Poor Posture is often the cause of multiple factors including: muscle imbalances, an improper functioning nervous system, previous injuries and poor lifestyle choices. The good news is that there are things you can start doing today to help improve your posture.
Your spine should have 3 curves. The curves in your neck and low back are called lordosis, and curve in the same direction. The curve in your mid back is called kyphosis and curves in the opposite direction of your neck and low back. While it is normal to have these three curves, the degree to which they are curved is important. Too much curve in either of these areas can result in decreased overall height, increased stress to the spine and can cause pain and/or tightness in any of these areas. Too straight of a spine can causes issues as well.
Poor posture isn’t just about the way you look though. The increased load of the head on the cervical spine can lead to headaches, pain and tightness, degeneration (arthritis) of the spine and can increase curves elsewhere in the spine just to name a few.
This puts a TON of stress on your neck and neck muscles and leads to all sorts of ailments.So if you look like the person on the right in the image above with your head sticking out like a turtle, rounded mid back and shoulders, a pushed out pelvis and increased low back curve, the rest of this article is made for you.
In the thoracic spine (upper back), increased kyphosis has been linked to increased mortality in elderly individuals (link). As the thoracic spine gets more and more kyphotic, elderly individuals have decreased balance and proprioception leading to more falls. The hunched over posture puts more and more pressure on the internal organs including the lungs and heart. It also puts more pressure on the bones of the spine leading to increased risk of fracture of the vertebra themselves. This often becomes a vicious cycle where a vertebra fractures in a wedge shaped pattern leading to even more kyphosis and even more risk of additional fractures.
But enough about how bad poor posture is… what can you do about it?
Step # 1: LOOK UP!
We spend SOOOOOO much time looking down these days. We look down at our phones. Down at our computers. Down to read, to eat, to look where we are walking. Eventually we just stay that way! All of this looking down leads to some muscles being short and weak and others being lengthen and tight. Which leads us to step 2.
Step # 2: Fix Muscle Imbalances
Upper Cross Syndrome and Lower Cross Syndrome are muscle patterns that play an important part in your posture. Think of of an X with the end of each line representing a muscle group. On the / side of the X are two muscle groups that are weak and the \ side of the X are two muscle groups that are tight (although not necessarily strong). In upper cross syndrome you end up with weak muscles in the front of your neck and the middle of your back (rhomboids, lower trapezius, serratus anterior). You end up with tight (and often very sore) Upper trapezius, sup-occipital (muscles at the base of your skull), and levator scapula in your upper back and neck and tight pectoral muscles in front. If you have upper cross syndrome you probably have forward head carriage meaning your head is forward of your body when viewed from the side. You probably have headaches, sore trap muscles (just grab the area between your neck and shoulders. is it sore? You probably have tight upper traps.) tight chest muscles which causes your shoulders to round in. If you lay on your back and lift your head off of the ground while trying to tuck your chin (touch your chin to your chest) and just hold that position, you probably have a very difficult time doing it. Your head starts to shake and you fatigue very quickly.
Lower Cross Syndrome is similar to Upper cross, but, well… lower. You end up with weak abdominal muscles on one side and weak gluteus muscles on the other. The tight muscle groups are the hip flexors (iliopsoas and rectus femoris)and back extensor muscles. Upper cross syndrome usually presents as increased low back curve (due to tight hip flexor muscles), weak abdominals (try to do a plank, if you can’t hold it for a minute straight you have weak abdominal muscles), and you may have low back pain. One other test is you stand in front of a mirror and try to balance on one foot. Weak gluteus muscles may mean you have a difficult time balancing on one foot and you will notice that the opposite hip from the one you are standing one sinks lower.
So let’s talk exercises.
Exercises - Upper Cross Syndrome
One of the best exercises you can do (desk jockeys I’m talking to you!) is called Bruegger’s Postural Break. This one exercise addresses all of the muscle imbalances found in upper cross syndrome in one exercise. To perform, start in a seated position with your feet flat on the floor and sitting toward the front of your chair (so that your legs are not supported by the chair). Tuck your elbows in at your side with your arms forward (kind of like Fonzie from Happy Days giving thumbs up… Milwaukee Peeps you know what I’m talking about).
