The spine is strong; it supports you throughout your whole life and can take quite a beating – just think about how much movement goes on in your back from day to day. The muscles surrounding the spine and each vertebra are specifically designed to support in a gentle S shaped position divided up into 3 major sections: Cervical Spine, Thoracic Spine and the Lumbar Spine, with the Sacrum and Coccyx at the base.
The basic pattern of the spine is in-out-in-out in a gentle swoop, and this is the shape when your back is at optimum strength and what is also referred to as a “neutral” spine. Common deviations are a rounding of the upper back (Thoracic) or a hollowing of the low back (Lumbar).
When the spine is out of alignment while you’re walking, sitting, cooking, relaxing… Guess what?
It’s out of alignment in the gym too. Training with bad posture will put an enormous amount of pressure in the wrong places, pulling some muscles too much and letting some go completely loose.
If you have headaches, neck strain, tight shoulders, a sore low back, tight hamstrings and even tight calves – it’s time to check your posture.
Test: which part of the body touches the wall first?
Find some space on the wall and approach. With your back to the wall, start to slowly walk backwards towards it and stop as soon as a part of your body makes contact. Which part touched first?
- If it was your bum – potentially you have a hollow low back, or a general forwards tilt.
- If it was your shoulders or middle back – potentially you have rounded shoulders or a general backwards tilt.
- If your bum and your shoulders touched at the same time – congratulations! You may have a pretty neutral spine.
Stay standing against the wall and adjust your posture until your bum, upper back and the very back of your head all make contact:
1. Squeeze your glutes to tilt the pelvis.
2. Engage your core muscles to hold yourself strong.
3. Tilt your chin down and look straight forwards.
4. Roll the shoulders down the back without pinching them together.
5. Arms down by your sides and spin so your palms are facing forwards to externally rotate the shoulders.
6. Heels close to the wall, toes are facing forwards.
7. Your Lumbar and Cervical spine (neck) do not touch the wall: these stay naturally curved in and away from it, so let them.
Stay in this position for 10-20 seconds. Notice the difference in your back, does it feel better? Is there less pressure or more pressure in any areas? Does it feel weird? As you step away from the wall notice if you immediately drop the shoulders or push out the pelvis and try to correct.
For many, including myself, when I first tried this posture felt unnatural. I personally had a hollow low back with a forwards tilt. To walk straight felt as if I was leaning backwards. After living with an incorrect posture for such a long time, my body had accepted it as natural; however this did not stop me from getting frequent lower back pain and upper back tightness. After time, this began to affect my training – trying to squat with extreme extension in the lumbar spine is a quick path to injury. Once aware of the problem, the next step is to fix it.
Here are a few exercises that can be performed to aid posture correction:
Thoracic Extension (upper back)
Rounding of the upper back or shoulders is very common, especially for those who work at a desk, sit at a computer or use smartphones a lot. Muscles across the shoulder blades and spine are strained and stretched while pectoral muscles are tightened, which can result in neck pain, upper back pain and even limited shoulder movement.
Thoracic Extension exercises can help to reverse this tightening by opening the chest and reliving some pressure off your thoracic spine. Please note that the aim here isn’t to squeeze your shoulder blades together, simply to lift your elbows high, keeping shoulders soft.
1. When sitting (can also be performed standing) place your hands behind your head, elbows splaying out wide, careful not to squeeze your shoulder blades.
2. This may already be enough of a stretch if your back is very tight, but if you can take it further, use the support of the chair to lean on and extend the upper back backwards.
3. Hold for 10 seconds, relax, then repeat.
Chinese Plank (lower back)
Weak muscles surrounding your lower back can allow your lumbar spine to arch a too much, causing lower back pain, even hip and knee issues. The extra pressure that is put on vertebrae will eventually start to affect your ability to not only lift properly but also walk pain free.
Chinese Plank is a very good exercise used by many weightlifters to strengthen the core area, with an extra focus on the lower back.
1. Get two blocks, bolsters, blankets, bumpers etc. and place them on the floor so your shoulders are on one, your calves/ankles on the other.
2. Lift your bum and low back by engaging the glutes and the core and hold. Arms can be on your tummy, or behind your head.
3. Aim to get your body straight as possible, without letting the bum sag down towards the floor, or pushing it up too high.
4. Hold for 45-60 seconds and repeat 3 times, or superset with the Rollout Plank.
Rollout plank (core)
Core strength is a must for any posture adjustments, as the muscles in your torso have a massive role to play. Hours of sitting, leaning and lying down mean a lack of stimulus for your abdominals and back muscles, you “forget” how to use them properly in everyday tasks such as walking. Combining the Rollout Plank with the Chinese Plank will set your centre up as a very strong base for a good posture.
1. Set yourself up as if in a normal plank pose: body straight, resting on forearms and toes, with your palms flat on the floor.
2. Start to move your arms forwards until your elbows are underneath your face – or further if you can – and place your elbows together with your palms touching.
3. This position is much less stable than a regular plank, try to hold for 45-60 seconds and repeat 3 times or superset with the Chinese Plank.
Glute bridge and single leg glute bridge (glutes)
Lower back problems can come from having weak or non-firing glute muscles. Strengthening them will allow your body to start being able to rely on them to keep the pelvis in the neutral tilt which allows for comfortable walking and strong lifting.
1. Lay down on your back and plant both feet down flat, just a bit away from where your fingertips reach.
2. Push up with your torso moving as one strong block, lifting your hips as high as they can go, imagine pushing your chest towards your chin.
3. Hold this for 30 seconds and release down.
4. Repeat again but this time lift one of your legs up with your extended leg parallel with the thigh of the bent leg.
5. Aim to keep your body just as high as with the full bridge, and keep both hips even – try not to let one side lift higher than the other.
6. Hold for 30 seconds, release and switch legs.
7. Go back to the start and perform the same exercises for reps (i.e. lift your hips up and down), aiming for around 20-30 for all 3 variations.
It is great to do the Chinese Plank, Rollout Plank and the Glute Bridges as part of a warm up you usually do, getting all the correct muscles firing. The Thoracic Extension can be done anywhere and everywhere – especially remember it when sat at a computer.