You’ve probably been barked at by at least a few people to “stand up straight,” perhaps even receiving a hand on your back to aid you in doing so. While these people may be a little annoying, they’re more than a little right.
It may be news to you, but good posture is absolutely essential to your health. Before we dive into why that is, let’s first clarify what good posture looks like:
- The head is stacked over the torso, earlobes lined up with the middle of the shoulder.
- The chest is open.
- The shoulders are relaxed (neither scrunched nor forced down and back), stacked over the hips.
- There is some slight (but not excessive) curvature to the spine.
Good posture, like that described above, takes the strain off your shoulders and hips, reduces tightness in your back and neck muscles, and improves your breathing.
It can reduce back pain and improve constipation, headaches, and tingling and numbness in your hands and feet. It can lower the risk of excessive bone degeneration and musculoskeletal pain. It eases the flow of your circulatory and lymphatic systems, improves organ function, and increases your physical, emotional, and mental health overall.
If you want to live a long, healthy, and active life, a healthy back is essential. And a healthy back relies on good posture.
How a Sedentary Lifestyle Sets You Up to Have Bad Posture
Unfortunately, our culture and society are more or less setting us up to have bad posture.
For much of human history, people spent the majority of their time in action (walking, hunting, gathering, working, etc.), but most people these days spend the majority of their time sitting down.
Now, if everyone sat on the edge of their chair, straight-backed with perfect posture, there might not be such a problem with this. However, the chairs we use make it easy for us to sit with terrible posture, slumped over with a slouched spine for hours at a time.
Doing this day in, day out is slowing killing us. Literally. Studies have shown excessive sitting to be a deciding factor in early mortality, regardless of leisure time, alcohol and tobacco consumption, or even physical activity. Many doctors have equated excessive sitting to be a health hazard on par with regular smoking.
Sedentarism has been linked to chronic lower back pain, increased risk of rotator cuff injuries, muscle atrophy, obesity, inadequate exercise, and increased risk of blood clots, deep vein thrombosis (DVT), and metabolic syndrome.
To top it all off, the number-one cause of work-related injuries in the US is poor posture when sitting at a computer.
Shoulders Down and Back?
Before we get into what you should do to improve your posture, I want to first address a common piece of “wisdom” I often hear thrown around: “Pull your shoulders down and back.”
Chances are you’ve heard this statement before. It seems to be a favorite of well-meaning, posture-correcting authority figures everywhere, as timeless as the question, “If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?”
And yet, moving your shoulders down and back is most certainly not the correct path to good posture.
To achieve the traditional “down and back” shoulder posture, you end up flexing your lower trap and rhomboid muscles, which depresses and retracts the shoulder blades. While this does create the illusion of a straight-backed posture, keeping certain muscles flexed like this will only lead to tight, painful back and neck muscles and stiff shoulder blades with poor mobility.
So next time someone tells you to “pull your shoulders down and back,” thank them kindly for their advice, and then promptly ignore said advice.
Instead, do the following:
10 Steps to Improve Your Posture
1. See a chiropractor
The first step to good posture is correct alignment of the spine. If your spine is misaligned due to physical trauma and/or a lifetime of poor habits, you’ll be hard-pressed to have good posture no matter how well you follow the rest of the steps in this article.
A spinal adjustment from a chiropractor (Dr. Axe recommends seeing a Maximized Living Chiropractor) will set a foundation for good posture.
2. Improve pelvis positioning
For healthy, naturally good posture, you want to tilt your pelvis back (the technical term here is “anteverting” the pelvis). Stick your butt out slightly and bring your torso forward, with your weight on your heels.
You may feel weird doing this, but if you look at yourself in the mirror, you’ll most likely find that your back is straight and you look completely normal! If it feels strange, it’s only because you’re used to standing with incorrect posture.
3. Improve breathing mechanics
Breathing is a great tool to improve your posture, because adopting correct breathing mechanics forces your body— specifically your pelvis and ribs— into a healthier, more stable alignment. Correct rib and pelvis alignment is foundational for correct spinal alignment (and thus healthy posture). If you imagine your torso as a large canister, what you want is for the bottom and top of this canister (your pelvis and ribs) to be parallel to each other.
Breathing properly will also strengthen your serratus anterior muscles, the “wings” under your arms. Strong serratus anterior muscles help keep your shoulder blades properly aligned.
