By Personal Trainer & Health Consultant |
With my work conducting employee health checks, I am constantly seeing office workers displaying poor posture when they come to see me. Everything from lower leg to neck, spending your working day sat at a desk can play a huge role in determining your posture.
This article addresses the most common postural issues I see, as well as some exercises and stretches to help correct them.
Why is Posture Important?
Over time, the human body has evolved to be as efficient as possible, to help with movement through to the way the internal organs do their jobs. Poor posture changes the alignment of bones, muscles and connective tissue, and therefore your movements are not as efficient as they could be.
Poor posture leads to uneven stress being placed through muscles and simultaneously, some muscles will be weakened, while opposing muscles will feel very tight. Not only will this lead to potential difficulties in completing certain movements, but there are also more serious long-term health issues that may arise.
Posture can affect internal organs within your rib cage, and therefore breathing and digestion can be affected by a poor posture – for example being slouched in a chair makes it much harder to take a deep breath than if you were stood up straight.
Your body is built to adapt to its surroundings, and if you keep your joints in the same position all day, your body will soon adapt to this new position, and will cause a postural change. Injuries may affect posture, particularly if placed in a cast for a few weeks, however spending extended periods of time in any position, may cause postural changes. For this reason, office workers are particularly susceptible to poor posture. The good news however, is that a mixture of stretches and strengthening exercises can often help to correct a poor posture.
#1 Rounded Shoulders
Being sat at a desk with your arms forward (typing/writing), and too many ‘pushing’ exercises and not enough ‘pulling’ exercises.
These both lead to tight chest muscles, and weak upper back muscles, which causes your shoulders to hunch forward (internally rotate).
>> The Pencil Test
✓ Holding a pencil in each hand, stand up straight and let your arms hang naturally by your sides. In a good posture, the pencils should be pointing directly forward, however with rounded shoulders, the pencils will be turned towards each other.
Aim to strengthen the upper back, so exercises that engage your rhomboids, mid to lower-trapezius and rotator cuff muscle group. Exercises could include seated row, reverse flyes, and external shoulder rotations on a cable machine.
Rounded shoulders are linked with tight chest muscles so this should be the focus of your stretches and some examples are included below.
1) Link your hands together behind your back, and slowly raise your arms up until you feel a light stretch across your chest.
2) To stretch right and left pec major muscles separately, stand near a wall, and extend your arm with the palm against the wall behind you as shown below. As you gently turn your body away from your hand, you should feel a stretch in your pectoralis major.
3) To target the pec minor, find a corner of a room or doorway, and make right angles with your elbows. Elbows should be around shoulder height, and then gently tilt your upper body downwards until you feel a stretch across your pec minor, which is near your armpit.
#2 Forward Head
✓ Forward head is often accompanied by round shoulders too, and it comes from spending a lot of time leaning your head forward, such as leaning towards a screen. It is rapidly being known as ‘text neck’ as more and more people are developing this from looking down at phones hundreds of times throughout the day.
✓ Holding your phone higher can help, as can raising your computer screen to eye-level.
Ideally, from a side-on view, the middle of the shoulder should be in line with the middle of the ear. This can be examined through a photo as shown below, with the image on the left being normal posture, and on the right showing signs of forward head.
✓ Similar exercises to round shoulders, to try and strengthen the rhomboids and trapezius including pulling movements such as rows.
✓ Ensure you keep your head up and a flat back throughout the movements to strengthen key postural muscles.
Again, loosening off the chest using the previous stretches, and alternatively a foam roller as shown below, by positioning the foam roller up the length of the spine and gently letting your arms rest outwards.
1) To target your scalene, place one arm behind your back, and then gently tilt your head in the opposite direction, and slowly roll back until a stretch is felt.
2) The stretch for your sternocleidomastoid is similar, to stretch the left hand side, tilt your head to bring your right ear closer to your shoulder, and then gently rotate your head to the left so you end up looking upwards. These two stretches should be done while seated to avoid you tilting your whole body while stretching.
3) All of these stretches should be held for 20-30 seconds, and repeated for each side. These can be done at your desk throughout the day.
