Strengthening for Better Posture

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Most of us have been told to sit up straight and stop slouching. The advice might come from a good place, but it does little to impact our overall posture. The phrase actually confused me as a child, since I didn’t realize what “sitting up straight” meant for my body. If a teacher, parent or couch told me to strengthen my upper back, I may have been better off.

To maintain a healthy spine and good posture, your muscles need to support the right areas. I’ve always had a relatively week back and, as a result, have been a life-long sloucher. No amount of mental correction could change it. In fact, if I tried to adjust to a “better” posture throughout the day, I’d often feel pain and discomfort. It wasn’t until I started strength training my core, back and shoulders that I noticed a difference in the way I was sitting.

By strengthening targeted muscle groups, you’ll provide a great support for the structure of your frame. You’ll experience less fatigue and discomfort after a day at the office or a few hours in the car. Sitting will be less of a strain on your body and you’ll be standing taller, too. So, how do you strength train for a better posture?

1) Core

Your core is not just the six pack area. Instead, think of your core as the trunk of your body, holding up the branches and leaves of your appendages. It includes muscles on your stomach, your sides, by your ribcage, and lining your back. Take a look:

Sit ups alone won’t create a supportive core, nor will fast, unfocused exercise. The key to core strengthening is to really engage and acknowledge your core. You can – and should – practice engaging your core while doing everyday activities like walking, standing and mowing the lawn.

I’m a Pilates convert, so I love the focused, intense core strengthening that comes from Pilates practice. Here’s my favourite for core strengthening and overall balance:

Plank with Arm and Leg Raise

  • Start on all fours, with your wrists aligned under your shoulders and your knees aligned under your hips. Slide your legs back into a plank. Engage your core by attempting to to flex your abs toward your back – it should feel as though you’re cinching your belly and ribs in and up. Make sure that, throughout the exercise, you maintain core engagement to reduce any swaying.
  • Lift your right arm out in front of you, so that it’s parallel to your shoulders and the floor. Keeping your arm lifted and straight, lift your left leg parallel to your hips and the floor. Reach your fingers forward and your heel back, trying to elongate from tip to tip as much as possible. Hold for 10 deep inhales and exhales.
  • Return to plank.
  • Repeat with the opposite arm and leg.
  • NOTE: Don’t allow your back to dip. If you notice your back sagging, tighten your core.

2) Shoulders and back

Strong shoulder and upper back muscles will make you less likely to slouch. By tightening the muscles between your shoulder blades and around your rib cage, you’ll find yourself with less upper back pain, too.

My favourite exercise for upper back strengthening is a video by my Pilates instructor. You can check it out and do it at home here. My favourite single exercise is outlined below. I like this one because it’s easy on my neck and I can instantly feel the burn between my shoulder blades.

Overhead Arm Press in Prone Position

  • Start by lying face down on the floor. Rest your forehead on your mat to reduce strain on your neck. Keep your low body relatively relaxed and your core engaged. Imagine trying to lift your stomach off the floor. This will prevent any strain from going into your low back.
  • Begin by putting your arms beside you in a goal post position. Then, bring your elbows in close to your torso. From here, squeeze your shoulder blades together. This will lift your arms off the floor into a hover.
  • Now, slowly push your arms overhead until your thumbs touch. Once they touch, slowly pull your elbows back toward your sides. There should be a lot of natural resistance in this move if you’re engaging your shoulder blades and have your arms lifted off the floor. Repeat 10 times and remember that your pace should be slow enough to feel the burn with every repetition.

2) Adjust

Adjusting your posture doesn’t mean just sitting up straight at your desk. It involves stretching and re-adjusting throughout the day. My favourite video, which I often do midday to relieve tension, can be found here.

Here’s my favourite single exercise for rolling those shoulders back and down, elongating your posture and reducing tension in the shoulders.

Intro to Swan

  • Lie on your stomach with your legs pointed long. Engage your core by pulling in and back, imaging your belly button pulling toward your spine and lifting off the mat. Put your arms into that goal post position again, and take a deep inhale.
  • As you exhale, roll your shoulder blades in and down your back. As you do this, your head and chest will lift off the mat. Keep your hips grounded and avoid over-lifting.
  • NOTE: Make sure that you aren’t applying pressure to your hands in order to lift. The lift should come from the movement in your shoulder blades, directing your upper body into a long and proud posture. Your chest should feel open.
  • Inhale in your extended position, then exhale as you lower your head and chest back to the floor.
  • Repeat 10 times. 

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