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How “Fixing Your Posture” Could be Causing Your Back Pain and What to Do About It

 

Earlier this year I made a post called 4 Tips to Get More Flexible Without Stretching, and the #1 item on the list was to improve your posture. This post offers a deeper dive into posture, how some “fixes” can actually create back pain, and a checklist with alternatives.

We all know that hunching over like a buzzard is not good for us. The “tech neck”, rounded back, forward-thrusted head, and drooping shoulders characteristic of our modern lifestyle is obviously problematic. But how do you fix it? What should you do instead?

The most common “fix” that I see is to thrust the chest forward, lift the chin, and pull the shoulders “down and back” like a proud peacock. While this posture may work for peacocks, it isn’t so great for human anatomy and can actually cause more chronic pain, especially in the mid and upper back.

This tutorial is a little step-by-step bottom-up checklist for getting your bones stacked up and your muscles gently but firmly engaged for relaxed, healthy, mobile posture.

It is important to note that “perfect” posture is not a requirement for health or the same for all bodies. There is tremendous variety in the way our bodies are formed so this might not be what is optimal for you. This is just a set of guidelines you can use to check in with your body if you are having back pain or if you notice that your posture is feeling weird.

Posture Checklist to Align Your Spine

1. Notice How your Posture is Now

The textbooks have some guidelines for correct posture that I take as a loose jumping-off point, understanding that all bodies are different. Look for the landmarks of your ear, your shoulder bone, bone on the outside of your hip (the greater trochantur of the femur), the middle of the knee, and the ankle bone and get them all lined up one on top of the other.

Noticing where you deviate from this vertical line can help you identify some postural corrections that might help with chronic pain or tightness.

2. Check Your Pelvic Bones

All of us have different sizes and shapes for our hips, butt and bellies that make our posture look different, and that is part of what keeps the world interesting! Instead, I like to assess pelvic position using the bones, since those tend to be more (but by no means completely) consistent.

The two hip bones in the front (the anterior superior illiac spine or ASIS for those who care) and the pubic bone make a downwards-facing triangle in the front of the hips. With some variation for anatomy, you want to make these boney landmarks flat and symmetrical with each other so that the pelvis isn’t tilted side-to-side or front-to-back.

This generally involves a gentle engagement of the muscles of the pelvic floor and the illiopsoas. I have a number of workouts on pelvic stability if this feels mysterious and inaccessible for you and you can see how this looks in the video below at 2:00 minutes.

3. Engage Your Meat Corset

The meat corset is my fond nickname for a triple-layered band of muscles that wraps around your waist like a corset made of you. The transverse abdominus, internal obliques, and external obliques are a vital set of postural muscles, and like all postural muscles they are ideally awake and responsive almost all the time.

You can feel your meat corset by putting your hands on your waist and coughing or laughing. For postural work these muscles only need to be awake and lightly engaged. The “suck in your gut” cue that I loathe does not encourage sustainable posture, and endless crunches aren’t going to help either. I find that breathwork can be a good entrée to building that healthy meat corset structure.

Again, check out some of my workouts for some meat corset strengthening ideas and see the visual at 2:50 in the video below.

 

3. Open The Shoulders Without Squishing the Shoulder Blades

Forward rounded shoulders are the scourge of modernity, with so many of us sitting hunched over keyboards, phones, steering wheels, gaming consoles, textbooks, food preparation, sewing machines, antique scrolls, you name it. As previously stated, the common “fix” of thrusting the chest forward, squeezing the shoulder blades together, and lifting the chin is suboptimal. It strains and compresses the muscles of the upper back in a way they will not enjoy long-term and can create ongoing back pain if you try to maintain it.

Those gimmicky postural aides that encourage squeezing your shoulder blades together are just going to create a host of new issues for you.

The trick with shoulder blades is actually to pull them apart, while externally rotating the shoulder socket. This will get your upper back engaged sustainably while opening up the front of the chest and shoulder, and stacking that shoulder joint over your hip.

For an exercise to help you find this tricky position, please check out the video embedded below. For this specific tutorial skip to 4:00.

 

4. Stack that Ear

The head and neck come last, stacking them comfortably over the nice foundation you just built along the rest of your spine.

Many of us have a forward thrust to our head, so that the ear habitually sits in front of the shoulder instead of over it (see previous list of reasons). This position makes the neck muscles have to work much, much harder to hold up that heavy coconut of a head.

