Got a Hunch?

Then pay attention, because there's more to posture than walking around with a book on your head

Talk of proper posture may seem more Junior League than Major League — the chat of the crudit‰ crowd rather than the carbo-loading bunch — but as improbable as it may sound, an athlete stands to gain considerably from paying closer attention to his everyday profile. "The ones who end up suffering the most by not making posture an all-day effort are sports-minded people," says Marcus Elliott, a sports-medicine consultant for the U.S. Olympic Training Center who's renowned among his peers for his expertise in the field. "Watching your form doesn't end once you're through exercising. In fact, that's when it starts."

Aside from simply making a bad first impression, going through the day with hunched shoulders, a bent back, or an off-kilter pelvis can have a long-term and negative impact on your musculature and your skeleton. Let that collection of 33 vertebrae known as the spine sag, and you're forcing muscles and tendons and ligaments in the neck, shoulders, lower back, and legs to support the body instead. Over time, these tissues will essentially conform to the spine's unnatural cant like shrink-wrapping to a T-bone. "Regardless of whether this is harmful, the body simply recognizes poor posture as the norm," says physiologist and trainer Ann Marie Miller, who should know about such things, given that she recently helped devise a workout for the New York City Ballet troupe. "That deteriorates proper technique in your sport." As Miller has witnessed, you can't expect your body to snap out of a postural funk merely for the several hours a week that you choose to perfect your butterfly stroke or puzzle through a vexing 5.12 route.

Indeed, all you need to do to recognize the athletic usefulness of making your body tall is to take a look at Olympic sprinter Michael Johnson, whose events are too brief to afford even minor inefficiencies. "His posture's perfect," says Roch Frey, who for 12 years has coached professional triathletes, including his wife, 1997 Hawaii Ironman winner Heather Fuhr. "It has to be, because he needs to hold perfect form when he runs, which happens to mean keeping the back straight." Frey notes that while posture ties into technique, the two really are separate matters. For example, a cyclist may not want to strive for a straight spine on the bike for aerodynamic reasons — it's more efficient to ride with the back and shoulders slightly rounded. "But can he benefit from maintaining proper posture throughout the day?" Frey asks. "The answer is still yes, because all that practice out of posture needs to be counterbalanced."

The Dope on Straightness

Beyond obvious biomechanical advantages, holding your spine bolt upright can also improve your breathing. Rounding the back presses the rib cage and the organs within the chest cavity against the lungs and diaphragm, keeping them from expanding as far as they otherwise might. "Less oxygen in the lungs means less oxygen molecules to get absorbed into the bloodstream," says Elliott. That, of course, means subpar endurance.

Not incentive enough? Add this: Shabby posture restricts the flow of blood through the muscles, which means there's less of a "flush" to remove metabolic waste — including lactic acid, that richly painful by-product of muscle contraction. So it just pools up in your muscles, increasing the wince factor exponentially.

And since the spinal column moonlights as one of your body's primary shock absorbers, letting it bow in any activity also greatly increases your risk of back injury. "Whenever you run or jump, the disks between vertebrae absorb the trauma by displacing it throughout the spinal column," says Miller. "But the cushioning loses its effectiveness if the spine is arched beyond normal." This can actually cause certain vertebrae to grind against one another, perhaps forcing the disks to slip, rupture, or herniate.

The last area affected by poor posture is the most subtle, yet also of the greatest importance to any committed athlete. "Balance, coordination, and flexibility all begin with good posture," says Elliott. "Without this underpinning, it's much harder to teach the body to improve any of these things."

Finding Your Alignment

Fortunately, it's simple to grade your posture. What to do? Freeze — in the position you're in, whether it be sitting or standing. Now, readjust yourself until your back is straight. "The farther you had to accustom yourself, the more unnecessary stress you're probably placing on your body in an average day," says Frey. To identify problems with more specificity, stand in the position that feels most comfortable and have someone snap a Polaroid of you from the side. Next, draw a straight line on the photo from your ear to the back of your heel. Ideally, the line should bisect your shoulder, pass through the hip, and graze the back of your leg at the knee. Any or all of these areas could be in need of adjustment.

If your hips sit forward of the line (and thus your spine), you may suffer from excessive posterior pelvic tilt. This causes the gluteal muscles and hamstrings to tighten from constantly contracting, and weakens the lower back muscles.

If your hips fall anywhere behind the line, it indicates an excessive anterior pelvic tilt, which you might have already noticed asa C-shaped curve in the lower back — imagine the posture of a baseball slugger standing at the plate. This condition, which Miller says is the most typical postural misalignment, weakens the abdominals by overstretching them, while forcing the hip flexors to function as the torso's sole support.

If the shoulders sink forward of the line, you have a rounded back, or kyphosis. Consider yourself lucky: This is the easiest postural malady to fix because the shoulders have less weight tugging them out of whack. Painless as correcting kyphosis may be, it should rank as the athlete's first priority, since this is the position that most inhibits your breathing, and it also places the neck under undue stress when you're in motion.

All these problems may sound menacing, but thankfully they can almost always be reversed. What's required is an extra bit of concentration throughout the day (see "These Are Spinal Tips") and a little bit of extra exercise (see "So Many Vertebrae, So Little Time"). Because whether you're slumping behind the wheel of the car or striding around the office hunched over like Victor Hugo's beleaguered bell-ringer, it's certainly easier to let gravity do the work. However, as Frey points out, "Good posture can keep your body from letting you down, but bad posture is something your body never lets you forget."

Jack Hammond is a New York-based freelancer.

