The athlete with great running or lifting form but a terrible slouch is all too common. And it's a problem. Practicing good posture can strengthen your core, protect against injuries, and make you a more powerful and efficient athlete. But first, you need to know what to look for and how to fix it.
Posture Is More Important Than You Think
"The more well-balanced and developed the muscles are that dictate alignment, the further you can push the envelope," says Andrew Wolf, an exercise physiologist at Miraval Resort and Spa in Tucson, Arizona. You'll be better able to lift heavy objects, sprint or change directions explosively, and fully utilize your diaphragm for proper breathing if you're not wasting energy on inefficient posture. "I've seen athletes who have made adjustments of just a millimeter or two at the spinal level, and it turns out to be the difference between being able to lift 300 pounds and being able to lift 350 pounds," says Carl Paoli, professional gymnast, CrossFit coach, and author of Free+style: Maximum Sport and Life Performance with Four Basic Movements, agrees.
There's the scare tactic, too: poor posture causes muscles to tighten and work overtime. "For the 20-something athlete, [bad] posture is not a life or death issue—but in the context of a long life filled with athletic pursuit, it takes on additional gravitas," says Wolf. "Voila, you have the beginnings of chronic pain."
So yes, posture matters a lot. But there's more to it than just heeding Mom's advice to sit up straight.
Beware the Turtle Head
"Very few people have their ear canals directly over the center of their shoulders," Wolf says. "Most of us have 'turtle head,' with our heads way out in front of our shoulders." This puts unnecessary strain on the back and neck, and leaves the spine in a weakened position, more vulnerable to injuries.
Fix this where you're most at risk of slumping. If you spend hours in the car each day, pay attention to sitting upright and keeping your head over your shoulders while you drive. If you sit (or stand!) at a desk job from 9 to 5, take a break at least every 30 minutes to do one minute of forward and backward shoulder circles and chin retractions. "Keep your head level but try to move it backward relative to your shoulder—it's like giving yourself a major double chin," Wolf says.
Stand Straight (But Not Too Straight)
For the rest of your body, the best posture is standing tall with a slightly arched spine and pelvis untucked (or, in layman's terms, butt sticking slightly out.) "Athletes are often told to keep a 'flat back' with their abs tight and a neutral, tucked in pelvis, but that only compresses the vertebrae and puts more stress on the lumbar discs," says Dr. Tadhg James O'Gara, orthopedic surgeon at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.
Likewise, the idea of pulling your shoulders back is an "incomplete and out-of-date biomechanical cue," says Jill Miller, creator of Yoga Tune Up and author of The Roll Model: A Step-by-Step Guide to Erase Pain, Improve Mobility, and Live Better in Your Body. "Your shoulders shouldn't be behind you or in front of you; they should be at your sides in a natural position."
Roll It Out
Beyond constant awareness and practice, the best way to help your body undo its ingrained bad postural habits is to keep muscles loose. One way to do this is with self-myofascial release (self-massage) techniques using a tennis ball, says personal trainer Justin Price, author of The Amazing Tennis Ball Back Pain Cure.
At the end of the day, lie on your back with your head on a pillow and knees bent, and place a tennis ball under the muscles on one side of your glutes. Scoot around until you find a sore spot, then remain on that pressure point for five to ten seconds until it starts to release. Spend one to two minutes on either side of your glutes, then move the ball up between your shoulder blades and spine, and repeat.
Opening your chest can also be a quick fix for improving slumped over posture, says Wolf. If you have a foam roller or a yoga bolster handy, lie on it lengthwise, face-up, and "pretend you're under arrest with your elbows and hands on the ground [at your sides]," he says.
Get Out of Your Chair
It's not just your upper body that suffers when you slump forward. Over time, slouching negatively impacts the movement of your hips, pelvis and spine—and it weakens the core abdominal and back muscles that play a role in balance and power.
The solution is to stop sitting so much. "It's very difficult to maintain the proper curve in the lower back when you're in a seated position, even if you're doing your best to sit up straight," O'Gara says.
If you are stuck in a chair for much of the day, consider a product like the BackJoy SitSmart, a small piece of plastic that tilts hips upright and realigns the spine when you sit on it. Or if you're into activity trackers, consider the new Lumo Lift, a small device you can wear under clothes or like a piece of jewelry. It not only counts your steps and alerts you when you've been sedentary for too long, it also vibrates when it senses you've slouched forward.
These products can be helpful in teaching the body what proper posture feels like, says Miller. But don't rely on them too heavily. "What you really want to do is train your body to maintain proper posture with or without equipment, so that it becomes second nature." How? See all of our above advice. You're welcome.