Fix the Posture

Are we so beaten down by life, we have to stand that way too?

Upper Body Posture
       I. Side View
       II. Front and Back Views
Lower Body Posture
Standing Tall and Determination to Change
The 3 Types of Faulty Body Posture in Side View and Exercises
Postural Exercises in Brief
Cell Phone Posture

Upper Body Posture

I. Faulty Postures in Side View: All three of the main types of faulty posture seen in side or lateral view — Flat Back, Sway Back and Kephotic-Lordotic — have some degree of excessive forward curve of the upper back that results in the "dead weight" of the head being perched out over the chest instead of on top of the shoulders and squarely supported by the spinal column. In this forward position, the head's center of gravity (same as center of mass in a uniform gravitational field as on earth) lies significantly ahead of the neck's base of support at the top of the thoracic spine. This is like holding an 8 to 10 pound bowling ball several inches out in front of you — all day, every day — where it feels much heavier than if it was held close to the body. This unbalanced head position increases the tendency of the head to fall forward and the neck to bend with it unless the muscles at the back of the neck (the neck extensors that pull/bend the neck back) work harder and stay tight all the time. If chronically tight neck muscles are injured in an accident or strained by overuse, they do not heal well because of lack of rest and reduced blood circulation (tightness tends to keep the blood "squeezed out" of the muscle). Poor healing weakens muscles and keeps them inflamed, irritated, and prone to reinjury. With each new incident of neck strain, rear neck muscles further weaken. Eventually many daily activities – such as turning the head quickly while driving or using the arms in lifting and pulling – now cause neck pain that never would have occurred before. To avoid further pain, many sufferers limit neck range of motion (R.O.M) and the pain-causing activities. Doing less and avoiding neck movement leads to more weakness, neck stiffness, and reinjury. Eventually back neck extensors atrophy from over-work caused by forward head posture and chronic damage from muscle strains that never completely heal. All of which makes recovery even more difficult.
    Meanwhile the front neck muscles (neck flexors) that bend the neck forward and help balance the head by preventing it from falling backward, have little to do, since in slouched posture the head is already held forward. Thus the front neck flexors weaken and atrophy from disuse (not enough work) rather than from overwork like the back neck extensors. The weakness of front neck muscles is why many chronic neck pain sufferers are unable to lift their heads when lying on their backs. (I couldn't.) For details see How Slouched Posture Causes Neck, Shoulder and Upper Back Pain.

Persistent hunching of the upper back combined with rounding forward of the shoulders also causes:

Improved Upper Body Posture brings the shoulder blades closer together and does not allow stretching/weakening of the rhomboids or the middle and lower trapezius, all three of which transmit forces from lifting/pushing/pulling weight with the arms to the more massive spinal column of the back. With good stabilization of shoulder blades by these larger muscles, very little force is transmitted to the more delicate cervical (neck) spine by the upper trapezius and levator scapula, even when heavy loads are lifted.

An Exception: Depressed or Droopy Shoulder Posture

Sometimes it's the lower trapezius and lower fibers of the Serratus Anterior that are too strong and short (lower trap dominance) while the Upper Trapezius is elongated and weak. The neck may appear very long and the shoulders slope down more steeply than usual. The best clue to depressed shoulder is that the collar bones slope down toward the shoulder joint; and at the back, the shoulder blades are held too low. Sometimes it's just one shoulder that's depressed, often the shoulder of the dominant arm, or whichever one holds the shoulder strap of a heavy purse or briefcase. A painful condition called Thoracic Outlet Syndrome may be more common with depressed shoulders. (Symptoms of Thoracic Outlet Syndrome include waking from sleep with numbness, tingling, weakness of hands and arms.) Thoracic outlet syndrome results from compression of the brachial nerves or plexus (the cords of converging sensory and motor nerves of the arms that run from nerve roots in the cervical spine, down the neck and through a narrow passageway in the shoulder to the arms.) There are 3 areas in the shoulder where space is particularly tight, making brachial compression more likely. One of those spaces is between the collar bone and first rib. Thus, if the collar bone is held too low as in depressed shoulders, it may press down on the brachial nerves and crush them against the first rib. At the same time, the upper trapezius may try to protect the brachial nerves by involuntary contraction (protective spasm), which raises the collar bone to relieve nerve compression. But the upper trapezius is already compromised; it is elongated and weak from being pulled down by the stronger lower trapezius, so extra work makes more likely chronic pain, spasm and atrophy.       (For more information, references on Thoracic Outlet Syndrome and Anatomical Illustrations)

II. Faulty Postures in Front and Back Views:
Complicating any of the above faulty postures may be excessive differences or asymmetry between left and right halves of the body. Many right-handed people tend to have the following slight asymmetries: lower right shoulder and shoulder blade, deviation of spine toward the left ("C"-shaped curve), higher right hip, and the right gluteus medius weaker. (ref: Kendall et al. 2005, pp. 74 - 77, also see this site for info and therapy on Gluteus Medius) These asymmetries may be worsened by the following: habitually standing with more weight on the right leg and with the right hip higher and jutting to the side (I stood like this all the time without thinking about it – see illustration below);  sitting with left leg and foot folded under the butt; reading in bed while lying on the left side and propped up by the left elbow; and holding a baby exclusively on the right hip. These postures displace the spine to the left and accentuate the "C" curve. Left-handed people tend to have the opposite asymmetries.