4. Improve head positioning
Most people spend hours a day with their heads and necks in awkward positions, from looking down at a phone or hunching forward when driving to sitting at a desk. Good posture requires a straight neck. You want your head stacked over your torso so that your earlobes line up with the middle of your shoulders.
5. Improve thoracic spine mobility
The slouched, curved upper backs seen in offices and coffee shops across the country is almost entirely due to poor thoracic mobility.
If your muscles in this area are chronically tight and stiff, then your spine simply has no room to lengthen and straighten, making good posture nearly impossible. Opening up and increasing the mobility of the middle back and chest muscles gives your spine the space and support it needs to be correctly positioned.
6. Strengthen back and shoulder muscles
Spending long hours sitting down, slumped back in a chair leads to muscle atrophy. Not only are your muscles getting weaker, they are literally wasting away!
Correct spine alignment depends on adequate support from your back and shoulder muscles. So as you find your way into correct alignment of the spine, pelvis, ribs, and head, make sure to also strengthen the muscles supporting all these areas, especially the lower traps.
7. Keep those abs tight
Keeping your abs tight throughout the day promotes and maintains abdominal strength, relieves pressure on your lower back, and generally supports your spine.
As most people tend to let their abs go slack during the day or even actively push their bellies out, practicing this will most likely be tiring. Stick with it– you’ll thank me later.
8. Alternate positions regularly
To avoid muscle strain and atrophy, it’s important you regularly alternate positions throughout the day. Switch between standing and sitting, and generally just move around more often! Take breaks to walk around the office, go outside, stretch, and/or bust out some dance moves.
9. Maintain a healthy weight
Extra weight on your body means extra strain on your back, which makes maintaining good posture difficult. So exercise, eat healthily, and keep the weight off. Your back and spine will thank you!
Anyone can force their body into a semblance of “good posture.” The key is to be able to relax into good posture. Bottom line, it’s not good posture if you’re stiff and tense.
Exercises to Correct Your Posture
Positional breathing: Lie on the floor on your back and place your feet up on a wall, keeping your knees bent. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth into a balloon, keeping your abdominals engaged the entire time. Doing so will make you breathe with your entire torso, which effectively forces your ribs into proper alignment. Breathing this way will also engage your belly, sides, chest, and back, strengthening and loosening all these muscles.
Rock-back breathing: Start on the ground on your forearms and knees, then rock back so your elbows and knees are touching. As you exhale (through your mouth), round your back. “Reach” up through your shoulder blades, as if you’re trying to touch the ceiling with the point of your spine directly between your shoulder blades. In this exercise, keep your butt back over your ankles and your shoulders down, not hunched up to the ears. You can do this exercise on your hands and knees as well. This exercise loosens up your thoracic spine and helps bring your shoulder blades into proper alignment.
Fixing “Forward Head” Posture
The Darth Vader stretch: Raise your arm straight up, then reach your hand behind your head as far down your spine as you can. Holding this position, look down to your opposite armpit, feeling the stretch in your neck. Breathe in and out slowly two to three times, then repeat with the other arm.
Ear drops: Drop your ear to your shoulder, come back to neutral, then repeat with the other side. A great, simple stretch for loosening up the neck muscles.
Front neck muscles: Lie on the floor on your back. Use a pillow behind your head if it doesn’t comfortably reach the ground. Lift your head off the floor by moving your chin toward your sternum, keeping the muscles in the back of your neck relaxed and loose. This exercise is geared toward working out the muscles in the front of your neck (the sternocleidomastoids, for those interested). Start with a few reps, holding for five or six seconds.
For an alternate exercise, lift up your chin, then turn your chin slightly to each side.
Head/chin slide: Lie face-down on the floor with your forehead resting on your forearms. Lift up your head about five inches and hold for five to six seconds. Keep your neck fairly straight and your chin tucked in, as if you were trying to give yourself an extra chin.
Loosening Up Back and Shoulder Muscles
Arm circles: Standing up straight, raise your arms to your sides, hands at shoulder height. Put your shoulders back, squeezing your shoulder blades together, and move your fists in small circles. Perform around 40 reps, moving in each direction. Do one set with your fists facing up and then a set with them facing down. Do this once a day.
Elbow swings: Standing up straight, bring your fists to your temples, elbows up and pointing forward. Keeping your elbows up and your fists at your temples, open your elbows out to the sides, and then bring them back in front of your face. Perform 25 reps.