My favorite quick exercise to start to bring that head back in line is to interlace the finger into a basket cupping the back of the head, elbows wide, and gently press the head and hands together, feeling the inspiration of the muscles in both the upper back and the front of the neck. The chin should not be lifted or dropped, but remain parallel to the floor.

For that tutorial, skip to 6:30 in the video below.

 

Now What? Why is Good Posture so Awkward?

The first time I ran through this checklist and tried to align my posture correctly I got mad. How the hell was I supposed to walk around like this? It felt foreign, difficult, and uncomfortable.

The good news is that perfect posture is not a requirement for a rich, full, happy life or even for pain-free mobility. Like so many other things in life it is pretty much always a work in progress, something you chip away at, check in on, and use as a tool when you need it. If your current posture doesn’t cause you problems and is working for you, you may not need to change it. If you start to have pain, then running this checklist may provide relief.

When I was really dedicated to improving my posture to address my hypermobile back and a lower back pain I set an alarm on my phone to go off every hour on the hour to remind me to run through the check list. After a while I didn’t need the checklist, my body just started to remember to do it.

My posture now definitely isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough that I don’t have back pain any more and I still run through the check list if I’m on my feet for a long time or feel like I need it. It’s change the way that I walk and run, and vastly improved my forward bending which was always pretty crappy.

I hope this checklist is useful for you too!

Happy Bendings,
Kristina

 

 

Tight Hip Flexors? Try These Lunge Variations for Better Results

The humble lunge is a staple of flexibility training designed to target the front of the hips. With lunges, small details in alignment and positioning can make a huge difference in outcome, and we can use that to our advantage.

Understanding how lunge alignment emphasizes different muscles in the hips can help you target the muscles that really need the stretch.

Get to Know the 6 Primary Hip Flexors

First, let’s define our terms. There are multiple hip flexors, but six of them do most of the work and are our primary focus when we talk about stretching. These are the psoas, iliacus, pectineus, tensor fasciae latae, sartorius, and rectus femoris. To learn more about each of these muscles, where they live and what they do, please check out this blog post on hip flexor anatomy.

Once you know where your muscles are and how they work it’s much easier to delve into the mysterious habits of your own hips.

Find Your Square Lunge

Before tinkering with our lunge position, let’s start by finding a lovely, square lunge. The hips are square when both hip bones and the pubic bone are on the same plane, so the hips are not twisting, one hip bone is not higher than the other, and the pubic bone is not behind the hip bones. Your back leg should be coming straight back behind you, and your front leg straight out in front.

You can read more about square hips and why they are important in this blog post on square splits. And this workout video has some great basic lunges so you can get the hang of it.

I’m compelled to remind you (and myself) that doing square lunges means that you will not go as deep into the stretch. They may feel awkward if you are used to letting the pelvis do its own thing. If you like to arch your back or if your hips aren’t used to supporting this position, a square lunge could feel more like a workout than a stretch. It’s ok. Keep doing it anyway, it will get easier over time. I promise it’s worth it.

This square lunge gives a pretty even stretch across the front of the pelvis, not targeting any specific hip flexor but not leaving anyone out. If you allow the pelvis to tilt or twist or the back to arch you will start to skip some of the hip flexors (usually the tightest ones that most need the stretch). For you naturally bendy people this is especially important to keep your pelvis healthy. After years of extravagant over-stretching, this is now my pelvic theme song: Hip to Be Square

Emphasize the Satorius and Rectus Femoris

The satorius and rectus femoris are the two muscles that cross both the hip joint and the knee joint. That makes it very easy to emphasize them in your lunge: just bend your knee. You can either do this in the traditional couch stretch, with your shin up against the wall, or by just reaching back and grabbing your foot and bringing it in towards your butt.

I don’t teach this lunge variation in my beginner/intermediate videos because it can be so hard on the knees, but there is a more gentle version of this stretch in the Happy Hips workout.

However you do it, please put some nice padding under your knee and stop if you feel any knee pain. And of course, keep those hips square.

Emphasize the Tensor Fasciae Latae

The TFL attaches to the outside front of the hip, so in order to emphasize that muscle you will want to externally rotate your back leg. The tricky thing here is to rotate the thigh bone but keep the hip bones square. For most of us, that means that the amount of external rotation will be quite small, so if you look back and the back leg has barely moved off center, don’t worry.

The front leg can externally rotate a little bit too, if that helps with the balance.

