Exercises to Improve Posture At Home
Do you find yourself with an achy back or neck after a long day of work, a lengthy drive, or a video game marathon? If so, you're not alone.
Many of us struggle to maintain good posture throughout the day, and our sore and stiff muscles and joints are clear indicators that it is time to take improving our posture seriously.
Our postural muscles are meant to hold us in a neutral and well-aligned position for hours at a time. Those muscles have a hard job and, like anything, if they aren’t properly trained you might find them sleeping on the job.
While having an ergonomic workspace, appropriate footwear, and the opportunity to change positions frequently throughout the day can help, performing exercises to improve your posture is the best way to achieve long-lasting results.
Start With Stretching
You might be tempted to jump right into strengthening exercises, but for most of us, it's worth starting with stretching.
Muscles function best at their optimal length. A muscle that is over-shortened or over-lengthened cannot contract as strongly as is needed to support your skeleton and help you maintain the good posture you are after.
For example, many people who spend a great deal of time working on a computer or phone will experience adaptive shortening in the pectoral muscles at the front of the chest because their arms are always positioned forward and close to one another while they type on the keyboard or screen.
If they have a habit of pushing their head forward to get a little closer to the screen—what we call the “forward head posture”—the muscles at the base of the skull tend to shorten while the muscles in the front of the neck become overstretched.
However, if you jump right in and try to strengthen those muscles without addressing their length issues, you’ve missed a vital step in restoring good posture.
Now that you understand why stretching is so important to improve posture, let’s go over four stretches that target those tight postural muscles.
1. Doorway Pectoral Stretch
Stand in front of a doorway. With elbows bent, raise your arms to at least 90 degrees and place them on each side of the door.
Step one foot forward and lunge gently onto the front foot until you feel a stretch across both sides of your chest and hold. To target some of the other fibers in the pectoral muscles, slide your elbows further up and repeat the stretch in this position.
2. Cat-Cow Stretch
For the Cat-Cow stretch, start on your hands and knees. Begin by moving into the “Cow” posture.
First, while inhaling, slowly let your back arch and pelvis tilt back. Your stomach should fall toward the ground and you will look upward.
After holding briefly, begin to exhale and reverse the pose into the “Cat” posture by tucking your tailbone and rounding your back toward the ceiling.
Allow your head to fall toward the floor. Stay in each position for as long as it feels good and move between the postures up to 10 times. Move slowly and deliberately into each posture. Picture your spine moving one vertebrae at a time.
3. Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch
To stretch the front of the hip, begin with kneeling. Raise one leg up and place the foot in front of you on the floor. Hold onto something nearby for balance if needed.
To stretch the hip flexors of the rear leg, shift your weight forward as if you are lunging forward onto the front leg. If you do not feel much of a stretch, return to the starting position and tuck your tailbone under slightly.
Try and maintain the tailbone tucked as you lunge forward onto the front leg. Switch legs to stretch the opposite side.
4. Thoracic Rotation Stretch
Begin by lying on your side, legs stacked and knees tucked up toward your chest. Your arms should also be stacked on top of one another and stretched out in front of you.
Without moving your lower body, slowly begin to rotate your spine back and reach your arm toward the opposite side.
Initially, you may not have enough rotation to allow the arm to rest on the floor on the opposite side. This stretch should be gentle, so do not push into pain. Roll to your other side and repeat the other direction.
Common Questions About These Stretches
Here are some frequently asked questions about the four stretches we’ve discussed.
1. How Long Should I Hold These Stretches?
For static stretching (holding the stretch for a prolonged period), aim for a total of 60 seconds of stretch for each muscle.
You can hold the stretch for the entire 60 seconds or break it up into sets of 15, 20, or 30 seconds with breaks between. If you are feeling increased tightness, especially in one area, you can repeat the stretch 2 to 3 times a day.
2. Should Stretching Be Painful?
No! We do not want to stretch into pain.
Stretching does not need to be painful to be effective. In fact, overstretching a muscle can cause small muscle tears, soreness, and injury.
When you are holding a stretch it should feel no more than a 2-4/10 discomfort. For reference, 0/10 means you feel no pain at all while 10/10 means it is unbearable and time to call the ambulance.
3. Is Stretching Safe for Everyone?
When done appropriately, stretching is generally considered safe, though research suggests this type of long-hold, static stretching should not be done right before intense exercise as it can decrease performance and may increase risk for injury.
Dynamic stretching, which is not covered in this article, is more appropriate as a pre-training warm up.