Excessive asymmetry may cause chronic pain. Sometimes an inciting incident such as one-sided spasm of the lower back leads over time to postural asymmetry between right and left sides. "With a back spasm, the pull will be so strong and abrupt the body has to drop the shoulder and lean the head away. [an unconscious] protective mechanism" (Carey, 2005, p.75). But an inciting incident is not needed to develop postural asymmetry. Many people, when standing still, habitually shift their weight to the same hip and leg every time without realizing. In time it becomes easy to believe that the results of that way of standing – the low shoulder and "short leg"- are inherited or developmental, but it's really the result of long term habits in standing, sitting and lying that exaggerate handedness asymmetries. [Of course there really can be structural leg length discrepancies — see an orthopedist for diagnosis and treatment.]
Regardless of the cause, such postural asymmetry can lead to back, hip or leg/foot pain. In right-handed persons, the right lateral trunk muscles may be compressed between a low shoulder and a raised hip. If chronic, the muscles along the compressed side of the trunk become shortened, tight and prone to spasm when turning or twisting in daily activities. Due to the low shoulder, the neck and head may tilt down to the right; however, because the brain likes the head and eyes to be level, the neck will usually tilt in the opposite direction, which returns the head upright but also widens the space between shoulder and neck (see illustration: Asymmetric Upper Body-A). Sometimes the head and neck will also tilt down to the right, resulting in pain and tightness of the left lateral neck muscles, which are under increased stress as they try to support the off-balance head (Asymmetric Upper Body-B). In left-handed persons, the opposite asymmetry — low left shoulder; short, tight left side; and raised left hip — may be present.

"Usually, shoulder correction tends to follow correction of lateral pelvic tilt..." (Kendall et al.)

To help with correction of one-sided low shoulder and short, tight lateral trunk muscles.

For right handers
— Stretching: Steady the body by placing the left hand, palm down on a low countertop. Shrug the right shoulder up high and hold while doing a side bend of the torso to the left over the support arm – bending the elbow to accommodate – until a mild stretch is felt along the right side. Hold for several seconds (working up to 20 seconds if no pain). At the end of the stretch, return to vertical posture by pushing up with the left arm. This avoids tightening/strengthening the right side or straining the back. [Stretches both the right lower trapezius to raise the shoulder and the right lateral trunk muscles.]
— Strengthening: Shrug with weights on right side only until shoulder height is equalized. Do not let arm plus weights hang off the shoulder and pull the shoulder down. Restrict the shrug to upper range of motion.

Left-handers do the opposite
— Steady the body by placing the right hand, palm down on a low countertop. Shrug the left shoulder up high and hold while doing a side bend of the torso to the right over the support arm – bending the elbow to accommodate – until a mild stretch is felt along the left side. Hold for several seconds (working up to 20 seconds if no pain). At the end of the stretch, return to vertical posture by pushing up with the right arm. This avoids tightening/strengthening the left side, which is already too tight) or straining the back.
— Strengthening: Shrug with weights on left side only until shoulder height is equalized. Do not let arm plus weights hang off the shoulder and pull the shoulder down. Restrict the shrug to upper range of motion.

For a high, prominent, right hip, stretch the left lateral thigh muscles.
For a high, prominent, left hip, stretch the right lateral thigh muscles. (recommendation from Kendal et al.)

One-sided hip pain may be due to postural asymmetry. Frequently standing with one hip thrust to the side causes stretched and weakened hip-stabilizing muscles on that side. [I always had right hip pain when walking around the block but that disappeared after months of lower body strengthening exercises] Strengthen the gluteus medius, which is a major hip stabilizer. Doing plenty of squats, good-mornings and sit-to-stands, while "squeezing" the gluts on the way up helps. See the videos here for more gluteus medius strengthening and hip stabilization exercises. See this site for information on gluteus medius and treatment

And most important — always remember to stand with weight evenly distributed between right and left legs.


Exercises for Upper Body Posture:

Goals: *The following illustration shows how much I lift my right shoulder, which is slightly depressed, and the isometric strengthening of the surrounding musculature (while I observe my back in a 2-mirror set-up):
Exercise Tips:
  • Know your posture type. Posture at rest depends on the sum total of balances or imbalances in muscles and muscle groups that operate most joints of the body.
  • Use your specific posture faults as a guide to help decide which muscles need strengthening and which need stretching. A general exercise class will probably not improve posture and may work against you.
  • Picking the exercises that you like doing probably strengthens muscles that are already strong and doesn't help muscles that are weak; which worsens muscle imbalance.
  • Don't just strengthen the muscles seen in frontal view such as those of the chest, front of shoulder, the abdominal 6-pack area, fronts of thighs (quadriceps) and upper arms (biceps); that stretches and weakens the opposing muscles in back, which are responsible for keeping us erect and in good posture alignment. Give posterior muscles such as back extensors, gluts and triceps at least equal time, if not more, to compensate for the way we customarily use our bodies. (e.g. more bending forward than bending backward, more sitting than standing or walking, more rounding shoulders forward than lifting the chest and keeping shoulders back, more bending head down instead of looking straight ahead, more bending elbows than keeping the arm straight.)
Slow Down for Stretching and Control for Strengthening:
  • Stretch in a slow, mindful manner. Quick or bouncy movements activate the stretch reflex, which causes immediate contraction of the stretched muscle—the muscle actively resists the stretch, which is the opposite of what one intends. Also, in bouncy stretches the extent of the stretch is uncontrolled and before one realizes, damage may already be done.
    Allow time - weeks to months - for stretching to be effective. Increasing the length of a too short muscle requires addition of muscle units called sarcomeres. (ref)
    Duration of stretches: Studies done in young and middle-aged adults show that a minimum hold of 30 seconds gives good results, while 60 seconds does not improve the outcome (ref). In adults older than 65, muscle response is best for a hold of 60 seconds (ref). Abstract from another study showed that 12 repetitions of 15 second durations, 6 reps of 30 sec. durations and 4 reps of 45 sec. durations of active stretching were equally effective at increasing hamstring length when performed 3 days per week for 12 weeks in young adults.
  • Perform strengthening exercises in a controlled and mindful manner to protect joints and to maintain correct postural alignment. Slow movements during strengthening exercise have advantages: 1. the prime mover/agonist (the muscle responsible for the specific movement or the concentric contraction phase of the movement) isn't helped by momentum, and 2. the antagonist (the muscle on the other side of the joint that opposes the prime mover) can't just let go and relax all the way, but remains tense to steady the resistance or weight while slowly lengthening in an eccentric contraction to allow the agonist/prime mover to operate the joint. (A joint needs a pair of muscles or muscle groups on opposite sides. For example, to close the elbow, the biceps in front of upper arm contracts, while triceps at back of arm lengthens; and to open, the triceps contracts, while biceps lengthens). Eccentric contraction may yield greater gains in muscle strength. See the article, How eccentric training speeds muscle strength gains. Arthur Jones, developer of the Nautilus exercise machine, advised two seconds to raise a weight and 4 seconds to lower it to take advantage of eccentric contraction or negative work as he called it.
  • But a rapid/explosive concentric phase (the lifting part) in strength training is reported to help increase bone density, which is of particular importance to post-menopausal women with worsening bone density. Power training is more effective than strength training for maintaining bone mineral density in postmenopausal women (Stengel et al, 2005) The only difference between the power training group (PT) and strength training group (ST) was speed of concentric phase. Protocol for power training called for fast/explosive concentric and slow 4-second eccentric phase, and for strength training 4-seconds for both phases. (For power training using machines instead of free weights aids in control and preventing injury.)
  • Maximal lifting speeds are also reported to increase gains in strength over slow lifting speeds. Maximal intended velocity training induces greater gains in bench press performance than deliberately slower half-velocity training (Gonzalez-Badillo et al, 2014). Effect of movement velocity during resistance training on neuromuscular performance (Pareja-Blanco et al, 2014). Effects of load and contraction velocity during three-week biceps curls training on isometric and isokinetic performance. (Ingebrigtsen et al, 2009) "Increased maximal isometric strength was seen in HF – high load, fast contraction – (9.7%), whereas HS – high load and slow contraction – improved slow isokinetic strength (8.5%)."
  • Pairing a rapid concentric phase with a slow eccentric phase may increase strength gains: "...strength training based on rapid concentric and slow eccentric contractions promotes functional adaptation with an increase in isotonic strength. ... a series of training sessions with increasing loads until reaching the maximum load provides a protective effect for the musculature, [to help avoid delayed onset muscle soreness]" versus a single session of localized exercise at 100% maximum load. Strength Gain Through Eccentric Isotonic Training Without Changes in Clinical Signs or Blood Markers (Alves et al, 2013)**
  • If a workout causes pain around a joint, figure out why (or get an expert to help) before continuing. Reasons that a joint may be overstressed include: imbalance of prime mover and antagonist muscle pair; weak joint stabilizer muscles for the intensity of exercise; unbalanced workouts; poor body mechanics; incorrect technique; or exercising when fatigued, which ups the risk for all the preceding. A little soreness in the "belly" of a muscle that disappears by the next workout is okay. Eccentric exercise may cause delayed onset muscle soreness in the belly of a muscle, but with rest, the muscle heals and quickly adapts to prevent damage and soreness when the exercise is repeated. See previous comments about eccentric exercise.
  • ** Force that you apply equals mass times acceleration (F = M x A). If mass remains the same then doing a lift slowly (low acceleration during concentric phase) results in less force applied and less muscle activity. Doing an explosive lift on the way up (high acceleration during concentric phase) results in increased force and muscle activation. On the way down, the eccentric phase, acceleration is negative (-F= M x -A), so the slower you go, the higher the negative acceleration and the greater the force.
    Peak muscle power declines faster with age than strength does and may be best improved using heavy loads during explosive resistance training. Optimal load for increasing muscle power during explosive resistance training in older adults. deBos et al. Lower extremity muscle function after strength or power training in older adults Marsh et al (2009). "...both PT [Power Training] and ST [Strength Training] groups showed significant improvements in KE [Knee Extension] and LP [Leg Press] 1RM compared with the control group, and maximum KE and LP power increased approximately twice as much in the PT group as in the ST group. ...a simple modification of a standard ST protocol, that is, to complete the concentric phase of the movement “as fast as possible,” is a feasible, safe, and effective intervention to increase strength and power of the lower extremity in older adults with mild to moderate self-reported disability."

The Exercises:

Posture Practice —> Remind oneself frequently to:

Fix the Shoulder Blades Exercise: a generally pain-free exercise that consists of pulling down and squeezing together the shoulder blades, and then holding for an isometric contraction. Very importantly, a mirror set-up is used to provide visual feedback, which is needed because of difficulty in sensing activation of the correct muscles. This exercise strengthens lower and middle trapezius, and rhomboids; returns upper traps and levator scapula to their optimal lengths and helps them strengthen; and repositions shoulder blades. (the pull-down part is not for those with droopy/depressed shoulder syndrome) Corrects forward head and postural/flexible kephosis (rounded upper back that's not rigid). And eliminated my chronic neck, shoulder and upper back pain, inflammation and tightness within 2 to 3 months. See instructions and illustrations: Fix the Shoulder Blades Exercise.

Prone "Y", "T", "W" and "L" Positions Exercise: Similar movements, as in Fix the Shoulder Blades Exercise, but done against gravity, which adds to difficulty. In brief: Lie prone (face down) on floor, place arms in one of the four positions, have thumbs pointing up and keep shoulders down away from ears, squeeze the shoulder blades together while lifting arms and chest (but do not lift the chest more than 1 or 2 inches off ground to avoid hyper-extension of lower back and excessive load that may damage delicate facet joints. See precaution.). Hold a few seconds then lower the chest. See detailed instructions and the video at Fit And Busy Excellent for strengthening mid-back extensors, middle and lower trapezius and stretching chest muscles. See similar exercises in article by McNitt-Gray and Mathiyakom.

