There are 5 fundamental posture exercises that I like discussing in detail with patients. However, having a busy practice I know it's hard for you to remember all the cues and tidbits of information I may discuss, so here is the low down on how to say upright and repair faulty posture!
The five exercises we will cover include:
*If you are not a patient of mine then please use your best judgement and choose the exercises that are best for your body at this time. If an exercise causes pain or discomfort (specifically burning, tearing or shooting), discontinue that exercise and refer to the modifications and progressions listed below.
Let’s get started.
Purpose: During the day, sitting causes our shoulders to roll forward and back muscles to get tight. The Static Back exercise places the shoulders in the same plane as the hips and allows the muscles of the low back to release gradually and passively using body weight and gravity. This exercise also engages the hip flexors and encourages thoracic extension. In other words, your upper back will begin to open up against the flat surface of the floor (reversing slouched posture). Finally, if you allow your head to rest in line with the shoulders and hips, the muscles of the neck and jaw will also begin to release. So avoid chewing gum and texting during the Static Back exercise.
- Lie on your back with your legs up over a block or chair. Keep your knees and hips at 90 degrees.
- Place your arms at your sides at either 45 degrees to your body.
- Take deep full breaths and just relax.
- Stay here until you feel your low back and hips settle evenly into the floor. This may take 5 minutes or even longer.
Note: If you have been in the Static Back position for ten minutes and your low back and hips are still not even on the floor, try the other exercises included in this article first before returning to Static Back. Sometimes different areas of the body need to be activated or released before the body is ready to ‘let go’ and settle into a neutral position.
Modification: If you notice that your head does not easily or comfortably come down to the floor, or if your chin is tilted up and back, then place a folded towel under your neck and head for support. Elevating your head will place your head and neck in a neutral position and allow the neck and thoracic spine to release. The goal is to gradually be able to lower your head all the way to the floor.
Additional Notes: Keep your arms somewhere between 45 degrees and shoulder height so the shoulder joints into a neutral position. Your scapula should lie flat on the floor, and the shoulders should not be rotated up off the floor. Find the arm position that allows for the most neutral shoulder position. If your shoulders remain rotated off the floor, then stay here in Static Back for 10 minutes and observe as gravity and your own body weight bring your shoulders closer to the floor.
Do not retract your shoulders and actively try to force these changes to happen. The Static Back exercise is intended to be a passive release that leads to changes in muscle tension and alignment.
If you have an excessively rounded thoracic back (humped posture) and protracted or internally rotated shoulders, you may want to begin Static Back with your palms down as a way to get into position, and gradually work towards having your palms facing up.
If your knees and feet fall apart while you are in Static Back, you will not get the full benefit of the exercise. To troubleshoot this problem, check your body positioning. This problem is likely to happen if your legs are too low. Try adding a pillow or a folded blanket to the surface that your legs are resting on. Once you relax, your knees and feet can fall apart slightly, but they should remain pretty close to hip-width distance apart.
Purpose: The Static Wall promotes thoracic extension. This exercise is more aggressive than the static wall because it lengthens the entire posterior chain or muscles on the lower backside of your body.
During sitting positions, the front side posture muscles of the lower leg (shins and thighs) stop working; this exercise will correct for that. For this reason, it is critical that you keep your thighs tight by contracting your quads and that you keep your feet pulled back, which will contract the muscles of the shin.
- Start by getting on the floor with your hips as close as possible to a wall.
- Place your back on the floor and bring your legs up the wall with your butt as close to the wall as possible.
- Lie on your back with your legs pointed straight up and against the wall, upper body relaxed with arms out to sides at about 45 degrees. Your feet should be hip-width apart, which is about one and a half fist widths apart. If your hips lift off the floor, then scoot your butt back until you are able to place your hips flat on the floor. As you become more functional, your hips will sit closer to the wall and be flat on the floor at the same time.
- Hold for 2-4 minutes.
In this position, tighten your thighs and pull all of your toes down and back evenly towards your face. Your feet must be pointed straight (parallel) for your hips to properly do the needed work to stabilize your spine. Be sure to keep your toes pulled back and thighs tight.
Modifications: If your tailbone does not rest flat on the floor, scoot back until your tailbone is flat. If you are so tight that you simply cannot pull your toes back and keep your tailbone flat even after scooting back 6-12 inches, then you will need to do some more spine and pelvic extension work before you return to this exercise.
Additional Info: The most commonly made mistake in Static Wall is improper foot and ankle positioning. In order to get the full benefit of Static Wall, your feet must be pulled back evenly and must be pointing straight out from the wall. Improper foot and ankle positioning in Static Wall (shown on the left) is characterized by feet that turn out and pinky toes that are higher than the big toes.
To find the correct foot/ankle position for Static Wall, first get into position on the floor with your legs up the wall. Spread your heels one and a half fist widths apart (any wider than this will be wider than hip-width and thus too wide). Pull your feet back, and pull down from the pinky side of your foot. Keep that outer edge of your foot pulled back. Then internally rotate your legs until your feet point straight back from the wall.
Simply getting into the proper foot/ankle position for Static Wall can be a huge effort for many, but taking the time to nail this position will make or break this exercise. It is better to perform Static Wall with the correct positioning for a shorter period of time than to do it incorrectly for a longer period of time.
