In the following blog I am going to outline five important things you should know about your posture that can positively affect your body image and build self confidence. Then I will show you three unique exercises that I use in the clinic every day that makes my clients not only look better, but more importantly makes them feel better about the way they look.
This is not going to involve "the wall."
I’m not going to be giving you the old-fashioned posture exercise that everyone on the internet tells you to do, where you have to stand with your back pressed against the wall. I used to do that one in the clinic too, but I’ve found that it almost never works on the majority of people. I’ll tell you why at the end of the blog.
So, let’s get started by breaking a couple rules.
1. There’s no such thing as a specific posture corrector exercise.
I have been a physical therapist for over fifteen years, and have seen the entire gamut of “posture exercises” used by other therapists, personal trainers, and self taught gurus. I’m sure you’re probably familiar with some of these traditional exercises, such as chin tucks, wall slides, shoulder squeezes, doorway stretches… and on, and on, and on. They are all fine in and of themselves, but just as an exercise they don’t really work to correct your posture.
Later in my career, when I became an acupuncturist I finally understood why this was.
The reason is because these exercises are not holistic, which means they do not address the ‘mindset’ that actually creates the posture from inside of us. You could stand against the wall and do chin tucks thirty times a day, every day, and you’ll get nothing more than an occipital headache if you don’t correct the mentality behind why you slouch in the first place.
This brings us to the next important principle about posture.
2. The posture that you exercise in eventually becomes your posture.
This seems very obvious and self evident, but you really have to let it sink in for a minute before it becomes even more simplistic. Better yet, next time you go to the gym (after the COVID crisis), take a look at the bulging, hypertonic upper traps and kyphotic posture of the meatheads doing 100 pound bicep curls in front of the mirror. The typical forward hunched, grunting posture is no doubt considered by most to be undesirable - which, in turn, has led to the widely propagated misconception that bicep curl exercises are bad for you.
That’s the equivalent logic of me saying that a hammer is bad, because it can smash a vase. But the hammer is just a tool, right? It’s neutral. It can also be used to build a house. It’s nature becomes negative depending upon its purpose or intent. (Remember when we talked about mindset?)
Back to the ever-beloved biceps…
Resisted flexion of the elbow joint is a good movement. Lifting is part of the everyday functional routine of normal life. If you train your lifting technique in the gym with good spinal alignment, an engaged core, and proper breathing technique to reduce stress, then your bicep curl exercise will actually be one of the best exercises you can do to improve your posture.
So what is actually “bad” with the way the muscle-bound freaks exercise in the gym? You know something can’t be right, when their face is so clenched with rage that the muscle between their eyebrows could crack a walnut. Simply put, they’ve got a lot of stress!
3. Stress creates bad posture.
This is a particularly difficult concept to digest because it turns the notion of “anatomic normal” upside down on its head. In essence, it’s saying that mood can create a bad posture. It can be said that stress, whether internally or externally generated, is the pathologic byproduct of a “troubled” mood.
But, you might be thinking, “My posture is bad because my office chair isn’t ergonomic, and doesn’t have a lumbar roll. What does bad mood have to do with bad posture?”
Lumbar rolls are important, yes. That’s a big part of the way you sit at work, but how you feel about your job while you’re sitting is the other, even bigger, part of it. Is your moderate to severe forward head posture partly due to the stress of your boss breathing down your neck every fifteen minutes, checking on your overdue project assignment? You bet it is.
If you want to try an experiment to feel how stress affects your posture (assuming you’re medically capable), then try holding your breath for a couple of minutes until you can't hold it any longer. Aside from professional swimmers and magicians, most people will soon realize after they crest thirty seconds that an uncomfortable panic takes over and begins to clench the postural muscles in their body. Maybe you felt it in your neck, your low back, or maybe the pit of your stomach…?
Everyone feels stress differently.
“Hey,” you might say, “Actually I feel more relaxed after that silly experiment.” Excellent! You’ve just experienced one of the major positive side-effects of breath exercise for stress reduction. The importance of breathing -- that’s a huge life-changing topic for another day.
We were talking about your boss and your feelings. Ugh! Alright, on to the next principle...
4. Your posture is a snapshot of your mental state.
Notice how people who are sad and morose stand with slumped, rounded shoulders and a downward tilted head, gazing into the floor. Their backs are usually soft and weak-looking, as if ‘broken’ from the weight of depression. Even more obvious, their speed is typically slow and phlegmatic -- trudging through sludge.
In contrast, when you look at someone who is over-excited and ecstatic, you’ll see that their speed is fast and their muscle tone tense, as if walking over fire. Like a hot air balloon rises, so does their posture. It is more erect with a stiff, straightened spine, and a head jutting forward to engage their environment with ‘hot’ blazing eyes.