Cats and dogs (cat/cow pose): Get on your hands and knees. Arch your back, head, and butt up, squeezing your shoulder blades together (cow pose), then round your back (cat pose). Keep your arms straight the whole time. Go back and forth 10-20 times.
Foam roller rolls: Lie on the roller on your back. Turn a bit to the side and roll up and down your lat muscles, pausing and going over particularly sore or tight spots. You can also roll on a lacrosse ball, tennis ball, or baseball to target small areas of tension. Always use a solid, 6-inch wide (or wider) roller for foam roller exercises.
Improving Thoracic Spine Mobility
Tennis ball warm-up: Use a tennis ball to apply pressure to the pecs and serratus muscles (under your armpit). Roll it around with your hand or use a wall, leaning into the ball for more pressure. You can also use a lacrosse ball for more pressure.
Foam roller thoracic warm-up: Put the roller under your back, keeping your butt up and feet flat on the ground. Hug yourself so that your back expands in breadth and roll up and down your thoracic spine, avoiding the neck and lower back. Go slowly, focusing on a few vertebrae at a time.
Foam roller thoracic extension: Get in the same position as the foam roller thoracic warm-up. Put your hands behind your head, pulling your elbows in front of your face as close together as possible. Let your head drop, extending your thoracic spine. Now roll! Pause and go over any painful, sore, or tight spots again.
Tennis ball thoracic extension: Tape together two lacrosse balls, tennis balls, or baseballs. Assume the same position as the last two exercises, placing the two balls under your rib cage. Extend your arms straight over your head, keeping your head touching the ground. Keeping your lower back stable and your hips on the ground, do five sit-ups, moving only your thoracic spine. After five reps, move the two balls an inch or so up the spine. Repeat until the balls are past your shoulder blades.
Massaging and rolling your muscles like this will loosen them up and increase their mobility. Start gently, as these areas are tender for most people.
Side-lying rotations: Lie on your right side with a foam roller under your left knee. Your left knee should be bent around 90 degrees, your right leg straight. Arms are straight ahead, parallel to the ground, with your hands together. Keeping your hips and lower back stable, rotate along the thoracic spine. Roll until your upper back and outer arm are as flat against the ground as you can manage. Keep your abs engaged to keep the rotation in your thoracic spine, not your lumbar spine. Rotate like this 10 times on each side, holding for a few seconds at the end of each rep.
Quad rotations #1: Start on your hands and knees, then place your right hand behind your neck. Rotate so that your right elbow moves toward the floor, keeping the rotation in your thoracic spine. Tighten your abs and lower back and sit back a bit to keep your hips from rotating. Do 10 reps for each side, holding for a couple seconds at the peak of each rep.
Quad rotations #2: Start in the same position as the last exercise, but sit further back on your heels. Drop your chest to your thighs and place your left hand flat on the ground out in front of you. Move your right hand behind your head and rotate your elbow up to the ceiling, keeping the rotation in your thoracic spine. Again, 10 reps on each side, holding for a few seconds at the top.
Sitting rotations: Sit on a bench, chair, or the ground, keeping your spine straight and tall. Put your hands behind your head, spread your elbows out as far they can go, and rotate along your thoracic spine. At the end of your rotation, bend along the thoracic spine. Come back up, rotate further, then bend again. Repeat this as long as you’re increasing your rotation each time. When you stall, switch to the other side.
Dance/yoga: Dances like the Congolese and the Brazilian Samba are fun, playful ways to promote and maintain mobility in the thoracic spine. Yoga is also a great way to stay mobile in this area, though make sure not to overdo it; keep the rotation in your thoracic spine and not your lumbar spine.
Strengthening Back and Shoulder Muscles
Lateral raises (outer and rear deltoids): With dumbbells in hand, lift your arms out to each side until your hands reach shoulder height. Do 15-20 reps standing up straight and then 15-20 reps bent forward a bit, keeping your back straight.
Rows (middle back muscles): You can do these standing or siting on a bench. Keep your back straight and your knees slightly bent. Using either bands or cable weights, pull back, squeezing your shoulder blades together. Hold here for a moment, then release in a slow, controlled motion. Repeat for 10-20 reps.
Pullups/lat pulldowns (lats): Pullups are great for strengthening your lats. If you can’t do a pullup, do lat pulldowns with bands or cable weights. Keep your hands shoulder-width apart.