Purpose: This is a great exercise for the muscles of the upper back and shoulders. These are the muscles that literally hold you upright! This exercise also engages the anterior (front side) posture muscles of the legs (shins and thighs) which typically stop functioning properly when you spend a lot of time sitting. So make sure that you keep your thighs tight (contract your quads) and feet pulled back (which will contract shin muscles)!
If you're feeling like challenging yourself, see if you can get your heels to pop off the floor by fully extending the knees and tightening the quads.
- Sit against a wall with your legs straight out in front of you. Your buttocks and upper back should be against the wall the entire time.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together and down and hold. Tighten the thighs and flex the feet back so that your toes are pointing back toward you. The key points here are to keep your shoulder blades pulled together, your thighs tight, and your feet flexed back.
- Hold for 1 – 3 minutes.
Modification: If you cannot sit with your hips all the way back to the wall, then start with Static Back and Static Wall only as this exercise is a progression from the two.
Additional Info: So many of you have internally rotated shoulders and rounded backs that it prevents your scapula from coming together. If you find that you have to lift your sternum or chest or arch your back excessively- you are cheating!
If this is the case, then drop your sternum and rib cage to place your low back flat against the wall. Then pull your shoulder blades down and together. You can have a small arch in your low back, but not while simultaneously lifting the rib cage. Once in this position, tuck your chin and breathe deeply for the duration of the exercise.
Warning: This particular exercise requires a lot of effort. There are many systems working together here so have patients and focus on constantly scanning your body to make sure you're hitting all the points: feet pulled back, thighs tight, rib cage neutral, shoulders back and down, chin tucked, breathe!
Purpose: This exercise helps to reduce rotation of the pelvis. How many of you have a rotated hip? Everyone. Make sure that your feet, knees and hips are all even for this move. Check to see if one knee juts out in front of the other. If that's the case, then your pelvis is rotated while you are in Air Bench, which will hinder the benefits of the exercise. Push your pelvis back into the wall equally on both sides until your knees are in the same plane, then begin your timer.
The Air Bench will also ‘reset’ your pelvis and low back. So it's important your low back is flat against the wall for the duration of the exercise. This will allow your low back muscles to relax.
Do not worry about keeping your shoulders and head back at first. In fact, feel free to slouch in order to get your low back and hips even against the wall. Once you can maintain this position for 1 minute with your low back flat, then start working on bringing your shoulders and head back to meet the wall while maintaining a flat spine.
The goal here is to not hold the air bench for a long time, but to perform the exercise properly in order to have a positive impact on posture and muscle function.
Stand with your back against a wall with feet and knees hip-width apart and feet pointed straight. You should have one and a half fist widths between your ankles and knees.
Walk your feet away from the wall while sliding your body down at the same time. You will be “seated” in an invisible chair, with your knees bent to 105 degrees. Your hips should be just slightly higher than your knees; your ankles should be slightly ahead of your knees. Your low back should be completely flat against the wall. Your arms can hang down to your sides, or rest gently on your lap.
Hold for 30 seconds to start, then work up to 2 minutes.
Keep the weight in your heels, and do not press forward on your toes. In order to avoid slipping, be sure to do this exercise wearing shoes or standing on a non-slip surface, such as a yoga mat.
If this exercise hurts your knees, try bringing your hips up higher and make sure that your ankles are out in front of your knees. Also make sure that your ankles, knees, and hips are aligned. Once you get into position, you should begin to feel the work happening evenly in both quads. If the knee pain persists, then try Static Back, Static Wall, and Sitting Floor first. Return to Air Bench when you feel you are ready.
The most common mistake I see with Air Bench is improperly aligned ankles, knees, and hips. Keep everything in line and you'll be fine :)
Purpose: The Standing Wall Exercise is my go to “Posture Training” exercise. This one move can improve proper vertical alignment of the 8 major load bearing joints: the shoulders, hips, knees and ankles. Additionally, posture muscles from the feet all the way up to the neck are getting a workout. In fact, most of my new patients will say that they can feel pain in their back when doing this one move. That's how DE-conditioned our posture muscles have become.
- When possible, do this exercise barefoot.
- Stand against a wall with your feet pointed straight ahead and hip-width apart. This means you should have a fist and a half width between your heels, and your feet should be slightly turned in.
- Stand with your heels, hips, and shoulders touching the wall. Your head should be in a comfortable position so that your eyes are looking straight ahead to the horizon. In many instances, when people try to put their head against the wall they end up looking up at the ceiling because their neck is under stress.
- In this exercise your head will go back to the wall eventually as the upper back changes position. Relax your stomach and your arms and allow your body to adjust to this new position. Remember to keep your feet pointed straight ahead and your stomach relaxed throughout the exercise.
- Hold for 2-3 minutes.
Modification: If you are not able to stand with your heels touching the wall, try starting with your heels 2-3 inches away from the wall and gradually progress yourself to heel-to-wall.
Additional Info: For an added challenge, bring the backs of your hands to the wall with your fingers spread wide and your arms at 45 degrees to your body for the duration of this exercise. This will work the muscles of your upper back and shoulders.
Now Do It Every Day
I recommend working these exercises into your daily routine. The forces of gravity are constant, and we just don’t move enough in our day-to-day lives to maintain the full functionality of our bodies. If done correctly, these exercises will help to restore proper joint alignment and posture!