Can You Get Better Posture by Going to the Gym?

Last week a new client came to see me with the hope that I could help him achieve better posture. Alexander Technique isn’t really about posture, but good posture is pretty much always a byproduct. This particular student was frustrated because his trainer told him he needed to back off strengthening his pectoral muscles (which were pulling his arms forward) and begin working his traps harder in conjunction with some core strengthening. But though he had been at it for several weeks, the only change he was finding was a new painful tightness in his upper back and less flexibility in his shoulders.

To begin, I pulled out pictures of young children moving in a balanced and graceful way – sitting perfectly aligned as they ate a Popsicle or looked through a picture book. I asked my client this: if good posture is achieved by targeting certain muscle groups in strength training, then how is it that these little guys can be incredibly balanced and poised without giving it a second thought? The answer is young children haven’t yet learned how to interfere with their good posture. They simply don’t know any other way of sitting, walking or moving.

Then I asked my client: What if he were to shift his thinking? Instead of assuming good posture was something he needed to earn through hard work, what if he assumed that natural balance, ease and poise was something he already had but had been covered up with habitual patterns of tension? As the client and I began working together, he was amazed to see that simply by letting go of excess tightness, his slump melted away and he could find relief from his upper back pain. Incredibly, he had become so used to most of these habitual tension patterns, he didn’t even know he was carrying them around! Through our work it became clear to him that in order to find balance and poise, there was no need to “engage the core”, “engage the back muscles”, “sit up straight”, or “press the shoulders down.”

Lets look at this phenomenon from an anatomical point of view to understand why. The postural muscles (the muscles that are responsible for keeping you erect and in balance) are part of an incredibly intricate system. There are important muscle groups that are several layers deep; their positioning so complex that from the outside they look to be creating a woven braid around the spine. However big or small, the postural muscles of the neck, trunk, pelvis, arms, and legs, work in concert with gravity and with each other in a most elegant fashion when they are not pulled out of whack by us interfering with them. In other words, the best thing we can do to allow our natural balance and poise to reemerge is to get out of our own way and do less. This may seem like a strange concept – you might be thinking you have bad posture because you haven’t yet taken the time to interfere with it, but let me tell you it’s exactly the opposite.

One note: I am in no way saying exercise is bad for your posture. In fact, regimes like Pilates that maintain a more holistic approach to strengthening can be very beneficial in rediscovering your natural balance and poise. A good Pilates, Tai Chi, or Yoga instructor can help you uniformly develop strength and prevent one set of muscles from overcompensating for another set. I sometimes have a client who is coping with a debilitating and/or degenerative disease, has been through a serious accident or injury, or finds that their body is too weak to support itself. I almost always recommend they seek out work with a physical therapist, Pilates Instructor, Yoga instructor or chiropractor in conjunction with a course of Alexander Technique lessons in order to help them regain strength and flexibility. But though the instructor may ask their client to consciously contract muscle groups (like “engage the core” or “pull the shoulders in and down”) during the session for strengthening purposes, outside of that hour this tightening is not only unhelpful, it is potentially damaging.

Okay. We’ve established that we don’t have to work harder to get better posture. Terrific. Who wants to work harder? But how exactly do we let go of unconscious tension patterns so that our natural balance and poise reasserts itself????

Lets begin by examining a common issue: slumping. When we slump at our desks, the weight of the head is pulled forward in front of the body. The spine rounds into a curve and it becomes impossible for the postural muscles that run along the spine to do their job of holding us erect effectively. We fight this rounding by pulling ourselves up, squaring the shoulders, sitting up straight, or engaging the core. But because we have recruited the wrong sets of muscles for the job, our backs soon get tired and we fall back into our slump (which after a few minutes also begins to get uncomfortable as excess pressure is placed on the nerve bearing part of the spine).

Try this instead: Begin by allowing your neck release or soften. Instead of letting your head get pulled forward in front of your body, allow the weight of your head to balance delicately on top of the spine. Imagine that your spine runs directly through the center of your body and supports you three-dimensionally. Notice if your lower back is rounded and if you are sitting back behind your legs. If you are, see if you can bring yourself forward until your weight is balanced on top of your “sit bones” (the two bony bumps at the very bottom of your bottom) instead of back on the bottom of your spine. Without pushing or engaging your shoulders, simply allow them to release and widen away from each other. Notice if you are contracting your abdominals or tightening in your middle back and see if you can let that go as well. Feel different? You are now allowing the natural curves of the spine to work for you. You are allowing the postural muscles to work in concert with gravity and keep you upright in a tireless fashion. You’ve stopped interfering and, just as you did when you were four years old, are giving permission for your body to work as it was designed to. The best part is, the more attention you put on balance, ease, and release, the stronger the postural muscles become all on their own.

The experiment above can be very difficult to figure out alone. Help yourself out by trying this in front of a mirror, with a friend, or best, with an experienced Alexander Technique teacher who can guide you in detail.

I welcome comments, dissention, differences of opinion, and helpful links below. I am especially interested in hearing from anyone who has tried both a course in Alexander Technique lessons AND a course with a trainer, Pilates instructor, Yoga instructor, or chiropractor to speak on what their comparative experiences have been.