10 Minutes to Perfect Posture
How’s your posture these days?
Chances are, the past year or two has taken its toll. As a result, you might currently experience neck and shoulder tension, tight hips, lower back pain, and more.
Most likely cause?
The pandemic. Trauma, grief, and anxiety often manifest in the body. In times like these, a lot of us intuitively go into a “comfort pose”. That’s why, you’ll find yourself slouching more than usual or curling up on the couch rather than sitting at your desk.
Forgive yourself for doing what you needed to do to get through a historically traumatic year.
Another likely culprit? Technology
Ah, smart devices. They’ve made our daily lives much more efficient. They’ve also wreaked havoc on our posture.
For all the major advancements brought on by technology, our bodies have succumbed to things like “text neck” and rounded shoulders.
Many of us have adopted the super harmful posture known as Posterior Pelvic Tilt. This happens when the pelvis tilts far forward, flattening out the lower back. The result? Tight hamstrings, lower back pain, neck strain, weak glutes and hamstrings…it could even cause sciatica!
In addition, this past year many of us had to quickly figure out a Work From Home (WFH) setup. We also stayed at home more in order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
As a result, we sat more and moved around less. It’s very likely that we used WFH arrangements that weren’t the best for our physical health. I worked on my computer on the couch…in my bed…on the floor. All of which exacerbates poor posture.
There’s a solution…
Proprioception — a ten dollar word for mind/body awareness
This is a key skill for good form, injury prevention, joint pain alleviation, and yes — perfect posture.
My daily Pilates practice — not to mention my Pilates certification — enhanced my proprioception. Perfect posture and form became effortless and natural.
The key? I learned visual and physical cues. Or: what I needed to feel or look like in order to ensure that my posture and form were flawless.
I’m also aware that what might work for me might not work for you. So — I’ll provide several body awareness cues for each exercise. Pick which one makes the most sense for you!
10 Minutes to Start Your Day with Excellent Posture
As a Pilates instructor, I like to incorporate functional exercises into my sessions. Think of these as exercises that prepare you for daily activity. The following exercises will encourage excellent posture and the benefits will continue throughout the day.
*Disclaimer: Be sure to consult a physician before beginning any new physical activity.
1. Neck Lengthening
Set up: Start seated or standing. Look at something 1 inch above the eyeline. Interlace your fingers, creating a basket with your hands. Cradle the back of your head with this basket. Pointer fingers at the base of skull and pinkie fingers about halfway up. Unhook your thumbs and line them up on either side of your neck.
Exercise: With equal pressure, press the back of your head into your hands and your hands into your head. Open your elbows out to the sides, creating a wide “V” shape. Make sure that you can still see your elbows in your peripheral vision. With your pointer fingers, gently pull the base of your skull up to encourage length in the neck. Fun option: gently massage the sides of the neck with thumbs to encourage relaxation and length.
- Maintain an apple to navel orange size space between your chin and chest.
- Classic posture tip: imagine a string pulling the crown of your head up to the ceiling.
- Remember that eyeline? Gaze should be straightforward on it. If your eyes are looking upwards, lift your chin a bit. If your eyes are cast downwards, lower your chin a bit.
- Create as much space between the bottom of your ears and your shoulders as possible.
Check In: Release your hands. Head should feel lighter, as if floating on top of neck.
2. Chest and Shoulder Openers
Set up: Seated or standing. Shoulders should be over hips, with a slight curve in the lower back. Position your arms alongside your torso with the palms facing back. If standing, unlock your knees.
Exercise A - Chest Opener: Reach the arms behind your torso, careful not to round the shoulders forward in the process. For beginners, aim to press a couple inches back. Return the arms to just alongside your torso. Repeat 10x.
Exercise B - Shoulder Opener: Make a goal post position with your arms. Arms are in a right angle, with elbows in line with your shoulders and hands directly over elbows. Close your elbows in front of your face, rotating your palms to face towards you. Open to starting position. Repeat 10x.
Form Checks - Chest Opener:
- Reach long through the fingertips. Imagine pulling the shoulders away from your ears.
- Create as much width from shoulder to shoulder as possible.
- Gently pull your belly button to your spine as you press the arms back. Or: contract your abs.
- Rotate the shoulder blades (scapulae) towards each other as you press back. Return to neutral in the starting position.
- Flex the tiny muscles in between your shoulder blades — AKA your rhomboids.
- Flex and pull the upper back muscles down — AKA your lats. Should feel as if your shoulder blades are sliding down your back.
- A good way to feel those teeny tiny postural muscles in your upper back? Stand in a hallway and press hands into either wall. As you press into the wall, feel your shoulder blades rotating in and down. Pro tip! You can do this throughout the day as a posture reinforcement.
Form Checks - Shoulder Opener:
- Maintain the width from shoulder to shoulder, ESPECIALLY as you rotate your elbows in.
- Squeeze your chest muscles (pecs) as the elbows rotate in and squeeze your upper back muscles (rhomboids) as the elbows return to the starting position.
- Elbows should be at same height throughout. If this ever bothers your shoulders, just lower your elbows down a bit.
Check In: Chest should feel wide and open; length through upper back. You may even feel a slight engagement in the upper back as if the shoulder blades are rotating in and down slightly.
3. Spinal Movement
Set up: Seated or standing. Feet hip distance apart and parallel. Hip distance means the insides of the feet should have about a fist’s distance between them.
Exercise A - Side Bend: If standing, cross your legs by stepping your right foot behind your left. Place your left hand on your hip and reach your right hand upwards. Think of reaching up and over to the left, creating a side bend in the body. With your left hand, check to make sure your hips haven’t shifted — they’re gonna want to push to the right. Keep them centered. Return to standing. Uncross the legs. Switch sides. If seated, simply reach one arm upwards and stretch up and over. Again, check to make sure your hips are centered.
