Posture is about how we use our bodies on a day-to-day basis. Hunched, upright, round-shouldered or military-style, posture is so individual that it even helps identify someone at a distance. But its effects are more than just aesthetics. Postural changes are linked to fatigue, pain, breathing and digestion problems, and even mental health issues. So, what should we be aiming for with posture, and how can personal training help achieve it?

People work with a personal trainer for many reasons. Some have goals related to their athletic performance, while for others it’s about weight loss. Or it might be to regain fitness safely after an injury, or simply to counteract life’s stresses. Using a personalized, monitored training plan is a sure-fire way to improve fitness, strength, flexibility, energy levels and mental wellbeing.

But what about posture? Clients often report that their posture has improved with regular personal training. It’s a happy by-product of better core stability and muscle balance, and perhaps of better mental health and increased confidence too.

So, if your lifestyle is basically sedentary and you’ve noticed that your posture isn’t quite what it used to be, should you be concerned? And can personal training help?

Is posture important?

There’s a widely held assumption that slouching causes back pain. It seems so likely – we surely need to be properly aligned to prevent gravity wreaking havoc on our bodies, don’t we?

But it seems not to be quite so clear-cut – a recent analysis of the research shows there’s a link between posture and back pain, but there’s no clear evidence that poor posture causes back pain. Does that mean posture isn’t important? No, it doesn’t.

There’s no doubt that a posture that stresses your body will, given enough of a chance, produce pain and dysfunction. Personal trainers sometimes work with people whose profession means awkward positions are inevitable. This includes roles that are sedentary, such as the long-haul pilot, ones that use inappropriate equipment, such as the teacher who is constantly perched on a child’s chair, or those that require sustaining difficult positions, such as dentists and dental nurses. [1] Increasing the strength and flexibility of people with such professions allows them to accommodate awkward positions for longer while staying pain-free – it’s a proactive approach to health.

When it comes to office working or other sedentary professions, it appears there are a lot of individual factors that determine whether someone develops posture-related pain. Posture is personal – walk into any office and you’ll see as many different postures as there are people. Some of them will have back pain, and some won’t. Pain isn’t an inevitable outcome of slouching.

However, some studies have found a causal posture-pain link, such as this one. The paper concludes that “sitting for more than half a workday, in combination with…awkward postures, does increase the likelihood of having low back pain and/or sciatica”. Occupational health departments across the world don’t invest in posture-friendly equipment for no reason – there is a connection between posture and pain. It’s just that the research into whether, or how, poor posture causes pain has had mixed results – there’s no clear consensus.

And while it’s true that both slouching and upright people have back pain, slouching is still probably not the best way to treat your body over long periods.

Pain is a complex, individual experience. Each person has a finite capacity to cope with stress, whether physical, mental, environmental, or of any other sort. Our weighing scales are loaded on one side with all these stresses, and to manage them, we need to balance the scales with things that add to our resilience. If the scales come down on the stress side, something fails – and often, the end result is pain.

Imagine two people climbing the staircase in a tower. The first, young and healthy, reaches the twentieth floor before they can’t go any further. The second, though, already has a touch of arthritis in one knee, has had a recent chest infection, and maybe they have some worries on their mind. Their pool of resilience is already partly used up, and they only reach the tenth floor before they become overwhelmed.

In a similar way, hanging on to a posture that is detrimental to your overall wellbeing can add to your pile of stressors. If you already have other things in that pile, such as old injuries or high levels of inflammation, it makes you more vulnerable. Maybe things then start to go wrong.

And it’s not just about back pain

Posture can also affect your health in other ways. This small study on breathing mechanics, for example, showed that head-neck posture in healthy young males has an immediate impact on diaphragm strength.

The diaphragm is our main breathing muscle. It draws breath down to the lowermost parts of the lungs, where the most efficient gas exchange takes place. As the diaphragm descends, it massages the contents of the abdomen underneath, aiding digestive function. Its regular cycle of contraction and relaxation prevents food regurgitating from the stomach, and it also draws venous blood back from the lower body to the heart.

Good diaphragm function is important for health, then. And slouching stops you using this wonder-muscle to its best effect. You can feel this yourself: sitting upright, take a deep belly breath. Then slouch and repeat. You’ll find it much harder the second time.

And the less you use the large diaphragm for breathing, the more you’ll need to use the smaller respiratory muscles. Small muscles that pick up the work of larger ones quickly become fatigued. This often shows up as muscle knots, known as ‘trigger points’. Trigger points, such as these in the scalene muscles of the neck, can produce pain locally, and they can also refer pain to other areas, producing a surprising array of symptoms.

Personal training for posture

The goal of personal training, then, is to increase your capacity for coping. It adds to your resilience, balancing the burden of stress. It’s about reducing your vulnerabilities and making sure you’re in the best place to deal with your daily demands.

That includes working on your general fitness and health. Muscles that are strong and flexible will respond better to whatever you need them to do. This is true of the postural muscles, as well as the major muscles of movement.

Posture is as much a result of habit as anything else. We tend to adopt a certain way of sitting or standing that is personal to us.

However, habitual postures write themselves into our structure. Our bodies adapt, according to how we use them. This can be seen in people who have a sitting-focused lifestyle. The hip flexor muscles, important for spinal and postural stability, are held constantly in a shortened position, and as a result they become tighter and weaker. A qualified personal trainer can assess you, evaluating how compensatory patterns may be causing weakness, restriction or pain. A plan of functional corrective exercise can reset these patterns and restore healthy movement.

And although habit might be the biggest influence on posture, making a change for the better isn’t impossible. It requires interrupting the ‘automatic setting’ that our brains impose on our bodies. To do that, we need to sharpen our sense of proprioception – how our body is held in space. Most of us have some asymmetries or rotations in our bodies. We don’t even know they’re there. When someone points them out to us, we can often change them. But these automated patterns are hard to shift.

Personal training can identify and challenge these habitual settings, or ‘muscle memory’. Using guided proprioceptive techniques, such as balance training or biofeedback using a mirror, a personal trainer can reinforce less-used neural pathways to muscles that your brain has ‘forgotten’. These are muscles that have become weak or inhibited because of pain, or because the opposing muscle is overstimulated, tight or over-represented in your brain’s circuitry.

For example, a posture with the arms out in front, such as that when typing at a keyboard, can over time shorten the pectoral (chest) muscles. Stimulating and strengthening the opposing muscles in the back, such as the lower trapezius muscles, can counteract the forward shift of the shoulders that results from that posture. This also has the effect of allowing the front of the chest to expand properly, facilitating good function of the ribcage and diaphragm.

Reawakening these neural connections not only rebalances areas that have become tight or overactive, but it also creates the freedom to break away from habitual postures. You’ve got to move it to be able to use it!

Want to improve your posture, strength and health?

If you have pain related to your daily activities, or you’re worried about your posture, see what difference personal training can make to you. At OCHK in Central, our NASM-qualified personal trainer and Corrective Exercise Specialist, Jacqui, has years of experience helping people improve their strength, flexibility, posture and wellbeing. Take the next step for your health – book a session here.

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