Get It Straight…The Importance of Posture
By: Ann-See Yeoh FitPro, Dec/Jan 97/98
Posture is a habit that is developed by repeating movements and patterns over time and in the majority of instances, is not something that is thought of. ‘Posture’ is defined in the Chambers Dictionary as ‘the relative disposition of parts of the body’. Whatever the posture adopted, it is the relationship between one body part and the other that is important. By maintaining awareness of our bodies it becomes possible to develop new patterns of habit.
Perfect posture is ideally one whereby an individual is able to adopt a position of easy balance. It should require the minimum of effort to maintain but provide maximum mobility and function. Good posture is one that is proactive. It allows the body to function at its best by working with external forces when possible, and anticipating and meeting individual needs for strength, stabilisation and flexibility. The skeletal system was designed to take the stresses and strains of gravity; the muscular system is not. Bad, or reactive, posture allows the body to give in to external forces, thereby compromising function and potentially predisposing the individual to physical problems. Developing proactive postural habits should be considered as the foundation to building a fit body that functions effectively.
Perhaps the most important step a fitness professional can take is to help their clients recognise and change their poor postural habits; bearing in mind that changing old habits will be very difficult. In fact, so ingrained is dysfunctional posture that a proactive one will undoubtedly feel uncomfortable and ‘wrong’ for the client. Posture correction requires from an individual the ability:
* to be aware of their own posture as well as others
* to differentiate between muscular tension and relaxation
* to understand the varied purpose of specific exercises
As a result of these factors postural correction can be a lengthy process. However, using the exercises outlined below, it is possible to start the process of change. It is important to bear in mind though that your scope of practice as a fitness professional does not include diagnosing and treating severe postural problems. Always refer your clients to a physio-therapist or physician when appropriate.
The spine is an ingenious feat of engineering capable of movements in all directions: flexion, extension, lateral flexion, and rotation. Combinations of these movements are used on a regular daily basis in common activities. Unfortunately, our sedentary lifestyle has led to dysfunctional posture, which limits the degree of movements possible at the spine. It is therefore important not only to strengthen the muscles of the torso, enabling them to better support the body, but also to improve spinal mobility. Controlled (not ballistic) movement through these positions is generally healthy, as it will help maintain full range mobility of the spine.
* Flexion & extension: 1. Modified cobra ~ Prone lying, place your forearms on the floor by your shoulders, push with your forearms and raise your shoulders passively off the ground, as high as is comfortable. It is essential that your shoulders, back and buttocks remain completely relaxed while your arms do all the work. Lower torso to starting position. Repeat 5-10 times.
During back extension, the shoulder blades should be pulled down and together, keeping the shoulders away from the ears. This position strengthens the lower and middle trapezius, thoracic extensors, plus actively stretches the pectoralis minor. The shoulders should be ’square’, not rounded forward, strengthening the external rotators and providing an active stretch for the pectoralis minor. The prone extension exercise, if properly cued, not only promotes improved range of motion in spinal extension but also helps re-align and establish balance around the shoulder and shoulder girdle.
Back extension past neutral can also be a problem if it is performed ballistically and hence the need for adequate muscular control. Please note that back extensions may cause discomfort in some people, especially those who habitually stand with a kyphosic posture, since these individuals may already be standing with maximum extension of the lumbar spine.
2. Timid cat stretch
Kneeling, sitting back on your heels and leaning forwards onto your forearms. Tuck your head towards your knees and then raise your head high letting your shoulders drop. Repeat 3-6 times slowly. This mobilises the thoracic spine.
* Rotation: 3. Single knee roll
Lie with one knee bent keeping the foot on the floor and the other leg straight. Roll the bent knee over the straight leg, pressing it towards the floor and then bring it up again. Repeat 4-6 times. Repeat with the other knee.
* Lateral flexion: 4. Side bend
Standing with your feet together, 10-15 cm from a wall, lean back and rest your back flat against the wall. Bend to the left stretching your arm down one leg as far as it will go, keeping your entire back and head against the wall. Gently straighten up. Repeat 3 times to the left, then repeat the sequence to the right 3 times.