From here you slowly rotate your arms outward while keeping you elbows close to your side and keeping your chin tucked (do not look up or down… just straight ahead). You will notice that you immediately start to sit more upright, your chin automatically tucks even more bringing your head back over your shoulders (strengthening your neck flexors and stretching your sub-occipitals), you are activating and strengthening your weak back muscles and stretching your pec muscles at the same time. Hold the final pose for a few seconds, relax and repeat for a total of 5-10 times. The whole thing takes a minute to do. You can, and should do this every 30 minutes of sitting you are doing. People with a standing position (hair dressers, grocery check out, manufacturing line workers) can do this while standing too. Once you get good at this you can hold onto a resistance band to provide some extra resistance.
The second exercise for upper cross syndrome specifically addresses your weak neck flexor muscles. For this you need a ball (soft rubber kick balls work best). You place the ball against the wall and you position yourself so that you are holding the ball against the wall using only your forehead. You want your head back over your shoulders and your feet right underneath you so that you are standing as tall as possible. From here, all you do is nod your head a little bit and hold it at the low point for a second or two. The ball against the wall provides resistance for your neck muscles. It is important to remember that it is actually a very small movement. You aren’t at a heavy metal concert head banging… it’s more of a slight nod like you’re at an auction bidding on an object you really want while trying to not look too excited. If doing this properly, you will probably fatigue the muscles in your neck rather quickly. 1-2 minutes tops and you’re done.
Exercises - Lower Cross Syndrome
Lower cross exercises are a little less fun. It’s mostly abdominal exercises (planks) and stretching. We will start off a little easy with pelvic tilts. For this you are going to lay on your back on the floor with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. From here, if you take your fingers and slide them under your low back, you’ll notice that the curve of your back makes some space between the floor and your low back. While keeping you feet, shoulders and butt on the floor, your job is to try to flatten your low back against the floor. The only way to accomplish this is by doing a slight pelvic tilt. You’ll know you have it when you feel your back press down on your fingers and the space between your back and floor lessens. Like the previous exercises, hold it for a second or two, relax and repeat.
On to planks…
We are doing your standard flat planks as well as side planks. 1 minute is your goal and form is everything for these. Starting with standard front planks, you are laying flat on your stomach, place your elbows under your shoulders and lift up your butt so that you back is parallel to the floor. Advanced users will be on their elbows and toes, if you are just getting started you can use your elbows and knees. It is important to not get your back too high or too low. Do this exercise in the mirror a few times so that you can see and feel positioning. REMEMBER TO BREATHE! Hold for a minute if you can, rest for a minute then repeat for a total of 5 planks or until your limit.
Side planks are very similar but you are on one elbow with your other arm along the side of your body and you are facing your entire body to the side instead of down towards the floor. Try to keep your head/neck in line with your body. Stack your shoulders on top of each other so they are aligned vertically. Your hips should be aligned as well. Do not allow your body to twist or sag. Again, hold for a minute if you can for 5 times or until limit. Most people find theses more difficult than the front planks. Oh, and don’t forget to do both sides!
Next up is the side lying leg lift against wall. Doing this exercise against the wall makes it nearly impossible to cheat and keeps your form spot on. Simply lay on one side with your back pressed up against a wall as close as you can get. You can put the arm towards the floor under your head to help support your neck during this exercise. Your top arm should be along your body. From here make sure your heels are also pushed up against the wall with your toes of both feet pointing towards the opposite wall. Now simply lift your top leg up keeping you heel against the wall the whole time. It is ok to slightly rotate your leg, but your toes should still be mostly pointing towards the opposite wall the whole movement. If at the top you realize your toes are pointing up toward the ceiling, you are doing it wrong. Hold at the top for 2-3 seconds, relax and repeat 5-10 times each side. These are great gluteus strengtheners and surprisingly very difficult to do. You may find you fatigue pretty quickly doing these.
Poor posture is a multi-factorial problem. Poor lifestyle choices, past injuries, muscle imbalances and more all factor into it. These simple exercises are something you can do everyday to help improve your posture. It won’t happen overnight so be sure to take a before picture (side and front view), give it about a month of doing daily exercises and take another after picture to see whats changed. If you have some cool changes let me know by commenting below! Oh… and a properly functioning nervous system is going to be of utmost importance to fixing this problem as well. So please… find a good local chiropractor and get adjusted once in a while!