Variant of prone exercise for Droopy/Depressed shoulders: Lie face down. Place hands on back of head, fingers interlaced. Squeeze shoulder blades together and lift arms off the floor, but not chest. Elbows should not lift higher than wrists. Do not arch the neck. (adapted from Rick Olderman's book and McNitt-Gray and Mathiyakom)

Arm Slides: Face the Wall "Y" Corrective Exercise and Wall Angels

Arm Slide variant for Droopy/Depressed Shoulder: when elbows are level with shoulder, shrug shoulders up toward ears to elevate shoulder blades. (adapted from Rick Olderman's book)


Lower Body Posture:
      Maintaining improved upper body posture is much easier when the lower body is properly aligned. It is the lordotic/inward curve of the lower back that positions the upper body over the hips and allows a stable erect posture. (Other primates like chimpanzees don't have a lordotic curve in the lower back, only one long kephotic curve; mostly they knuckle–walk with a curved–over upper body.)
     The degree of lumbar lordosis is determined by the tilt of the pelvis. The tilt of the pelvis depends on the action and balance of hip extensors and flexors. Ultimately neck posture depends on lower body muscles that control the angle of hip and knee joints. Physical therapy for musculo-skeletal neck and shoulder pain should include correction of lower body posture. Initially, that may take more time, but treating piecemeal and having to repeat physical therapy later for the same problem (e.g. neck pain) or a different problem (e.g. frozen shoulder and torn rotator cuffs) that stems from the same root cause (poor posture) is a waste of time and money (the patient's, the government's and the insurance company's); and is a waste of one of the few opportunities a patient has to receive one-on-one help from a qualified professional. (for more on Improving Physical Therapy Practice: A Patient's View)

Lower body posture in profile is mainly determined by two factors:

    1. Tilt of the pelvis
Figure 1. The pelvis is attached to the base of the lumbar spine by the Sacrum, a large, thick vertebra–like bone that connects to the curved plate–shaped Iliums of the pelvis via strong ligaments and two Sacroiliac Joints. These joints and ligamentous connections interlock the sacrum and iliums, which allow very little independent movement; in effect, both move as one. If the pelvis tilts forward, the sacrum, with lumbar spine attached, is also pulled forward resulting in excessive inward (lordotic or anterior) curve of the lower back. If the pelvis tilts backward, the sacrum and lower spine back are pulled backward, which results in straightening of the lumbar curve as seen in Flat Back Posture. See figure 2. below.

    2. Angle of hip and knee Joints
Backward bending (extension) of the hips and knees is usually limited, which gives stability to the body in standing position because you can't "buckle backwards" (Kendall et al.) But in Swayback Posture the hips and knees have a backward bend (hyperextension), causing the pelvis to shift forward ahead of the feet. To prevent the entire body from falling forward, the upper trunk shifts backward to compensate, see illustration below: Swayback Posture, third from the left:

Figure 2. Effect of Pelvic Tilt and Angle of Hip and Knee Joints on Lower Body Posture


Pelvic tilt is controlled by four groups of muscles:

Figure 3. Muscles That Control Pelvic Tilt.
 A. Two opposing muscle groups attach to the anterior (front) half of the pelvis:
    1) Abdominals (Rectus Abdominis, External oblique) exert upward pull on pelvis.
    2) Hip Flexors (Rectus femoris, Tensor fasciae latae, Iliopsoas, Sartorius) exert downward pull.
 B. Two opposing muscle groups attach to the posterior (rear) half of pelvis:
    3) Low Back Extensors exert upward pull on the pelvis. 
    4) Hip Extensors (Gluteus maximus, Hamstrings) exert
                                                                                                  downward pull.

With all four groups of muscles in balance, the pelvis is held in neutral position, giving the lower back a slightly lordotic (anterior) curve. This alignment of the lumbar vertebra results in 80 – 90% of upper body weight being supported by the column of thick round vertebral bodies and gel-filled discs between the vertebral bodies in a uniform manner, while the remaining weight (10 – 20 %) is supported by the more delicate rear facet joints. Excessive lordosis transfers too much weight/force to the rear facet joints, causing more pressure on rear facet joints —> osteophyte formation —> narrowing of nerve channels etc.; while a flat or kephotic lower back transfers too much force to the front of the vertebral bodies and front edges of the discs; causing the discs to wear unevenly and develop micro-tears in the over-stressed areas, which leads to premature loss of fluid and disc height. (see Pathophysiology of Low Back Pain and Sciatica in Medscape and More Effects of Slouched Posture – structure and mechanics of intervertebral discs and spinal injuries, and aging of the spine.)

When pelvic muscles are not balanced, the pelvis may tilt forward or backward depending on which muscle groups are too weak and/or elongated and which are too strong and/or shortened relative to their antagonist muscle group.

Types of Faulty Lower Body Posture and Specific Muscle Imbalances:

To correct pelvic tilt to neutral, the pelvis may be deliberately tilted frontward or backward depending on type of faulty posture: see posterior pelvic tilt exercise and also this video: pelvic tilt exercises. But if hip or back muscles are tight, changing pelvic tilt may seem impossible or may cause muscle tingling or soreness. Best to see a doctor in case of radiating nerve pain. Otherwise, specific exercises directed at the 4 muscle groups that determine pelvic tilt, either to help stretch over–tight, shortened muscles, or strengthen opposing weak, elongated muscles, are needed. The specific exercises to use depends on whether excessive anterior or posterior pelvic tilt needs to be corrected. See The Different Types of Faulty Posture... below.


Standing Tall:

Before postural self-correction can begin in earnest, it's important to feel/understand what standing in an upright perpendicular position () is really like. What a surprise, when I realized that standing against a wall felt unnatural because my normal posture was, and always had been, leaning forward and bent at mid-back. No wonder I couldn't easily bring my head to touch the wall behind me and later would have neck pain from trying. Come to find out all I needed was to take a deep breath, which lifted my chest, reduced thoracic Kephosis and straightened my mid back. Amazingly simple, but I was so accustomed to my hunched posture, it never crossed my mind.

Also notice whether one's body weight is evenly distributed over the soles of both feet, from side to side, and front to back. More pressure on one foot than the other indicates asymmetry between the two sides of the body. (see Faulty Postures in Front and Back Views) More pressure on the ball of the foot and big toe, indicates that one is leaning forward. "Forward Body" is a strain on the posterior muscles of the trunk and legs, which remain in constant contraction* as they try to keep the off-balance body from falling forward; the pelvis is pulled on by tight hamstrings and tilts backward in order to pull the lumbar spine and rest of upper body vertical. Perhaps being so used to rushing to get everything done, we don't even bother to straighten up but lean forward in anticipation, toward the direction we hope we are going with our lives (rather than going around in circles), and the habit sticks whether running, walking or standing still ....Maybe by bringing more balance to the way we stand, we will bring more balance and stability to our lives in general.