Mood, in a million different ways, seems to ‘flavor’ the physical expressions, or behaviors, that we exhibit in our every day, myriad routines. Isn’t posture then, just a snapshot of this physical expression. Better yet, isn’t posture just behavior standing still?
Both the ‘phlegmatic’ and the ‘inflamed’ postures we looked at are merely examples used to illustrate end points away from an ideal. But they evidence how your mood affects your posture.
Can the way you choose to stand then also exhibit the reciprocal effect, that is actually create an impression in your mind of how you feel about yourself?
This is the last and most important point...
5. Improving your posture can build self confidence.
In Chinese philosophy there is a principle of balance and mutual transformation, called Yin and Yang. This elegantly simplistic ideology states that cause and effect are actually interdependent on one another and self-perpetuating. That is, given enough time, an action or ‘effect’ can actually begin to create the circumstances or environment most suited to fostering its own existence. In simple English, “Fake it till you make it,” seems to actually work.
There is a whole branch of modern psychology called “self perception theory” that has conducted dozens of interesting experiments on artificially altering subjects’ posture in order to influence their feelings. In one fascinating study in the 90’s, the psychologists Stepper and Strack found that people were more satisfied with their own results on a test if the score was given to them when they were sitting up straight versus when sitting in a slouch.
Another, even more remarkable, study in the 80’s found that subjects who were told to bite down firmly on a pencil thought cartoons were markedly funnier than those who did not. This is the famous “facial feedback hypothesis.” It seeks to explain that when the mouth is pulled into an artificial smile (such as when a pencil is jammed deeply between the back teeth), our brain pathways still recognize the mouth’s shape as being associated with something happy.
The book Methods of Persuasion by Nick Kolenda has dedicated an entire chapter to embodied cognition and details a whole bunch of other amusing experiments on self perception theory. If you want further reading on the psychology of posture then check out The Align Method by Aaron Alexander.
Now that we know how intimately connected posture is with mood, the obvious question arises…
What exercises can you do to improve your posture, and therefore start to build even more self confidence in the way you look?
These are the top three exercises that I prescribe to almost all my patients with postural problems (as promised). One caveat -- please do them in order.
Foam Roller - Arm "L"s
This exercise is all about active relaxation and reversing the effects of gravity and stress on your body. This is not a “strength” building exercise in the traditional sense. That is why the weights you choose should be light. By working on the foam roller on the ground in the supine position, you are engaging your balance and proprioceptive systems with the help of gravity. This recruits your core muscles and helps to strengthen the postural correction without abnormal lifting compensations.
Stand up now, and you should feel slightly taller than when you started.
On to the second...
Superman “T” at Edge of Bed
This exercise is about strengthening the muscles along your backside to reinforce the corrections made by the Foam Roller “L’s.” You are actually building upon a latent infant motor reaction called the Landau Reflex, buried deep inside your central nervous system. This reflex’s principle purpose is to resist the body’s tendency to collapse from gravity. Many “famous” PT exercises, like resisted shoulder external rotation or sidelying hip abduction, are actually broken down components of the Landau reflex.
When you get up now, you should feel a little more invigorated. It is a physically challenging exercise.
Let's bring it all together...
Standing on Half Roller
This exercise now puts everything you’ve done together into a functional postural correction. Remember, you cannot correct a postural fault if you never correct in the faulty position. By standing for a prolonged period on the half roller, you are powerfully activating your entire balance and core endurance mechanism. The point here is to tire out, but not collapse -- otherwise you’ll fall off. Try watching a video or talking on the phone while building your endurance on the half roller every day.
So there you have it, my three foundational exercises for improving your posture.
Don’t bother with that old fashioned “wall exercise,” which is essentially the equivalent of tying a board to your back. A wall is perfectly straight. No one’s body is perfectly straight, unless you’re a four year old. If you try to align yourself to the harsh correction of the wall, you will no doubt compensate at the hips, the low back, or the neck. You have to find YOUR perfect posture, not the wall’s.
I want to leave you with one final thought on posture and self confidence.
What we set our eyes on ultimately decides the direction to which we desire our life to go. Looking down drags us to the ground. Looking up floats our head into the clouds. Looking at the horizon gives a sense of balance to life’s extremes, so that any direction we look is already halfway there.
Now I’d like to hear from you.
Which exercise from the list is your favorite to try?
Leave a comment below. I'd love to hear your opinion on posture and self confidence.
If you’re interested in taking your posture correction to the next level, set up a consultation with me where I can review your goals in person.