Exercises for Posture

Below is a series of exercises for posture to address common muscle imbalances that occur because of the postures we assume in daily life. As a physical therapist I spend most of my day treating musculoskeletal conditions, so that is how I see poor posture manifested. Years of poor posture results in degenerative disc issues, osteoarthritis, hyper and hypo mobility issues, etc.; however, it can also affect circulation, breathing, mood, among other aspects of health. It is therefore beneficial for overall wellness to address any postural problems.

Why is Posture Important

 Poor posture is something most of us are guilty of. Long periods of sitting, driving, lack of exercise can result in shortening of some muscles and weakening of others. This can lead to any of the following problems:

  • Joint and disc degeneration
  • Spinal dysfunction
  • Back Pain
  • Rounded shoulders and shoulder pain
  • Nerve and/or vascular compression
  • Forward head positioning
  • Protruding abdomen
  • Muscle imbalances

What is Good Posture

As seen from the side, good posture has the head balanced over the torso such that an imaginary line will run from the ear down past the shoulder, hip joint, and knee as in the diagram.
The vertical line of gravity will run as follows:

  1. approximately 5 cm in front of the ankle joint
  2. just in front of the center of the knee joint
  3. through the hip joint or just behind it
  4. just in front of the shoulder joint
  5. just behind the ear through the mastoid process

 The best way to determine if you have good posture is to have a postural evaluation from a physical therapist. They will identify muscular imbalances that could lead to poor posture. Physical therapists have special skills to evaluate and treat postural problems. They will prescribe the appropriate exercises for posture to suit your circumstances.

What Causes Posture Problems?

  • Muscle Tightness

  • If a muscle is kept in a shortened position it will accommodate that position and become shorter. For instance, you need only look at a group of office workers as they rush to work in the morning to see their flexed forward posture. This can occur from prolonged sitting. Hip flexors will shorten such that it can interfere with a normal gait pattern and can cause a hyperlordotic posture. Stretching exercises for posture can address this. (see below)

  • Muscle Weakness
  • Muscles kept in a lengthened position are weakened due to inhibition. Those same office workers that sit all day keep their gluteus maximus in a lengthened position and that is often atrophied. Poor postural awareness again, using the office workers as an example: If your head is kept forward for prolonged periods of time you will eventually feel that the forward head position is normal. Just because you feel like you're sitting up straight doesn't necessarily mean you are. It's helpful to get feedback from someone else.

  • Soft Tissue Shortening or Adhesions
  • Any joint that is not taken through it's full range of motion on a regular basis will eventually start to lose some of that range. An extreme example of this is when you have a joint in a cast for six weeks, ligaments and the joint capsule will shrink leading to stiffness. The same thing happens to other joints that aren't taken through their full range of motion. Exercises for posture listed below will take those joints through their range.

  • Poor Neuromuscular Control
  • After a growth spurt or an injury there can be altered neuromuscular control which can affect joint stability and posture.

  • Inflammation
  • The presence of inflammation can have an inhibitory effect on surrounding musculature, cause muscle spasms, guarding and changes in posture.


    What is Poor Posture?

    I've always said that life is one big fight against gravity. Gravity is always pulling us down so that the "S" shape of our spine becomes more compressed. With time, it's at  the peaks of the curves in the "S" that we usually start having degenerative problems. A common place to develop compression fractures is at the seventh and eighth thoracic vertebrae in people with osteoporosis. Facet osteoarthritis is most common at the levels of L4 and L5 - the bottom curve of the "S". The mid cervical spine at C4 and C5 is where most people start to develop degeneration in their necks and sometimes suffer from instabilities.

    If we can straighten out this curve we will gain height, minimize degenerative forces on our discs and joints and maintain healthy tone in the core or supporting musculature of our spine.

    Gravity is always pulling us down and forward, and our daily jobs don't usually help this. Look around you the next time you're stopped at a stop light and see the postures people assume in their car. Heads are poked forward, shoulders are hunched forward, and you can bet they're slouched in their seat.

