For many fitness enthusiasts who train regularly, posture and body mechanics are two vital areas of concern. We often hear people say to others, “Sit up straight”, “Pull your shoulders back” or “Keep your spine tall”. The term ‘slouch’ has never been more apparent in our society the way it is today. Thanks in large part to several case studies that have linked poor posture to imbalances in the kinetic chain, back pain and other degenerative diseases like scoliosis and kyphosis.
Those who know me well will tell you that I’m a strong advocate of postural awareness. Before I take on any new client, I put them through a series of movement pattern screening and postural evaluation exercises. So many different exercises can be used to assess and evaluate posture. In my humble and professional estimation there isn’t a best one, although some fitness professionals could make a case for the Overhead Squat.
There is currently insufficient evidence that supports the notion that exercise can correct posture or lead to deviations. More research is still being conducted at this time. While I don’t believe postural training exists, there are few exercises that can help improve and enhance poor posture. It is important to remember that these exercises shouldn’t be relied entirely upon for postural correction. Active stretching, myofascial work and mind-body awareness should be integrated as well.
So without further ado, here are my top 5 exercises for improving posture:
1. DEADLIFT: I’ve written extensively about the Deadlift in some of my previous blogs. This is arguably the best resistance exercise for improving posture because of it’s functional component. No other exercise mimics the action of picking up an object from the floor. But even more important are the mechanical aspects of it. Setting up for this exercise requires the trunk to be in a diagonal alignment from shoulder to hip which reinforces neutral spine. Flexion of the hips automatically causes activation of the dorsiflexors of the leg forcing the ankle to be mobile. The retraction of the shoulder blades and full extension of this hips via thrusting at the completion of the movement emphasizes good posture. Retraction and adduction of the scapula will help a person who is internally rotated in the shoulders via external rotation. Likewise, extension of the hips will help a person who has tight hip flexors and over-lengthened glutes due to prolonged sitting by stretching them at the top of the movement.It is important that you don’t hyperextend the lumbar spine like some people do.
2. REVERSE LUNGE: The most knee-friendly lunge variation is also a good exercise for those with short and tight hip flexors. When dumbbells are used, the shoulder girdle and upper back region get activated. The hip flexors of the leg that lunges backwards get a deep stretch during execution of this exercise. When I perform this movement, I try to hold the bottom position for 2 seconds to illicit a good dynamic stretch of the hip flexors. When dumbbells are held in each hand, the shoulders ‘pack’ and forced to pull themselves back due the challenge of maintaining good balance. A much farther center of gravity forces the shoulders to externally rotate to prevent tilting forward because of the additional resistance in each hand.
3. SCAPULAR WALL SLIDE: This is an exercise that will garner weird looks from others when you’re doing it. If only those people knew the amazing postural impact it has on the trunk musculature. The good thing about this movement is that it can be included as part of your pre-workout mobility warm-ups or as an exercise in a resistance training program. Stand with your head, upper back and butt against a wall. The heels of your foot should be anywhere from 12 to 18 inches away from the wall. Lift your elbows to shoulder level and press your forearms back against the wall so your elbow and shoulder make a 90-degree angle. Most people won’t be able to get their forearms to press firmly against the wall indicating tight shoulder internal rotators and chronic slouchy posture. With your head, upper back and butt pressed against the wall, fully extend the elbows in a diagonal pattern, hold for a second and return to your starting point. Many will also have a hard time keeping their back flat and will arch quite often early on. The objective here is to continue to keep the forearms close to the wall as much as possible and do your best to keep the back flat. I used this movement to correct extremely tight shoulder internal rotators I battled with for many years. My forearms were 10 inches from the wall when I started this movement! Though they’re not quite touching yet, they’re about 4 inches from the wall today.
4. DUMBBELL SUITCASE DEADLIFT: This deadlift variation, which was developed through the real life action of picking up a suitcase, is ideal for training the core stabilizers while also strengthening the posterior chain. Though identical to the conventional deadlift, it is different in it’s unique way. Hold a dumbbell of moderate resistance in one hand and stand in front of a mirror in neutral alignment. Your stance should be 3-5 inches less than hip-width apart. Push your hips back and bend the knees as you would do in a regular deadlift. Lower the dumbbell as far as your can without rounding your back or letting your knees cave in. The objective here is trying to remain symmetrical despite the destabilizing forces from the dumbbell attempting to pull you out of alignment. The reason for the mirror is to keep an eye on your symmetry and alignment ensuring you remain neutral all along. Do not allow your trunk to tilt laterally while performing this movement. It is the resistance to tilting that yields the benefits of this exercise. As an added bonus, the core musculature is activated via anti-lateral flexion exercises.
5. WAITER’S WALK: Popularized by the innovative Gray Cook, this exercise is eerily similar to the suitcase deadlift due to the asymmetrical nature of both. The idea behind this exercise came to fruition after witnessing the incredible dexterity and skill waiters display as they constantly hold and walk around with a tray in one hand above their head. To perform this exercise, hold a dumbbell of moderate resistance in an overhead stance. Earlier I talked about ‘packing’ of the shoulder girdle for increased joint rigidity. The same technique applies in the Waiter’s walk. With the dumbbell over your head, ‘pack’ and pull your shoulder back into the scapular without shrugging. Keep your upper arm as parallel as you can next to your ear. As you begin to walk, you’ll feel the weight of the dumbbell trying to pull you out of alignment from all directions. The challenge is to resist these forces and remain symmetrical as much as you can. Do your best to avoid tilting and hiking up the hips. When all the mechanics fall in place, the result is an erect posture in neutral alignment. Begin by walking 20 to 30 yards per arm and work your way up to 40 to 50 yards.
So there you have it. 5 exercises that can help improve your posture. Keep in mind that these are based on my personal experience and years of extensive theoretical studies and research. As always, use good form and work with a moderately challenging resistance. Incorporating active stretches and self-myofascial release will make the process much easier.