Preventing Poor Postural Habits During Exercise
If an elephant can balance itself with grace, there is no reason people should respond to the pressure of gravity with any less poise.
Our upright posture is an amazing feat of balance. The head is delicately tipped so that it pulls the spine into length. The spine is a beautifully built compression system capable of absorbing the shocks of everyday life.
Yet, most of us completely disregard the complexity of our physiology, neglecting signs of fatigue and discomfort, ending up with all sorts of complaints that could easily become serious issues.
Our bodies are designed for movement.
Our delicate kinesthetic sensibilities allow us to navigate rough terrain, to shift our attention and direction of movement quickly and efficiently, and to move with strength and precision. Yet most of us spend hours a day in a static position that our bodies are not capable of maintaining. We end up holding our necks rigid, compressing our spines and tightening our legs to keep ourselves in our chairs. Then, we try as hard as we can to ignore the blaring messages of discomfort so that we can get our work done.
Needless to say, this is a recipe for disaster. We start holding contorted positions for so long that they start feeling normal. We think we are sitting upright when our head is jutting forward and our shoulders are rounding down.
In standing, we lock our knees and sink down on our hips to counterbalance the increased distance between our head and back. Then we take this misinformed ”uprightness” into everything we do.
When we run, our lower back hurts from the strain of the legs dragging it forward, our necks ache, and our breathing becomes shallow from the decreased chest capacity. We lift a weight overhead and feel it in our neck instead of in our shoulder muscles.
The answer is to start hearing the warning signals, and respond by making the choices that best support your body.
Exercise alone will only exacerbate your existing poor postural habits-the more you repeat the forward jutting head and locked knees, the more it becomes ingrained in your body. But, if you pay attention, exercise is a great way to make significant changes in how you use your body.
The Alexander Technique can offer some insight into how to make these changes. Although you can make the most progress with the assistance of a teacher, there are some basic ideas that anyone can take into movement:
- Go into every movement maintaining your neck free, your head aiming forward and up, and your back lengthening and widening.
- When you are about to start the movement, stop.
- Notice the habits you fall back on as you go into movement.
- Repeat and go into movement again, this time without your habits.
Cardiovascular Exercise Tips
Before you jump full force into any activity, take a moment to warm up your mind as well as your body.
You may want to do this by lying on your back with your knees bent toward the ceiling, or performing a few of the hands and knees exercises noted in the weight-training section, or just standing for a minute and allowing yourself to fully transition from your previous activity.
Take a few minutes to bring your whole body into focus-from the top of your head to the bottoms of your feet, remembering your hands and your torso.
Allow your neck to release. Think about the length of your spine, which starts deep in your skull between your ears and extends all the way down to your tailbone, wedged in between your two hipbones. Imagine your back lengthening out in both directions, and widening out to your elbows.
Allow your hip and shoulder joints to be supported, yet easily movable. When you have brought your body fully into your mind, slowly start into your cardiovascular exercise, aiming to maintain the awareness you have of your whole body, and the length and width of your back.
At first, it may not feel like you are making any changes, but as you practice these thoughts, they will have an ever stronger effect on your body, and on your ability to maintain this improvement into your activities.
Weight-Training Exercise Tips
- In exercises where you are seated or lying on your back, notice if you are pulling your lower or mid-back away from the bench, or pushing it down in order to lift the weight. Put a towel under your lower back and one or two under you head so that your back is fully supported, then lift the weight without pulling away or pushing into the bench.
- In exercises you normally do standing, try the above advice while in a seated position, or leaning back against a wall. Once you can keep your back still while supported, try to do the same exercise standing away from a wall. This should feel far more challenging on the targeted muscle. If it does not, you are probably not stabilizing your back, and should go back to the seat or wall to practice.
- Get comfortable being on your hands and knees. If you look sideways into a mirror, you should have a flat back. Notice if your head is dropping or pulled up – it should be level with your back, your eyes looking down. Think of pointing the crown of your head toward the far wall to lengthen your neck and back. Notice if your upper back is rounded up or down-try to let it drop by relaxing your arms and chest and unlocking your elbows, or gently supporting under your collarbones to bring it up to neutral. Notice if your lower back is rounded up or dropped down-level it out by thinking of your back being very long from your head to your tail.
- If you use a modified hands and knees position for exercises, like push-ups, a bent over row, or physio-ball exercises, check the position before performing each set using the advice above. If you cannot maintain a neutral back during the exercise, you may need to drop the weight somehow. Push-ups can be done on an angle using a supported bar or weight bench, and ball exercises should be done only if your back is supported the whole time.
- Do not suck in your abs-ever! Your body should naturally use the abs more or less depending on how much support is needed in the position you are in. If you find your lower back drops when on your hands and knees, doing push-ups or squats, start in a neutral standing or kneeling position and move slowly to the starting position of the exercise without letting your back drop. You will feel your abs work, but they should be using only the force necessary to maintain the exercise. Make sure you do not drop your lower back or pull your abs in and round your hips under while performing the exercise. A neutral pelvis is always ideal, but it takes focus. If you perform exercises with truly proper form, you will find that your abs, especially your transverse abdominis and lower rectus abdominis, which are the hardest to target, are getting stronger than they ever have.
- In cardiovascular training or leg exercises like squats and lunges, think of falling upward into motion. Do not lead the motion with your legs, but start by thinking of your back coming up and over yourself, bringing your whole body with it.
- Your spine starts in your skull between your ears and goes all the way down to your tailbone, which is wedged between your hipbones. Everything in between and including your head and your hips should be considered your back (this is much longer than most of us envision). Unless you are intentionally curving your back (e.g. crunches), you should never allow movement in your back. Do not make your body rigid! You start with a neutral back, and as you go into movement, you notice if you pull your head back and down or move your lower back. When you become familiar with what you do, perform the exercise by going slowly enough to do it without your old habit. Soon, you will be able to repeat it up to speed in the new way.
- Do not get in the habit of constantly adjusting your position. Once you have brought your back into your attention, allow it to be still as you go into movement.
- You may not easily notice your habits at first. Try lowering the weight, or going slower, at first. You may want to ask someone to watch you and point out movements you make. You have to be patient with yourself while you are learning how to pay attention, but if you stick with it, you will find your exercises less straining and far more effective.