    The typical muscle imbalance involves shortening of the following muscles:

    1. suboccipital muscles (those at the base of our skull),
    2. pectoralis major and minor
    3. lumbar extensors,
    4. hip flexors,
    5. hamstrings,
    6. calf muscles

    Weakness of the following muscles occurs because they are maintained in a lengthened position for long periods:

    1. rhomboids and middle traps
    2. deep neck flexors
    3. abdominals
    4. gluteal muscles (especially gluteus maximus)
    5. quadriceps femoris

    The value of good posture is realized in the treatment of many disorders in my clinic. In addition to minimizing stress on joints, good posture achieved through doing regular exercises for posture also provides other benefits:

    • optimal breathing and blood oxygenation,
    • good posture helps our mood,
    • better ability to concentrate,
    • a more confident, youthful appearance.

     If you are looking for specific stretching exercises for posture to address your particular stature or condition, consult with a physical therapist. They are qualified to assess you and prescribe the necessary exercises to fit your particular condition.

    The stretches listed below are intended to assist the achievement of good posture and postural awareness. They are not intended to treat and should not cause pain. If you are experiencing pain, consult a physical therapist for a professional opinion.

    Stretching Exercises for Posture

     Exercises for posture:

    1. Lie flat on your back with your hips relaxed and feet shoulder width apart.
    2. Raise your arms over your head and with your elbows kept as straight as you can manage, clasp your hands and try to touch the floor behind you.
    3. Tighten your abdominals, pull in your navel, and push your lower back into the floor.
    4. Relax into the floor as you slowly inhale and exhale for a count of 30 seconds and repeat two more times.

     Exercises for posture: 

    1. From the above position reach over to the right with your hands maintaining straight elbows and keeping your shoulders against the floor.
    2. Slide your feet over to the right so that your body a curves along the floor.
    3. Relax and breath slowly.
    4. Keep your abdominal muscles engaged and press your lower back into the floor.
    5. Hold this for 30 seconds and repeat two more times.
    6. Repeat this to the left side, 30 seconds, two times.

     Exercises for posture:

    1. Release your hands and bring your elbows down to your sides so that your shoulders and elbows are both 90 degrees.
    2. Your palms should be facing upward toward the ceiling, and the back of your hands close to if not touching the floor.
    3. Don't worry if your hands don't touch the floor, that will come with time and repetition of the exercises.
    4. Pull your shoulder blades together and press your shoulders down into the floor.
    5. Try and touch the back of your hands against the floor while keeping your elbows and shoulders at 90 degrees.
    6. Hold this for 30 seconds and repeat two more times.

     Exercises for posture: 

    1. Reach down and grasp your knees and pull them up to your chest.
    2. If it is too difficult to hold your knees due to knee pain, just hold onto the back of your thighs.
    3. If you find your abdomen gets in the way then simply spread your knees apart as your pull your knees up.
    4. Breath slowly and hold this for 30 seconds and repeat two more times.

     Exercises for posture: 

    1. Now let go of one of your knees and lower one foot to the floor.
    2. Keep one knee pulled tightly to your chest while your press your opposite knee into the floor.
    3. Breath slowly and hold this for 30 seconds.
    4. Bring the leg back up and lower the other and repeat the above with the opposite leg.
    5. Hold again for 30 seconds and repeat 2 more times on each side.

     Exercises for posture: 

    1. Sit up on the floor and pull your left foot up so that the sole of your foot is against the inside of your right thigh.
    2. Push your right leg straight out in front of you straightening your right knee.
    3. Point your toes down and grasp hold of your foot or ankle with your right hand.
    4. Place your left hand on your right knee.
    5. Now exhale and gently lean forward.
    6. You can pull gently with your right hand while your left holds your knee down.
    7. Push your pelvis back so as to maintain a straight back and lift your chest up.
    8. Relax into this position for 30 seconds, then repeat it on the opposite side.