For a good demonstration of wall standing and ideal sitting posture:
See the video: How to Improve Your Posture — powered by ehow.

*Kendall et al.
(The hamstrings in particularly tighten when the body leans forward. Poke a finger into the back of the thigh and feel the muscle tighten as you lean forward slightly. Take care not to fall.)

Finding the Determination To Change:

Balanced Posture Some people know they have poor posture and simply accept it.

        I've always had poor posture....It's just the way
        I stand....It's comfortable....It's me.

Others have poor posture, but believe they have good posture. After all... spouse, friends, doctors, physical therapists and exercise instructors have never said anything about poor posture; even though mom might have, but who listens to moms? And the bathroom mirror only provides a front view, which doesn't show a forward head or a hunched back, especially when we're focused on blemishes, bags under the eyes, beard hair or wrinkles (and for women, applying make-up to hide them). A photo doesn't often help because most are taken face–on, though you might find a side view in an unposed group shot, but unflattering views are often dismissed and discarded ...along with any other evidence of an unattractive or unhealthy appearance that doesn't fit one's self image (which may be unrealistic, and is resistant to change).

Accordingly, the first step is to really look at oneself from the front, back and side, and preferable while performing daily activities. But how many people have their own videographer? So instead, one must arrange for a two mirror set-up that shows side and back views (see such a set-up here); and then be completely honest with oneself in front of the mirror (tougher than you'd think).

To change one's posture, to change anything, means turning away from the old, comfortable ways of moving, interacting or just being in the world, and accepting a degree of short-term discomfort. This is not the muscle-soreness or getting-out-of-breath kind of discomfort (in fact it usually feels better to stand up straight) but the mindful, have-to-stick–to–it, will–power kind. Correcting posture doesn't have the intensity of aerobics or weight training, but does require persistence until weak, stretched-out muscles strengthen and tighten up, which makes it so much easier to maintain improved posture without consciously tensing muscles all the time.

In some ways, weak, stretched-out postural muscles are like the elastic waistbands of old underwear. Over time, waistbands get stretched and loose, and underwear won't stay up. Loose waistbands can't fix themselves. But loose, weak muscles can tighten and strengthen. With the right exercise and correct use, muscles regain optimal length, strength, and resistance to stretching.

But a caveat: once the work is done, and the muscles restored, if the slouching habit returns, so will poor posture. The body is always changing and one of the ways it changes is to adjust to how it's habitually used. So we must make a commitment not to return to old sloppy ways, but take on a new attitude of caring for the well-being of the only bodies we have.

Of course, to "get over the hump," to overcome the inertia of the status quo of things as they are, and also to change our often resistant self image, we need to have at least one great motivator and better if there are several. It helps if one has strong belief, backed up by reasons and evidence, that posture improvement is important and necessary. Those reasons may include: 1) reducing chronic musculo-skeletal pain, 2) delaying age-related spinal changes, 3) helping to prevent injuries, 4) improving appearance, and 5) changing one's life for the better. But even with such positives, change is difficult, especially for a future gain such as delaying spinal changes or prevention of a musculo-skeletal injury that may never have happened anyway. Sometimes the motivation needs to be more immediate such as reduction in existing chronic pain or desire to improve appearance. And sometimes there are rare epiphanies of self-awareness, such as when I'd given up finding help for my neck, and having glimpsed myself looking so old and bent over, I finally realized: that if nothing else in my life ever improved, I could at least fix my posture.

      Some of the benefits of frequent self-correction of posture:

(*adapted from Gwendolen Jull)

Remind oneself frequently to:

For more Tips on Improving Posture—see Spine Universe: "Maintaining a Healthy Spine—Your Posture" and "Maintain a Healthy Spine—Learn Proper Body Mechanics"


Different Types of Faulty Posture Call for Different Corrective Exercises: Specific exercises can be helpful and are used to strengthen weak, over-stretched muscles and stretch short, tight muscles that are unbalanced by long term faulty posture. But the exercises must fit the specific type of faulty posture because there are different patterns of muscle imbalance seen in different postural misalignments. Determining the right exercises and how to do them correctly is the province of physical therapists and sometimes other physical fitness professionals. A thorough postural analysis generally consists of observing overall alignment of body segments and joints, testing and measuring for muscle strength, weakness, elongation or shortness, joint flexibility, stability and range of motion etc., and prescribing the necessary therapeutic exercises, as well as making sure the client performs them correctly and without harm to themselves.

—What follows is based on my limited, non-professional experience, and various text books and websites.

                Three Types of Faulty Posture in Profile:

Flat Back:

Flat BackFigure 5. Flat Back Posture
Upper Body:
Forward head, Upper thoracic spine curves forward, Lower thoracic straight. Shoulders rounded forward, and shoulder blade anchoring weak. Chest sunken, muscles between the ribs (intercostals), upper abdominals and accessory muscles of respiration such as pectorals are shortened and tight; shallow breathing is the norm.
Lower Body: Pelvis tilted backward (tucked under) causing flat lower back/lumbar spine, and no butt; pants and jeans sag in the rear.
Knees may be extended but not hyper-extended as in Swayback.
The Entire Body Leans Forward, only a bit, but very evident when one tries to stand straight against a wall. Body weight shifts to the forefoot causing increased strain. Calluses may form under the ball of the foot and/or the great toe, and may worsen toe conditions such as rigid great toe or hallux rigidus—degenerative arthritis of the first metatarsophalangeal joint.
(I have hallux rigidus that surgery 8 years ago couldn't correct, but improving my posture has equalized body weight over the entire foot, calmed inflammation, and greatly reduced toe pain.)

