For Good Posture, DO NOT PULL SHOULDERS BACK!!!

Has he just been kicked in the behind?

This is NOT ideal – how long do you think he could sustain this for?

How many times have you been told you need to “Fix your posture – pull your shoulders back!”?  I hear it said many times from parents and children, friends and relatives, even therapists tell people this…but nearly 99% of the time, this is the WRONG ADVICE!!!

So what exactly do you do?

The aims of this article is to:

1. Explain what good posture is

2. Explain why pulling your shoulders back is NOT the right thing to do

3. Give you some ideas of what to do to have better posture

For a video on a postural myth, click here

What is good posture?

Beautiful Posture in Heels

I think for most people, we can certainly see “good posture” better than we can describe it. Sometimes things don’t “look right”, other times it is subtle and still other times people might think it looks good and it isn’t (from my point of view).

I can reference lots of definitions that would answer the question”what is good posture?” but I think the most practical definition is the one I go by…it is where your body is most efficient at doing what you ask it to do.

You see, posture isn’t a static activity. Even the Buckingham Palace guards have to breathe so movement is occurring all the time. It isn’t a tense posture but it isn’t “loose” either. It shouldn’t be hard work but it does take a little bit of effort (sometimes).

I think good posture is more a thinking activity…but thinking about it only every now and then. People with “good posture” have probably worked at it more than you – or have been shown how to work at it more efficiently than you have! I will show you later what I mean :)

Why pulling your shoulders back is NOT the right thing to do

So why do you get told to pull your shoulders back? Probably because your shoulders are forward… I am not being funny, it is true.

But I wouldn’t be The Physio Detective if I didn’t ask “why are your shoulders forward?”. In fact, all good therapists worth their salt ask questions like “Why?” and “How?”.

You see, your shoulders sit on a rib cage and your rib cage is more like a cylinder than a rectangle – it has curved surfaces. On top of this cylinder sits your shoulder blades – and they only sit on their because muscles hold them in place – there is no “true” joint surface like some other joints have. Therefore, your shoulders sit where the sum of the forces of gravity, your soft tissues (muscles and ligaments) and your bones put them.

Example 1:

Challenge – keep the pen vertical as you move you hand!

Can you do it?

An example of how this works is for you to hold a pen in between your fingers. Allow it to hang vertically. Now, you should be able to hold the pen still and move your hand and arm up and over the pen without it pointing away from the ground. You can only do this if you hold onto the pen with *just* the right amount of force. Too hard and your pen will tilt as you move your hand. Too soft and you will drop the pen. That is how posture and your shoulders are related!

Therefore, if you have shoulders that are forwards, it is simply reacting to the foundation on which it sits on – your rib cage must be tilted backwards or your muscles are pulling you forwards because you love “Chest Day” at the gym and you skip “Back Day” or whatever reason you have.

Simply pulling your shoulders back against the sum of these forces just adds more forces – which increases tension in your body. The 2 most common reasons I hear about why people “gave up” on their posture correction exercises are:

1. It’s too much effort – pulling against forces is tiring – it is no wonder that it is an effort…

2. It hurts too much – adding tension to painful structures like muscles and joints can make them sore – why do it?

Example 2:

In this example, I have asked our willing volunteer Lauren to stand in a classic “sway back” posture and then pull her shoulders back. Please note that her spinal angle doesn’t change and pulling your shoulders back can actually make your neck poke out more!

Classic Sway Back Posture with Shoulders Back Correction

Note that her posture doesn’t improve!!

Classic Sway Back

A typical “bad posture”

Example 3:

In this example, I have asked Lauren to pull her tummy in, bum in, chest out and shoulders back – I think you will agree that it doesn’t look right!

Chest Up, Shoulders Back, Ribs Down, Tummy in, Squeeze the butt

Not that ideal either huh?

Simply pulling your shoulders back is not likely to be the correct solution

The Lessons Learned About “Shoulders Back”?

1. Your shoulders sit passively on your rib cage – don’t force them back or forwards

2. Your shoulders are mainly affected by your rib cage position – maybe look at how your rib cage is sitting

3. Adding more effort is not sustainable or usually effective

4. Simply pulling your shoulders back is not likely to be the correct solution

Some Steps Towards Better Posture…

Ok, there are LOTS that I do to get this right – explaining it on here would take a whole website’s worth of blog posts to explain it all. However, let me hit the highlights…

1. Getting posture perfect is not achievable

It simply is impossible to have “perfect posture”…I can always find *something* that is not “ideal”. I don’t ever ask my patients to have perfect posture. My patients never ask me to get them back “perfect again” – if they do, I correct them :)

I prefer to take the view that posture is a sliding scale and that it is “about right” for the task. Yes there are things that can be better but ultimately, if you can achieve the task you want to with minimal strain to your body, then that’s cool. Obviously bending over to pick up a pen off the floor has a LOT more variability and I am less fussy about how you do this than if you were to try to deadlift 150kg! The more load you have, the less room for error you have.

