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How To Improve Your Posture, Part I


Posture. I don’t talk about it much here because it seems a little, well, boring. On the other hand, when it comes to fitness, it’s of major, major importance: where your ‘neutral’ is determines everything about the way you move, how the various parts of your body are stressed all day, every day, indeed, it determines a lot about how you’re going to age: whether you’re going to look vigorous and fit in old age or more like Liam Neeson in Ethan Frome after the sledding accident (obscure movie reference alert!).

Most health-conscious people know this already, however, and many will take steps to improve their posture in the gym–some by doing core exercises, some by working the scapular retractors, some by doing lots of low-back movements. As far as I can see, however, trying to ‘fix’ your posture through traditional exercises is almost always ineffective.

Here’s the trouble with postural exercises as I see them: optimum posture is not really a matter of muscular strength, or even muscular endurance. In many, perhaps most cases, flexibility or joint mobility isn’t really the major key either. So working to improve posture by addressing only muscular strength, flexibility, and/or joint mobility, though it would seem to solve the problem, only addresses the symptoms of the root cause of bad posture.

The root cause of poor posture lies in the nervous system. It’s the nervous system which controls the muscles, of course, which in turn move the joints of the body into the various shapes you assume throughout your day. The muscles, as important as they are, are really foot soldiers. They’re grunts, and they ain’t that smart. They just do what you tell them to do: lengthen or shorten. Contract or relax. Work hard, work soft, anything in between.

By posture, we’re not just talking about the shape your body takes when you’re standing or sitting upright; really we’re talking about all your physical habits, which includes how you look and feel when you pick up a child, a bag of groceries, how you get up out of a car seat, as well as how you lift a dumbbell or perform any athletic movement. As mentioned above, posture is where your ‘neutral’ is and how that plays into every movement you do.

We are, for better or worse, creatures of habit. Again, the muscles just do what we tell them, and typically, if we find something that works–even if it’s sub-optimal–we tend to stick with it. This is true on a physical level and on a psychological level as well: think of your favorite restaurants in the city or town where you live. Did you systematically try every restaurant in town before you settled on the ones you like the best, or have you tried just a few and keep returning back to those because they ‘work’? When you see and interact with your parents, do you immediately revert to the twelve-year-old version of yourself because that ‘works’ and you don’t know a different way of relating with them?

Habits die hard. We find behaviors that are ‘good enough’ and tend to stick with them, sometimes even at the cost of our own health (fill in your unhealthy habit of choice here).

Throw in the fact that our personal history tends to narrow our options significantly, and it’s kind of a wonder that anyone changes any behavior, ever. Postural habits, shaped by personal experience, a lifetime of repetitive movement patterns, and whatever injuries and traumas you’ve happened upon in your life, aren’t going to give up just because you did a few shoulder-retraction exercises and plank exercises. Much as I like that stuff and agree that it’s helpful, it’s a pretty blunt instrument when it comes to fixing an ingrained issue like a postural inefficiency.

I see programs all the time that include ‘corrective’ exercises designed to improve posture and physical habits. You do them ten minutes a day, three days a week, for four weeks. Then, presumably, your problems are fixed and you move on to hardcore training.


Sorry for the cliffhanger, but I’ve got to pick this up next time. More on this soon.

Comments about your own experiences with corrective exercises–in agreement with the above or absolutely, adamantly opposed to it–are encouraged and welcome.

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