What is postural strength?
At its simplest, ‘postural strength’ can be defined as having strength in the muscles that hold you upright. So does this mean that to have postural strength you have to stand like you’ve got a book on your head and a clothes hanger stuffed in the back of your shirt?
‘Book-on-head’ type posture implies a rigidity that misses the point of ‘strong posture.’ Same goes for the ‘shoulders-down-and-back’ posture many of us learned over the years. Stand up right now and attempt to get into whatever posture you feel mimics holding a book on your head and a hanger down your shirt. (If you can’t stand up, imagine along with us.)
Chances are, you tensed up your muscles in order to hold your neck steady so the imaginary book on your head wouldn’t fall. And you probably squeezed your shoulder blades together and arched your upper back a bit to make your chest open up to mimic the hanger in shirt posture.
This is not postural strength.
To be able to flex into a better posture is not the same as having muscles & fascia that naturally sit in that posture. Highly-flexed muscles at all times isn’t ideal.
Remember in the old days when we held actual telephones up to our ear to talk to the person on the other end of the line instead of having a speakerphone or an earpiece to use? Remember how sore your neck would be after you were done cradling the phone between your ear and shoulder for a long phone call?
That’s what staying highly-flexed at all times feels like. It’s not how you want your body to give you postural strength.
Instead, you want a natural harmony between muscular tension and mobility, neither of them excessive, to allow the joints and bones of your skeleton to stay in their intended stacked and aligned placement.
Specifically, here are 3 specific ways you can improve your posture, starting today.
#1 Create awareness around daily stances
The first step in improving your posture is becoming aware of it. Once you know what better posture feels like, you can replicate in your daily life, when you’re brushing your teeth, when you’re in your car, anywhere really!
To get an idea of what better posture feels like do this simple drill.
Stand with heels 3-4” away from wall (you’re facing away from the wall).
Soften your knees so they are unlocked.
Set your glutes so that they lightly touch the wall (you may have to push your bum back quite a ways to do this if you tend to be more swaybacked with your posture).
Set weight to be evenly distributed between right and left leg and between front and back of feet.
Bring upper back and shoulders back so they are stacked directly over the hips.
Bring head back, keeping chin down, so the head is stacked directly above the torso.
To be sure you’re in a better posture position, have someone take a photo of you from the side. Looking at your profile, can you draw a line straight down to the floor from your earlobe and have it go through the center of your shoulder, through the center of your hips, through your knee, and through your malleolus (the big bone sticking out of the outside of your ankle)?
If so, good job! Remember what this posture feels like and aim to mimic it throughout your day.
But, did it feel difficult to get into and hold that position? It’s not enough though to just be able to get into better posture when you actively think of it. You want to get your posture to a place where it naturally settles in that position, without much thought or work from you to get there.
Which brings us to the next items you need to fix your posture…
#2 Get your soft tissue pliable again
Over the decades, we do repetitive motions. Those repetitive things, like sitting, using a computer mouse with your right hand, carrying a child on one side, always crossing your legs the same way when you sit… they add up, making your soft tissue short, stiff, and non-pliable, along with creating muscles that are weak and not firing in harmony with each other.
Non-pliable soft tissue and muscular imbalances play a role in many of the aches, pains, and grinding joints that crop up in your body.
Self massage & stretching is the easiest way to get started. Using a tool like a tennis ball, lacrosse ball, foam roller, or truly any item that you can think of that would serve a similar function, is one way to get tissue pliable again. Pressure and heat are two ways to change the pliability of soft tissue. You’re getting both when you do self-massage, or Self Myofascial Release (SMR for short).
Two areas you would benefit from improving the quality of your soft tissue are the pecs and the lats. Watch the video below where I show you how to perform SMR on those two areas.
#3 Start strength training
Our bodies adapt based on the resistance and repetitive patterns we apply to them. If our muscles are trained to hold your skeleton tall & stacked, they will hold your skeleton tall & stacked without you having to do the ‘book-on-head, hanger-down-shirt’ tense stance.
Not only does having stronger muscles help you avoid age-related body breakdowns like osteoarthritis, but back strength specifically reduced risk of vertebral fracture later in life.
It’s true that you can’t ‘spot train’ your muscles, so take a full body approach to strength work. And specifically, build your foundation before jumping into high-level skills or training.
If you don’t, you run the risk of moving in a way that recruits smaller muscles as primary drivers instead of the larger muscles that are meant to take the lead. Spending time building your foundation also means spending time learning movement mechanics under reduced- or no- load.
For example, having the ability to hinge at the hips is crucial for doing so many other exercises safely & correctly. Avoid diving right into the deep end expecting your brain to know how to organize the movement of a hip hinge using all of the right muscles. Spend time learning movement patterns & making them high-quality.
Your posture can improve from where it is today. The results take time to appear, but it will happen. You simply need to take conscious efforts now on your current posture, so that your future posture becomes unconscious and effortless.
Kate Galliett is the creator of Fit for Real Life where she brings together body, mind, and movement to help people become highly-charged and fit for real life. She coaches clients in-person, online, and through her foundational strength & mobility program, The Unbreakable Body. She holds a BS in Exercise Science and has worked as a fitness professional for 12 years. Her secret ingredient is always smoked paprika.
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