women's black elbow-sleeved blouse
We can work anytime, anywhere but that does not mean that we should! A bad posture like this is a recipe for pain and disaster. Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com

Posture is the new Prada

And “tech neck” is the new pandemic. Posture affects everything and goes so much by the wayside; especially when we have all of these different forms of fitness and we just ‘do’ the work when potentially there could be an injury in the making…in tandem with our tech neck workdays….eek! Yet I can find so little actually dealing with this issue with the attention it deserves.

So I called upon my editor and posture expert, Neda Khalili, to guest blog this post. Moreso I asked her to explain how to maintain good posture not just in sitting, but when we work out. The wrong form during ab or cross-training exercises, yoga, or running can really aggravate a tweaked neck. But…. with some ongoing and diligent training, proper posture, whether in the fitness modalities listed or just even in your day— is the gift that keeps on giving! You have an ability to move through your day more powerfully and with less pain associated with compensatory movement, an ability to be more assertive and command presence when needed, and a more positive, optimistic outlook on life

Amy Cuddy’s 2012 Ted Talk is the #2 most watched Ted Talk of all time. Guess what it is about – posture… yes, POSTURE! The benefits are endless with just a little tweaking. I hope that the queues I give today will benefit you greatly. Before we get into the nitty gritty of the types of worksout and their respective queues, I would like to give a quick bio anatomy/physics lesson (I promise you, it will not be over your head), just to give the full scope of how you can move better and why it is important especially with respect to near-term or long term injury prevention. 

The Three planes of Movement

Through our day, we move in three different planes of motion in varying intensities how “in it” we are and they are the sagittal plane (think moving forward and backwards in a straight line, for example: walking ), the frontal plane moving with the sides of our bodies (think about a country line dance segment), and transverse (moving across the body: think reaching to the backseat of your car as you are the driver to maybe grab an important item from your bag).When we go to the gym and hope onto a weighted exercise machine or head onto the treadmill/recumbent bike, you are primarily moving in one plane of motion and for the most part just training the muscles and joints to be activated in a singular sense. Movement, in general, is excellent and weight machines do a fantastic job of the isolation training of that particular muscle; helping you to support your bones much more efficiently than what it would be without it. The problem arises that when we work primarily in a uniplanar fashion, all of those other muscles are not working in tandem to be able to really take all of the great training that you do in the gym out into your actual, daily life, and this leads to overcompensation of some muscles and eventually those imbalances find their way to injury. It becomes the unfortunate case where we (or someone we know) may have misfortune of saying, “It was the strangest thing, I went to go pick up ‘xyz’ off of the floor and I completely took my back out and ended up in the ER/urgent care/Doctor’s office.” Many times, this is actually attributed to an injury that may have been building from muscular imbalances and underlying weaknesses in the body that eventually becomes the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back.” By training the body in a more holistic fashion, we can lower the chances of such injuries happening! Yay, LESS PAIN!

The Sagittal Plane

The Sagittal plane is an imaginary vertical axis that runs from front to back of the body and divides the body into right and left halves. The sagittal plane is the plane of motion where most of us live our daily lives, walking, sitting, hunching forward (but then retracting that hunch after this blog post ;)), riding a bike—- even flagging down your Uber/Lyft— all done in the sagittal plane. The sagittal plane often has huge muscles propelling forward and back through space and a huge tendency of those muscles to be overactive (for example the chest, abdominus recti, quads, and calves). This is just where we, as human beings on two feet, live and it is more a matter of learning to get those other planes stronger, especially this next one….

The Frontal plane 

The very name of the ‘frontal plane’ makes it a bit confusing, as the frontal plane is an imaginary axis that divides the body into upper and lower halves but is responsible for side to side movements of the body. If you have ever played or watched football players (or any team sport with drills), frontal plane movement would look something getting into a squat position and trekking your body sideways from one side a field or gym to the other and something more familiar would be side plank raises or hip abduction/adduction machine. As it turns out the frontal plane has a lot of responsible in keeping bone and joints healthy and supported, however, daily life does not really get worked on sideways! The best example for this would be, how when we sit all day, our quads have become overactive in that sagittal plane and our hip abductor (that side butt seat outer region) goes completely dormant. This immediately causes serious knee and ankle complications, as those bones/joints/ligament are not receiving their main support. The knee is sometimes referred to as a “dumb joint” because it essentially has nowhere to go like, unlike mobility of the shoulder or wrist, so when those supporting muscles have gone totally checked out, there is serious trouble lurking around the corner. This is part of the reason why sitting all day has been dubbed “the new smoking” . It is because the muscles that need to support aren’t able to and our daily lives are not necessarily conducive to a more active environment, thus we get injured and the cycle keeps on going. I highly suggest that you incorporate hip abductions and some lateral raises for the upper body into your workout routine (all of course, if you are currently not experiencing pain or injury). Line dancing and sideways running are fun choices, too :)!