2. Test and Retest

This is one of the greatest learning tools I can give a patient. Nearly all of my patients want me to “check that I am doing it right”…with posture, I ask them to tell me if they have it right. I can’t be there to hold your hand all the time so I try to take the time to teach you how to check for yourself. Here’s how you do it…

1. Choose a movement or activity that “hurts” or you have stiffness with or decreased movement. e.g. turning your head. You can even choose a resisted exercise like lifting 2kg or having a partner push on you

2. Note the effort it takes to do the movement – is your neck sore? Can you turn as far? How much effort is it to lift 2kg?

3. Correct your posture to what you think is ideal

4. Retest steps 1 and 2 – is it easier or less painful? If it is, you are closer to a better posture for that task. If it isn’t, then either you haven’t got it right or it isn’t right for you.

When I am with my patients, I make sure we find what these tasks are so they can test and restest at home and work.

3. Your Performance Will Improve

This is similar to the point above. Some people don’t have pain, they just can’t progress in their exercises or they can’t go longer at something – sometimes your posture can affect this!

Some quick examples of how changing someone’s posture has helped

1. Hockey player who was dropped from taking “short corners” because she couldn’t push the ball out hard and fast enough for the play – I changed how she set up for the shot. The end result? A stronger push out!

2. Elite level Rugby player constantly getting injured. Had been doing “core” work since schoolboy rugby. Changing how he set himself to do his exercises, weights and even tackling opened his eyes to the power of good posture. He was an open-side flanker (whose main job is to tackle and then get the ball). I told him to set for a tackle and then I pushed him over with one hand. He was horrified. I showed him how to set for a tackle differently and I couldn’t budge him – I had at least 30kg and 6 inches in height on this guy!!

3. Lots of patients who have pain turning their head to check for traffic. I check their sitting posture. One minute they can barely turn 30 degrees. Change their posture, they can turn nearly 90 degrees. Obviously for them, they know they are in the right posture when they can turn their head properly!

4. Friends who have trouble lifting a weight, especially something like a deadlift. Setting the feet, ankles, knees, hips, back, shoulders and neck into more efficient positions allow the body to generate more force.

Basically, the more efficient the posture, the more efficient the performance!

4. Some Cues I Ask My Patients To Think About

Here are some trade secrets for you :)

1. The breast bone and the pubic bone (in general) should line up vertically one on top of the other

2. Your pelvis should be in neutral – neither tilted in or out

3. Your back and neck should have a gentle lordosis and your thoracic spine (between your shoulder blades) should have a gentle kyphosis (rounded). This is normal. A flat back between your shoulder blades is NOT normal

4. I ask my patients to over-exaggerate the posture they need to be in – really work hard at it…then imagine that they are a puppet pulled into the air as the “grow taller”. Once they are there, gently relax so they keep their alignment but decrease the tension in their body. This works really well :)

5. Changing posture will feel “wrong” – this is because your body has receptors in it that tell the brain where you are in 3D. Your brain doesn’t like listening to all the signals it gets so it has a mechanism to “turn down the volume” of some of the signals it gets. This includes where you are in 3D. So any change turns the volume up and keeps letting you know that you are “not at your usual spot”. most people move to “turn the volume down” (feel back to their usual normal) but then nothing changes. Only through consistent repetition will your brain learn what the new “normal” should be. That is why posture is a thinking exercise that should be done every now and then to train the brain where you should be!

A Video Example…

Summary:

I can go on and on about posture and other topics but this article is nearly 2000 words now!

The take home message is simply

Don’t pull the shoulders back – put your rib cage in such a way that your shoulder sit properly

Putting your rib cage in the right position requires lots of things to be checked – joints, muscles, nerves, coordination, bone shape (yes, crooked bones can cause bad posture!). Sometimes the problem is very close to the shoulders, sometimes it is from the feet. Basically it can be because of any joint in the body – I like to check posture from the feet up or the head down – there is no point being “holistic” if you don’t practice what you preach!

Please let me know some of your posture questions and continue the discussion below!!