The TFL can be targeted a little more by shifting the pelvis slightly off center in the direction of the back leg, and leaning away from the hip. That means if my left leg is back and I am stretching my left hip, I will slide my pelvis slightly to the left and lean slightly to the right. No twisting in the hips though, both hip bones pointed straight ahead like headlights on a foggy night.

For you visual learners please check out the video at the end of this post!

Emphasize the Psoas and Iliacus (Iliopsoas)

These deep hip flexors are often both tight and weak because most of us sit too much, and these muscles hate sitting. When they work well, they are our most powerful hip flexors and stabilizers, but when they are tight they can lead to a very cranky pelvis, back spasms, and tight hips.

This lunge is one of my favorites because the iliopsoas difficult to target but terribly important. If this lunge variation feels challenging… yay! You’ve found something that could be very useful for improving your hip health.

To emphasize the psoas you will internally rotate your back leg. The front leg still comes directly forward and the hips stay square. Just like with the TFL lunge, the hips slide out to the side in the directly of the back leg, and the body leans opposite. Again, check out the video below for a visual.

Keep in mind that if your iliopsoas muscles are very tight, it might be challenging to get them to stretch. If you don’t feel a stretch, don’t be discouraged. Keep playing with the position, building the strength in the supporting muscles, and working into the lunge over time. When I first started it, this lunge felt like a lot of work with no payoff but it’s made a massive difference in my hip functionality over time.

The Sets and Reps for Lunges

A lunge is a mixture between a passive static and an active stretch. I do a million different variations to get the results I want in a particular session.

Lunges with the knee on the floor tend to be more passive, and unless you have knee issues I recommend these if you are just starting out with square lunges and lunge variations. An emphasis on static passive stretching and isometric contraction of the supporting muscles can be a very effective way to start to shift hip alignment.

I recommend doing all 3 lunges, 3 sets of 30 seconds each (9 lunges total on each side). Over time you can vary the number of sets of each lunge variety according to what your body needs most. For example I only do 2 sets of quad/sartorius stretching but 4 sets of iliopsoas stretching because that’s where I am most tight.

Feel the support from the butt muscles and torso muscles, building strength and control. Alignment is more important than depth. You can build depth over time but it is very hard to fix alignment once you are deep.

Happy hips come from consistent investigations into pelvic alignment and imbalances. The better you know your hips, the better you can tailor your training to your body’s needs.

Happy Bendings everyone!

 

Hip Anatomy: Get to Know Your Hip Flexors to Diagnose Tight Hips

What is a “hip flexor”?

The term “hip flexor” is often used as if it describes one muscle, when in fact there are multiple muscles that do the job of hip flexion (bringing the knee towards the chest). Tightness in the front of the hips is a massively common complaint, and it’s much easier to address if you know which of your hip flexors are tight.

Like GI Joe said, knowing is half the battle…

This blog and video are a quick introduction to the 6 primary hip flexors, where they are, how they work, and how they affect your hip mobility. I’m not going to hide my un-secret agenda to promote better awareness of the iliopsoas (the deep hip flexors)!

The most important thing is to gain greater understanding of how your hips work so that you can work with them in a way that is optimal for your body.

So here are the main players in the hip flexor game:

The IlioPsoas (Psoas and Iliacus)

Drawing of the Iliopsoas

The Iliopsoas

Let’s start with the big dogs… the Illiopsoas is a combo of the psoas and the iliacus. These are both hip flexors that attach to your upper inner thigh right in the groin area. They are your biggest, most effective hip flexors but they have some challenges.

The iliacus attaches to the upper inside of the back of the pelvic bone. The psoas attaches all along the inside of the lumbar spine. These attachment points are higher up on the body than any of the other hip flexors, giving these muscles better leverage to lift your leg, especially if you want it to go higher than your hip (hello dancers, aerialists, gymnasts, yogis and contortionists). Both of these muscles are deep in the body, making it hard to find them with your hands or brain.

Fun fact: the psoas is the only muscle that bridges the upper and lower body.

The psoas is affects and is affected by posture. If you sit a lot, or if you have an exaggerated bend in your lower back (check out the Bendy Back Tight Hips post) then your psoas can be chronically compressed into a scrunchy, tight, weak state where it is no longer effective either as a postural muscle or as a hip flexor. The illiacus right along with it!

Check out my upcoming series on core muscles and the psoas for some exercises and info to start to transform that predicament, if that sounds familiar to you.

