As we learned in Part I of this series, a postural distortion is the result of muscle imbalances caused by repetitive motion or prolonged misalignment. So, the remedy for bad posture lies in correcting the imbalance.
Depending on your particular postural woes, pick and choose from the exercises below. The key is consistency – your muscles developed their patterns over many years. In order to correct imbalance, you need to constantly remind your muscles where they belong, and what they’re supposed to do.
This means constantly, consciously relaxing tight shoulders, engaging the upper back to lift your chest, and always – always – engaging the deep core muscles. It also means performing the following exercises as frequently as possible – start with three days a week, then four, then six, then every day. Bonus points for two or three times a day.
1. Diaphragm breathing (aka ‘finding your core’)
You can’t strengthen your core until you know where it is. This exercise will help you find it.
Lie on the floor with knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Place one hand on your chest, and the other on your belly, Breathe deeply through the nose, feeling your chest rise and fall with each breath. Relax your shoulders and upper body. See how deep a breath you can take, and as you continue to lengthen your inhales and exhales, try to get a breath all the way down to your belly. You’ll feel the belly rise and fall, just like the chest. Eventually, see if you can take a deep breath in, straight to the belly (the chest won’t move at all). Feel the belly expand with the inhale, and contract with the exhale. Once you’ve got this down, take a huge breath in, and exhale – but this time, at the very end of that exhale, contract your belly to squeeze all remaining air out. (Imagine a bellows.) Hold that contraction for a moment – that’s your deep core.
Once you’ve located that muscle and experienced what it feels like to contract it, try the same exercise in a seated position (in a chair, thighs parallel to the floor). Try it standing. Try it while you’re exercising or walking. The more you practice, the easier it will get to locate that muscle, and the longer you’ll be able to keep it tight.
2. Wall angels
This is a challenging but highly effective exercise. When done properly, it creates ideal alignment for your spine. The wall helps you to feel exactly which muscles you’re strengthening, so it’s also great for increasing body awareness.
Stand with your back against a wall, feet slightly apart (don’t lock your knees), with heels touching the wall. The tops of your shoulder blades and the base of your skull should also touch the wall. Form a “W” with your arms, attempting to have your entire arm in contact with the wall. You may notice that your wrists and forearms come away from the wall – that’s okay.
Engage your core – this is absolutely necessary. (If you can’t find it, go back to Exercise #1.)
This might be enough for you. You should feel most of your back muscles engaged, a stretching or pulling across your chest, and you should definitely feel your core. If it’s too much, or if it’s just not happening, lie on the floor as in Exercise #1, and simulate this position from a supine position.
The idea is to create natural spinal curvature. So, your tailbone, tops of the shoulder blades, and base of the skull all touch the wall or floor. The spaces in between (lumbar spine, cervical spine, and much of the thoracic spine) do not touch.
Note: a common overcompensation is to arch the mid-low back too much, so the rib cage pops away from the wall. Tightening your core will correct this – try to draw the rib cage and lower back towards the wall (they won’t touch, but you can reduce the degree of arch).
You can safely do these on your own, as often as you please. But you may want to enlist a professional to help you. For postural issues and back pain, you have a few options:
Chiropractic: In the chiropractic field, practitioners use manual adjustments to correct spinal alignment – in lay terms, they “crack your bones,” and you either love it or hate it. Good chiropractors actually use several techniques, some of which are very gentle. The philosophy behind chiropractic is that your vertebral alignment is essential – muscle imbalances are the effect of misalignment. With consistent adjustments, tight muscles “learn” to relax, and the spine eventually holds its correct alignment.
Physical Therapy (PT): In PT, the focus is on correcting muscular imbalance – strengthening what’s weak, loosening what’s tight, healing what’s hurt. The theory behind physical therapy is that muscles have memory, and that by repeating the same strengthening or stretching motion over and over again, the muscle “learns” a new pattern of movement, thus eliminating the original cause of imbalance. Since the muscles are attached to the skeleton, muscular alignment translates into spinal alignment.
I’m oversimplifying here, but these two modalities operate under opposite cause-and-effect theories. It doesn’t mean they can’t coexist – excellent chiropractic, paired with consistent physical therapy could produce wonderful, long-lasting results. Of course, at Asheville Family Fitness, we’re a little partial to the PT.
Alternatives: You might benefit from (and enjoy) some other modalities, like massage or acupuncture. Therapeutic massage can do wonders when it comes to releasing chronically tight muscles – but you still have to work on strengthening and stretching in order to reap long-term results. Similar, acupuncture can produce almost miraculous results, especially in terms of pain. Many insurance companies now reimburse a percentage of these alternative therapies.
Do you have experience with any of the above modalities? Share your story in the comments below!