This Is Why You Have Bad Posture & How To Fix It
Ray Bass is the associate movement and wellness editor at mindbodygreen and a NASM-Certified Personal Trainer. She holds a degree in creative writing from the University of Pennsylvania, with honors in nonfiction.
The other day I felt a twinge in my shoulder. At least, I think it's my shoulder—it's that spot between my spine and the curve of my shoulder blade, the area I can barely reach and have never figured out how to stretch. (I usually call it my upper back.) It started hurting, as it does most days, and all I could think about was how I wish I didn't have to sit all the time.
And then I thought, Wow, I've spent so much of my life sitting. I sat on the ground playing games as a child. I sat at a desk for 12-plus years of school. I slouched my way through endless lectures at college. I sat down for meals. I sat down to study. And now, as a writer, I sit more than ever. I writhe around in my desk chair for hours trying to find a comfortable position. No matter how I sit, something (somehow) hurts, and no matter how upright I think I am, I'm just not. I see it in photos, and I feel it in my body. My posture is terrible, and it's taking a toll on my life.
Now to be clear: I've had bad posture for years. I was regularly told, "Sit up, shoulders back." But during those years I did nothing because honestly, nothing hurt. It wasn't until college that I started having back pain, and I thought it was because I carried a heavy bag (which I would later learn was part of it but not all of it). Perhaps the worst part is that I thought it would go away on its own. I sought out minimal help—a few chiropractor sessions, sports massages, and a brief stint at physical therapy—but nothing seemed to help, so I stopped. And because of that, I still have back pain.
That's how I ended up direct messaging Sarah Kostyukovsky, P.T., DPT, OCS, and certified personal trainer for Mom In Balance on Instagram. She gave me incredible advice for fixing my posture, no trendy treatment or back brace required (I had in my head I would need a back brace). So if you, like me, have poor posture or any sort of back pain, Dr. Kostyukovsky has some advice—and it would be smart of us (all of us) to take it.
What is "bad posture"?
I've always thought of bad posture as slouched shoulders and a caved in chest, but as Dr. Kostyukovsky says, it's much more than that. "Posture is all about alignment. Our skeletal system is the base for our muscular system, and correct posture is ideal alignment of our bones so that our muscles can act most efficiently."
In other words, when our bones are aligned, the right muscles are activated, which allows us to sit up straight. Being in, or "having," good posture means that we're maintaining the natural curvatures in our spine and activating the muscles that keep us upright—which, in turn, puts less stress on our bodies.
No, it's not just about pulling your shoulders back.
In fact, that's some of the worst advice you can give someone trying to fix their posture. "If you tell someone to stand up straight or sit up straight, they automatically just throw their shoulders back and stick their chest out," Dr. Kostyukovsky says. "That's not the proper way to correct your posture."
"It's all about maintaining those curves in your spine—in our neck and upper back and our lower back/lumbar spine." To do this, she recommends getting a chair that has lumbar support built-in, buying a lumbar support cushion, or simply rolling up a towel and placing it under your lower back while you sit in your chair. Easy enough, right?
Does strengthening your core help?
While there are plenty of reasons to strengthen your core, doing so doesn't guarantee proper posture. Why? Because if you're already sitting in poor posture, you aren't engaging your core anyway.
"Doing core movements in workout classes is important because you want to maintain core strength, but if you're sitting in poor posture, you're not going to use your core like you should," Dr. Kostyukovsky says. "So even if you work out five times a week doing core strengthening, if you then sit at a desk all day in bad posture, you're not able to activate your core."
"For example, if you're slouching, it's impossible to engage your core. But if you're sitting up in good posture—sitting on the right part of your pelvis with the natural curve in your lower back and in your upper back and neck, engaging your core is so much easier."
So while core strength is important to our day-to-day lives and functioning, it's not going to magically cure your posture on its own.
OK, so what does help? What can I do?
Whenever I've seen a specialist, from chiropractors to private Pilates instructors, I've asked them what I could do at home to improve my posture. To my surprise, I wound up with a lot of non-answers—the kind that make you nod your head when you hear them but make no sense when you try to piece them together later. Fortunately, Dr. Kostyukovsky had real answers and exercises that I could do on my own to improve my posture.
Her first piece of advice is to strengthen your upper back because those are our posture muscles (and they're often neglected in our workouts and day-to-day lives). "Being on our computers and on our phones, we're constantly in a rounded position. The muscles between our shoulder blades get lengthened and weak because we're constantly in a forward flexed posture. Upper-back strengthening is important to counteract our constant rounding and for the maintenance of upright position."
That said, if you have to be at a computer for work, she recommends doing some gentle stretches during the day to get yourself out of the rounded position more often. Thoracic extensions and standing scapular retractions will engage the muscles between your shoulder blades (and remind them of their purpose, which is to hold you upright).
In terms of workouts, Dr. Kostyukovsky recommends Pilates and yoga. "Pilates is amazing for alignment and postural strengthening. Yoga, if you're doing it correctly, is also great for spinal mobility and upper-back strengthening. Think chaturanga, spinal twists, downward dog."
While poor posture can be frustrating and cause you discomfort, it is a curable condition—all we have to do is care enough and do the necessary work to fix it. Give the above exercises a try (those extensions and retractions require no equipment!), and we hope to see you next time in good health and great posture.
Ray Bass is the associate movement and wellness editor at mindbodygreen and a NASM-Certified Personal Trainer. She holds a degree in creative writing from the University of Pennsylvania, with honors in nonfiction. A runner, yogi, boxer, and cycling devotee, Bass searches for the hardest workouts in New York (and the best ways to recover from them). She's debunked myths about protein, posture, and the plant-based diet, and has covered everything from the best yoga poses for chronic pain to the future of fitness, recovery, and America's obsession with the Whole30 diet.