Recently I injured my shoulder by exercising poor judgement at the gym. One thing led to another, and I found myself at the mercy of a physical therapist. On my first visit, she explained that shoulder injuries are always treated by first addressing posture deficiencies. . . regardless of age, she hesitantly added. I reminded her that I had sustained my injury exhibiting super-human strength at the gym, not because I was old. She had no reply.
Proper Posture Devolves Over Time
Athletes suffer from the SAID Principle, or Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands. Any given sport will produce adaptations specific to the activity performed. If you’re a figure skater, you’d adapt to the specific strength demands required for figure skating. For runners to develop the endurance for long distances, we must train by running long distances. Adaptations occur in the muscles and systems that are stressed by that activity.
With repetitive movement (or non-movement such as prolonged sitting), the muscle and soft tissue remodel to become stronger in the direction of stress. This is good as it relates to our sport, but long term repetition can create muscular imbalances that slowly devolve into poor posture. As posture deteriorates, joint movements become restricted allowing muscles to weaken. The joints then try to compensate causing pain, stiffness and loss of mobility.
A quick review of exercises that improve posture yields a variety of core strengthening exercises. Most athletes rely on a strong core, and we already spend a fair amount of time on the effort. However, good posture is not only derived from a strong core, but also from the neck, shoulders and hips. Although my strengthening exercises were effectively targeting the core, they were not targeting these other areas that are also essential to good posture.
The Crossed Syndrome
A cyclist‘s position on the bike causes tightening of some muscles while the opposing muscles lengthen and become weak resulting in upper crossed and lower crossed syndrome. Both have negative effects on posture and efficiency for cyclists.
Upper Crossed Syndrome occurs when the back muscles of the neck and shoulders (upper trapezius, and levator scapula) become extremely overactive and strained. The muscles in the front of the chest (the major and minor pectoral is muscles) become shortened and tight. Potential injuries include headaches, biceps tendonitis, rotator cuff impingement and thoracic outlet syndrome.
With Lower Crossed Syndrome the gluteals (gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, gluteus minimus) and abdominal muscles become weak or inhibited, and the hip flexors (rectus femoris and iliopsoas) and lumbar erector spinae become tight. Injuries can include hamstring strains, anterior knee pain and low back pain.
One-sided rotational sports (such as tennis, golf, hockey, baseball…) can also cause this type of muscle imbalance, although all athletes are at risk of injury from muscle imbalances regardless of the cause.
Uncovering Posture-Enhancing Movements
Over these past few months of recovery, I’ve formulated a routine that stretches and strengthens those muscles that cause our posture to devolve over time while also targeting the core muscles that are normally part of a runner’s strengthening regimen. The goal was to create a sequence that was easy to remember, could be completed in about 10 minutes, and wouldn’t require equipment.
There’s dozens of exercises that target the neck, shoulders, core and hips, so it’s easy to add or substitute other exercises to more intensely target one area or another. This basic routine provides a good starting point, however, as to the types of exercises you would want to include in a personalized program.
This program hasn’t completely replaced my regular strengthening program, but it’s been an effective way to build core strength in a way that also helps support proper posture. The 10 movements include:
- Standing Half Forward Bend
- Camel Pose
- Child’s Pose
- Classic Plank
- Side Plank – Left
- Side Plank – Right
- SpiderMan Stretch w/T-Spine Rotation
- Up Dog
- Child’s Pose
Disclaimer: If you are just beginning an exercise program, you’re dealing with a back, neck or shoulder issue, suffer from high or low blood pressure or have other health issues, please consult your physician or a physical therapist before performing this or any other exercise regimen.
Hold each position for 30-60 seconds, for 5-10 breaths, or as long as you can. Perform 1-3 complete sets.
1. STANDING HALF FORWARD BEND
Uttanasana: Sanskrit word combination: ‘ut’ means Intense, ‘tan’ means Stretch, and ‘asana’ refers to Posture.
Primary muscles involved: stretches the hamstrings and low back.
Tips: Keep feet shoulder width apart and parallel. Bend at the hips (not the waist). Beginners should bend the knees if necessary, but don’t worry if you can’t touch the ground. Go as far as you can. Don’t forget to breathe.
