Marcus runs the site Strengthery where he writes about weight training, weight loss, and other health-related topics. After injuring both his shoulders and realizing that his posture sucked, he became obsessed with learning everything he could about how to improve and maintain good posture and now likes to share what he learned.
Did you ever seriously consider whether your posture is enabling you to perform at a high level or restricting you?
I mean both in the gym and life in general.
For a very long time, I surely did not give it enough thought and several years of neglect resulted in a bad shoulder injury.
Unfortunately, I think a lot of people are not giving enough consideration to their posture. And for people like you and me who are into weight training, we should not underestimate the importance of good posture for progressing in the gym.
Not only are you more likely to get injured especially as you are getting stronger and lifting heavier weights, but poor posture could also be impairing your strength levels and therefore potentially reducing your gains!
In this post, I am going to share what I have learned from my injury and elaborate on why I think weight training and/or stretching alone is not enough to correct bad posture. I also make a suggestion to what you should do if you have bad posture.
The Shoulder Injury
I just mentioned above how I did not give enough attention to my posture. But I don’t mean that I did not care about it!
I actually cared a lot and I knew it was important (basically everyone does). I did do some basic stretching and flexibility training. I also did isolation exercises to strengthen muscles in my upper back, but it failed to have any real and lasting impact on my posture.
As a result of that, I injured both my shoulder joints in January 2018 after years of heavy lifting with bad upper body posture.
My injury can’t be attributed to one particular lift or a workout session. I was stupid enough to ignore uncomfortableness and minor pain in my shoulders when lifting for about 2 weeks and when I woke up one day my shoulders were just completely dead.
By the way, this is often the case with shoulder injuries that is they are often caused by the build-up/a series of “micro-injuries” rather than one traumatic event. For me, years of bad posture and lifting topped with the 2 weeks of ignoring pain was the cause.
Basically, the injury was incredibly painful. I couldn’t hold any heavy objects or raise my arms above 90 degrees without pain and I was unable to train anything other than my legs and core for 6+ months.
Even now I am not fully recovered and the injury also wreaked havoc on my upper body posture both shoulders and neck. It even made one shoulder more tight than the other resulting in it rotating more forward than the other. I talk about this issue of one shoulder rolling forward here and how to fix it.
I am not sharing this because I want you to feel sorry for me. I did not really feel sorry for myself either – just stupid. But I am sharing this to let you know what can happen if you don’t successfully do something about your posture.
For more information about shoulder injuries, you can check out this very thorough resource.
What Is Good Posture Anyway?
Essentially, having good posture just means that your body is aligned well. This ensures that the weight of your body is distributed equally or in the best way, creating the least amount of wear and tear. Of course, it also ensures that your muscles, joints, bones, and organs can work optimally and that your performance can be at its best.
For weight training purposes, it means that your body is in a good condition to move heavy things and to tolerate the stress associated with it.
Interestingly enough, an increasing amount of research is suggesting that good posture matters for a lot more things including mental and emotional health. Research has linked posture to better test scores, the recalling of positive memories and increased self-confidence.
Another thing that might be of even greater interest to you is that good posture does make you appear slimmer and more fit.
I have heard this many times in the past without really thinking it made a big difference, but seeing it clearly on myself I no longer believe so. Improving my posture has made me appear taller and my chest looks fuller now even with strength and muscle loss due to the injury.
Learn more about good posture on the American Chiropractic Association.
Why Your Posture Sucks
First of all, maybe you are in the minority of people who actually have good posture. If that is the case, whenever reading “you” below just think of one of your friends who have bad posture instead.
Obviously, there can be a lot of reasons for why you have bad posture.
However, without knowing anything about you, I would dare to say you most likely spend a big part (maybe even the majority) of your waking hours sitting down focusing on things in front of you typically at downwards angle.
I am of course talking about looking at your phone, using a computer, watching television, driving a car, or reading a book etc.
And by the way, standing up while looking at your phone is not much better at all.
A simplified yet insightful way to look at your current posture is that it is simply a reflection of the position your body is in a dominant portion of the time.
In other words, if you spend the majority of your waking hours sitting hunching over something then that is exactly the kind of posture you get – a hunched-over / slouching posture. That is of course unless you do something actively to reverse it.
The typical issues people get from sitting down with bad posture is:
- Shoulders permanently rotating forwards and inwards (rounded shoulders)
- Tight hips – especially hip flexors
- Poor head and neck posture (Forward head posture)
Having these kinds of issues is bad for many reasons and could be holding you back in the gym!
You can read more about common posture issues and why they occur here.
But Weight Training Should Cancel This Out, Right?
The answer is yes and no, and I think it is much more a “no” than a “yes” if you are trying to reverse bad posture you already have. Getting an overall stronger body is a good idea and it could help keep bad posture at bay. Some specific exercises could help a bit while others could aggravate an already bad posture.