To Correct:

— For Upper Body: Fix the Shoulder Blade Exercise to improve forward head, pull shoulders back, strengthen shoulder blade anchoring, and free up neck motion. For tight chest muscles and upper abdominals, do Thumbs-Up and Bruegger Exercises, Wall Angels or Wall Standing Exercise, also Pectoralis Minor Stretch (note precautions), and frequently remind oneself to keep the chest lifted. Take some deep breaths during the day and notice how good it feels for the lungs to expand unimpeded when the chest is lifted.
—For Lower Body: Loosen locked pelvis with hip extensor (Hamstring) stretches and practice forward pelvic tilts (in front of a mirror) or see this video Lower Back Lumbo-Pelvic Exercise. Get a sense of what it feels like to stand straight (at a 90 degree angle with the floor) by doing Wall Standing Exercises. Remind oneself often to straighten the mid-back. Strengthen lower back extensors with Multifidus and Back Extension Exercises. Remind oneself to relax the knees, and keep body weight evenly distributed between ball and heel of the feet. Strengthen hip flexors.
  Note: In photos of myself as a young child, I did not have flat back. But I remember being sensitive about the way I looked – I was overweight – and that led me to keep my abs tight to stop stomach bulge. Abs that are stronger than hip flexors is a factor in flat back posture. I also remember keeping my chest "caved in" to hide my chest, which is another determinant of slouched posture.

Sway Back:

SwaybackFigure 6. Sway Back Posture
— Upper Body:
Forward head; Long kyphosis of the Thoracic spine extends into lumbar region; Sunken chest; Shoulders, rounded forward and shoulder blade anchoring weak. Upper trunk shifted rearward.
— Lower Body: Pelvis tilts backward, causing flattening of the lumbar spine, but it doesn't appear flattened because the upper trunk shifts or sways to the rear. There is no body-wide forward tilt as in Flat Back. The shifting backwards of the upper trunk results in elongation and weakening of the External Oblique, an abdominal muscle, while upper fibers of the Internal Oblique, another abdominal muscle, are shortened and tight, to pull the rib cage back forward. Chest muscles (pectorals and intercostals) are short and tight. Hip Flexors, especially the Iliopsoas, are weak and can't oppose the pull of the short, tight Hamstrings, which tilt the pelvis backward.
Hips and Knees bend backwards in hyper-extension.

To Correct:

— For Upper Body: Fix the Shoulder Blade Exercise to improve forward head, pull shoulders back, strengthen shoulder blade anchoring, and free up neck motion. For tight chest muscles and upper abdominals, do Thumbs-Up and Bruegger Exercises, Wall Angels or Wall Standing Exercise, also Pectoralis Minor Stretch (note precautions), and frequently remind oneself to keep the chest lifted. Take some deep breaths during the day and notice how good it feels for the lungs to expand unimpeded when the chest is lifted.
Lower Body: Loosen locked pelvis with hip extensor (Hamstring) stretches. Do Pelvic tilts to increase pelvic flexibility. Strengthen External Oblique with Wall Standing Exercises, and Alternate Leg Raises (no double leg lifting), which also strengthens weak hip flexors. Or do other hip flexor strengthening exercises.
— The Knees: Keep reminding oneself to relax the knees and avoid hyperextension. Knee hyperextension may worsen postural bowlegs....

Figure 7 and 8. Postural Bowlegs is caused by internal rotation of the femurs toward the front of the hip. Thighs, knees and feet rotate inward toward the midline. The feet seem to collapse slightly inward (pronation) as body weight is borne more on the inside of the sole of the foot. From Kendall et al.–"An apparent bowing.... results from a combination of medial rotation of the hip/femur, hyper-extension of the knee joint and pronation of the foot. Medial rotation of the thigh plus pronation of the foot do not result in bowing unless accompanied by hyperextension. ... Correction depends on use of appropriate shoe corrections [e.g. New Balance has athletic shoes with slanted heels designed for pronation-prone runners], exercises to correct pronation, exercises to strengthen hip lateral rotators and cooperation by the subject in avoiding a position of knee hyperextension."
To Help Improve: Stand with feet 4 inches apart and toeing out slightly. Relax knees so not stiff or bent. Tighten buttocks to rotate legs slightly outward (until kneecaps face directly forward). Tighten muscles that lift the arches of the feet, rolling the weight slightly toward outer borders of feet.* It may not be possible to totally eliminate postural bow legs because there may be structural factors as well. This is true of those in my family with bow legs. What is obvious, though, is that when they correct their sway back posture and stop hyperextending hips and knees, the appearance of their bow legs is much improved. Sometimes postural bowlegs is compensatory for Knock-Knees, which must be fixed first.* (See a physical therapist for help correcting both postural bowlegs and knock-knees.)

*Kendall et al.Muscles: Testing and Function with Posture and Pain, 5th edition, 2005


Kephotic-Lordotic PostureFigure 9. Kyphotic-Lordotic Posture
— Upper Body:
Forward head, Increased cervical spine lordosis ("C" curve) with Back neck extensors tight and short; front neck flexors are elongated and weak.
Hyper-kyphotic thoracic spine with upper back extensors elongated and weak. Shoulders rounded forward. Shoulder blades held farther apart in back and anchoring muscles are weak. Chest muscles tight and short, and rectus abdominis bulges out and pulls down on rib cage causing "sunken chest."
— Lower Body: Pelvis tilts forward pulling the lumbar spine into hyper-lordosis. Forward tilting pelvis is often caused by short, tight hip flexors (quadriceps) pulling the pelvis down in front, with the abdominals too weak to oppose. If the lower back extensors are short/tight, they pull up on the pelvis in the rear tilting the pelvis forward also, and are unopposed by weak hip extensors (hamstrings). However, the low back may not be tight; if lumbar lordosis straightens while sitting, then the main cause of forward tilting pelvis is tight hip flexors, not tight back extensors. (Kendal et al.)