Torso strengthening Abdominal stabilisation training is an important part of your programme as it helps your clients to learn to use active, internal stabilisation. Traditional abdominal exercises focus almost exclusively on the trunk-flexing function of the rectus abdominus, rather than the stabilising function of the obliques.
* Dynamic Abdominal Bracing (DAB)
This manoeuvre utilises the intra-abdominal pressure mechanism to stabilise and protect the lumbar spine during weight bearing movements. Practise this procedure standing. Place your hands on your hips just above the iliac crests, with your fingers resting on your oblique muscles. Make a forcing down movement inside your abdomen and at the same time contract the abdominal muscles where your hands are, to control or counteract this forcing pressure. It is important that you continue to breathe naturally. It is vital that you do not hollow the abdomen or push it out. Hold for a count of ten. Whilst maintaining this forcing hold, the glottis should not be closed and air should travel freely in and out of the body ensuring that there are no feelings of pressure in the head. The obliques and transverse abdominals are being exercised here.
* DAB II
Lying with your knees bent, put both hands behind the waist and brace for a count of five before pushing the lumbar spine back onto the hands. Then relax. Repeat this exercise 4-5 times.
* Neutral ‘V’
This exercise trains the back extensors and oblique abdominals to stabilise the neutral position as the hip flexors contract and tend to pull the torso out of neutral. Assume the neutral ‘V’ position by rocking backward past the ischial tuberosities, lifting the sternum and creating the neutral anterior curve of the lower back. Initially, the upper torso should be supported with the fingertips. Hold the position and take 3-5 deep breaths before releasing.
* Hip hinge ~
This exercise helps develop strength and co-ordination of the back, hip and abdominal muscles so they can stabilise the back when a forward lean is required. The hip hinge is essentially hip flexion, with the back and pelvis in neutral. Note that there is no lumbar flexion in a hip hinge - the neutral alignment of the spine remains intact. This exercise is primarily controlled by the large hip extensors (gluteals and hamstrings) along with the back extensors and abdominals, which are co-contracting to keep the spine properly, aligned. This exercise may be performed with flexed knee joints.
Stretch the ‘de-neutralisers’
The de-neutralisers are the muscles that tend to pull the joints out of neutral alignment for any given position. As an example, tight calf muscles may reduce the range of motion possible in a squat. Certainly weakness and/or inflexibility of the hip muscles that attach to the pelvis may impact the alignment of the pelvis and lower back. Tight hamstrings, for example, could cause the pelvis to tilt posteriorly and the lumbar spine to flex. Tight hip flexors cause the pelvis to tilt anteriorly and the lumbar spine to extend. Tight abductors, adductors and rotators can also impact the alignment of the hips, pelvis and back.
An effective posture training programme would include flexibility training for the hip muscles, including the flexors, extensors, abductors, adductors and rotators.
As a fitness professional, it is possible to identify your clients’ needs from assessing their postures. You can, and should try to:
* include techniques into their exercise programme that will unlock poor posture patterns, whilst integrating strength and flexibility
* focus on developing core strength and improving the flexibility of the de-neutralisers of the pelvis and upper body
* improve spinal mobility
* encourage your clients to continue their proactive habits throughout the day, not only during an exercise session.
Postural correction is all realignment of the body as a whole. Therefore, re-positioning is not of one isolated section but of one part on the other, gently, all the way up from the feet to the head.
1. Braggins, S (1994),The Back, London:Mosby-Year Book
2. Hamill, J and Knutzen, KM (1995),Biomechanical Basis of Human Movement, Philadelphia: Williams and Wilkins
3. Soderberg, GL(1997), Kinesiology, Philadelphia: Williams and Wilkins
Ann-See Yeoh is a lecturer in Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Luton. She is an established instructor trainer and mind-body practitioner. Ann-See is co-director of ‘Chi’-Ragga Fitness