E.g. bench press, overhead press, and biceps curls could make your bad shoulder and neck posture worse while working out the muscles in the upper back with rows, face pulls or reverse flys could help.
Hip bridges and hip thrust could make your hip posture better. But I am not so sure the same thing could be said about squats.
What I have come to understand though, is that doing regular weight training 3-4 times per week is not enough to correct bad posture.
If you think that sounds crazy, I would encourage you to test out for yourself to confirm that I am not wrong. After all, we are all different and I have seen many authoritative websites with a different perspective than mine
But I would argue that for most people, expecting that for example some heavy hip thrusts 1-2 times per week should in itself be enough to cancel out the effects of 10+ hours of bad posture per day has on the hips is a bit naïve.
Based on my own experience I suspect you would need to increase the frequency a lot before it would have any effect. I have done reverse chest flys on and off in different variations for 3+ years to strengthen my rhomboids (shoulder blades muscles) and mitigate bad posture. I got a lot stronger but never saw or felt any improvement.
After going all in on frequency and basically doing a lot of reps 2-3 times per day every single day I started seeing improvements. It has helped a lot for my shoulders, but it is still not enough.
If you want to do that as well, I suggest you get a light resistance band and do some retractions + external rotation. With a resistance band, you can do the exercises everywhere.
Here is how to do them:
- Hold the resistance band with your arms straight arms at about shoulder width. Your grip should be so your thumbs are points towards each other.
- Pull the band with straight arms as if you want to pull it apart until it reaches your chest while externally rotating your shoulders so at the end both your thumbs are pointing backward.
Credit goes to Jeff Cavalier from AthleanX. If you don’t know this guy I suggest you check out his YouTube channel.
What About Stretching?
Stretching tight muscles is a very good idea, and stretching the tight muscles that contribute to your poor posture is obviously going to help and should be a part of your solution, e.g. stretching your chest and hip flexors.
I am not an expert on stretching, but I can say that I have done basic stretching on and off since I started working out 8 years ago. Sometimes more than others. I still had bad posture, but the stretching probably did not work as well as it could have if I had done it better.
However, even if you pair the right stretching and strengthening exercises, I still think it won’t be enough to cancel out 10+ hours with bad posture every day.
How To Improve Your Posture
Now that I have argued that weight training or just strengthening exercises and/or stretching exercises is not enough, then what the h*** do I suggest you to do?
I suggest you do a lot of things and I strongly believe that only attacking the issue from multiple angles will give you a good result. It is also what I have done myself and my posture is slowly improving which is unprecedented for me. I believe that by improving posture I am also helping my shoulders.
I like to say that you need to focus on these three things:
1) Improve the ergonomics of your surroundings
Instead of only reversing the problem, attack one of the major causes of it to arise in the first place i.e. the surroundings that are encouraging awkward positions.
Prioritize where you spend most of the time. Could you make some tweaks at your desk? E.g. screen should be in eye height, your arms should be able to rest comfortably at about 90 degrees angle.
Maybe you can make some changes to your driving position?
Here are some great tips on what you can do to improve sitting posture.
Also, you should also not underestimate the importance of your sleeping position and the kind of mattress and pillow you are using.
2) Improve postural awareness
This is about both being familiar with what good posture looks and feels like and being mindful of your own posture. You need to be able to maintain a good posture most of the time, so you don’t end up creating stress for muscles and joints.
This is going to be very tough in the beginning but at a certain point in time maintaining a good posture will be a habit for you.
There are some products known as posture correctors which among others will make it easier for you to get good posture habits. They are not necessary but I do very much think they are worth the money.
You can read more about them here.
3) Reverse the effect of bad posture by strengthening and stretching relevant muscles
Basically, having maintained a bad posture for a long time had led to adaptations in your body. Some muscles have become weak and/or elongated and other muscles have become tight.
You need to reverse this by strengthening and stretching the right muscles. This is where weight training can come in handy though for most parts you will need to go light because the muscles are typically small and weak.
If you have problems with your shoulders, I am sure that stretching your chest and biceps and strengthening the rhomboids will go a long way.
I hope I have sparked an ambition to work on improving your posture. As I mentioned it will help your long-term progress in the gym by reducing the risk of injury and ensuring your muscles and joints are working well.
It also has a lot of other benefits:
- It ensures your body can function well while creating least wear and tear which you will be happy about when you are old.
- It boosts mental health and performance
- Makes you look more fit
- Boosts self-confidence
But don’t feel too bad about your current bad posture. I think slouching from time to time is unavoidable, e.g. we are not just going to stop using electronic devices or reading books altogether right?
But a bit of work and some tweaks can go a long way! You don’t need a “perfect posture” and some would argue that such a posture does not exist at all.
If you want to check out some academic reviews of the research on mental and emotional benefits of good posture I recommend the blog of the famous professor Erik Pepper.
For another interesting read but with less research backing up the arguments, you can check out something I wrote on Warriormindcoach.com arguing why good posture influences self-confidence.