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by Susan Dawson-Cook

December 5, 2014

These simple stretches and exercises can relieve a multitude of postural problems

If your mother told you to sit up straight as a child, consider yourself lucky. Her not-so-subtle reminders may have prevented you from suffering a variety of dysfunctions later in life. Here, we’ll look at a few common postural issues and some exercises that can help correct them.

Head and Neck

Your spine has four major curves; if any of them are exaggerated, excessive pressure is placed on the vertebral discs. This is why some people end up hunched over as they age. The added pressure placed on the discs not only affects appearance, but also causes neck and back pain, spinal fractures, and problems with shoulder function.

Many people experiencing neck pain manifest a forward head posture, where the earlobe extends in front of the bony prominence of the shoulder instead of being positioned over it. This is the most common postural problem in our country, since computer use is common at workplaces and many people spend hours with heads angled forward in cars.

This forward head position can be remediated by doing simple exercises that strengthen the muscles in the back of the neck. Two examples are:

  • Head retractions: Standing in tall alignment and sliding the head back until it is seated over the shoulder before releasing, and
  • Table pose: Kneeling with hands under shoulders and knees under hips without dropping the head. Table pose will also help you employ the muscles at the front of your neck to facilitate movement.

Many people thrust their heads forward when doing pushups, leaning into a tennis swing, and performing low impact aerobic movements. This can be avoided with more core muscle involvement. Bracing with the core muscles—think about tightening the abdomen like you do when coughing—will help you learn to do core-driven, rather than neck-driven, movements. It’s also important to keep the eyes straight ahead and the crown of the head lifted when exercising.

When working at the computer, sit up tall with feet flat on the floor and look straight ahead with eyes directed at the upper third of the computer screen. If these postural suggestions are not possible with your current workstation setup, adjust it so it meets these criteria. Many people are now utilizing standing and walking desks, which have many health benefits in addition to better posture.

Shoulders and Upper Spine

Many of us slouch in front of computers or in cars or planes, where seats tend not to fit the natural shapes of our spine. This eventually creates a protraction of the shoulder girdle and a rounded upper spine. This postural misalignment most adversely affects shoulder function. Try slumping forward as far as you can and then attempt to reach your arms overhead. It doesn’t work so well, does it? There simply isn’t enough space in the shoulder girdle for soft tissues to move properly when the front of the shoulder is so compressed.

What’s more, repetitive movements where tendons, ligaments, and bones rub against each other produce inflammation and eventually pain. Optimal shoulder health and function is imperative for people engaging in upper body intensive activities such as swimming, golf, and tennis.

You can reduce protracted shoulder posture by:

  • Training the back muscles more by doing middle and high rows, overhead presses, and rear deltoid raises
  • De-emphasizing chest exercises such as pushups, chest presses, and chest flies
  • Performing pectoral stretches over a foam roller by lying over the roller and extending your arms out to the sides with palms up at shoulder level while keeping your knees bent and spine in a neutral position
  • For other stretches geared specifically toward swimmers, see the FINA video entitled “Prevention of Shoulder Injuries in Aquatic Sports” on YouTube.

Lower Back and Pelvis

The lower back is another trouble zone. Sitting for long periods of time shortens the psoas muscles that cross the pelvis. Eventually, this will pull the pelvis forward—imagine your pelvic “bowl” tipping forward—placing excessive compressive and shearing forces on the lower back.

To correct this, stretch the quadriceps and psoas muscles daily.

  • Stretch the quadriceps by lying on your belly or side and pulling your heel toward your hip
  • Stretch the psoas muscles with a lunge stretch with one knee on the floor and pressing forward with the pelvis. If you have knee problems, it may work best to do forward lunges without placing your knee on the floor.

Stand Tall!

Posture matters in more ways than one. With some focused attention, you’ll experience less discomfort and more freedom in your movement patterns in addition to sitting and standing taller.


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