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Tricks of the Trade

What are some of your favorite strategies for helping clients improve posture?

The first step is to create an awareness of what good posture feels like. I use a technique I call “sit talls.” Clients sit in a chair or on a bench in a relaxed position (but without leaning back), and place the fingertips of both hands on either side of their rectus abdominis. Then I say, “Imagine that if you could make yourself 3 inches taller, you would win $50 million” (or some other “ultra bribe”). Clients sit much taller and straighter. I make sure they keep their head level and continue to breathe normally. Then I ask them to note how long their spine feels and how their abdominals seem to pull in and tighten, and tell them to try to recreate that sensation in a standing position, reminding them not to lock their knees. Clients can use “sit talls” as a regular exercise, performing 10 repetitions of 5 seconds each while maintaining normal breathing.

Clients need to learn to make a habit of holding good posture throughout the day. Poor postural habits may be related to the type of work they do (e.g., working over a computer, styling hair, working on an assembly line, etc.). Although you are not with your clients 24/7, you can help them set up little self-checks throughout the day. One easy thing they can do is set their watch to beep each hour. When the beep sounds, they should check their posture, correct it if needed, and hold on to it as long as they can remember—while going on with their day—until the watch goes off an hour later. They will gradually learn to hold a better postural position for longer periods of time.
Mark Nutting, CSCS

NSCA-CPT-Certified Personal Trainer
       IDEA Master Trainer and
       Licensed Corporate Wellcoach
NSCA Northeast Regional Coordinator
       and Maine State Director
Fitness Director, Master Trainer
Saco Sport & Fitness
Saco, Maine

Initially I take a digital photo of clients in front of a postural screening grid and print two copies—one for clients and one for their file. I find that actually seeing their side view and postural malalignment greatly increases clients’ motivation for sticking to a postural program. I take follow-up photos when a training package expires. Clients usually purchase a package of 24 sessions, so 2 to 2 1 months often elapse between photos. These follow-up photos are an easy way to motivate clients to continue with the programming.
I help clients increase the flexibility of their anterior musculature through active and passive stretching. I manually stretch clients, as well as teaching them stretching exercises they can do during the training session. In addition I teach flexibility exercises to be done at home and ask clients to stretch multiple times a day. My favorite trick is to suggest a doorway pec/shoulder stretch, using the bathroom doorway as a cue. Clients go in and out of the bathroom many times a day and if they remember to stretch on the way out each time, they will create a consistent routine.

I also help clients increase the strength of their posterior muscles to create a balance with the frequently overstrengthened anterior musculature. I avoid (or lessen the number of) exercises such as bench presses to prevent an increase in anterior rotation of the shoulder.

If a client is working strictly on posture during a given session, I incorporate an active rest period and implement the flexibility component there. But if the client is working on other goals, I use the last 10 to 15 minutes of the session, when the muscles are warm, to stretch. This gives me ample time to get the cardiovascular and weight training completed within the scheduled workout, and allows clients to leave feeling good.

Lori Chaplin, MA
Sol Gym, San Francisco and San Diego

Training for good posture certainly isn’t very glamorous. After all, posture isn’t a problem until you notice how bad it is! With that in mind, you should focus on preventing poor posture, rather than treating it once it becomes an issue. Here are a few tips and easy-to-do exercises I give my clients to correct body alignment:
1. Avoid too many pushing/pressing movements at the expense of pulling/rowing movements. Males, especially, prefer performing bench presses to working the posterior muscle complex. This overtraining of certain muscle groups (e.g., pectorals, anterior deltoids) can lead to muscle imbalances, which can potentially contribute to slouched or rounded shoulders. Pectoral and deltoid stretching can help alleviate this condition.
2. Include core exercises to strengthen the deep muscles of the lumbar region and the tranversus abdominis. These two areas can act like a girdle, counteracting each other within the core circle. Poor muscle tone in this area often leads to spinal/pelvic malformities.
3. To avoid muscle imbalances, don’t neglect exercises that isolate the posterior deltoids. Scapular retraction can be used in conjunction with these exercises for strengthening the midback area, which is prone to postural deficiencies. (Simply leaning into a wall and performing scapular retraction is a good start.)
4. Have clients perform this simple “five points" exercise at home. They should find a flat surface and touch their (1) heels, (2) buttocks, (3) shoulder blades, (4) skull and (5) knuckles against that surface, holding for several seconds.
5. Finally, for clients who drive a lot, this car “trick” can make a difference. 8 Positioning themselves in the normal driver’s seat position, clients should adjust the rearview mirror upward, so they have to stretch a little higher than usual. This really makes a difference in how straight they keep their torso.

Tony Poggiali
Strength and Conditioning Consultants
West Chester, Ohio

I tell clients that when they are standing, they should relax their feet, allowing their weight to be distributed across the heel and ball of the foot (so they can feel the pad below the big toe and the little toe evenly) and make sure their toes are not curled. To actively engage their quadriceps, they can “pull up the knees.” This strategy helps keep the pelvis from falling forward.

