Optimal alignment can improve clients’ lives in many unexpected ways—if you can convince people to mind their posture outside the gym. Here’s how to do it.
When I was a kid, my dad was a stickler for posture. "Sit up straight," he'd say as I slouched over a plate of pasta. Other times, he'd try a tactile approach. I'd be standing in line at the market or sitting in the bleachers watching my oldest brother play baseball, and out of nowhere I'd feel two thumbs dig gently into my upper trapezius muscles while the remaining fingers of each hand gripped my shoulders and pulled them back. All these years later, I'm the one cuing people to mind their posture.
Posture—or structural alignment—is an important element in any exerciser's program. Personal trainers and group exercise instructors constantly remind clients and students to maintain good alignment so as to minimize stress on tendons, joints and ligaments. Our clients do an excellent job of perfecting form under scrutiny. But as soon as training sessions end, posture falls apart—as if the need for good alignment evaporates outside the gym. Or perhaps our busy clients return to baseline because they stop thinking about what's happening with their bodies. Whatever the reason, roaming around with bad posture outside the confines of a session is like training hard to lose weight and then heading home to eat pizza and drink beer.
Just as we promote other healthy behaviors—like getting enough sleep, eating vegetables and drinking water—it's imperative that we encourage better body alignment during nontraining hours so our clients return with the best possible structure for the safest, most effective exercise experience.
But how do we do that?
Abstract concepts like injury prevention motivate some people to change, but not everyone. So maybe we try a different angle and tell clients all the ways improved posture can have a significant and even instant impact on quality of life. Might they pay more attention to good posture if they realized it could improve their jobs, verbal communication, self-confidence, mood or even bedroom relations?
This article summarizes some of the research on this topic so you can prove to clients how minding their posture will have an immediate payoff. Included are simple exercises for improving posture, plus tools (see the sidebar) to remind clients to sit up straight throughout the day.
Why Posture Matters
The research shows we gain a lot by practicing good alignment. Here are several of the ways posture can have a huge impact on quality of life.
Mood Booster or Buster
Just looking at somebody's alignment gives a clue on how the person is feeling. For example, someone whose head is drooped could be feeling sad or depressed. In effect, mood dictates the alignment. But researchers have shown the reverse is true as well: Alignment can dictate mood.
A few decades ago, 109 undergraduate students participated in four studies to determine how body alignment might influence mood. In the first two studies, some students were asked to slouch their shoulders while others sat upright. Each student then completed a "standard learned helplessness task." The researchers found that the slouched group was more prone to developing feelings of helplessness compared with their nonslouched peers. In the third study, participants assessed others' posture and assigned perceptions of depression to those who appeared hunched-over versus those in upright positions. The final study placed one group of subjects in hunched, threatened posture and another group in relaxed positions. The hunched individuals reported higher stress levels than the relaxed group (Riskind & Gotay 1982).
A more recent study assigned 74 people to take a slumped or upright posture and then complete a reading test, a social-stress speech task, and mood, self-esteem and perceived-threat assessments. Researchers found that the upright individuals reported better moods, higher self-esteem, greater arousal and less fear than the slumped group. Upon completing the speech test, the slumped group tended to use more negative words and fewer positive words than the upright group (Nair et al. 2015).
A certain energy drink has made a name for itself by touting a cure for that "2:30 feeling." But instead of a liquid energy boost, perhaps a postural readjustment would suffice.
Researchers from San Francisco State University and Kaohsiung Medical University in Taiwan hypothesized that structural alignment could cause feelings of energy depletion. They recruited 100 students around age 24 to complete a series of protocols. The students rated their energy levels and then either walked in a slouched fashion or skipped down a hallway. After 2—3 minutes, the students rated their subjective energy levels; then they went down the hall the other way and rated their energy again. All subjects reported a drop in energy levels after slouched walking and an increase in energy after skipping. Participants also answered a questionnaire about their general depression levels. Those who were typically more depressed reported far lower energy levels after slouched walking than those who were typically not depressed (Peper & Lin 2012).
Several years ago, Harvard Business School social psychologist Amy Cuddy, PhD, gave a TED Talk in which she popularized the concept of the "power pose." Her presentation, which boasts more than 38.5 million YouTube views (at press time), encourages people to hold a "posture of confidence" for 1—2 minutes before an important social interaction—even when they lack confidence. Cuddy says such a pose can influence testosterone and cortisone levels and may enhance a person's success potential. She believes a powerful pose elicits perceptions of success and strength, while a meek one has the opposite effect. Practicing a power pose before a job interview, for example, boosts a person's odds of getting hired, according to her research (Cuddy, Wilmuth & Carney 2012).
