Having good posture is an under appreciated aspect of good health and fitness. If your posture is poor it could have numerous impacts
- It can make you look older than you really are.
- It can affect your confidence and self-esteem. Click here for an example discussion.
- It can affect your breathing. Inefficient breathing can have lots of negative knock-on impacts.
- Poor posture can impact the resting tone of the pelvic floor muscles.
- It can make you more likely to get injured. With poor posture some muscles may be chronically shortened, others lengthened and weak. Any deviation from everyday activities is more likely to cause injury. Furthermore, poor posture can put stress on the joints. This can lead to joint and tendon problems. Click here for an example and here for another.
There’s even more on this topic here, but you get the gist.
Posture is a complex topic. What’s more, everyone is different when it comes to postural issues, causes and corrective strategies. There are hundreds of corrective exercises to improve posture, in addition to stretches and other activities. Any practitioner who helps people with corrective strategies should have a good broad knowledge of the exercises to improve posture and be able to apply them in the right combination for every client. Every case will be different.
Why then, are we attempting to distil down the vast amount of knowledge and experience required to address posture problems into just 5 exercises? Surely, we’re not doing it justice?
Yes, you’re right! But we like a challenge!
We also recognise that a large proportion of postural issues are associated with prolonged sitting. Sitting, especially if a good seated posture is not adopted, typically leads to:
- A rounded and stiff thoracic spine
- Shoulders rolled forwards
- Tight hips
- Underactive glutes
- A weak core
This combination is not going to help you look your best! But it can also lead to movement dysfunction and pain. For example, the hips are supposed to be mobile, the thoracic spine is supposed to be mobile. The lumbar spine is supposed to be relatively immobile, stabilised by a strong core. When you have tight hips, a stiff thoracic spine and weak abdominals, your lumbar spine is going to get involved in movement or posture maintenance inappropriately to compensate for the tight or stiff regions above and below; lower back pain can develop from this.
Good exercises to improve posture should also reinforce correct movement patterns. If an exercise activates the core and mobilises the hips or thoracic spine, for example, it’s helping with the muscle activation required for correct movement.
One final word before we present the list of exercises to improve posture. I suspect if you asked any fitness or functional movement practitioner for their top 5 exercises to improve posture, you’d get a different list from all of them. To some extent their list would reflect the go-to exercises they use during everyday practice. Ours is no different.
So, with all that in mind, here goes…
1. The Swan
The first of our exercises to improve posture is the swan.
To perform the swan
- – Lie on your stomach, forehead resting on your mat.
- – Position your arms so that your elbows are in line with your shoulders, palms on the floor, creating two right angles with your forearms.
- – Imagine that you have an egg (or something fragile) under your belly button and draw up your abdominal muscles towards the spine to protect it, without lifting the hips off the mat.
- – Lift your upper back and sternum off the floor. Keep looking downwards so that your neck is in line with your spine, creating a long ‘swan-like’ neck. Hold for 1-2 seconds and return to starting position.
- – Do not worry if you do not gain ‘height’ initially as it is quite difficult to do so.
Doing this will help to straighten any curvature in the thoracic spine and stretch shortened muscles in the cervical spine.
We like this one because not only will it help to address a curved thoracic spine, it helps reinforce a correct movement pattern – stabilised core with movement in the thoracic spine.
2. The Cobra
This has several elements but is easy to perform. Once you have got the hang of it you will be able to perform it in one fluid motion. Broken down into its components, it has the following elements:
- – Lie on your stomach, arms by your sides with the back of your hands on the floor/palms facing up, forehead on your mat.
- – Rotate the shoulders/arms outwards and lift the upper back and chest (imagine the shoulder blades sliding down into your back pocket). The palms will rotate to face outwards as you do this.
- – Keep looking downwards at the mat, creating a long neck.
- – Hold for 1-2 seconds and return to starting position.
You’ll notice that this move corrects several postural shoulder blade issues in one go – spinal curvature, retraction, external rotation and depression. Whilst there may be better exercises for each of these components, when you’re doing a top 5, you have to be economical and choose movements that achieve as much as possible.
One other thing that should be noted is that the cobra does not mimic the way you want your shoulder blades to behave in the real world. In everyday life your shoulder blades should be relatively stable when you move, particularly when you move your arms at the shoulder joint. So, a good mimic for everyday life would be a movement that keeps the shoulder blades in their proper position while you move your arms. The cobra is not that – it actively moves the shoulder blades.
That doesn’t make the cobra a bad move. Far from it. It develops good mind-muscle connection with muscles which a lot of people are not even aware of, and it builds strength in those areas. Once this move is mastered, strength built and mind muscle connection established, you can progress to movements that stabilise the shoulder blades whist moving the arms at the shoulder joint.
