Everyone wants good posture; however, few people actually know what good posture looks like. When you ask someone to adopt good posture, they sit up taller and straighter. This is necessary for good posture, but good posture is so much more. Sitting up straight is a habit you can learn, but sitting up straight is nowhere near all that you need.
Let’s now look at what good, healthy posture looks like. There are four key areas of good posture:
- Sitting/standing up straight
- Keeping the tummy tight
- Standing equally balanced on both feet
- Issues related to the shoulder and neck
Step one: Yes, you should stand and sit up straight. You want to bring your chest up and your shoulders back. If you currently have back pain, this is going to hurt, which is one of the reasons your posture got bad in the first place.
Learning to sit or stand up straight is a habit. In my experience, most people can learn this habit in a week or two. One method is to set up an alarm that goes off every ten minutes or so, reminding you to check to see if you are sitting up straight. Do this and you will find yourself sitting and standing straight within a two-week time period. Sitting up straight is the only easy part of posture training. It is also the only part I have ever heard discussed. The other parts are much more important, but completely foreign to most people.
Step two: Drawing the stomach in will help keep the bracing muscles of the spine tight, engaged, and firing correctly. Do not overdo it. You shouldn’t feel like you are sucking in your gut so much that it feels hollowed out. Instead, keep your stomach drawn in just slightly like someone is going to poke you, or like you have a fitted shirt on and you want to look skinny.
Drawing in the tummy in this way forces the bracing muscles of your spine to do their job. Unfortunately, this can be an extremely difficult posture to maintain all day if you have weak bracing muscles. Many people need months of practice to get to the point where they can spend the entire day with their tummy held taut. It is a test of strength and endurance. Your ability to keep your stomach drawn in all day reveals how much endurance you have in the bracing muscles of the spine. As the bracing muscles fatigue, you will find it harder to stay upright with your tummy sucked in.
Remember to practice patience. Building endurance in the bracing muscles takes time. Your body is building blood vessels to these muscles, and this doesn’t happen quickly. It usually takes people four to six months to get to the point where they can keep the tummy tight all day long.
Step three: Stand with your weight equally distributed on both feet. Leaning into one hip when you stand indicates that your gluteus muscles are weak. Standing with your weight equally distributed requires good gluteus muscle strength, and doing this all day long requires endurance. Your ability to not lean all day long is another indication of good bracing muscle strength, particularly in the gluteus muscle. You ultimate goal is to avoid leaning for the entire day. You can sometimes rock back and forth or side to side, but you must keep your gluteus muscles tight and avoid leaning.
Step four: The fourth part of posture training involves the position related to the neck and shoulders. Trying to address the shoulders and neck before addressing the spine is putting the cart before the horse. Give yourself time to get the first three posture issues fixed before moving on to the next task. Think of getting the spine stabilized as laying the foundation for correct full-body posture.
Posture doesn’t have to be perfect. In fact, it can’t be. It has to flow with your day and adjust to every movement you make. You go through your day sitting at your desk, walking to meetings, climbing stairs, sitting at ballgames, etc., and through all of it, you work on this posture in so many varied ways and positions. Eventually you get to the point where it just happens. You use the correct muscles to stabilize yourself at all times because it feels right. You don’t have to think about it; it is an extension of you.
Dr. Sean Wheeler is a Sports Medicine and Pain Management specialist, one of the nation’s first medical doctors board certified in both disciplines. An NCAA Power Five Conference collegiate athlete, he became a doctor who now treats high-performance athletes and those who require the athletic skills of everyday life. Having served as team physician for NCAA, NAIA and NJCCA athletics programs, he is an invited speaker to venues such as the University of Notre Dame Athletics Department. His book, UPRISE: Back Pain Liberation, By Tuning Your Body Guitar, appears on bookshelves August 2015.