I know the best way to sit at my desk at work isn't slightly hunched over my computer, but my back gets tired if I try to sit "the right way" for too long. Worried that my bad posture could lead to more serious problems down the road, I decided to seek out a couple of experts to ask if they had any tips on how I could strengthen my back and shoulders, and ultimately, glide around like a ballerina.
Step one in improving your posture: Focus on your abs and hips
The first person I ask for advice is The Reavy Method founder David Reavy, PT. "I was wondering if you could show me some ways I could strengthen my back and shoulders," I ask him. But his reply takes me by surprise: He wants me to focus on my abs and hips.
"When you’re sitting a lot, it causes you to lean forward, creating a rounded posture with rounded shoulders," he says. "A lot of times our hip flexors get really tight and when that happens, it shuts down our abdominals and you lean forward even more." The key, he says, is to strengthen those muscles.
He also gives me a run-down of the proper way to sit and stand. "You want to squeeze your shoulder blades down and back and do a chin tuck, so you are lowering the head a little bit. You want to bring the head backward. A lot of times the head is too forward." Okay, noted.
Since Reavy says the key to good posture is strengthening the core and realigning the hips, that's what the bulk of his at-home exercises focus on. Below, his Rx:
1. Hip-flexor release
Lie on your stomach and place a lacrosse ball just below your hipbone. Lean a tolerable amount of weight onto the lacrosse ball. Lift one leg up and into a 90-degree angle. Swing your leg side-to-side in a tolerable range of motion. Repeat this in 30-second intervals for two minutes. Repeat with other leg lifted and bent at 90 degrees.
2. King cobra stretch
Lie on your stomach with your hands just outside your shoulders, palms down and slightly turned out. Slide one leg up and turned out, keeping the other leg turned in. Push shoulders off the floor until arms are straight. Keep your shoulder blades down and back. Hips should stay down on the floor with elbows close to your sides. Squeeze your glutes. Look up and twist to the side of your bent leg. Hold for 30 seconds. Repeat with other leg.
3. Hollow body hold
Begin lying on your back with your hips and knees bent at 90 degrees. Keep your back flat to ensure the lower back doesn't curve. Raise arms slightly off the ground with elbows straight, palms facing down. Hold the position for 30 seconds, or until your abs get tired.
Next up, use your foam roller and strengthen
Next, I hit up celebrity trainer Ashley Borden for some additional tips. (Hey, I'm an overachiever.) Just like Reavy, she says that strengthening the core would ultimately lead to better posture. But she also emphasizes the importance of foam rolling—something I never do.
"When you're at a computer typing, your biceps are on but your triceps are turned off," she says. "And when you're seated, your legs are bent so your glutes are shut off, but your quads are getting tight—the back side of your body is completely shut off." As she explains it, foam rolling wakes up your body, activating muscles that are pretty much ignored all day. Because of this, her posture-correcting homework is a mix of core moves and foam rolling.
She also told me to pay more attention to how I sit at my desk: "Your feet should be flat on the floor, not hooked around your chair—something a lot of people do without even realizing it—because that causes a hyperextension in your back," she says.
Here's how to foam roll your whole body:
Trying out my new posture-forward workout routine
The first night, I get home from work and ambitiously pull out my checklist of moves. First, the core moves. I take a decent amount of cardio-based workout classes, so I'm no stranger to planks and hip raises. Reavy's moves take me about 10 minutes to complete and get my heart rate going and fires up my abs. And it actually makes me more aware of my abs the rest of the night; I consciously keep them more engaged as I move through the rest of my evening routine, cooking dinner and watching Netflix.
"Argh!" I almost scream. Foam rolling hurts.
Then comes the foam rolling. After pulling my poor, neglected foam roller out from under the bed (and blowing off the dust), I get down to business, starting with the move targeting my quads. By this point in the night, I had changed into my PJs—boxer shorts and a tee—so I'm foam rolling on my bare legs. "Argh!" I almost scream. Foam rolling hurts. I make a mental note to no longer trust the legions of people who had told me "foam rolling feels just like a massage!" Granted, as a runner who rarely takes time to stretch (I know, I know), my legs are likely tighter than average. But still—this was too much. I move on to the second move, focusing on my IT bands. Nope, this one hurts, too. Maybe I'll try this again tomorrow... Slightly defeated, I stash my foam roller away and tuck myself into bed.
Sitting at my desk the next day, I'm more conscious of the way I'm sitting, keeping Borden's tips in mind. Sure enough, several times throughout the day I find my ankles around the bottom of my chair. I didn't even know I did that! While I make a concerted effort to keep my two feet flat on the ground, I still find it difficult to keep my core activated and shoulders back most of the time. I still had work to do.
Each night for the next 14 days, I faithfully move through the exercises. TBH, the moves themselves aren't hard—it's the damn foam rolling I'm sucking at! I find it easier to do in jeans—not your typical workout apparel—because there's less foam-to-skin contact, but for the first week, I'm still not able to get through the entire sequence. Finally, on the 12th day, it starts to feel...better. (I still wouldn't say "good.")
Because my core is a little stronger, I'm able to keep it engaged while I sit and stand tall for a much longer period of time than I could before.
So, did it work? I am not one to say things have merit when they don't, but after sticking to the plan for a couple weeks, I legit notice a difference in my posture. Because my core is a little stronger, I'm able to keep it engaged while I sit and stand tall for a much longer period of time than I could before—not the whole day, but it's still an improvement.
I still find it difficult to maintain good posture when sitting in chairs that don't have backs—like a bar stool, or sitting on my mat waiting for yoga to start—but it's only been two weeks. I can't help but wonder how my posture will continue to improve if I keep up with the homework for a few months.
The biggest thing I learned is how malleable the body is. If you have a weak spot in your body or, like me, terrible, slouchy posture, you can change it. Better yet, you can change it in as little as 15 minutes a night while you're watching Netflix. Hey, maybe one day I'll be one of those people who loves foam rolling.
This post was originally published on December 19, 2017; update on October 22, 2020.
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