We all have some idea of what it looks like to have bad posture: to slump forward, slouch, or collapse inwardly. But what exactly is good posture?
If reading this has made you straighten up and square your shoulders, then you already have some idea of what it means to have good posture. But there’s more to it than that. Keep reading for a PT’s take on proper posture—what it looks like, how it benefits you, and what you can do to improve your posture at home.
A Picture of Good Posture
Leaf through an anatomy textbook and you’ll discover that ideal posture is more than just a flat back. In fact, the textbook definition of good posture involves the whole body, with “ears over shoulders and shoulders over hips.” By that standard, if you have good posture then I could theoretically drop a plumb line straight from your ears to your ankles.
There’s nothing wrong with the textbook depiction of good posture, but in reality, it’s a bit more nuanced. You can’t always sustain that perfect plumbline all day as you walk your dog, check your phone, and clean the floor. Rather, having a variety of healthy postures is more important than achieving some sort of “perfect posture” prize.
Everyday good posture exists in two forms: static (still) and dynamic (moving) postures. Sitting and standing are two kinds of static postures, while walking exemplifies a dynamic posture.
Let’s consider what it takes to have good posture in static activities.
Too often we toss the idea of good posture out the window as we collapse into a chair. But it’s still important to maintain that “plumb line” in your upper body while seated. First, make sure your chair has a back and can support your lower back. Your feet should rest flat on the floor (not crossed at the knee or ankles), so lower your chair or use a footrest if you can’t touch the floor.
Conversely, if you’re tall and your knees sit higher than your hips, then you may find that you have to tilt your pelvis down and roll your back forward to compensate for a short chair. Your best move would be to replace that ill-fitting chair for a height-adjustable, ergonomic one—but a thick seat cushion can do in a pinch.
Besides your seat, adjusting what is in front of you can also help promote good posture. While working at a computer, raise the monitor so that you don’t have to bring your head down to see the center of the screen comfortably. If you use a laptop, set up a separate keyboard so you can properly rest your arms as you type or surf.
Finally, whenever possible, bring items closer to your face instead of leaning in to see them—be it a book, cellphone, or other fine print.
As mentioned before, good standing posture is ideally straight and centered. But you can better support this “plumbline posture” by adjusting your footwear and your environment.
It’s hard to overemphasize the importance of proper footwear on musculoskeletal health. From plantar fasciitis to postural pain, unsupportive shoes—no matter the style or price—are generally not worth the body ailments they cause. Wearing high heels makes your body pitch forward and your pelvis roll into an anterior pelvic tilt. And flat, flimsy shoes aren’t much better. Without proper arch support and a deep heel cup, you’ll compensate for that support elsewhere, either by slouching or splaying your feet.
Even if your shoes are ideal, your environment may not be. For instance, if you’re particularly tall, the average countertop might be too short for you to avoid severely stooping as you chop vegetables or clean dishes. Not everyone can afford a kitchen renovation, but simpler measures such as using a raised butcher block or sitting on an elevated stool can make a sizable difference.
While Lying Down
Finally, how you hold yourself when lying down can either prevent or contribute to body aches.
Sleeping on your stomach is one of the worst positions for your back and neck. It’s even worse if you hug a pillow as you sleep. My best advice is to roll over onto your back, but if changing your sleeping posture is impossible, prop up your hips with a pillow to alleviate the curve in your lower spine.
Side-sleeping is less detrimental, but you can make it more ergonomic with a few well-placed supports and a thick pillow. The goal is to keep your back in “neutral spine,” so you may need to tuck a pillow or towel above your hips and another in between your knees to keep your spine aligned.
Even if you sleep on your back—the best posture for lying down—you might need to upgrade your pillow or mattress to avoid waking up sore. A mattress topper and a high-quality cervical neck pillow can make for a great temporary fix.
Benefits of Good Posture
Good posture is one of the best assets you can have for long-term musculoskeletal health. When your body is in its proper alignment, you’ll be stronger, sturdier, and better protected from injury. For example, rounding your shoulders and craning your neck will stiffen and shorten some muscles while overextending others. Sustain this poor posture for too long, and you could develop an overdue injury such as carpal tunnel syndrome.
Good postural habits not only prevent injury, they can also help reduce back and neck pain. That’s because poor posture—and the stress it causes muscles—can form knots which refer pain to proximal muscles. Suppose you suffer from headaches whenever you use your phone for long periods of time. You may chalk it up to eyestrain, a plausible cause. But eyestrain often correlates with poor posture, making you slouch forward to view your screen better as your eyes tire. Those headaches might in fact be radiating from a bad knot in your stiff traps, which shoots pain to your temples in the form of a tension headache.
So by developing good posture, you can avoid injury, minimize body pain, and also decrease the number and severity of headaches you experience throughout the day. The benefits of good posture can also be cosmetic, helping you look younger, leaner, and less like a slump in family photos.
Exercises for Improving Posture
The longer you sustain poor posture, the harder it is to reverse. But the benefits of sustaining good posture far outweigh the efforts to correct it.
To improve your posture, you’ll need to both mobilize the stiff muscles and strengthen the muscles that support proper posture. In the PT clinic, we accomplish this with a series of stretches and exercises.
Poor posture is a bad habit, and as it goes with all behavior, you’ll need repetition and consistency to change your habits. The best exercises for improving your posture are simple and easy to perform, require little to no equipment, and can be done multiple times throughout the day.
Here are 3 exercises I recommend performing repeatedly to improve your posture.
DIY Posture Fix: Intro Exercises
As an introduction to improving your posture at home, let’s consider the following three exercises. I use these to help patients with tight pectoral muscles and weak back and shoulder muscles.
1. Reverse Wall Slide
I recommend wall slides a lot; they’re simple and effective, and all you need is a blank wall to get started. The gentle movement of a wall slide helps mobilize stiff muscles in the chest and upper back.
Stand with your back against a wall and your feet shoulder-width apart. Raise your arms in a goal-post position so that your thumbs lightly rest on the wall behind you. To perform the slide, raise your arms up the wall, maintaining light contact with your thumbs the whole time. Be careful not to splay your elbows forward as you raise your arms.
Shoot for 3 reps of 10 slides, twice a day.
2. Doorway Stretch
Next, you’ll want to lengthen those muscles. In this stretch, you’ll use your own controlled body weight to deepen the stretch in your pectoral muscles.
Stand inside a doorway in a split stance—one leg a step behind the other. Make the same goal-post position with your arms, this time with your elbows resting on either side of the doorway. To deepen the stretch, lean forward onto your front leg. If the doorway is too wide, you can stretch one arm at a time or perform the stretch in a corner.
Hold this stretch for 15–20 seconds before releasing, up to 5 times a day.
3. Scapular Retraction
To prevent your shoulders from rolling forward and shortening the chest muscles you just stretched, it’s time to strengthen the shoulders and back with some scapular retraction.
First, make sure you’re sitting upright or standing tall. Next, squeeze your shoulder blades to bring them back and down—don’t hike up your shoulders as you retract them. Hold briefly, release, and repeat. Perform up to 20 scapular retractions at a time, repeating 3 sets twice a day.
DIY Posture Fix: Full Article
These three exercises are just the tip of the iceberg in what you can do to improve your posture. For the full workout plan, check out this article, where you’ll find photos, instructions, and suggestions for modifying and advancing each exercise.
Bottom line is, you don’t have to accept the painful fate of poor posture. Good posture can be yours—in all its iterations—with a bit of home modifications and well-paced physical therapy.