#3 Anterior Pelvic Tilt
Spending a lot of time sat down can over time can cause your hip flexors at the front of your hip to shorten, and your hip extensors (at the back) to weaken. The result of this is that your hips naturally rotate forward slightly when standing, accentuating the curve in your lower back, and making your backside and stomach stick out. Anterior pelvic tilt is also commonly seen in cyclists as a lot of their training is done with their hip in a flexed position.
Stand with your back to a wall, and look at the space between the wall and your lower back. It is normal for a slight gap (enough to fit your hand through) as your lower back natural curves, as shown in the left photo, however anterior pelvic tilt can lead to an excessive lumbar curve in the spine, and the space between spine and the wall will be greater as shown in the photo on the right.
Typically the weak muscles in anterior pelvic tilt will be the hamstrings and glutes.
✓ To strengthen these muscles, exercises should include hamstring curls, deadlifts, kickbacks and hip thrusters.
To stretch of the hip flexors, take a lunge position with the back knee resting on the floor, and ankle, knee and hip joints all at right angles. From this position, gently try to rotate your hips upwards, and a stretch should be felt in your quad in your back leg.
✓ An alternate quad stretch is to lie on your side, and use your hand to pull one foot back, keeping your knees in line. From this position, gently push your hips forward, until a quad stretch is felt in your bent leg. Both of these stretches should be held for 20-30 seconds and repeated on both sides. Finally, stretching the hip adductors may also help, so sit on the floor and place the soles of your feet together. Using your hands, pull your feet closer to your body, and use your elbows to slowly push your knees outwards. The stretch should be felt in your groin area, and held for 20 seconds.
#4 Tight Calves
Wearing high heels regularly can cause your calf muscles to get shorter, as they will adapt to always being in a shortened position. Wearing heels has the same effect as walking on your toes all day, and consequently I’ve seen workers who find it more comfortable to walk in heels than in flats.
Sit on a chair, and lift your legs out straight in front of you, and pull your toes back towards as far as they can go. Ideally your toes should point 10-20 degrees beyond a right angle (left photo), however with tight calves, a person may struggle to even reach a right angle.
The muscle opposing the calf muscles in the tibialis anterior, so a strengthening exercise may include lying down, attaching a resistance band to the foot, and pull your toes up towards you, however if you’re pushed for time, I’ve found calf stretches to be more effective.
Roll the length of your calf up and down a foam roller. If there are any particularly tender places, then keep the foam roller in that position for a few seconds until the pain subsides. To target different angles, you can rotate your leg as your use the roller. Your calf muscles include the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles, and each has a slightly different technique to stretch them. For the gastrocnemius, press against a wall and keep your back knee straight, and push your back heel into the floor. To get a stronger stretch, move your back leg further away from the wall. For the soleus, keep the similar position, however bend your back knee and then push your heel into the floor. The stretch should be felt in the back leg, but slightly lower than the gastrocnemius stretch. Hold stretches for 20-30 seconds and repeat for both sides.
If you are worried about any of these postural issues discussed in this article, it is often possible to identify to see them either in the mirror or by getting someone to take a photo of you from an angle that you can’t see. It is important that you adopt your natural posture during diagnosis, and don’t just put on the perfect posture for 20 seconds and then go back to normal.
Have a go at the stretches and exercises as prescribed, and if you are still concerned, a personal trainer or physiotherapist will be able to give you a thorough postural examination to investigate. To help stop bad posture from developing, don’t spend too long sat in one position, and get up and walk up and down the hall throughout the day.
Every hour just remind yourself what good posture is, and make sure you’re in a good position rather than slouching, or hanging your head too far forward.
Take Home Messages
✓ Poor posture makes movement less efficient, can increase your risk of injury and can have serious long-term health consequences.
✓ Poor posture often arises from keeping joints in the same position for extended periods of time, so sedentary jobs in particular can lead to more postural problems.
✓ Poor posture can often be corrected by stretching tight muscles, and strengthening weak opposing muscles.
✓ Ensuring proper form during exercise can help to strengthen postural muscles and frequent stretching can help reduce the negative effects of tight muscles.
✓ Use mirrors or photos to examine your posture, and if you are concerned go and see a physiotherapist or personal trainer.