Guest post by: Kate Galliet
“Pull your shoulders down and back.” Whether from your parents, a coach, a teacher, or a friend, you’ve likely heard that posture correction cue.
Whoever said that cue probably meant well – except pulling your shoulders ‘down and back’ isn’t the best way to go about getting better posture. While it might look like someone who has good posture is pulling their shoulders down and back, it’s not what you need to do to make your posture better.
The truth is that strong posture doesn’t have you squeezing your muscles all day long to hold the good posture.
Why does good posture matter anyways?
Put simply, having better posture means good things for your physical well-being.
You’ll breathe better, getting more oxygen in and carbon dioxide out, when you have better posture.
You lower your risk of excessive degeneration of your bones, since your spine will be stacked and well-organized, and your shoulders and hips will handle their appropriate share of the load of your body.
You have less risk of musculoskeletal pain, meaning soft tissue sits in a good length-tension relationship, and you avoid excessive tightness in the muscles of your back and neck.
Your lymphatic and circulatory systems are free to flow with ease, allowing for good blood flow and lymph drainage.
On top of the positive benefits for your health, you also physically, emotionally, and mentally feel better when your posture is better.
So if “shoulders down and back” isn’t great, let’s get into what is great for your posture.
What is ‘good posture’?
There is no one perfect posture that everyone must achieve, but good posture usually means this:
- The head is stacked over the torso such that the earlobe lines up with the middle of the deltoid
- The chest is open
- The shoulders are not scrunched into the ears
- The arms hang naturally at the sides with palms facing the body
- The shoulders are stacked over the hips
- There is no excessive curvature of the spine, but there is a natural S curve throughout the spine
It’s not just your shoulder blades that need attention
So why isn’t your posture great? There could be several reasons. You might be dealing with a forward head position, which looks like this. Compare it to the side-by-side image of better posture.
Here’s how you can start fixing forward head posture.
Another contributor to sub-optimal posture is missing thoracic extension. Thoracic extension is what’s happening when you bend backward (like into a backbend.) More realistically for normal life though, it’s what you do when you straighten your spine up from rounding it forward. When you spend much of your day in flexion, it changes how you stabilize your torso and how you breathe, not to mention it can contribute to forward rounded shoulders and a chest that seems to be caving in.
One of the best ways to improve your thoracic extension is to improve your breathing mechanics. This post from Lucy Hendricks, Restorative Breathing Coach, will help you get started.
Now you know that you need your head and spine in a better position if you want better posture, let’s go back to the scapulae.
Why “down and back” isn’t the best
Remember, your torso is a 3-D structure, and your shoulder joint has a multitude of ways it can move around the torso.
Not only can the scapulae shift forward, protracting around the torso – like someone with slumped forward shoulders would – they can also retract, pinching together towards your spine.
They can also tip forwards or backwards, rotate up or down, and elevate and depress.
All of those movements are made possible by the soft tissue that attaches to the scapula, and is linked up to the ribcage, humerus, and clavicle to make up the entire shoulder girdle.
By doing the traditional “down and back” cue for your shoulders, you’re flexing your lower trapezius and rhomboid muscle fibers to depress and retract the scapulae.
Here are the problems with that:
You can make your levator scapulae tight as a guitar string. By squeezing the shoulders ‘into position’ using the “down and back” cue, you might lengthen the upper trapezius beyond it’s normal length-tension relationship. When that happens, some other muscle must pick up the slack. Often, the levator scapulae will take on the job, as it flexes and pulls the scapula back up towards the head, and becomes very tight and painful in the process.
You disrupt normal scapular rhythm. Another possible effect of the “down and back” cue is a significant flexing of the rhomboids, without supporting contraction from the rest of the muscles that would pull the scapulae around the torso.
Do this often enough and the rhomboids will learn to hold that flexed position, and the scapulae can start crowding the spine. That’s a problem because to avoid shoulder pain and injury, you need your scapulae to be able to move well, glide easily, and not impede on other bony structures.
And if the scapula doesn’t glide well with the shoulder, pain and impingement can happen. You want your scapula to protract and upwardly rotate as you lift your arm. And having them squeezed towards your spine with a constant isometric contraction of the rhomboids and middle trapezius disallows that.
You’re not actually improving your posture. The goal of ‘good posture’ isn’t to have a rigid posture held in place by a few muscles squeezed intensely. Try it right now. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and drive them down towards your waist.
Now try to move in any other way, while maintaining that squeezing position you just created. Feel the resistance your upper body has created? That impacts all of the other ways your upper body needs to move.
Actively flexing your muscles to hold your posture is not the answer.
Good posture is a combination of hard tissue (bones and their joints) being positioned well, and soft tissue (muscles, fascia) supporting that. And, it’s important to remember that soft tissue pliability and mobility impacts how hard tissue is positioned.
You’ll learn more about how to get your soft tissue to support you to better posture, and how to get your hard tissue to maintain a stacked alignment in Part 2 of this post. For now, practice the tips for bringing your head into a better position, and breathing better. We’ll be adding on to those healthy habits soon.