About Antony Lo
Antony Lo is an APA Musculoskeletal Physiotherapist based in Sydney. His website is www.MyPhysios.com.au. He specializes in the management, treatment and prevention of pain and dysfunction, particularly of the pelvis and ribcage. His sub-specialties include Crossfit and Exercise Performance Optimization, Ante-Natal and Post-Natal Care and difficult cases that have failed treatment elsewhere.

42 Responses to For Good Posture, DO NOT PULL SHOULDERS BACK!!!

  1. Michelle says:

    Any advice to someone who sits in an office chair 40 + hours per week? I get a lot of physical activity (work out 7 days a week for at least an hour). I find that I feel achy by Friday after sitting in this chair. I am constantly trying to improve my posture while sitting and find my posture keeps returning to the same hunched over position. By the way I found your article to be highly informative and would welcome another 2000 words. Thanks for the infomation!

    • Antony Lo says:

      Thanks Michelle. I believe research has shown that you will be healthier if you move for even 1min (?) every 30mins. That has apparently more health benefit than 390-60mins of exercise in one hit every day.

      Regularly move and try to adopt the postures in the blog post without excessive muscle tension :)

      Try those things and let me know how you go. Otherwise try to find someone who understands to ESP…sad,y, I haven’t met many who offer similar advice to me which is why I was prompted to write the blog post! All the standard stuff they write about is technically correct but hard to implement…sitting should be comfortable for 30mins…then get up and do 5 squats or something and go for a short walk :)

      Cheers

  2. Trevor C says:

    Any tips for someone who has scoliosis in the upper back, rolled shoulders, and a forward tilted head? I am very very anal about my bad posture and I want to fix it soo soo bad! I go in to meetings all the time and I feel super conscious about my tilted head especially. I would really really like to fix it! I have recently tried wearing a back brace and that appears to help while I am sitting but I want it all to get better.

    • Antony Lo says:

      It is a difficult question. Ultimately, you want to know if the bones are making your posture that way or the muscles. If it is the bones, you have a very hard job ahead of you. If muscles, see a Physio who knows how to rebalance them and strengthen the right ones.

  3. Trevor C says:

    What is a physio?

  4. concered daughter says:

    Hello,
    I have an elderly father who is getting stronger after a long stay in the hospital. But I am noticing he is really rolling his shoulders forward and starting to stoop more? Is there anything I can do to help him get stronger and stand tall. I thought a brace would help him to remember to think about his posture. thanks,

    • Antony Lo says:

      Hi. It is a difficult situation. I don’t know know much about your dad and what he is recovering from.

      However, most people who have just gotten out of hospital sit around a lot. You can brace hon all you like but noting beats movement and activity.

      If you want something to change, you have to make it happen. This requires determination and consistent action.

      Keep encouraging him to move and get stronger. Get a Physio to come to the house and make him an exercise program.

      Something has to happen. If he sits all day, his posture will suffer significantly.

      Thanks for the question

  5. Pete says:

    Thanks for the article. Can u post link
    To video showing proper adjustment of
    rib cage to correct pisture?

    • Antony Lo says:

      Hi Pete. It is not easy to do because different people need different cues and corrections and that can come from a y joint / region in the body. I have some posture videos but not enough. Am working on it :)

  6. Rishi says:

    Hi, thanks for sharing a very good article. I am 21 years old and i have a really bad posture, straight neck, flat back between shoulders and a reduced lumbar curve. And i was suggested the same thing pull your shoulders back which had adverse effects on my thoracic curve. I would request you to please suggest some exercises that don’t screw up my posture anymore but actually improve it. Thanks!!!

    • Antony Lo says:

      Hi rishi. It is difficult to tell you what to do because I don’t know you nor can I see how you respond. So best to find someone who can learn what to do and teach you. Cheers

  7. Pingback: Preventing Neck Pain When Exercising / Working Out – Posture!!! | The Physio Detective

  8. Cläire Ann says:

    Is it safe to use a posture corrector? please give me advice. I am planning to buy one. Thanks in advance.

    • Antony Lo says:

      Hi Claire Ann. I am not sure what type of posture corrector you wish to buy, Have you read the blog post above? I do not usually recommend a posture corrector but rather learning how to get into an efficient posture and learn how to get stronger in that position. Thanks!

  9. Stephan Casey says:

    Sorry if I seem stupid but I almost feel like I should pick up my shoulders and let my neck sort of sink into them because I used to basically just drop them and push them back. Should I still drop them but not pull them back because then I feel like my neck is longer and my head is more forward.