Exercise B - Twist: Seated or standing: Interlace your fingers and round your elbows as if you’re holding a beach ball. Keeping your fingers in line with your sternum, twist to the right. Keep your pelvis stable, both hips should face forward. Slowly return to center. Repeat on other side.
- Think about the ribcage and pelvis moving independently from each other. Pelvis should stay centered while the ribcage does the twisting or bending motion.
- Side bend: Think about lifting up and over something. Create a small “C” shape on the side that’s bent and a long extended arc for the side that’s stretching. Engage the side abdominal (oblique) as you bend. For the extended side, think about increasing space between the ribcage and hip. OR: Shoulders tip to one side, hips stay centered.
- For twist: Think about lifting your ribcage up as you twist to encourage length through the spine. Engage the side abdominal as you twist. OR: Shoulders turn to one side, hips stay centered.
Check In: Imagine there is a tiny bit of space in between your vertebrae. Count the 24 vertebrae from your lower back all the way up to your skull. There will be a slight, natural curve in the cervical spine (neck) and lumbar spine (lower back). The thoracic spine (mid-upper back) should feel pretty upright in comparison.
4. Strengthen & Stretch Glutes/Hamstrings — “Good Mornings”
Set Up: Stand with feet in parallel, slightly wider than hip’s distance. Hands behind head with elbows out to side. Modification: hands across chest, mummy-style. Slight bend in the knees.
Exercise: Keeping a slight bend in your knees, hinge at the hips and bow forward. Maintain a straight spine. Make sure your head doesn’t go lower than your hips. Send weight into your heels. Hips should be slightly back. Feel the stretch along the backsides of your legs (hamstrings). Then, squeeze the backsides of your legs and your bum (glutes) to come back up to standing. Repeat 10x.
- Think of the tailbone and crown of your head reaching in opposite directions.
- Look about 1 inch in front of you so that the neck stays long and shoulders don’t round forward.
- Pull your abs in as you bow forward. I also like to think of this as pulling my belly button up towards my spine, resisting gravity.
- You should be able to wiggle your toes as you do this — that means your weight is properly distributed to your heels.
- Hips should never come in front of shoulders. That means when you come up to a standing position, make sure your hips don’t press forward.
Check In: Feel the overall length through the backside of your body — especially in your hamstrings and lower back. Glutes are slightly activated.
5. Ankle Lengthening — “Calf Stretch”
Set up: Stand, facing towards a wall or countertop. Place both hands on the surface, about shoulder’s distance apart. Step your left foot back into a shallow lunge stance. Point both toes forward.
Exercise: Press into wall or countertop. Most of your weight is in the front heel. Back foot: slight weight in the ball of your foot, with heel slightly lifted. If you can easily pull the back heel down to the ground, step back a bit more. You should feel like you are actively pulling the heel towards the ground. Lift the back heel up and then pull it down towards the ground. Repeat 8x. Switch sides.
- Feel a stretch from the base of the ankle all the way up the calf.
- As you lift the back heel up and down, your head should lift up to the ceiling and down rather than moving forward and back.
- Your calf muscle has two “heads”. Essentially, they create a long heart shape. As you pull your heel down, try to feel that heart shape getting longer. I also like to imagine the stretch not only going lengthwise, but along the sides as well.
- Make sure to have even weight through all of your toes. This helps with alignment and balance of the foot.
- I also like to imagine my foot as a triangle, with points at the center of my heel, my big toe, and my pinkie toe. As I pull the heel down, I try to center it in between the other 2 points. In other words…create an isosceles triangle rather than a scalene triangle.
- Square your hips off with the wall or counter to make sure your body is in alignment.
- Squeeze the side glute of the front leg. Strong glutes = relief of hip pain.
Check In: After you complete the first side, step the feet together before you switch. Ankle and calf should feel slightly longer or more relaxed on the side that was stepped back than the other leg. After you complete the second side, check in to feel if both sides are balanced. If not, repeat.
Posture Check In
You did it! You may even feel more awake afterwards. Time to start your day!
Not so fast — let’s do a final posture check.
After completing those exercises, your body might naturally find proper posture. But let’s double check. Here’s a few ways to check:
1. The Plumb Line. Essentially this means your body makes a straight line from head to toe. In other words…head on top of shoulders, shoulders on top of hips, hips on top of knees, knees on top of ankles. You can also check this in a mirror to be extra sure.
2. Three Check Points. Wide chest from shoulder to shoulder, soft curve in lower back, soft bend in knees. I find that when these 3 things are achieved, great posture usually falls into place.
3. Shoelace Check. When you’re standing, look down at your feet. If you can’t see the “shoelace” area, sit your hips back a bit. Just make sure that your lower back isn’t overarched.
4. Build from the top down OR from the bottom up. Think of lengthening the entire body from head to toe or vice versa. Just be careful not to hyperextend the knees!
5. Roll Down/Roll Up. From a standing position, tuck your chin to your chest and slowly roll down into a forward fold while keeping a slight bend in the knees. From there, roll up slowly (or as many people say: one vertebra at a time) letting your head be the last thing to come up. Roll your shoulders back at the top. Check that you have a slight bend in your knees and that your hips are right underneath your shoulders. But most of the time, people magically have excellent posture after this!
Excellent Posture All Day!
These exercises don’t need to be restricted to the morning. In fact, I highly encourage you to do these exercises 2–3 times throughout the day. As the day goes on, stress or fatigue can seep in. And posture is usually the first thing to go. So do a little midday or evening check in!
Over time, your body will start to “memorize” what good posture feels like. The more frequently you do these postural enhancements…the sooner perfect posture will become natural.
The writer is a certified Pilates instructor.