Improving Your Posture, Pt. 1

Posture is one of the fundamental building blocks of fitness. How your spine stacks up when you’re standing, at rest, affects everything else you do. How you maintain posture and alignment during exercise affects the outcome of that exercise. Bad posture lends itself to bad technique and bad technique lends itself to reduced results, unhealthy movement patterns, injury, and unwanted muscular tension and stress.

So let’s start off with the basics…what is good posture, anyway?

For starters, you should have a slight inward curve around your lumbar spine, with slight tension in your erector spinae and abdominal muscles. Your thoracic spine should be fairly loose, with shoulders back and chest held high. Your chin and jawline should be relatively parallel to the ground. Soft knees can help with proper pelvic alignment, especially in people with tight hamstrings or hips. We’ve all seen the photos, right?

If you haven’t, here’s a stock photo:

And also a stock photo of someone at the top of a deadlift, whose posture is also excellent:

Most of us don’t have perfect posture. I don’t. On a good day I get pretty close. I continue to work on it. A lot of core work, especially core stability exercises, and a lot of stretching, especially problem areas, have helped me a lot. I recommend them to you.

Now, everyone has imperfect posture in unique ways. Some people have tight trapezius muscles or inactive lats, some people have tense hip flexors or weak glutes, some people have tight erector spinae, etc, etc, etc… as I’ve said before: everyone’s situation is unique. There’s no catch-all system that works for everyone.

But there are a lot of repeat offenders.

Tense/tight hip flexors and quads are something I see all the time. The quad stretch is something most people are familiar with: standing up, using a wall for balance if necessary, you grab your ankle and pull your foot back toward your butt. You should feel it in the muscles at the front of your thigh. You may also feel it in your hip flexors—the muscles that run up through your thigh and pelvis.

Hip flexor stretches are somewhat less universal. The sun salute or cobra pose from yoga is an excellent example:

And a more direct hip flexor stretch:

This second one can also be modified to give an excellent stretch to the QL muscles.

Considering how many people come to me with tight hip flexors, I would say that close to 75% of people should be doing these stretches often. Very often. Anyone who has a job where they sit for most of the day should absolutely be stretching their hip flexors, and these basic, unassisted stretches are a great place to start.

I think I’ll go do some, now, in fact. Maybe you should give it a shot, too. It should only take about 4-5 minutes.

Alright, I’m back. It only took 4 minutes.

If you work at a desk for long hours, I recommend doing these as often as you can. Of course, not everyone has an office with space, but even spending 5-10 minutes in the morning and evening is better than nothing.

Now that we’ve hit on some basic stretches, we’ll also want to work on building up the complementary postural muscles. In this case, we’ll want to work on the glutes.

Often (though not always), tight/tense hip flexors correspond with comparatively weak or misfiring glutes. To get those muscles revved and activated, I recommend some isolated contractions. Following our hip flexor and quad stretches, I suggest some two-legged and one-legged glute bridges and elevated glute bridges.

Glute bridges are pretty simple. You lie down and plant your feet flat on the floor, knees bent. Bingo! You’re already in the starting position. Depending on your leg length, unique muscular imbalances/weaknesses, etc… you may need to or want to modify the exercise, but the standard version is pretty good all-around so don’t stress out too much over perfection.

Now, with your feet flat and knees bent—engage your glutes, press through your heels, and push your pelvis toward the ceiling. You should feel the contraction primarily in your glutes, though your hamstrings and lower back may fire as well. At the top of the motion, squeeze the glutes and feel the muscles activate. You may also feel a stretch in the hip flexors, at this point. Take a pause, lower yourself back down, and repeat.

Here’s a stock image to give you a basic idea:

And a more direct hip flexor stretch:

Once you can do, say, 25-30 two-legged glute bridges, then I’d recommend advancing to the single-legged glute bridge…which is the same thing but using only one leg at a time. You can also move on to elevated glute bridges, which are the same thing but with your feet on an elevated platform—a BOSU ball, for example, or a step platform, or a bench. You may also incorporate hip thrusts, but we’ll save that for another time.

Because I have a congenital hip deformity in my right hip, the muscles around that joint can be a little, well, messed-up. My body developed natural muscular compensations to protect the joint and allow me to move freely without injury, but those movement patterns also cause tightness, muscle imbalances, and posture imperfections. Because of that, I begin every leg day (and any day with an abundance of core exercises) by stretching and foam rolling my hip and postural muscles. I then warm up my glutes using glute bridges and passive activation exercises before I even consider getting started with the major lifts and exercises that comprise most of my workout. It sounds a little boring and, to be honest, it really is…but it’s also a matter of health and physical comfort, and I’d like to keep those around for as long as possible.

I work on my posture because I know that posture is where movement begins. A strong, balanced core and strong, balanced hips can give you an amazing platform for athleticism…but you have to take care of them.

And so this has been the first of what feels like multiple entries about posture issues and how to address them as simply as possible.