Wall slides (lower traps): With your back up against a wall, put your arms flat against the wall at 90-degree angles, upper arms parallel to the floor. Keeping your arms flat against the wall, pull your elbows down, feeling a contraction in the muscles under your shoulder blades and wrapping around your ribs.
Prone Y raise (lower traps): Lie face-down on a bench or the floor and place your arms up above your head in a large Y shape. Keeping them in the Y shape, lift your arms up, squeezing your shoulder blades together. You can do this advanced exercise with or without dumbbells, but start with light weights.
Mark Sisson also recommends deadlifts, squats, and Olympic lifts (performed regularly, with perfect form of course) as exercises to strengthen our backs and promote good posture.
Strengthening Serratus Anterior
Scapular wall slide: The following video demonstrates a variation on traditional wall slides. Step up to a wall with your arms forward at 90-degree angles, similar to a boxer putting up his fists in a fight. Using a pair of Valslides or a towel, push into the wall with your forearms so that your upper back is expanded and slightly curved. Maintaining this upper back curvature, push your arms up the wall, driving your shoulder blades toward the armpit. Come back down in a controlled motion, again maintaining the outward curve in your spine between your shoulder blades.
You can also use a band hooked around your back into your thumbs for extra resistance in this exercise. Do sets of six to eight reps.
Serratus press: When doing pushups, handstands, and/or yoga positions like crow’s pose, push out a little farther than normal, expanding your upper back’s breadth like in the “foam roller thoracic warm-up” above. Pushing out this extra bit will take the strain off your joints, work out your serratus muscles, and provide you more stability in pushups, handstands, and yoga positions like crow’s pose.
Floor press: This is a fun, advanced exercise that should be progressed into slowly. Sit on the ground, legs extended. Place your hands on the ground by your hips, fingers facing out, and push up, lifting your whole body off the ground.
Bonus: 6 Tips for Correcting Your Posture During Pregnancy
It’s especially important for pregnant women to maintain good posture. Poor posture during pregnancy can cause long-term back pain and posture issues. Pregnant women can avoid this by following these six tips:
- Use the pelvic tilt method, pulling in your buttocks to keep your weight centered over your hips.
- Alternate positions regularly throughout the day, taking care not to stand or sit in one position for too long. When standing, put a foot up on a chair or stool and switch feet after a while. When sitting, use a chair that supports good posture, and use a pillow to support your lower back.
- When standing, keep your knees soft, slightly bent, and unlocked.
- Stand up straight! A helpful visual to achieve this is to imagine a string running from your hips up your spine and out the top of your head. Imagine someone is pulling on this string, keeping your spine straight. Don’t forget to maintain the pelvic tilt when doing this.
- Keep your abs pulled in and tight throughout the day, even as your belly begins to protrude. This will help maintain your abdominal strength and help you bounce back quickly after the delivery as well.
- Sleep on your side. A small pillow between your knees will keep your spine correctly aligned and help you avoid back pain.
How an 85 Year Old Woman Got Rid of Her Hunchback with Yoga
Thanks to scoliosis, osteoporosis, and a herniated disc, 85-year-old Anna Pesce suffered from a severely hunched spine for decades.
She tried everything she could think of to treat her back pain, including physical therapy, chiropractic adjustments, and even acupuncture treatments, but none of it provided lasting relief. Her condition reached a critical low one day when she collapsed trying to climb a set of stairs. Afterward, she was unable to walk and was confined to a wheelchair for months.
Pesce’s granddaughter eventually connected her with Rachel Jeisen, a certified yoga instructor who specialized in back care. After a month of weekly sessions, Pesce was able to walk again. After four months, Pesce was doing modified headstands against the wall!
Restorative poses and stretches such as chair savasana and child’s pose not only relieved Pesce’s back pain but helped slowly strengthen her muscles and bones as well. In this way, yoga effectively reduced her symptoms of osteoporosis and osteoarthritis.
These days, Pesce is independent, happy, and brighter than ever. She drives herself around and continues to practice yoga daily.
Growing up, the posture-Nazi in my life was my mother.
She was constantly poking me in the back between my shoulder blades, telling me to sit or stand up straight. It was definitely annoying at the time. Eventually I began to listen, though, and I am extremely grateful I did!
It wasn’t until years later that I realized good posture is about more than just looking good— it’s a critical component of a healthily functioning body and mind.
Follow the above exercises and you’ll be well on your way to the healthy back your body needs and desires!