Variation: STANDING FORWARD FOLD WITH HAND CLASP
This pose stretches your hamstrings and low back, while the hand clasp opens the chest and shoulders. Keep a soft bend in your knees and use a strap or towel to make the pose more accessible. If you can, keep your torso long and your knees even.
2. CAMEL POSE
Primary muscles involved: Shoulders, Chest, Core, Hip Flexors
Tips: Keep the legs vertical, and push the hips in the forward direction. Bend the head and the spine backward without straining, and don’t allow the shoulders to extend past the feet. Relax the muscles and breathe normally.
Variation: an easier variation of this pose is to position the palms on the lower back while slightly bending the head and spine backward. Relax the muscles and breathe normally.
3. CHILD’S POSE
A relaxation and resting pose that normalizes circulation, and gently stretches the hips, thighs, ankles and spine. Leave the arms stretched out in front, or rest palms beside your feet.
4. CLASSIC PLANK
Primary muscles involved: biceps, neck, and shoulders
Secondary muscles involved: arms, biceps, core, thighs and gluteus.
Tips: Keep your torso straight and rigid, the body in a straight line from ears to toes with no sagging or bending. This is the neutral spine position. Ensure your shoulders are down, not creeping up toward your ears. Your heels should be over the balls of your feet.
Variation: TALL PLANK
5. SIDE PLANK – LEFT
Lean on your left elbow and forearm in a side-lying position, with your shoulders and hips parallel to the floor. Raise your hips until your body forms a straight line from your ankles to your shoulders. Brace your core by contracting your abs forcefully as if you were about to be punched in the gut. Place your right hand on the hip. Hold the position without letting your hips drop.
Primary muscles involved: deep abdominal muscles (obliques, transverse abdominis), quadratus lumborum (muscle in the lower back)
Secondary muscles involved: erector spinae, adductors, gluteus medius, gluteus minimus.
Variation: SIDE PLANK ON HAND
6. PUSH-UP (perform up to 30 reps, or as many as you can)
The New York Times says, As a symbol of health and wellness, nothing surpasses the simple push-up. The push-up is the ultimate barometer of fitness.
Starting from the tall plank position, keep the pelvis tucked in and the neck neutral with palms directly under the shoulders. Keep the back flat while lowering the body by bending the elbows until the chest barely grazes the floor. Extend the elbows and repeat as many reps as possible.
Primary muscles involved: chest muscles/pectorals, shoulders/deltoids, back of your arms/triceps, abdominals, the “wing” muscles directly under your armpit, called the serratus anterior.
Variations: bend your legs at the knees to make the pushup easier. If necessary, start out doing the exercise against the wall instead of the floor or from the edge of the kitchen counter.
To make the pushup harder, adjust the position of the hands either wider or more narrow, use the fingertips instead of the palms, or place your feet on a high surface such as a bench to increase resistance.
Advanced: The Hundred Pushups Training Program (a 6-week program)
7. SIDE PLANK – RIGHT
8. SPIDER-MAN STRETCH W/T-SPINE ROTATION (perform 10 reps each side, or as desired)
According to the renowned strength coach Mike Boyle, the Spider-Man is extraordinary because performing it to one side simultaneously develops mobility in both hips. The movement requires you to tilt your pelvis backward, which prevents your back from arching and forces you to stretch the opposite side’s hip flexors, Boyle says.
Take a long lunge forward. Place fingertips or palms on the ground in line with the front foot. Make sure the knee is on the outside of the arms, not between them. Keep back knee off the ground. Look up and create a neutral spine. Step through and repeat with other leg. After attaining a neutral spine, lift the outside arm towards the sky. Watch your hand as your lift the arm.Attempt to create a straight line between your arms.
9. UP DOG
Stretches the chest and abdominal muscles while strengthening the shoulders, triceps, forearms, and low back.
The palms should be aligned under the shoulders, the shoulder blades engaged and pulling the shoulders down and away from the ears, the chest open, and the eyes looking forward.
Only the palms of your hands and the tops of your feet should be touching the floor. Push strongly into both.
Primary muscles involved: Chest, shoulders, abdominals, triceps, forearms, low back
10. End with CHILD POSE
8 Neck and Shoulder Stretches to Relieve Pain: Work and play both stress the neck and shoulders. Here’s how to recover; OutsideOnline
5 exercises to correct lower cross syndrome in cyclists, Canadian Cycling Magazine