These Are Spinal Tips

A few everyday reminders to perk up your profile

The most compelling reason for practicing good posture is the simple fact that eventually you'll be able to forget about it. "Through constant practice, your brain creates a neural imprint that recognizes when the spine is offset," explains Marcus Elliott, a sports-medicine consultant to athletes at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. "While your mind is on other things, your brain takes over to straighten your spine without any conscious effort." But before you start cranking out those neural imprints, it might be wise to check your form. The key pointers from Elliot:

At the Desk or Behind the Wheel

• Flatten your lower back into the chair. This will ensure that you aren't either overarching or rounding at the waist.
• Position your seat so that whatever it is you need to see—a computer screen, a customer, a double yellow line—is directly in front your eyes. The idea is to not have to tilt your head up or down for an extended period of time.

At Attention

• Be sure that you don't lock your knees when standing. The correct position, with your legs bent just a few degrees, prevents your hips from rolling forward and takes pressure off your lower back.
• Imagine there's a string attached to your head that's pulling you upward, as if you were a marionette.
• Pull your shoulder blades back to sqaure them off so that you could run a straight edge from the back of one shoulder to the other.

In Motion

• Hold your head high when running, looking toward the horizon rather than at your feet or to the side.
• Avoid crossing your arms in front of you as you run, since it forces your postural muscles to strain to recenter your torso with each stride, wasting energy.

At Rest

• Lie down in the fetal position on a firm mattress. Avoid using a thick pillow, which can crimp your neck.

So Many Vertebrae, So Little Time

A 15-minute-or-less regimen to get your back in whack

Though posture work may well be the only type of exercise you can tackle at the office — or in the car for that matter — it shouldn't be confined solely to those spaces. But to bolster the areas involved in propping up your spine, you'll need to isolate them. The key muscles are in the shoulders, lower back, abdomen, hips, and, believe it or not, the hamstrings, which can affect the position of the hips and the arch of the back. Thankfully, says professional triathlon coach Roch Frey, these muscles are easily exhausted, meaning that adding a posture regimen won't require so much time that you'll need to overhaul your normal routine. The following list of strength and flexibility moves, which should always be performed in tandem for each muscle group, will help you whether you're looking to pinpoint postural breaches or simply undertake a maintenance program. Either way, says Frey, twice a week should do the trick.

STRENGTHENERS

Reverse Raises (Shoulders)

Sit on the edge of a bench, holding a light dumbbell in each hand, down at your sides. With your palms facing each other, fold at the waist to bring your chest within several inches of your thighs, and slowly raise the weights straight out to the sides until your arms are parallel to the floor. Pause for one second and lower your arms. Repeat 15 times; do three sets.

Dry-Land Swimming (Lower Back)

Lie on your stomach on a padded surface with your arms extended forward. Then, keeping your limbs straight, raise your arms and legs off the floor about six inches. Next, slowly scissor your legs from the hips while simultaneously drawing your arms out to the sides, as if you're parting a curtain, and then returning your arms to the original position. Continue for 20 seconds, rest for 10 seconds, and then repeat the sequence twice more.

Crossovers (Abdominals)

From a typical crunch pose, cross your left ankle over your right knee and place your right hand behind your head, pointing your elbow forward. Now, slowly curl your torso off the floor and twist to the left, touching your right elbow to your left knee. Hold for one second and lower yourself. Do just one set of 15 repetitions for each side.

High-Stepping (Hip Flexors)

Run in place, drawing your knees up in front of your chest, which requires the hip flexors to work harder than they do during a normal stride. Start with two sets of 20 steps and build up to six sets of 60 steps.

Leg Curl (Hamstrings)

Lie facedown on a leg-curl machine, making sure that your knees extend just past the edge of the bench. With your feet relaxed, slowly pull your legs toward your butt, pause, and lower the weight just as slowly. Repeat 12 times; do three sets.

STRETCHERS

Arm pulls (Shoulders)

Stand with your arms extended overhead. Cross your wrists and rotate your hands so that your palms touch. Hold for 15 seconds. Next, repeat the move behind your back, straightening your arms to activate the stretch. Hold for 15 seconds. Repeat each stretch twice.

Up the Wall (Lower Back)

Lie on your back and extend your legs up a wall, toes pointing to the ceiling. Then bend your knees until you can set your feet flat against the wall, keeping your rear as close to the baseboard as possible. Now, lift your back off the floor one vertebra at a time until you end up on your shoulder blades. Hold for a count of 15 and slowly roll back down; repeat twice more.

Variable Cobra (Abdominals)

Lie on your stomach, toes pointed out and hands on the floor just forward of your shoulders. Press yourself up, keeping your legs and hips glued to the floor, until your arms are straight. Hold for 25 seconds. Lower yourself and repeat. In time, gradually reposition your hands at your shoulders and then closer toward your hips.

Hip Rotation (Hip Flexors)

Stand with your left foot forward and about two feet ahead of your right. Keeping your legs straight, gently move your pelvis forward until you feel a stretch along the front of your hips; hold the pose for about 25 seconds. Don't overdo it — you need very little effort to loosen these muscles. Reverse your feet and repeat once.

Figure-Four (Hamstrings)

Sit with your right leg extended and your left bent so that the bottom of that foot nestles against the inside of your right thigh. Maintaining a straight back, reach your right hand to your right foot and hold it — literally — for 30 seconds. Switch sides and repeat once.

More Fitness

Holiday Subscription Sale! Save 79% and Get a Free Gift!

Subscribe
Pinterest Icon