Contrary to popular belief, the most common types of back pain aren’t a result of some dramatic injury or health condition. Many back pain conditions occur due to poor habits that are repeated over time, including poor posture. Before back pain worsens, here’s how to improve posture for a strong and healthy back.
How to improve posture
Step 1: Know what “good posture” means
Good posture involves aligning the vertebrae of your spine to honor the natural curves that occur. The spine has four natural curves.
- Sacrum: Often referred to as the tailbone, the sacrum naturally curves slightly in and under the body.
- Lumbar spine: The lumbar is the low back and it curves naturally in.
- Thoracic spine: This area of the spine is located in the middle of the back and curves slightly out towards the back of the body.
- Cervical spine: The delicate bones of the neck are also known as the cervical spine. They curve slightly towards the front of the neck.
A person with good posture stands with bones in a straight line when viewed from the side. The ears, shoulders, greater trochanter (the large knobby protrusion on the side of the top of the upper thigh bone), and the ankles are all in one line.
Step 2: Feel into good alignment
When learning how to improve posture, one of the most valuable things you can do is to feel what alignment feels like. Start at the feet and work your way up.
The major problems with poor posture in the feet are pigeon toes (turning in) or duck feet (turning out). To correct either problem, stand with feet hip’s width distance apart and parallel. Lift all ten toes and rock back and forward and side to side on the feet, feeling all four corners of the feet. Settle in the middle of the foot and reach toes forward (instead of clenching them down).
Moving up from the feet, look down and see if your knees are as wide as your ankles. If your feet are pigeon-toed, your knees may knock together. This is a sign that weak gluteus maximus muscles need work. Lie on your side and bend your knees at a 90-degree angle. Raise and lower the top knee only, engaging the glutes. Repeat ten to 15 times on each side.
If you have duck feet that turn the knees and feet out, this means that the glutes are working overtime and your inner thigh muscles need work. When you stand, work on pressing into the big toe mounds of your feet. Work on activating the inner thigh muscles by keeping knees forward and over the center of the feet, and this may be enough to correct duck feet over time. You can also place a foam yoga block between your upper thighs and squeeze into that to activate and strengthen inner thigh muscles.
Lower back pain can be caused by either excessive curve in the lower back or a flat lower back. To find the place in the middle, first find a solid foundation in the feet. Bend the knees slightly and place the hands on the hips. Exhale and rotate your upper inner thighs in, back, and wide, as if you are spreading open your sitting bones. On an exhale, straighten your knees and lengthen your tailbone down towards the floor below you in the space you created between the sitting bones. As you draw your tailbone down, your low belly will engage and lift slightly.
Another great way to experience movement in the pelvis to find balance is through cat/cow pose.
Shoulders and chest
We live and work in a mostly rounded posture, hunched over phones, computers, and steering wheels. To counteract this, inhale your shoulders up, back, and down, hugging shoulder blades on the back. This is more supportive of your upper back.
Head and neck
As you move up the body, the last step is to bring your ears in line with your shoulders. Keeping your chin level with the floor, move it back slightly until it comes in line with your shoulders. This should maintain a gentle cervical curve.
Step 3: Build muscle memory
Putting all of these actions together will feel unnatural at first. If you have chronically poor posture, standing correctly aligned will feel completely incorrect and will require work. In order to make these changes stick, it’s important to work the muscles of good posture to help you keep the spine aligned. Some of the following exercises can help.
- Single leg extension: Working on the core helps support the lumbar spine and keeps the pelvis level. Lie on your back with legs extended and hands clasped behind the head. On an exhale, draw your right knee into your chest while raising your torso off the ground to bring your left elbow to touch. Inhale and switch knees and elbow. Repeat five to ten times, or as many times as you can maintain good form.
- Un-crunches: This move works the obliques, the long muscles that run along the side of the torso and help with twisting and support of the lumbar and thoracic spine. Lie on your back with knees bent and hands clasped behind the head. On an exhale, pull the navel to the spine as you lift the head and chest off the floor. Hold for two breaths, then lower to the floor. Repeat three to five times.
- Open the chest: This can be done while standing or sitting. Inhale the shoulders up and back, bringing shoulder blades onto the back. Slowly turn your thumbs from forward-facing to face behind you. Your chest will naturally open and your shoulders will feel more supported.
Step 4: Integrate good posture into daily life
None of this good alignment and strengthening matters if you do not incorporate good posture into all of your daily activities. When we get engrossed in an activity (e.g. reading, working, etc.) it can be easy to forget everything we know about good posture. Knowing how to improve posture doesn’t matter if you can’t remember to put it into practice. Here are a few ways to make good posture a habit.
- Set reminders: Set an alarm on your phone for 20-minute intervals. When it goes off, check your posture and re-align yourself as necessary. This is also a great time to stand up and take a stretch break.
- Take the time to exercise: Set a specific time every day to work on muscle-building for good posture.
- Exercise anywhere: Then again, there are plenty of posture exercises that you can do anywhere. Make that long line at the grocery store work for you!
- Get support: If you need some help while you are building muscle, check out the many different braces and back support options that can help you work on your posture with support.
- Find resources: There are plenty of infographics that offer information that is useful and clear. Check out this ultimate guide to good posture for starters.
Knowing how to improve posture to reduce back pain can be crucial. What steps can you take to improve your posture right now?