    • Antony Lo says:

      It is hard to say for you Stephen. Take a photo of your normal posture then take a photo of your corrected posture. Which looks better?

      Would you consider sending them to me?

  10. Stephan Casey says:

    Should you pick up your shoulders to make your neck shorter and less stretched/forward or just let them fall and not hold them in place

    • Antony Lo says:

      Different people need different things. You should get into a good position then use the least amount of effort to maintain that position. You may need extra stretches or training :)

      • Stephan Casey says:

        I see what you mean. I think its a better position for me to lift my shoulders a bit because I feel less strain on my neck and it is not that far forward. I have taken picture. It looks much more natural so I just need to get comfortable then I guess.

        Thanks for this post. I always assumed that shoulders being “back and down” was the begin all end all solution but I never had good posture with that idea. It made my neck look longer and it was too far forward plus I never felt comfortable with it anyway

  11. Jill Ramirez says:

    My toddler 20 months old walks with his shoulders back and chest out, he don’t look like nothing I’ve googled “bird chest” no hump back… He looks “normal” but “to much posture” . Hope you understand what I mean, I have forever googled and found nothing. :/

    • Antony Lo says:

      In my experience Jill, it is difficult to tell about children at that age. If you are really concerned, ask a pediatrician to check him.

      Does everyone who ever meets him mention it? If not, it is probably nothing. If he walks around like other children and plays and gets on ok, he is likely to be ok.

      When in doubt, ask a doctor or physiotherapist to see him.

  12. farah says:

    Hiya,

    I have had back pain for about 5 years now. Since the age of 18.

    It was mostly upper back pain and soreness/stiffness between the shoulder blades. My neck also gets quite tense and stiff. For about 3 years now I have been cracking my neck over 10x a day, which relieves the tension for a while. Now I have started to get stiffness in the middle of my back just above the waist on my back.

    Can you advise me of why this has all happened and what I can do to help it?

    Thanks a lot xx

    • Antony Lo says:

      Hi – I am sure you can appreciate that I won’t be able to give you specific advice about your problem – I simply don’t have enough information, I can’t examine you and therefore I can’t advise you.

      I can tell you that it is a common group of symptoms that you are reporting.

      I would recommend that you see a good physiotherapist and ask them to teach you the motor control exercises needed to prevent joint shearing and start strengthening under their guidance. The back is probably a similar thing.

      Bottom line: Go see someone about it. If you want to, you can tell me what they said and ask questions about that… in the end, there are so many things that could be causing the issue that it wouldn’t be wise for me to guess.

      Thanks for asking though :)

  13. Anonymous says:

    Ralph
    I’m getting alot of neck pain,I was told my shoulders come forward by physiotherapist &massage therapist.When I was younger my mother always told me to put my shoulders back,could this be the cause of neck pain

    • Antony Lo says:

      Hi ?Ralph

      The only way to tell if your shoulders coming forwards or back is causing your neck pain is to test it.

      Does your neck pain improve when you put your shoulders back and up like I describe?

  14. Nancy says:

    I am 70 and have developed various inherited lower back problems including sciatica. I
    want to continue to be active. I believe that working on my posture might help…other suggestions??

    • Antony Lo says:

      Hi Nancy. There are many reasons why you might have sciatica. You really need to explore those reasons for why YOU have sciatica with a physical therapist (physiotherapist).

      For example, you may have a narrowing of the passage of the spinal cord or where the nerves come out. You may have a disc that is leaking onto a nerve that is unhappy. You may have some arthritis or a bone spur that is scraping on a nerve root.

      I look to see why the sciatica has developed, what to release, what posture to put you onto, what cues might be helpful to keep you in a good posture and how to move.

      I know it isn’t very specific for you but those ideas are a good basis to ask questions of those people who can help you :)

      Cheers

  15. Hi, I was born with congenital hip dysplacia in my left hip. I had surgery on it when I was a year old. Now, I’m in my mid 20s. That leg is just slightly shorter, but I have less range of motion in that hip so I’m rotated forward slightly on that side. It’s not noticeable unless a doctor/PT looks for it. However, i’m getting a lot of shoulder pain on that side with major headaches. I’ve unfortunately been trying to “pull my shoulders back” since they’re rounded inwards, but it seems to make my shoulder hurt more when I do. Any suggestions? Thank you!

    • pete says:

      Lindsey

      have you tried myofascial release treatments? they focus on the entire body as a ‘system of connected webs’ and certainly spend time ensuring areas like the pelvis are returned to a more balanced state. Certainly a good place to start.