3. Banded bridges
The third of our exercises to improve posture is banded bridges and, when done correctly, this exercise achieves a lot. It will:
- – Help with pelvis realignment and lumbar lordosis
- – Strengthen the glutes
- – Strengthen the core
- – Stretch the hips
Here’s how to perform it:
- – Lie on the floor on your back with your legs bent and heels hip-width apart and as close to your bottom as comfortable for the knees. Pull the abdominal muscles towards the spine.
- – Begin with a posterior pelvic tilt by curling your tailbone upwards, lifting the pubic bone and drawing in the abdominal muscles to the spine.
- – Create and maintain some tension in the band by pushing your knees outwards.
- – Maintain the pelvic tilt and tension in the band as you ‘peel’ the vertebrae off the mat one at a time and lift the glutes off the mat pushing through the heels. It’s important to keep your abdominal muscles engaged in order to maintain the posterior pelvic tilt.
- – Squeeze the glutes together and push the knees out creating and maintaining tension on the band.
- – Maintain the pelvic tilt as you reset the spine, putting the vertebrae back on the mat one at a time and finally release the pelvic tilt to your natural neutral position.
- – Repeat.
If you are lordotic, the need to keep the pelvic tilt engages the core in a way that is going to help you maintain better pelvic alignment. That orientation of the pelvis will also give the hips a much better stretch. Finally, the glutes and the hips are antagonists, so strengthening the glutes is going to help loosen the hips. It will also translate to better movement and correct engagement of the glutes in walking and, especially, running.
The band? That provides feedback to help engage the glutes and stop your knees caving in.
4. The plank
The penultimate of our exercises to improve posture is the plank.
The phrase ‘meat and potatoes’ is perfect for the plank. If you had to choose one exercise that is fairly basic and gives you a lot of benefit, it would be the plank.
If you want to restore correct movement patterns and stiffen your lumbar spine ready for movement, the first thing you should do is strengthen your core, particularly your transverse abdominis. That’s the corset of muscle that sits the deepest in the abdomen. One of its more obvious functions is to pull the stomach in – navel to spine. Try it now, pull your navel to your spine. That’s your TVA doing that.
The primary function of the TVA is to help stabilise the lumbar spine and pelvis when you move your limbs. It also provides stability for that region when you want to lift your chest by extending the thoracic spine. That means it’s great for posture. It will help you stand tall, sit tall and provide a foundation against which you can straighten the rest of your spine.
In reality you are not isolating the transverse abdominis when you do a plank – a whole lot of other muscles get involved, especially the rectus abdominis, which helps keep your pelvis stable and stop your lower back sagging during the hold.
Here’s how to perform the plank. At one end you will be on your elbows and at the other end you will be either on your toes or on your knees, depending on your current strength levels. For the description we’ll assume toes.
- – Lie face down with your elbows under your shoulders in a ‘sphinx-like’ position and pull your toes towards your shins.
- – Pull in your abdominal muscles to the spine and lift them off the mat.
- – Lift the hips off the mat so that you are on the thighs just above the knees. (This ¾ plank position is an excellent starting point if you are not strong enough to continue onto the full plank).
- – Lift the knees off the mat and so that you are now on your toes in full plank position.
- – Maintain the abdominal engagement by pulling the abdominals towards the spine. The pelvis and spine should be in neutral position, meaning that the lower back should not sag.
- – Use a timer to record the length of time you are able to hold the correct plank position. If you find it too difficult, start with the ¾ plank position and focus on maintaining a strong abdominal engagement.
- – Being able to hold for one minute is a good target.
Do this every day and you will notice very quickly a difference to the way you hold yourself.
5. Farmer’s walk
The final of our exercises to improve posture is the farmer’s walk; it’s great because it brings all the postural cues together not just for standing posture but for walking posture too. As far as you are able you should adopt the following posture.
- – Grab a couple of kettlebells of a challenging weight and stand tall.
- – Pull your shoulder blades together and imagine sliding them down towards your back pockets, ‘anchoring’ them firmly. This will ‘open up’ the chest. Pull in your abdominal muscles.
- – Imagine pulling your chin through to the back of the neck and create a double chin. Look forwards rather than downwards.
- – Palms should face directly inwards.
- – Your coach or partner can cue you into the best position you are able to attain.
- – Walk tall, slowly and deliberately, focusing on maintaining your shoulder blade squeeze / anchoring and your double chin.
The weights will want to pull you out of good postural alignment. Your job is to resist the weight and maintain good posture. By resisting the weight, you are strengthening the muscles that help you stand tall, walk tall and maintain good posture. A lot of muscles get involved to help you maintain correct alignment, so this final exercise is an opportunity for all your postural muscles to work in unison – and not just those impacted by prolonged sitting. Whatever postural issues you have, this drill will help to align you more correctly.
So, there you have it, our top 5 exercises to improve posture. Collectively they are not a postural panacea, but they will go a long way to helping a lot of people to improve their posture.