The Transverse Plane 

The transverse plane is an imaginary horizontal plane that cuts the body into upper and lower halves. It is responsible for cross body movement through space that includes twisting and torsion. If you are swinging a baseball ball, reaching in the back seat to grab something, shoveling snow, or perform a woodchop exercise; you are in the transverse plane. The transverse is where most injuries happen- PERIOD! This is just how we are built from an evolutionary standpoint because we don’t want to be moving our knees, spinal column (the disks), and elbows in this cross body motion. Evolutionarily, our most mobile joints, our ankles, wrists, hands, and shoulders are also the least stable making them most vulnerable to injury. It is still important to incorporate transverse movement training into your routine because you are building an ‘insurance system’ that can help lower the chances of you taking your shoulder out when you raking the leaves or shoveling or some such everyday task. Woodchops and twists are choices, the key thing here would be to focus from moving from your core and not letting momentum swing your spine forward.

Now that we have our lesson out of the way, it is time to PLAY!

Photo by Ginny Rose Stewart

Best Tips for Our Posture at Play

Part One: Pilates and Yoga, Strength Based Flexibility practices

Pilates and Yoga have been studied in depth, each respectively for their numerous benefits. Both practices teach practitioners diligent care with their own bodies with attention paid to breathe. With both practices, there is a deep release within the exhale; however, with regard to pilates, one breathes on the inhale first into the ribcage and upper diaphragm, whereas in yoga one takes the inhale towards the expansion on the belly. Within pilates, there is a constant focus on posture and control of body position, so there has to be constant attention! As with any practice, you want to start at your own pace and if practicing with an instructor, let them know about injuries or if you are a beginner. Pilates and Yoga both promote quality versus quantity (really everything should be like this, there is just a chance to quasi slow down here) and within you want to focus keeping a neutral spine when prompted and work within keeping a sense of retraction in shoulder  blades (keeping them up, down, and back). This is important because like previously stated, as a society, we are hunched forward all of the time that means our chest muscles are already overactive and those shoulder blades have gone to sleep; so if we continue build muscle on top of already existing muscle with attention to balance, it is going to head to some serious shoulder pain. In Pilates you will find that it is really an exercise in opposition because your body is really trying to find a balance. 

Yoga is similar and different in many ways, also being rich with posture benefits. I was astounded when I read this NIH study on the therapeutic effects of yoga which found that, “Results from this study show that yogic practices enhance muscular strength and body flexibility, promote and improve respiratory and cardiovascular function, promote recovery from and treatment of addiction, reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and chronic pain, improve sleep patterns, and enhance overall well-being and quality of life.” In yoga, careful attention must be paid to form and it is imperative that if you are a beginner, you let your teacher know and if you have an injury, use best judgement as to see if you would like adjustments or not. The key thing in yoga is to listen to your own body, with regards to seeing where you are in your practice and certainly not in your neighbors. It is tempting to really go for that deeeep stretch, however, you want to feel comfortably challenged, not so much that you take away from your breath. Yoga shares a similar philosophy to pilates in, even in a pose where there may be a lot of muscles working, you would like to maintain alignment at all times. Take for example, a seated forward bend, where you are on your sit bones, navel tucked in towards the spine, locking up your pelvic floor (mulabanda root lock), head nice and tall, chin gently tucked, shoulders up down and back, legs outstretched and contracted and then inhale, *gently* hinging from your hip so that your chest meets knees without rounding from the spine. Only when you feel that you can really carry out all of the different cues without compensation of the infamous super reaaaachhhhh fingers towards toes, should you really do deeper. A truth I see espoused upon in yoga and mindbody practice that I wish I could see more often everywhere is that you have have to honor where you are at and if something is too much for or too dangerous for you, it is okay to take a resting posture (child’s pose, down dog, or Mountain pose, etc). Yoga is almost like an intuitive practice in how, you want to keep the navel in towards the spine, shoulder blades up down and back and not riding the ears, sinking your weight evenly into your hands, and using your core strength (especially transverse abdominus and pelvic floor strength) and hips to hinge yourself forwards  or backward- and never, ever the actual curvature of your spinal disks. Use your best judgement always so that you can focus on those nice and deep inhales and exhales! 

women taking exercise on black stationary bikes in front of gray concrete wall
Photo by Trust “Tru” Katsande

