Generally when people want to improve the way they look, feel or perform, they look to changing things like their diet or lifestyle habits or, in the case of athletes, their training regimens. Certainly, all of these things are important parts of the equation.
That being said, it's shocking how often people overlook posture as part of the wellness-performance equation. Our posture is so fundamental to the way we experience our bodies - when our posture is out of whack, it has the potential to negatively affect every other system in the body. Conversely, when posture is excellent and all major joints are close to ideal alignment, the body (unsurprisingly) feels and works great more often than not.
Once you learn to recognize postural problems, you realize pretty quickly that most people in the western world live every day of their lives with significant postural issues and accept it as "normal'.
Fixing posture problems often takes quite a bit of work and is best looked at as a long-term investment - but there's really no way to adequately describe how good it feels to walk around straight, solid and well-aligned after a lifetime of living with screwed-up posture.
This is what I want to do in this article - give you the knowledge to identify your posture issues, learn why you have them and then learn the tools and practices you need to fix them. Posture is a reflection of what you do with your body every day - and if the aim is to change posture, the techniques described below should be implemented every single day.
Posture Problem #1: Hunched Back (Kyphosis)
Why You Have It: This is perhaps the most common posture problem in the western world and it's definitely the easiest to identify in other people. Sitting in chairs for extended periods is the primary cause. The hunching effect is generally exacerbated if your time in a chair involves staring at a screen and typing.
What's Happened To Your Muscles And Tendons: Hunching over a computer for hours every day causes the pectoral muscles to tighten, while stretching and loosening the rhomboid and trapezius muscles in your upper back that are responsible for maintaining a straight upright posture.
Lifestyle Changes To Make: For some of us, time in front of a computer or in a car seat is inevitable. Try to replace as much of your sitting time during a day with standing, moving or preferably - squatting. The manner in which squatting decompresses the spine and hips is the perfect antidote to the negative effects of sitting. I've written previously about squatting benefits and techniques, you can find that article here.
When you must sit in a chair, focus on sitting upright and keeping your shoulders back and down, away from your ears - and try not to sit for more than 30 minutes at a time without getting up and moving.
Stretches/Exercises To Fix It: Regaining length and flexibility in the pectorals will be the factor that most limits how quickly you're able to fix this posture issue. The single-arm pectoral stretch against a wall is an excellent technique for improving pectoral flexibility. Do this stretch with your arm flush against a wall and roll slowly away from that arm until you hit encounter some meaningful resistance, and then take a few deep breaths pushing gently against this resistance. Do this stretch with each arm parallel with the ground, and then again with each arm at 15 degrees and then again at -15 degrees relative to the ground. If this puts too much stress on your elbow, the stretch can be done with bent elbows.
The second part of the equation is to build back strength in your rhombiods and trapezius. Low cobra pose from yoga will help rebuild strength in these muscles while also helping you regain flexibility in your upper spine. It may not look challenging initially, but try doing a set of 20 without using only your back muscles to lift you (no arms). Hold for 2 breaths at the top of each repetition. To make the exercise more challenging, try doing the technique with your arms to the side - or graduating to locust pose.
Posture Problem #2: Anterior Pelvic Tilt
Why You Have It: There's a number of reasons why a person might develop forward hip tilt. Tight quadriceps attach to the top of the front of the pelvis and can pull the front of the pelvis down. Tight low back muscles (erector spinea) attach on the back of the pelvis and can pull the back of the pelvis upward.
For most people, however, forward pelvis tilt is caused by way overly-tight hip flexors, muscles that have attachments at your pelvis and femur as well as between your pelvis and lower spine. Why do people have tight hip flexors? Again, it's largely from sitting for most of the day.
What's Happened To Your Muscles And Tendons: Your hip flexors have tightened and shortened over the years and are now pulling your pelvis out of alignment. This has consequences for the low back, the hips, the knees and the ankles.
Lifestyle Changes To Make: Again - sit less, squat more. Or at least sit less, move around more.
Stretches/Exercises To Fix It: I'm aware I'm at risk of being repetitive here, but it is remarkable the extent to which squatting acts as the natural antidote to so many of the negative things sitting does to our joints and posture. Working on mobility in your squat is one of the best things you can do to restore length in the hip flexors. There is a great video showing techniques for building squatting mobility in this article.
Posture Problem #3: Forward Head Tilt
Why You Have It: You guessed it. Sitting for long periods looking at a computer screen.
What's Happened To Your Muscles And Tendons: Your scalenes and upper trapezius have become tight from holding your head up as you stare down at a computer screen, and now hold your head permanently in a forward posture.
Lifestyle Changes To Make: When you are sitting, practice holding your head upright. Using an external keyboard and a stand for your laptop is a good way to set up your workspace to keep your vision at a more natural level. Something like this.
Stretches/Exercises To Fix It: Because this issue is created by the scalenes and trapezius stiffening in an elongated position, stretching isn't useful here as it is with other posture issues. Massage is the really the only way to make these muscles supple again. As I said above, to change any of these posture issues, you really need to be using the stretches/techniques every single day. For most of us, getting a massage every day isn't feasible. Thankfully, you can use a massage ball to access the scalenes and trapezius. There are a number of YouTube videos explaining the technique. I recommend watching one before trying to work on your own muscles.
Posture Problem #4: Internal or External Rotation Of The Femur
Why You Have It: There are a few common causes for this issue. Tight hip flexors from sitting is definitely a culprit, but so too is crappy footwear.
What's Happened To Your Muscles And Tendons: Modern shoes have a number of issues that interfere with the natural movement of the foot. Almost all shoes have a higher heel than forefoot and a restrictingly narrow toebox. This prevents the foot from "splaying" as it makes contact with the ground and prevents the achilles from fully extending in the way it would if walking barefoot. The result is improper ankle alignment that turns into improper knee and hip alignment - which as you can see in the image above, creates issues at every level of the skeletal system.
The cumulative result of countless thousands of misaligned steps over many years is rotation of the femur and generally poorly movement in the hip joint.
Lifestyle Changes To Make: I assume you've gotten the message about sitting by this point in the article. But perhaps the most significant change to make is the shoes you put on your feet every day. I am a huge advocate of barefoot/minimal shoes for this very reason. In the months and years after switching to barefoot minimal/shoes, you will slowly be retraining your ankles, knees and hips to walk in proper alignment. The potential of these shoes to radically improve posture is hard to understate.
Stretches/Exercises To Fix It: Hip flexors are a big part of the equation, so all of the exercises/techniques mentioned in the pelvic tilt section also apply here. In particular working on hip mobility in the squatting posture can do wonders to improve the alignment of the femurs.
Go See A Professional, At Least Once (Seriously)
Our posture so fundamentally affects the way we experience our bodies - the way we move, our emotional states, how good our bodies feel day-to-day - all of these are deeply connected to the way our muscles sit on our bones and the way our bones sit relative to each other.
This article and others like it can certainly help you identify major issues in the alignment of your joints, but there really is no replacement for going to see a professional. A highly trained eye like you would expect from a good chiropractor or orthopedist will be able to identify both subtle and major issues in your posture - and tell you which ones are most needing of correction. Often one posture issue begets another, and knowing which is the root issue is something that's hard to identify unless you've looked at hundreds or thousands of bodies over the years.
Even if you only go once to have your posture issues identified and do the rest of the work on your own, the amount you will learn about your body's alignment from a professional is well worth the investment of time and money.