck. Imagine hanging a 60-pound dumbbell around your neck like a necklace—just the thought should make everything in your neck and upper back hurt.
However, as Joe Gambino, a New York City-based physical therapist and certified strength and conditioning specialist, emphasizes, it’s not that looking down is inherently bad or dangerous. The neck is designed to be able to tilt down—helping you look at the floor, tie your shoe laces, and make sure you don’t trip over cracks in the sidewalk. It’s just not intended to hang out that way all day. He stresses that every posture or position loads and works the body differently, and it’s the context of those positions that matters most. “It’s about how much time or external load is accompanied by said posture,” he says. That explains why cat-cow feels good on your back, but replicating those arches during a back squat or deadlift would easily rupture a disc.
It also explains why simply throwing out all of our desks for standing ones doesn’t actually tend to feel much better or get us back into “correct” posture. Often, that curve in the lower back is way too big (like you’re twerking) or way too small (the case of the disappearing ass), and the shoulders are still rounded forward. After all, when we go from sit to stand, overworked muscles stay tight and underworked ones stay lazy. And again, the body is just standing there. Static. Not moving.
“Even if you are in ‘perfect’ posture, your body needs to move,” agrees Mary Souliere, a physical therapist at Orlando Health South Seminole Hospital. Whether you stand or sit 8 hours per day, you’re going to have a lot of the same problems, Gambino says. These include limited ranges of motion, back pain, headaches, and even poor moods and energy levels, according to research published in the journal Biofeedback.
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Those all might feel likes minor nuisances now, but they compound over the years. When you’re in your mid-20s and have been working a desk job for a few years, that’s one thing. But after 30, the body becomes less pliable—and after 10, 20, or 30 years in positions that strain the body, the wear and tear of your posture can cause bigger problems such as herniated discs, pulled muscles, hunchback, and torn rotator cuffs.
So if there’s no definitive "stand this way and everything will be great" posture, how do you really, truly improve your posture for better health, energy, and performance? Exercise alone won’t completely counteract the effects of sitting (or standing) the other 23, with research from Northwestern University showing that women who exercise regularly sit just as much as their couch-potato counterparts.
All of the experts consulted for this story had the same solution: Move more throughout the day. Getting up or walking around every 30 minutes—or even just squirming in your desk chair, shifting your weight, and changing up your leg positioning—can help.
While you’re up and moving, take a few minutes to stretch any muscles that, in your default posture, are shortened. If you spend a lot of time sitting or in front of a computer, that likely includes the hip flexors in the front of your hips, the upper traps in your neck, and your chest and anterior (front) shoulder muscles, Souliere says.
All are easy to stretch, even in your cube. To stretch the hip flexors, get into a shallow lunge position and press your back hip forward until you feel a stretch where your thigh meets your pelvis. Stretching the upper traps is as simple as dropping your ear to your shoulder, letting the shoulder farthest away from your ear relax and drop toward the floor. Souliere also recommends using the doorway stretch—place your hands on both sides of a door frame at chest height and then step through the door—for opening the chest and shoulders.
You don’t have to devote a lot of time to these stretches, either. Even spending 10 to 15 minutes per day stretching can make a noticeable improvement in your posture, she says. On the other hand, don't be tempted by those vests and shoulder straps that promise to pull you up into good alignment and cure your posture woes. “These all dance around the actual problem,” Patel says. “They put you into more neutral alignment, but with your body moving completely passively.” They don’t do anything to strengthen the muscles that support upright posture or relax those that get cramped up when you slouch, he says. The result: As soon as you take off the contraption (who actually wants to wear these in public?), the body falls right back to its default posture.
When it comes to strengthening the muscles that promote healthy posture, the core muscles are arguably the most important, he says. These muscles lie below the abs, connecting to and surrounding the spine to control its positioning and take pressure off of the vertebral discs. For increasing core strength and stability, focus on planks (prioritize form over time), bird-dogs, deadbugs, and glute bridges. (Yes, your glutes and back extensors are actually part of your “core.”) “Anything that works the glutes helps the back,” Souliere says. “They help stabilize the pelvis and give the back extra support.”
Most every person walking around is anterior-dominant, meaning their chest muscles are way stronger than their back muscles, pulling them even further into a hunched position. Strengthening the posterior, or backside, of the body is a tried and true way to shore up any front-to-back muscle imbalances and encourage healthier postures, Souliere says.
“I have almost every person I work with perform a 2:1 ratio of pull-to-pushing exercises,” Gambino says. “Depending on their needs, some even perform 3:1.” That means, for every one pushing exercise you perform in the gym—such as bench presses, push-ups, and shoulder presses—you perform two to three pulling exercises—such as dumbbell rows, face-pulls, rear-delt flies, and pull-ups. Doing so will help make up for all of the forward-focused movements you do in the day to keep your shoulders pulled back and healthy.
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