To Correct:

— For Upper Body:
Fix the Shoulder Blade Exercise
to improve forward head, pull shoulders back, strengthen shoulder blade anchoring, and free up neck motion. For tight chest muscles and upper abdominals, do Thumbs-Up and Bruegger Exercises, Wall Angels or Wall Standing Exercise, also Pectoralis Minor Stretch (note precautions), and frequently remind oneself to keep the chest lifted, by lengthening spine from top of pelvis to ribcage. Take some deep breaths during the day and notice how good it feels for the lungs to expand unimpeded when the chest is lifted.
For Lower Body:
First – correct anterior pelvic tilt: A) Stretch front hip flexors/quadriceps to allow the pelvis to tilt back more easily, and just after B) do Posterior Pelvic tilts to flatten the lumbar curve by tightening the front abdominals to pull up on the pelvis and tilt it backwards.
Second – strengthen weak, elongated external obliques see below for abdominal exercises: A) Wall Standing,  B) Isometric "Abdominal Bracing Exercises"  C) abdominal anti-rotation exercises. Avoid crunches, which strengthen rectus abdominis (6-pack abs), which acts to pull down the rib cage and depresses the chest. Crunches also do not strengthen the external obliques.
Third – strengthen gluts and hamstrings. Squats are extraordinary for improving strength of the posterior chain especially hip extensors and gluts. But make sure that hyper-lordotic lower back is corrected first.

*Kendall et al.Muscles: Testing and Function with Posture and Pain, 5th edition, 2005

Identifying Postural Type:

— Still having problems deciding? Then explore what your body can do. Try assuming the various faulty postures and observe the results in the two mirror set-up.
     Which posture is hardest to duplicate? Which is easiest? (For me, Kephotic-Lordotic was most difficult. This was definitely not my posture. Decades of no lordotic curve had limited my pelvic flexibility. So Flat Back was easiest posture for me, but doing Sway Back was easy too, and in photos, I've seen myself with it—especially when I held my grandson.) Flat Back and Sway Back have an important similarity; they share a flattened lumbar curve, the result of a backward tilting pelvis (often from tight, short hamstrings). If a person with Flat Back hyper-extends his or her knees, and relaxes the external obliques, the rest of Sway Back posture is a natural consequence.

Postural Exercises in Brief


Strengthen Neck Flexors: Correct forward head/kyphotic posture with Fix the Shoulder Blade exercise. With this exercise the strengthening and rebalancing of neck flexors and neck extensors occurs naturally. Later when the neck is no longer painful, deep neck flexor exercises may be done. See A byproduct of improving "Forward Head".... Also see the YouTube Video, Deep Neck Flexor Training, and also Professor Jull's Handbook, Whiplash Injury Recovery.


Thoracic Spine:

Strengthen Thoracic Spine Extensors and Reduce Kyphosis with Fix the Shoulder Blades exercise and Upper Back Extension exercises. Includes the prone "Y", "T", "W" and "L" positions for posture improvement. Also Bruegger Exercises.

Also Stretch Chest Muscles, Intercostals (Between the ribs), Abdominals and Accessory Muscles of Respiration such as Scalenes and Pectorals with a few deep diaphragmatic breaths, several times a day. Keep chest high by elongating the trunk instead of arching the back, as part of improving posture in standing and sitting. Do Thumbs-Up and Bruegger Exercises.


Upper and Lower Trapezius:

Upper Trap Dominant: Stretch upper trapezius and strengthen lower trapezius with Pull Down part of Fix the Shoulder Blade exercise.

Lower Trap Dominant/Depressed Shoulders: Hold a high shoulder shrug to stretch tight lower trapezius and shorten upper trapezius. Use weights to strengthen weak upper trapezius. Don't shrug all the way down to prevent over-stretching of upper trap. For a single depressed shoulder do shrugs only on the affected side, until shoulders are evened out.


Low Back:

Strengthen Low Back Extensors (Flat Back and Sway Back): see Back Extension, Multifidus and Transversus Abdominis exercises.

Stretch Low Back Extensors with Posterior Pelvic tilts (Kyphotic-Lordotic only) On a firm padded floor surface, lie on the back with bent knees and have feet flat on the floor. Keep hands alongside head, to avoid helping with arms. Tilt the pelvis backwards to flatten low back on the surface by tightening abdominals (a pulling up towards the upper body, and in with lower abdominals). While keeping low back flat, slide heels down to straighten knees as much as possible with back held flat against the floor. Slide one leg back at a time to return to knees–bent position. (Do not use buttock muscles to tilt pelvis and do not lift feet from surface). (ref. Kendal et al.)
     †Technically an ab exercise as well.



Strengthen Abdominals especially External Oblique (needed for Kyphotic-Lordotic and Sway Back postures):
A) Wall–Standing Exercises (Can be done seated on a stool): Stand with back against a wall, with heels about 3 inches away. Place hands up beside head with elbows touching the wall. Tilt pelvis back to flatten low back against the wall by pulling up and inward with the lower abdominal muscles. Firmly tighten the abdominals especially the lateral obliques to shift the upper body forward and the pelvis back." Keep arms in contact with wall and move slowly to a diagonally overhead position (like a wall angel exercise).