     Exercises for posture: 

    1. Roll onto your stomach and place your hands under your shoulders about shoulder width apart.
    2. Keep your back relaxed, keep your hips on the floor and push your upper torso up as far as you can comfortably with your hips staying comfortably on the floor.
    3. Keep your shoulder blades down as you push up.
    4. When you get to the top exhale and let your back sag further.
    5. Hold this only for only two or three seconds.
    6. Lower yourself to the floor and repeat this exercise 9 more times.

     Exercises for posture: 

    1. Assume the kneeling position with your hands clasped behind your back and your chest up, head centered over your shoulders.
    2. Tighten your abdominal muscles, push your hips forward.
    3. Tuck your chin in (like you have a double chin), pull your shoulder blades back and together and lift your straight arms away from your back.
    4. Keeping your chin tucked in, slowly look up toward the ceiling and lean back.
    5. Hold this for 30 seconds and repeat two more times.
    6. Be sure to keep your abdominals engaged at all times, chest up and chin retracted to protect your spine.

     Exercises for posture: 

    1. From the kneeling position bring your right foot out in front of you onto the floor such that your right foot is under your right knee.
    2. Slide your left knee back so that your left knee is behind your hips on the floor.
    3. Put both hands behind your head, touch your chin in and inhale.
    4. Exhale as you lean back and look up toward the ceiling.
    5. Pull your shoulder blades together and your elbows back.
    6. Keep your abdominal muscles engaged and hold this for 30 seconds.
    7. Relax and bring your elbows forward and then repeat the above for a total of three times on each side.

     Exercises for posture: 

    1. Sit with your chest up and a good curve in your lower back.
    2. Translate your head back over your shoulders guiding it with your right hand on your chin. Don't look up or down, but keep your head level.
    3. While holding your head back there with your right hand, reach over your head and tilt the top of your head forward with your left.
    4. This is a small movement to stretch the suboccipital muscles. Avoid pulling your chin down toward your chest as this can strain the joints in your neck.
    5. Hold this for 30 seconds.

    Tips for Posture

    Following are some hints for improving posture:

    • Get up out of your chair every 20 minutes and move around. Whether you are sitting in a $1000 dollar chair with a lumbar support, or a bean bag chair, your discs derive nutrients through movement. So, hours of sitting can accelerate degenerative processes in the spine. Due the viscoelastic properties of ligaments, they are also prone to over stretching by a process called creep over time. This can lead to hypermobility and pain.

    • Become aware of the pull of gravity and its effect on your spine. Try and pull the top of your head up toward the ceiling and keep your head centered over your torso. Don't let your head drift forward. This change in the center of gravity causes neck muscles to work harder resulting in tension and headaches.

    • Throughout each day, concentrate on keeping your three natural back curves in balanced alignment.

    • Keep your weight down. Excess weight exerts a constant forward pull on the back muscles and stretches and weakens muscles in the abdomen.

    • Sleep on a firm mattress and use a pillow under your head just big enough to maintain the normal cervical (neck) curve.

    • Exercise regularly. Exercise promotes strong and flexible muscles that keep you upright in a proper postural position.

    • Protect your back by using good body mechanics. Bend your knees and hips when picking something up or putting it down; carry a heavy object by using two hands and keeping the load close to your waist.

    • Wear comfortable and well supported shoes. Avoid continuous use of high heeled or platform shoes, which distort the normal shape of the foot and throw the back's natural curves out of alignment.

    • Walk with good posture: Keep head erect with chin parallel to the ground, chest up, allow arms to swing naturally, and keep feet pointed in the direction you are going.

    • When sitting for long periods of time, use a lumbar support to maintain the normal curvature in your lower back.

    • If you are having difficulty finding a pillow that supports you neck you may benefit from a cervical roll or water pillow.
    • Perform exercises for posture on a daily basis.