Running and Cycling Posture Practices

Learning some helpful posture tips while running, cycling, elliptical/stairmaster makes your body work a whole lot more efficiently with less perceived effort on your end. Now who doesn’t want to feel strong but not overtaken with some cardio?! We know how to run and “climb” (stairmaster) from an evolutionary standpoint and we later learn how ‘to wheel around’ (riding a bike) early on but that does not necessarily mean that we automatically move in the most biomechanical, bioeconomic, and efficient fashion. To get the most out of your runs, you want to keep your chest tall and focus on using arms (right at the start of the chest) to propel your arms forward and back. You want to do this without swinging your arms across your body, keeping your shoulders relaxed, and keeping our fists and wrists relaxed. It took me a very long time to train my shoulders to relax and to unclench my wrists; I spent so much energy clenching my wrists and that it would cause me to buckle up my elbows and shoulders- energy that was not serving me at all by the end of a run. A little hack I enjoy is putting a soft, loose hair tie elastic around my open palms; this really helped me so that I could use the rest of my body how I should! Keeping your chest tall and propelling yourself forward from your glutes vs your knees and spine whether you are running, cycling, stairmaster, or elliptical is also key (even if your are cycling, bending forward, try to keep an open chest within reason). Doing this right here is you being your own workout booster because keeping your chest and the glute propellation enables your body to literally take in more oxygen because your rib cage literally has more room to expand. Taking in more oxygen increases our lung capacity and we breathe more efficiently and have more endurance. Diaphragmatic breathing and alternating breathing practices taken from yoga and pilates helps to train our rib cages to expand more. 

 Interestingly, as well, when we propel with our glutes vs quads and lower back, we lower the chances of spine and knee pain in high impact activities. Our glutes are the most powerful muscles in the body and working on glute activation ( bridges and donkey kicks) and hip abduction (clamshells) will help us to turn on those muscles when we are performing such activities. You will find that when propel from glutes and hips are more likely to naturally move your foot from midfoot to ball of heel to toe strike vs. moving super heavily from your heels. When you feel that your form is really falling apart and it has really moved beyond a comfortable challenge, take it down a notch, take a break, or call it a day. Breakdown and pain is our body’s way of communicating, “Hey, that is enough, attention, danger!” and rest is always part of a healthy movement practice! 

woman jumping near white wall paint
Photo by Clem Onojeghuo

HIIT, Tabata, CrossFit

High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), Tabata, and cross fit are all great forms of exercise for those who don’t mind some grit and like to do some serious work in a short amount of time. You know that when we are taking these classes you are going to feel the burn and you are surrounded by high energy movement and impact, your adrenaline may be pumping, however extreme caution needs to be taken with regards to your posture in these environments. A lot of advanced olympic lifts are really required to be moved safely through these classes because you are moving very quickly, drill sergeant style, pushing yourself to the max for as long and heavy as you can. Here, I would advise working with a trainer for a bit to get some of the basics of the squat, deadlift/hinge, pull up, swing, and a perfect pushup really mastered. I would also advise you to listen to your own body versus any instructor advocating for you to really go beyond your limit. I would move within a range of motion that feels natural for you (so if you are advised to take your squat super low and you don’t feel comfortable at 90 degrees, keep squatting at what feels most comfortable for you. Even though these classes are quickly paced, never sacrifice your form for the sake of more reps; if you notice that you are starting to lose coordination and you feel that momentum is moving you versus deliberate back and forth control of the body, and you feel an internal voice in you saying, “huhn? Something feels unnatural, this is not a burn and beyond ‘awkward’ sensation” then rest. You want to keep a tension that you can hold that feels pretty breezy at first and then by the last few repetitions that is when the limit of comfortably challenged comes in. That means using the right weights, performing  a feasible range of motion that feels right for you, keeping your shoulder blades up back and down, and your core tight all throughout. These classes are best if the lifts and exercises themselves are practiced at an even pace with a skilled fitness professional safely during the weeks of taking such classes or beforehand. 

close photo of woman's back
Photo by Romina Farías

Tools for a bum neck

I have ordered and highly recommend Bigsize Cervical Neck Traction Device for Instant Neck Pain Relief, whihc you can ge ton Amazon. . Yeah you look ridic wearling it, but it elongates the joint sand makes you feel so much better.

For rollng out knots in the upper back, you will definitely want to also get Bidem Tennis balls.

Another device I highly recommend is the Tempurpedic pillow. How you sleep on your neck heavily influences how your neck feels the next day. Do NOT pile on the pillows, because that compresses your spine at an unnatural angle and restricts movement of the joints.

More Resources 

Pilates and Posture (Oyster Bay Yoga)

8 Tips For Proper Running Form (Very Well Fit)

Mechanisms of Noncontact Anterior Cruciate Ligament Injury: Journal of Athletic Training/NIH

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