      • Antony Lo says:

        Thanks Pete. In the end, you need to solve/discover what is articular, what is myofascial and what is related to the brain. Are there any internal organ problems, are there any issues or beliefs that are contributing and is it simply a technique issue.

        I still maintain that a good PT should be able to sort through all of that.

        If there is a joint problem causing myofascial restriction, then it would be a long hard and expensive road to try rebalance those muscles – it wouldn’t work until the joint situation was fixed.

        Once all those areas above have been addressed, then certainly a good body worker with a holistic view would be handy :)

        Thanks again for your suggestion – it is certainly going to be better than what Lindsay’s current situation is.

    • Antony Lo says:

      Hi Lindsey. Sorry for the late reply. Posture is a dynamic thing and you will need to find someone who understands what is wrong and how to solve it.

      If the leg differences are that small, it probably isn’t that that is the problem…although I would check with some small pieces of wood under your foot before committing to that decision.

      Can you send me video or photos of your posture? I am happy to review them if you are happy for them to be public.

      Thanks

      • Hi!

        Thank you for your replies, they’re greatly appreciated!
        I actually have just started some neuromuscular therapy which includes trigger point release. I am currently at Dynamic Therapy and they include it in my treatment once a week. They’re also working on building up my back strength. They started with the low back, and I’ll be looking to add my upper back/neck onto my prescription when I go in tomorrow since I’m now getting daily stiff aches in my upper traps/levator scapulae region. I have asked about a small heel lift, and they said they have thought about that but are waiting to see what happens at the end of treatment since it can have adverse affects on the spine, as well.
        I would be happy to post some pictures of my posture, please just let me know where to post them. Thank you for your time!

  16. owais says:

    HAY GUYZ
    I WANT TO SAY THAT I HAVE JOINED EXERCISE GYM RECENTLY AND I HAVE NOTICED THAT MY SHOULDERS ARE COMING FORWARD
    MY COACH TOLD ME THE SOLUTION THAT ‘DO BACK CHILLING ROD EXERCISE, AND BACK SHOULDERS EXERCISE A LITTLE MORE’
    I WANT TO ASK U THAT IS THIS EXERCISE HELPFUL FOR ME OR NOT ?
    AND MAKING MY POSTURE STRAIGHT AS SHOWN BY YOU IN THIRD PICTURE WILL HELP ME OR NOT?
    AND THANX FOR THE POST

    • Antony Lo says:

      Hi – NONE of the pictures are good to copy except Pippa Middleton’s

      I can’t tell you what is good for you or not because I don’t know you nor is it moral, responsible or ethical for me to tell you. Please see someone about your posture. Thanks – I am sorry I can’t be more helpful on your specific problem :/

  17. Kay says:

    Hi I have been trying to work on my posture, I typically slouch. Now that I have been correcting my posture my lower back feels very sore. Is that normal? And is there any way to alleviate the soreness?

    Thank you,

    Kay

    • Antony Lo says:

      Hi Kay – the solution is not to make such massive corrections. You are likely leaning back or compressing your back too hard. it is hard to find someone who knows how to correct the posture in a relaxed way…don’t try so hard…or maybe get into a good position and then just relax without losing that position… I hope that helps :)

  18. Hi,
    I have a terrible bad posture that I have been fighting all my life. I have gone to different physios but never have been able to help me. They keep giving me a set of exercises that I don’t feel they make a difference in the long run. Furthermore, they have always told me to bring my shoulders back and to use some posture correctors, that again they didn’t do any difference in my posture.
    I love your article and I am very interested in learning more how to know which the best way to position my rib cage. Could you explain that part a little more?

    Thanks

  19. Frank Lucas says:

    Thanks so much for your posting. I came across it while searching for info that might help understanding why my 11-yr old daughter’s right shoulder drops and curves inward when performing the breaststroke. She is a competitive swimmer and dances ballet. Her shoulders don’t square during movement. I’ve also noticed it dropping in fotos out of the pool. She did RPG two years ago for this but not much help. She has slight scoliosis at the top near her neck hut nothing the orthopedist is worried about. She had also been using corrective inserts in her sneaker for six years now to adjust her foot orientation. Could this problem be structural or wholly postural. Thanks for any advice you might offer such as what would be the best type of therapist to look for. Thanks again. Frank

    • Antony Lo says:

      Thanks frank. That is a tough question. I can’t really answer it except to say that she needs a good holistic assessment.

      Let me know where you are from and I can see if I can. Locate someone who is trained in a similar way to me.

      Cheera

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,673 other followers

%d bloggers like this: