Written by Kasia Wind
There’s a reason fitness competitors stand tall and proud on the stage, and why exactly zero gym selfies feature spectacular hunched backs: Your posture greatly impacts your appearance, making the difference between a strong body and a crumpled physique.
But how you arrange your muscles affects more than the way you Instagram. Science is showing an impressive connection between your posture and your health. One medical study, published in the American Journal of Pain Management found that spine pain, headaches, blood pressure, and pulse are among the functions most easily influenced by your body’s position, and slouching has been linked to a wide range of full-body symptoms, from back pain to problems with digestion (think of your intestines like a garden hose that kinks up when bent forward, impeding water flow).
From an athletic standpoint, posture and performance also go hand-in-hand, according to Steven Weiniger, DC, an internationally-recognized posture expert, managing partner for BodyZone.com, creator of the StrongPosture exercise program, and author of Stand Taller, Live Longer (BodyZone LLC, 2008). “Strong posture can help you jump higher, run faster, and lift heavier,” he says. “Your body is a machine. Think of a car. If the wheels are all straight, it’s going to go the fastest it’s designed to go and run smoothly. But if the wheels are not quite all pointing in the same direction (poor body alignment), it’s not going to go as fast, everything will wobble, and the parts will wear out more quickly.”
Not only does your posture dictate the way you move, but it also has an effect on how efficiently your fit parts function. “When you have poor posture, your lungs don’t expand fully, so you reduce your vital lung capacity (which dictates how much oxygen you take in when you breathe) by up to 30 percent,” says Paula Moore, DC, a Toronto-based chiropractic expert, creator of Posturecize (http://www.posturevideos.com), and author of The Posture Doctor (Ecademy Press, 2012). That means less oxygen to the brain and muscle tissue, which, for women who train, translates to less energy and stamina in the gym, increased brain fog, weaker muscles, and slower recovery times.
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Add that to the fact that weak posture contributes to aches, pains, and injuries (in women, those of the rotator cuff and knees are common due to forward-slumping habits) that can keep you out of the gym, limiting your ability to burn fat and build strength, and you’ve got a perfect case for why cleaning up your posture should be on every STRONG woman’s to-do list. To really shape up your posture, take these surprising pointers from the latest science findings and leading posture experts.
Correct your posture between the sheets with these expert tips:
- Sleep on your back or your side. Sleeping on your stomach means you’re constantly keeping your neck craned to one side to allow for easy breathing.
- Use only one pillow, and focus on its size. It should only fill the gap between your ear and your mattress. A comfortable size will depend on your individual body and head size.
- If you’re a side sleeper, sleep with a pillow between your knees to keep your body aligned. Your hips are thicker than your knees, so supporting the upper leg keeps the top leg from falling in front of the body and twisting the pelvis.
To train the body to naturally rely on these large muscles for posture and movement, and avoid placing additional stress on the spine when the “front chain” (including the abs) is overused, Goodman recommends that athletes perform at least four exercises for the back of the body for each exercise that focuses on strengthening the front, until they’ve developed a dominant posterior chain. “If you want to strengthen your core at this stage in life, especially if you’re a person who goes to the gym all the time, doing crunches isn’t going to cut it,” he says. “You need to start looking at your glutes, your adductors, your hamstrings, and your back. When you incorporate posterior chain work, you are not just going to have better posture, but much more endurance, strength, and flexibility. Every time you go to the gym, you will notice an improvement.”
He recommends that all fit women learn how to hinge from the hips, versus from the abs or the spine, to make their posture, and their movement, more efficient, and to help avoid injuries. “The spine only has a few degrees of healthy motion, whereas the hip joints are the most movable joints in the body, and the most protected and supported,” he says, adding that by learning to hinge and pivot properly from the hips, the spine doesn’t have to do all the work because the stronger glutes and hamstrings take the pressure off.
How to do it: To avoid injury and brace your spine properly when bending, extend your back in a straight line from your buttock to your neck and bend from the hip joint. Whether you’re training in the gym or just picking up a sock off the floor, it’s a technique that will improve the way you move.
Start your day with a goal of deep, relaxed breathing in mind, and experts say you’ll be more likely to sit up straight, since slouching with your head jetted forward makes it challenging to take in air.
Next, focus on breathing from your diaphragm instead of your chest. While you’re already used to doing this during training, noticing that the extra oxygen intake helps to give you wind and helps speed up recovery, taking this technique to other parts of your day can boost your mindfulness, teaching you to slow down and check in on your posture, and improving your awareness of your body’s position in space.
Finally, if you’re sitting for more than eight hours a day, Goodman recommends starting your day with “decompression breathing,” a resistance exercise that helps counteract the gravity that’s actively trying to push your ribcage down towards your hips, leading to poor posture. “Decompression breathing inflates the ribcage in a way that allows the lungs to function more efficiently, and retrains the muscles surrounding the ribcage to support a taller, stronger posture,” he says. A demonstration of decompression breathing can be found on the Foundation Training YouTube channel (“Prone Decompression” found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vmhu-yZGY_A )
To ensure you’re using proper form, particularly in the weight room, get in front of a full-length mirror and practice regular posture check-ins until you get a sense of where your body is in space, and what “right” versus “wrong” form feels like, not just looks like. Begin with the visual cues, and keep it up until you’re naturally able to perform the exercises without the need to check in.
“When you train in front of a mirror, you can see your symmetry. You can see how you’re standing,” says Goodman. “If your shoulders are slumping forward, you can expand your ribcage outward. If your feet are turned out while you’re doing an exercise, you can face them forward. Small things like that make all the impact in the world.”
To ensure you’re supported without being squished, Moore suggests visiting a quality bra fitter for a proper sizing. While she doesn’t endorse any specific “posture” products because of a lack of science and their potential to be “gimmicky,” others, like Weiniger, say that whipping out a bra specifically marketed towards posture correction “once in awhile” might provide a mental cue for women to stay mindful of posture in the gym. If you’re willing to give it a try and keep an open mind, of course, Goodman recommends the IntelliSkin posture bra (full disclosure: A friend of his designed it). “It takes into account the realities of living in modern times and the front body dominance that we all fall into,” he says. “It pulls you back and open, and helps to pull the chest up and the shoulders back.”