Craig Valency, CSCS
Part 1: Posture First
Going to the gym to work out is supposed to be good for you, right? Well, it’s not always as beneficial as it seems. What you don’t know could hurt you! In this post, I will describe how your posture is compromised while you are at work. You’ll see how going to the gym and working out with this desk posture can actually lead to injury, or at least reinforce bad posture. You’ll learn the three steps necessary to make a permanent change in posture, as well as some exercises you can do at the office to help maintain good posture and relieve stress.
If you’re like most people, you spend a good part of your day sitting at a desk, hunched over a computer. If so, you probably have problems with your posture that can worsen over time if you work out improperly. Because you are seated for so many hours of the day, your hip flexor muscles are chronically shortened. Therefore, the opposite muscle (buttocks) is necessarily chronically lengthened or weak. That’s one reason why sitting all day contributes to a flabby butt!
Unfortunately, tight hip flexors are not the only side effect of a sedentary job. Your upper body suffers as well! If you have an office job, you are probably sitting at a desk, day after day. Your hands are on the keyboard, your back is rounded, and your chin is gazing forward at a screen. This causes your chest muscles to shorten, adapt, and mold to this posture. At the same time, you also develop lengthened muscles between the shoulder blades and the deep neck muscles that pull your head back. This posture can eventually lead to tension headaches, shoulder pain, and even breathing problems.
What NOT to Do
After eight hours at the office, what better way to relieve stress than going to the gym! First, you warm up by hunching over a stationary bike for about 10 minutes. Then, you do several lat pull downs behind your head. These are followed by chest presses and the usual heaping dose of crunches. Guess what! You’ve now reinforced the desk posture, rounded shoulders, and flexed spine you’ve been molding so efficiently at work. The only difference is that you’ve added weight so you could strengthen your already imbalanced posture!
Besides reinforcing bad posture, you may be doing major damage to your rotator cuff. When you do any upper body exercises with rounded shoulders, you create an impingement every time you extend your arm. If your shoulders are rounded, the sub-acromial space (the area through which your rotator cuff tendon passes) narrows as you extend your arms. You are, in essence, slowly sawing into your tendons. If you keep it up, you could tear your rotator cuff tendon.
The Problem With “Stretch and Strengthen”
How do you avoid these problems? The key is to get a postural assessment so you can find out what is imbalanced in your body. Once you have that information, you can address those imbalances before you do anything else. Beware conventional wisdom when addressing these imbalances. The most widespread prescription, which is still espoused today (and by me a couple of years ago), says that the solution to problems with posture is twofold: First, stretch the shortened, tight muscles. Then, strengthen the lengthened, weak, and flabby muscles.
In theory, this sounds great; but it’s not that simple. See, muscles normally contract and relax in sequence. Now, however, the rounded back muscles, for example, are under continuous strain just from holding the head in a forward position, so they never actually relax. The body, infinitely wise, sends out some help in the form of collagen, which secretes itself in and around the muscle. These fibers align along the lines of tension and essentially act as a strap to help the muscle hold that posture. So in a sense, the body is being solidified like stone into the dominant posture you hold all day.
Don’t despair! There is a solution: The collagen fibers can be reabsorbed, and the body can be fully restored to function; but simply stretching the muscles won’t do. Even though the muscles in your rounded back are longer than normal, and the front muscles of your chest and abdomen are shorter, they both are essentially locked in place. Simple stretches aren’t enough, and pulling your shoulders back won’t stick. How many times have you been told to sit up straight and stop slumping? It lasts about 30 seconds, and then you can’t hold it anymore– those “straps” are in place conspiring against you!
The True Posture Solution
There are three main prerequisites to make a permanent change:
- First, you must prime the muscle to get the fluids flowing again. You need to break up scar tissue through deep body work such as massage, Rolfing, foam rolling, and massage sticks.
- Next, the neurons that innervate the muscles must start firing again through proper exercise. This program of corrective exercise should precede a traditional weight-training program, or you could do more damage by reinforcing poor posture.
- Finally, you have to ease the forces that have been pulling on the muscles. You have to avoid the positions and postures that caused the problem in the first place.
- This can be accomplished through subtle ergonomic changes in seat height. You could also try sitting on a ball instead of a chair. Changing your keyboard placement, for example, could help too. You might even consider a standing desk!
- It would also be wise to set an hourly alarm on your computer or watch. Every hour, do 10-15 repetitions of 4-5 basic postural exercises at work. After eight hours of work, you will have done 20-30 sets and over 300 repetitions. In one week, that is 1,500 repetitions of “anti-gravity” postural exercises. That doesn’t even count the proper, targeted exercises you’ll be doing in the gym two or three days a week!
Here are some simple exercises you could do at work every hour or two to help promote good posture. Do all of these in the standing position (choose at least 4-5 exercises per day. The total time for the 11 exercises is 7 minutes.)
- Deep breathing: Inhale through your nose as you raise your arms in front of your body. Then, exhale through your mouth as your arms descend on sides of your body (10 reps)
- Neck stretches: side to side (hold 15 sec)
- Toe touch to overhead reach (10 reps)
- Side bends with overhead side reach (10 reps each side)
- Torso rotations with arm reach at shoulder height (10 reps to each side)
- Lunge stretches for hip flexors
- Straight up reach (5 reps)
- Side bend with reach (5 reps)
- Rotation with reach (5 reps)
- Sword draw- one arm (10 reps each arm)
- Chain breakers (15 reps)
- Scapular retractions (10 reps; hold each for 2-3 seconds)
- Neck/chin tucks (10 reps; hold each for 2-3 seconds)
- Deep Breathing: Bend your knees slightly. Bend over 45 degrees with straight back, arms in front of you. Inhale as you stand back up straight as you pull your elbows back (10 reps)
The Bottom Line
Going to the gym is not necessarily a good thing, if you are not doing the right thing! First, fix what is out of balance so that you can build on that solid foundation. To correct years of postural imbalance, get an assessment. Then, body work, like massage and foam rolling, can help unlock the muscles. Next, do the right kind of exercises to strengthen and stretch the muscles correctly. And finally, make sure you are maintaining your new look with postural resets periodically throughout your work days.
In part 2, I’ll describe some basic exercises that you can do at the gym or at home to set the stage for effective strength training.