Any time the subject of posture comes up, it creates the image of a bunch of wanna-be debutantes struggling to learn how to walk in finishing school. But before we start walking around with our three favorite strength training books perched atop our heads, let's get realistic about posture.
It's plain silly to think we're going to be sitting, standing, and walking with a completely erect spine and our head stacked directly above our shoulders 100 percent of the time. It's a nice thought, and it's maybe even a correct one, but it's a pipe dream.
Slouching is Normal
For every theory or study that comes out, there needs to be a legitimate balance of real world application before we jump on board. If it's actionable day to day, it has some legitimacy that goes beyond the depths of the research.
If we want to make lasting and sensible change happen, postural correction can't be looked at in any way other than holistically. It's not about having our postural muscles "engaged" 24 hours per day. It's about having those muscles strong, responsive, and engaged when we need them to be. There's a difference.
Have you ever looked at dancers and gymnasts when they're at rest? Despite being paragons of posture, they always slouch! This goes to show that we need a new perspective on poor posture.
Tedious movements like the "empty can" exercise, YTI's, wall slides, and external pulley rotations all serve the body well, but they're not the be-all and end-all to fix posture problems, mainly because they're far too isolated.
We're dealing with a number of complex structures working together to create a result, and good movements need to be done in the right balance and with the right mind to solve the problem. Zeroing in on the rear delts or any of the four rotator cuff muscles in isolation is a nice thought, but it's smarter to assess the skeletal spine before getting to the muscles. That's what will give us real answers.
The True Culprits of Poor Posture
When you slouch and struggle to use good form in basic movement patterns, it can definitely be a product of inflexibility, but it's just as often a product of poor integrity of the thoracic spine. The T-spine should have the capability of flexing and extending, along with the capability of going through rotation at each segment.
When either of these capacities are subpar, the lumbar spine takes on much more of a workload than it should. Before addressing anything muscular, it's important to train that jimmied up portion of spine so that it extends and rotates freely without any load whatsoever.
We can easily do that by doing the following movements several times a week. Note that none of them involve emptying imaginary beer cans or leaning up against a wall and pretending you're being held up at gunpoint.
1 – Foam Roller Thoracic Spine Extension
Using your body plus gravity and a foam roller is a great way to make the spine feel extension without a real muscular force-feed. Being able to have the back and shoulders fold around the roller can help the body and spine connect the brain to the feeling of extension without too much muscular "fighting for position." It's actually more of a relaxing stretch. Using different arm positions can be a game changer to help understand how this translates to overhead exercises.
2 – Spiderman Walk with Thoracic Rotation
Adding a twist to your Spiderman walk allows for a great thoracic rotary component in a dynamic fashion. Make sure to twist in both directions. Keep pointing the forward-facing knee straight ahead instead of allowing it to bow outwards, which is the tendency.
3 – Resisted Scapular Slide
Scapular wall slides are a potentially great exercise that people are taught to do for improved shoulder rotation, upper back activation, scapular mobility, and anterior muscle release as a by-product.
To do them, a lifter would simply stand with the heels, butt, upper back, shoulders, and full arms and hands against the wall, reduce the lower back arch, and slide the hands up and down, mimicking a full shoulder press movement pattern.
The problem is that people can adapt quickly to an unloaded mobility drill, and because of this, the wall slide can become another non-transferrable "skill" that doesn't carry over to improved posture or performance.
To remedy this, adding some mild resistance can "remind" the muscles of the rotator cuff to center the humeral head in the socket and create a much more effective external rotation position. Plus, using a neutral grip via ropes (as compared to a palms-forward grip) creates a more ideal and shoulder-friendly environment for external rotation that can act to counter anterior shoulder glide and ultimately put a real dent in bad posture.
For resisted scapular slides, use a cable pulley and perform the lift from a seated position. This allows you to focus on avoiding back hyperextension, which is a common compensation pattern when you have bad shoulder mobility.
This movement creates a force angle that works against the standard slide pattern, so keeping the hands and arms moving along the same plane becomes a more challenging task for the scapular muscles.
4 – Glute Ham Raise (GHR) Blackburns
You can take advantage of lighting up the entire posterior chain by doing some Blackburns on the GHR machine, which uses the same patterns as the resisted scapular slides described above, but is much more difficult.
Keep the spine level and the glutes engaged. Go through the motion without letting the arms fall towards the floor. This gives the rotator cuff muscles a green light to work in tandem with all of their synergists.
If You've Got Bad Posture, Be Wary of Pull-Ups
That's right, pull-ups might bite you. When most people think "pull-up," they think "back." And when they think "back," they think "good posture" and "healthy."
The truth is, pull-ups and chins aren't necessarily the do-no-wrong exercise that many make them out to be. Just because you're doing a pull motion instead of a press doesn't mean you're not still bearing load from an overhead position.
If your poor posture prevents you from achieving proper range of motion at the shoulder joint, you're not going to help your posture or your shoulder health by force feeding a hanging pull pattern into your program – at least not until your shoulder capsules are good and ready to handle them.
Instead, build your skill at row variations to keep your muscles and connective tissue in the safe zone until you're read to functionally correct pull-ups.
To Sum Up
- Start skeletal and focus on T-spine health first.
- For improved shoulder rotation and more successful overhead pressing, do resisted wall slides.
- Row more often than you pull up to spare your joints undue stress.
- Make the back muscles strong and responsive through proper training so you can erect your spine on command. You don't need to walk around like a member of the British National Guard all day long.