Another exception to this rule would be if you have or recently recovered from an injury or have a medical condition for which stretching is unsafe. In this case stretching may be contraindicated or may need to be dosed very carefully to prevent reaggravation or onset of an injury.
If you feel that you have a specific injury or are unsure if stretching is safe for you then it's a good idea to schedule an appointment with a healthcare provider to evaluate the condition and educate you about which stretches are appropriate for you.
Additionally, if you are already hypermobile, you may experience muscle tension and tightness, but in this case stretching is often not the answer. Often strengthening and stabilization exercises are indicated in this case.
Strong Muscles Have Staying Power
As you begin to re-balance postural muscles that are over-shortened and over-lengthened, it is vitally important that you also strengthen them so they can properly support your skeleton in good alignment for long periods of time.
A misaligned skeleton can lead to pain and other issues, and quality digital X-ray machines can show us the effects, like this lumbar X-ray of a woman with back pain.
A lot of people in the U.S. stopped going to the gym due to COVID, but if you’re comfortable returning to the gym, getting back into the habit is a good way to stay committed and keep your muscles and body strong.
These exercises can be done at home or in the gym, and will help strengthen your muscles and improve your posture.
1. Seated (or Standing) Row
Using a resistance band, a resistance tube anchored in a door, or the resistance pulleys at the gym, grasp each handle (or each end of the band) and step back until your arms are extended in front of you.
You can perform this exercise while seated in a chair as well. Tighten your abdominal muscles and slightly bend your knees.
Inhale, then exhale while you draw your arms back, bending your elbows until your hands are by your sides.
Focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together as you pull. Inhale as you slowly extend your arms back in front of you.
2. Bird Dog Stretch
Begin on your hands and knees. Tighten your abdominals to stabilize your trunk while you raise one arm out in front of you (thumb up) and extend the opposite leg out behind you.
Do not arch your lower back or let your pelvis rotate as you raise the leg. Keep your neck relaxed so you are looking down at the floor.
Hold this position for 1 to 2 seconds, then lower your arm and leg to the floor. Repeat on the opposite side.
If you are new to this exercise it is a good idea to start without any resistance. When you are ready, you can hold small dumbbells in your hands and put ankle weights on your legs to increase the resistance.
A plank can be performed on your forearms or on your hands. You can make this exercise easier by placing your hands or forearms on a raised surface like a coffee table, or you can perform the exercise on your knees instead of your toes.
To perform this exercise, lie on your stomach with your toes tucked underneath you. Tighten your abdominal muscles and raise your hips off the ground, supporting your upper body on your forearms or hands. Hold this position for as long as you can maintain good form.
Press your elbows or hands actively into the floor so that your shoulder blades stay separated.
Do not let your lower back arch. Tuck your tailbone slightly and hold. Your hips should not raise up higher than your head. Maintain a straight line from your head to your feet.
Common Questions About These Exercises
Here are answers to some of the most common questions about the three strengthening exercises we’ve discussed.
1. How Many Repetitions Should I Do of Each Exercise?
Because postural muscles must be able to contract for a long duration, structuring your workout to target muscle endurance is a good idea.
When you are trying to build muscle endurance, you should aim to perform 3 to 5 sets of 20 to 25 repetitions of each exercise at a slow and controlled pace (except the plank). Try to practice each exercise 2 to 3 times a week.
For the plank, begin with 1 to 3 repetitions, holding for as long as you can with good form. Once you are able to hold a solid plank for two minutes, you are in excellent shape and there is no need to go longer unless you want to!
2. How Much Resistance Should I Use?
Because you will be performing so many repetitions, the intensity of the exercise should feel light to somewhat hard. If you cannot perform 20 to 25 repetitions with good form, decrease the resistance or start with a smaller number of repetitions and gradually increase.
3. How Do I Know I Am Doing the Exercises Correctly?
Performing these exercises in front of a mirror can help you observe your form. If you are new to resistance training or are unsure about your technique, you can work with a physical therapist or qualified personal trainer to assess your form and provide feedback about any changes that would be beneficial.
They can also advise you on making modifications to accommodate for prior injuries, pain, or discomfort.
Make Postural Exercises a Habit
Just like anything, if you don’t use it, you will lose it. Practicing a few postural muscle stretches and resistance training exercises throughout your week will help make these improvements last.
If you looked at a digital X-ray result, you may be able to see the ways your skeleton adapts to the forces and postures we maintain most often, and overcoming unwanted postural changes becomes harder the longer you ignore them.
If you are ready to walk, sit, and stand taller, give these exercises a try and next time you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror, you can smile at how good you look!