B) Isometric Abdominal Bracing Exercises: In a neutral spine position, stiffen the abdominal wall by tightening abs, gluts, back etc. as if preparing for a punch in the gut, and hold for several seconds (goal is 30 seconds to a minute). Do not allow spine or pelvis to move, and the abdomen should not suck in or push out. Dr. Stuart McGill, well-known professor of spine mechanics and stabilization, calls this "full abdominal co-contraction." Its difficulty can be increased by simultaneously bracing the abdomen and doing exercises such as prone planks, side planks and the bird–dog. See videos of these exercises here: Stuart McGill's Big 3 Core Exercises. A type of crunch called a Curl-up is included but "there is very little curl and the upper body and neck stay elongated." Neck and back remain in–line.
     Which approach is more effective for spine stabilization, abdominal bracing or abdominal hollowing? (ab hollowing activates the transversus abdominis) McGill reports** that the abdominal bracing technique improved spine stability by 32%, while transversus abdominis contraction contributed less than 1%. And since the transversus adds nothing to spine stability, he concludes that spine stability will lessen due to inadequate activation of the important muscles, such as rectus abdominis and obliques. "If you hollow in, you bring the muscles closer to the spine [also elongate them] and you reduce the stability of the back," McGill says. "Try rising from a chair with a hollowed-out stomach. Not only are you weak, it is very difficult." "Professor Shirley Sahrmann, a physical therapist at the Washington University School of Medicine found that, no matter how many times the movement is repeated, it does not become second nature and therefore will not provide constant back support." ref Also see Comparison of the Effects of Hollowing and Bracing Exercises on Cross-sectional Areas of Abdominal Muscles in Middle-aged Women, Koh et al, 2014) "...performing bracing exercises, which can contract both deep and superficial muscles entirely, rather than performing hollowing exercises, which only contract deep muscles independently, is more effective for activating the abdominal muscles."
    Maybe something in between is preferable. I've been taught by my exercise instructors to breath out and tighten the gut when doing the lifting part or strenuous/concentric contraction part of an exercise. This is easy to remember because I count my reps when I breath out. There's some "sucking in" because I've pushed air out of my lungs with the breath out, and some abdominal bracing because I consciously tighten/brace my gut as well as the back and gluts.

**Quantification of lumbar stability by using 2 different abdominal activation strategies. Grenier and McGill (2007)

C) (and my favorite!) Anti-rotation exercise for abdominal strengthening or Pallof Press (no spinal bending at all, strengthens entire core!) 1) At right angles to a load (collar bone-high strap on a pulley machine with variable resistance or resistance band attached to a door frame at collar bone level); 2) with the strap in both hands and held against the sternal notch area, 3) move away from resistance to feel a strong pull, then 4) extend hands forward to straighten arms while resisting the force to turn toward resistance by tightening the abs. (to increase difficulty hold for 5 or more seconds. If this is too easy, extend hands and raise until you feel the need to turn and hold 10 seconds.). Repeat on the other side. This exercise forces you to tighten your entire abdominal area as well as the rest of the core! (see this webpage for further anti-rotation exercises)

Not advised are Modified Sit-Ups like Trunk Curls or Crunches for three reasons, 1) Repeated and persistent trunk–flexion exercises strengthen the rectus abdominis, but not the external obliques (Kendall et al). Strengthening the external obliques is needed to improve both Sway Back and Kephotic-Lordotic postures, 2) A strong rectus abdominis pulls down on the ribcage more strongly, which further depresses the chest, and 3) Any kind of back flexion under loading puts high, uneven stresses on discs of the lower back. Those with low bone density (osteoporosis) are at particular risk of spinal compression fractures due to uneven stresses on weakened bone of vertebral bodies. (See Dr. Evan Osar's Abdominal Exercises/Dangers of Crunches) (also see discussion on Back Extension Exercises and Osteoporosis). See Dr. Evan Osar's article and video: The Crunch Free Ab Routine.


Back Hip Extensors:

Stretch Back Hip Extensors—Hamstrings (Flat Back and Sway Back): For a specific easy exercise: Hamstring Stretching from Duke Sports Medicine. But no extra exercise time is needed if a Deadlift Hamstring Stretch is used in the middle of chores that require bending down such as loading/unloading the dishwasher (the way I got my lumbar curve back!); and also provides practice for keeping the back straight rather than in a rounded "scared cat" posture that unbalances the back stabilizer muscles and stresses the intervertebral discs (causes posterior bulging of the disc).

Strengthen Back Hip Extensors—Gluts and Hamstrings (Kyphotic–Lordotic Posture): Lie on the back with knees up. Keep the back in neutral position. Squeeze the Gluteus maximus (the butt cheeks) together. Then relax. Do 10 times, a couple times a day. A variation is to lie on the back, knees up and lift the butt off the floor keeping the back straight, as if making a bridge. See exactly how to perform this exercise in the video: Bridges for Glutes.
Squats are excellent for strengthening the entire posterior chain. They made a big difference in my life!


Front Hip Flexors:

Stretch Front Hip Flexors (for Kyphotic–Lordotic Posture; Tight Hip Flexors are often the Predominant Factor in Lumbar Hyper-Lordosis): Side Lying Quadriceps Stretch. Lie on your right side with right elbow bent to support the side of your head. Bend the left knee and grab the left ankle with left hand. Mainly use the glut and hamstring muscles to pull the left thigh behind the body, but gently pull up left ankle toward butt to help. Very importantly, keep the lower back curve neutral. Do not arch the lower back. Hold gentle, but firm stretch for 1 minute. Repeat a few times per day as long as no soreness. See video of Side Lying Quad Stretch. Also see this video of a Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch. The same hip flexor stretch can be found on the ABC of Fitness site. (Make sure you are actually stretching the quads. My friend with hyperlordotic lower back thought she was doing side lying quad stretches but her body was fooling her; her lower back was arching even more to make up for tightness of her quads.)

Strengthen Hip Flexor Muscles at front of hip and thigh (for Flat Back and Sway Back): DO NOT DO THIS WHEN THERE'S BACK PAIN BECAUSE THIS EXERCISE WILL WORSEN IT AND CAN STRAIN THE LOW BACK. Walk in place or hold onto a support of some kind, and alternate raising each knee high enough so the thigh is horizontal to ground. Or while sitting in a chair with back supported, lift one knee with the hands as high as comfortable, let go and hold up for 10 seconds, then lower and lift the other knee, repeat 10 times. If no pain at all, try Seated Straight Leg Raises: Start seated on mat with back straight, knees bent, feet flat on the mat. Lean back keeping back straight, arms/hands behind in support, and extend one leg forward (knee may be slightly bent) and toes pointed (the other leg still bent with foot flat on mat). Tighten thigh muscle and lift the straight leg a few inches above the mat, hold a few seconds then lower. Repeat 5 times, then repeat with the other leg. With time increase reps until 20 have been reached. For extra strengthening light weight can be added to the ankle of the leg being lifted.

† warm up with a 5 to 10 minute walk or take a warm shower/bath.

See More Posture Exercises




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