Similarly, researchers from Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management found that "posture expansiveness," or positioning the body to take up as much space as possible, can cause a person to think in a more powerful way regardless of hierarchical status. How people hold themselves during a job interview may carry more weight than work experience or qualifications, the study suggested (Huang et al. 2011).
"Going into the research, we figured role would make a big difference," said researcher Li Huang, PhD, in a Kellogg press release. "But shockingly, the effect of posture dominated the effect of role in each and every study."
Huang's fellow researcher Adam Galinsky, PhD, now at Columbia Business School, echoed Cuddy's sentiments about the power of posture to help a person land a job.
In 2011, he said, "With 1.9 million new jobs on the horizon this year, our research suggests that your posture may be quite literally the way to put your best foot forward in a job interview."
Posture has a big impact on breathing capacity, and it's easy to prove it to clients by having them do a few simple exercises. I cue clients to maintain an upright position and then inhale as fully as possible. I then have them go into a kyphotic (hunched-over) position and inhale again. Perhaps this isn't a groundbreaking insight for fitness pros, but I almost always see epiphanies when clients experience how poor alignment limits their oxygen intake.
Several studies have looked into the impact of kyphosis on pulmonary function (Han et al. 2016; Romei et al. 2010). In one study, teenagers were asked to sit in an upright position (hunched over a desk) and slumped (pelvis on the center of the chair with upper body inclined and resting on the chair back). Unsurprisingly, pulmonary function was least restricted in the upright posture and then grew progressively worse in the kyphotic and slumped positions (Hojat & Mahdi 2011). In another study, researchers found that standing produced better respiration than sitting (Lin et al. 2006). They also drew a parallel between decreased lumbar lordosis—most prominent in a slouched seated position—and decreased lung function.
We've already discussed how a strong, confident posture can affect how others see us, but can it alter how we see ourselves? Researchers from Ohio State University and the Autonomous University of Madrid believe it can. To test their theory, they asked 71 students to write down their best and worst attributes while in a slumped or an upright position. The students then completed other tests requiring postural changes and self-evaluations. For example, participants rated themselves on their work experience and qualifications in a job-seeker scenario. Almost always, the slouched subjects rated themselves lower and expressed less confidence than the upright ones (Briñol, Petty & Wagner 2009).
Simple Exercises to Improve Posture
Posture can influence a person's day—for better or worse—in all kinds of ways. These five easy-to-implement, equipment-free exercises can help your clients achieve an instant postural adjustment. The moves can be done seated, but standing yields the best results.
Anterior-chain muscle tightness can make it difficult to perform shoulder blade retraction and depression. One way to overcome this is to increase tissue mobility through self-massage.
Begin by rolling the shoulders back and down. Make a fist with the right hand and gently press the knuckles into the medial aspect of the left pectoral muscle. Place the palm of the left hand on top of the fist for added pressure. In a slow motion, drive the knuckles across the muscle toward the shoulder joint. Lift the hand, returning it to the starting position, and repeat.
Shoulder External Rotations
Internal rotation is a common postural deviation. External rotation can help. Roll the shoulders back and down. Tuck the pelvis slightly to maintain a neutral lower- back position throughout the exercise. Slowly twist the wrists until the thumbs point away from the body. Hold for a few seconds and release; repeat.
A forward head position increases the cervical arch. This exercise stretches the muscles of the neck, allowing the skull to return to a more neutral, balanced position while the spine is lengthened. Stand with your hips and shoulders against a wall. Heels can be an inch or two away from the wall. Lifting through the crown of the head, gently bring the chin down toward the throat while pressing the back of the head against the wall for a few seconds. Rest and repeat. Place a pillow behind the head if the pressure is uncomfortable.
Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch
This is an effective way to stretch the hip flexors. Start in a kneeling lunge position (one knee on the floor and the other leg bent 90 degrees in front of you with foot flat). Lift from the crown of the head to elongate the spine. From here, drive the hip of the kneeling leg in a gentle thrusting pattern to achieve the stretch. Hold for a few seconds, then release and repeat. Perform the exercise several times for both hips. Place a pillow under the knee for added cushion.
Hip Hinge With Fly
This exercise improves thoracic extension. Place the feet hip-width apart, and hinge at the hips while simultaneously angling the upper body forward. Aim to slightly arch the lower back by lifting the tailbone. Retract and depress the shoulder blades. Start with palms clasped together directly in front of the chest. Then slowly swing the arms out to the side of the body at about shoulder height with a slight external shoulder rotation, and pause when you feel contraction in the upper posterior muscles and a stretch in the pectorals. Release and repeat.