Learning to breathe by using the diaphragm can also improve posture. Try this quick exercise: Lean over slightly and relax the abdominals. Place the fingers on the low back, breathe in and feel the low back expand. Then exhale, “drawing in” the abdominals and blowing out through the mouth.
Three of my favorite posture correctors for the upper body are scapular depression, scapular retraction and shoulder extension, all done in the standing position. For scapular depression, I have clients lengthen their neck and relax their upper back; press their slightly bent arms, palms down, toward the floor; exhale, then inhale and bring their hands behind their ears; and, finally, return to the starting position and repeat.

For scapular retraction, clients position their elbows at their sides, arms to the front, palms up; then open up the arms by taking their palms to the sides of their body and retracting the shoulder blades. They exhale, then inhale, returning their palms to the front of their body.

Shoulder extension opens up the chest and pulls the shoulders back. Clients hold arms straight with palms down to the front of the body, inhale, then extend their arms behind them as they exhale and turn their head to the side. The exercise is then repeated, turning the head to the opposite side.

Donna Snow
ACE-, NASM-CPT Certified Personal Trainer
Standing Firm Inc.
New Castle, Pennsylvania

Sitting at a desk all day; holding the phone between their ears and shoulders; working on laptops; and carrying heavy computer bags, purses or briefcases have all taken a toll on my clients’ posture. Not only are their shoulders rounded and their necks sore, but their hip flexors and hamstrings are tight.

The first thing I like to work on is core stabilization. Strengthening the core helps clients stand up straighter and feel taller. I have found that a blend of classic Pilates and modern fitness exercises has the best results. We start with exercises on the mat that teach clients how to engage their deep abdominal muscles by pulling their navel toward their spine. Clients practice this exercise while engaging in everyday activities such as sitting in a car or at a desk.

Many daily activities force clients to look forward and down, which can result in rounding of the  shoulders and back. So the second thing I work on is exercises to strengthen and lengthen the muscles of the neck, shoulders and back, using weighted equipment, bands and a client’s own body weight.

Moving to the lower body, we work on lengthening and strengthening the hip flexors and hamstrings. When we start, many people have hamstrings that are so tight they cannot sit on the floor comfortably with their legs straight out in front of them. After a few weeks my clients feel taller and stronger.

Another of my favorite strategies is to have clients sit on a stability ball at their desks instead of on a regular chair. Sitting on the ball forces their core muscles to work to keep their backs straight. They cannot slouch over their desks without falling off the ball. I advise clients to feel their SIT bones [the bony prominences that are the lowermost part of the pelvis] while they are sitting on a regular chair or traveling. Sitting this way will remind them to sit straight and tall.

Dee Miller
Personal Training/Corporate, Fitness/Lifestyle and Weight, Management Consulting
Fitness DeeLite
Toronto, Ontario

Good posture takes conscious effort. The first step is awareness. Observe your clients’ posture in casual standing and sitting positions and in movement. (Clients should be unaware that you are assessing them, so you can get a true picture of their habitual posture.)

Once you’ve assessed your clients’ posture, help them understand how postural habits are the foundation to developing a fit body that functions at its best. Make sure to teach the neutral spine position.

After years of poor posture, the neutral position will feel awkward to clients at first. But after consistent practice this posture will begin to feel more natural.
Begin each training session with postural awareness. Give frequent reminders as you cue activation of the deep spinal support muscles, especially during cardiovascular and muscle conditioning. Remind clients that posture is important in sidelying, seated, prone, supine and hip-hinged positions as well as in the standing position. Modify exercises that do not allow clients to achieve neutral spine. Common culprits are seated machines that keep the feet from touching the ground, causing the spine to extend excessively upon exertion. Set up an adjustable step and risers to give the feet a place to anchor. Also, on the seated leg curl, tight hamstrings can cause lumbar flexion as the knees approach full extension. Adjust the machine’s range of motion or instruct clients to stop before the loss of neutral.

Take a look at the habitual stresses your clients encounter and try to lengthen the tight muscles that pull their posture out of neutral alignment. If clients are habitual sitters, encourage them to do standing or prone trunk extensions to counterbalance the stresses of habitual flexion, and to choose activities that allow extension, such as walking, cross-country skiing and swimming. A postural training program should include flexibility training for the hip muscles, hamstrings and gluteals.

Strengthen the muscles responsible for maintaining neutral posture. Train clients to stabilize their spines by activating their deep abdominal support muscles. Excellent exercises for teaching pelvic and spine stability include the modified V-sit on the Reebok Core Board, the Pilates fundamental “leg slide” and balancing in supine incline position on a stability ball. Strengthening the back extensors is also important. The prone trunk extension over a ball is an excellent choice. During trunk extension the shoulder blades should be gently pulled down. Cue clients to focus on elongating the spine rather than hyperextending. This exercise helps realign the spine and actively stretches the pectoralis minor and external rotators.

Carol Murphy
Reebok University Master Trainer/Resist-A-Ball Master Trainer
Fairport, New York

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