In the first article of this series, we learned about how particular exercises, done repetitively, can compromise your posture.
In part two, I gave suggestions about finding a well-trained fitness instructor who can balance your workouts effectively.
Now, let’s explore additional exercise options and evaluate how they affect your body’s alignment. This will help you make smart choices about the type of workouts that will help you slim down and look leaner, yet will aid you immensely in reducing pain from improper alignment. I could go on for pages about this topic, but let’s focus on a few popular fitness trends.
I’m going to address Pilates first, as it’s the exercise methodology that I know best. Pilates is grounded in principles of body alignment and core control. Joseph Pilates himself advocated learning to engage certain muscles, particularly those related to postural alignment.
The problem, however, is that when Pilates created his work in the early 1900s, (called Contrology at the time) postural problems were nothing like they are today. It was a different world. We didn’t have computer-sitting and commuting and texting to alter our bodies.
The original Pilates work involved a large amount of “round back” positions, which utilizes frequent posteriors pelvic tilts and thoracic flexion, or what we know as the crunching position. Nowadays, people are often already posteriorly tilted and flexed in the thoracic area, therefore these positions are not optimal. Rather, the goal should be to open up the thoracic area of the spine with exercise and align the pelvis into a neutral position.
Many talented Pilates instructors have adapted the original Pilates repertoire, making it far more appealing to the needs of the human body in today’s world. This new “contemporary” form of Pilates has moved the pelvis into more neutral positions and have added more back extension work. I am intimately aware of the amazing work the Pilates community is doing in this regard.
There are still many Pilates instructors who teach far more flexion than extension, who don’t balance the muscles groups and who don’t pay attention to form. In turn, these exercise programs can make back and neck issues worse, and are not enhancing overall body alignment.
Like anything else, try a particular Pilates class out and evaluate. Ask questions. How many teacher training hours did they do in their course? Do they have experience working with injuries? Do they spend the whole hour doing crunches on their back? If the answer is “yes” to that last question, walk out.
Pilates is amazing for the posture, if done and taught correctly.
When people think of improving their posture, they often think of yoga as a solution. What are my thoughts? Honestly, it depends.
There are SO many kinds of yoga. Yoga can vary from intense exercise in a class like Power Yoga, to the meditative relaxation of a restorative yoga.
Many people jump into a popular vinyasa flow yoga class, which involves a series of exercises called sun salutations. In the sun salutation, there is a position called upward facing dog, in which the lower back is placed in an extended (or arched) position. This is a wonderful position for stretching the abdominals and strengthening the lower back, except for the fact that it’s extremely difficult to perform properly. The reason some people get “hurt” in a yoga class is because they have very rarely extended their lower back (due to their sedentary lifestyle), and now are being asked to do so quite aggressively.
The opposing position, downward dog, is a wonderful hamstring lengthener, but can place stress on the shoulder joints if the client has kyphosis, or a shoulder joint that rounds forward. Some aggressive forms of yoga use these positions extensively, which can be effective in solving postural issues if done properly; however,
these positions can be disastrous if not performed safely and properly.
Much like I mentioned in the Pilates section above, the yoga instructor should be schooled in the art of modifications and progressions. Downward dog is an exercise I use extensively in my posture training, but the client is progressed slowly and watched carefully. If someone is new to yoga, they should start with a beginner class for a few private sessions.
Yoga (like Pilates) is amazing for the posture, if done and taught correctly.
Visualize yourself in a spinning class. Do you think this class has positive postural implications? If your answer is NO…. ding ding ding, you win!
Spinning is great for cardiovascular health but less than ideal one of the worst things you can do for your posture. Not only are you rounded forward in the upper back, the hips are chronically flexed and the knees bent. This position has been associated with rounded shoulders and a super-duper tight IT band. What is the IT band? It’s a band of connective tissue running down the side of the leg. If the IT band is in a chronically in a shortened state, it can wreak havoc on the hips and knees.
My recommendation when choosing spinning as a form of exercise is to be very conscious of your body position when on the bike. Many instructors will cue clients to keep their shoulders down, back flat, hips back and elbows in. These are wonderful cues and can help improve the situation.
The most important thing to remember with spinning (or any biking for that matter) is to off-set the effects of spinning with stretching, and by doing exercises that will work the opposing muscles. Spinning is one of those exercise modalities where moderation is essential. I do not recommend doing it every day.
Lifting heavy things, be it dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells, machines, medicine balls, children, or anything else heavy, can be amazing for your musculoskeletal system. The key to successful weight lifting is maintaining awareness of your posture as you’re lifting at all times.
The basic rule: do more exercises for the back side of your body than the front. Focus on rowing, pull ups, deadlifts, glute exercises and back extension MORE than chest press, quad extensions and crunches. Get someone (ideally someone with a posture certification like me) to watch your form and provide feedback. Weight training can be a fantastic form of exercise, with many benefits, but you must be hyper aware of your form. Engaging the right muscles properly takes time, focus and attention.
The three major cardio machines in the gym are the bike, treadmill and the elliptical machine – are all different in how they will affect your alignment.
Postural considerations for biking are similar to spinning, as discussed above. The recumbent bike doesn’t involve as much bending over as the upright bike, however both situations involve sitting. We sit too much! You don’t need to be in a position with additional hip flexion. Unless you are recovering from knee surgery, or have another limiting physical factor, biking should not be your first choice.
The elliptical can be an effective way to do cardio without too much impact. If you are holding the machine properly, and not hunching over, there is minimal negative impact on posture. Because of the low impact and upright nature of the elliptical, this machine can be a wonderful choice if you’re just starting out with exercise.
The treadmill would be my favorite choice for anyone looking to get indoor exercise. We don’t walk enough as human beings and walking properly is good for you! We were meant to walk. It involves proper pelvic movement, hip flexion, hip extension and bilateral shoulder movement. Of course, standing upright as you walk is key! Walking, hunched over on a treadmill staring at your cell phone, is NOT what you should be doing on a regular basis. Like everything else, be mindful of your posture, and walking is a great way to exercise.
Look Before You Leap
As you can see there is a theme here. Some forms of exercise are clearly more effective at maintaining good posture than others. It’s important to evaluate the class, the instructor and the movement.
Every type of movement requires attention to form and alignment. The mind body connection is critical to the success of improving posture and pain. Regardless of what activity you choose, if you continue to do it with careful attention as to how you are performing the exercise, then you will affect real change in your posture.