In the meantime, let’s meet some more hip flexor friends.

The Pectineus

This little guy attaches to the base of the pelvis and has a short journey down to the inside of the thigh bone. It is definitely an adductor (squeezes the legs together) as well as a hip flexor and you can see just by looking at it that it isn’t as big or as well-positioned as the iliopsoas for hip flexion. That wont stop it from trying to help out though, and if it gets over worked you can find yourself with some tight, grouchy inner thighs!

Drawing of the pectinius muscle

The Pectineus

The Tensor Fasciae Latae (TFL)

 

This outer hip muscle is so important it got its own TFL blog post. This muscle attaches to the front outside of the pelvis and runs down the outer front hip, attaching to the famous IT band. Often tightness in the IT band can be traced back to a tight, overworked TFL. And it is easy to overwork the TFL because it can do so many different things: hip internal rotation, hip abduction (lifting the leg out to the side), and hip flexion. Like many competent beings, it can get stuck picking up the slack for under-performing friends.

A tight, weak, sad TFL can show up as outer hip pain, lower back pain, sciatica, and even knee and ankle pain.

Drawing of the Tensor Fasciae Latae

The Tensor Fasciae Latae

The Sartorius

The sartorius is one of the two hip flexors that crosses both the hip and the knee. This elegant, swooping muscle runs from the front outside of the pelvis down across the thigh to attach on the inside of the lower leg. That means it can help to straighten the knee, externally rotate the hip, and flex the hip. It is most effective at hip flexion when the leg is turned out, as in a ballet passé. In fact, this muscle is usually super strong on ballet dancers! It just isn’t as effective if you are trying to lift your leg straight out in front of you.

 

Drawing of the Sartorius Muscle

The Sartorius

The Rectus Femoris

 

Drawing of the Rectus Femoris

The Rectus Femoris

So many dancers, circus performers, and other athletes I have worked with over the years are very familiar with the rectus femoris. This is the biggest of your quadriceps muscles, crossing both the knee and the hip, right up the front of the leg. You can feel the big tendon in the front of the hip, just inside the hip bone, where this muscle attaches to the pelvis. Many people experience that tendon as being tight, tender, and possibly even inflamed due to overworking in the rectus femoris.

This muscle is the primary go-to for people who have difficulty accessing the illiopsoas, which can make the rectus femoris super cranky and tight. It can also create hypertrophy in that muscle so it gets really big and bulky (at the studio we fondly refer to that as femoris enormous or quadrisaurus rex). This is frequently an indication that the iliopsoas needs some love and encouragement.

Because the rectus femoris is both a knee extensor and a hip flexor, and because it attaches much lower on the body, it will never be as good at hip flexion as the iliopsoas. But it tries its best, bless its heart.

 

My hope in writing this article is that you now have a better sense of what is going on in your hips in order to tailor your workouts and your stretches to the muscles that need them most. If you suffer from chronically tight, painful hips and stretching isn’t helping, it’s likely due to an imbalance between these muscles where someone on the team isn’t pulling their weight, and other team members are having to play overtime and are getting resentful.

For the second half of the battle, check out the hip and core workouts on YouTube or the full length workouts on Video Club for some exercises and stretches that I have found useful to deal with hip challenges in both my own body and with my clients. I particularly recommend the next blog post on lunge variations to target specific hip flexors.

Happy Bendings!

 

Step by Step Introduction to Back Bridge/Wheel Pose

Back Bridge, or Wheel Pose as it is called in yoga, is a beautiful foundational element of the back bender’s practice. There are so many benefits to this position in strengthening the entire back of the body while opening the hips, chest, and shoulders.

I also love Back Bridge because it requires your body to reconfigure itself and learn some new skills. So much of what you need to do to have a comfortable Back Bridge feels counter-intuitive. 

We are so used to a forward-facing orientation with our body. We push with the front of our body and pull with the back of our body. In Back Bridge we have to push with the back of our body, which is where so many new back-benders get stuck. If you try to push up into Back Bridge with the front of your body, it will feel pretty much impossible.

Here are two preparatory exercises that you can do, before you are upside down and bent over backwards, so that your body has some idea of where to engage and how to behave in Back Bridge. These are both isometric holds, which are very useful for re-training your nervous system to create new patterns of muscular contractions. I recommend holding each of these for about 30-60 seconds for 3 sets if you are new to Back Bridge or feeling stuck, prior to pushing up into Back Bridge.

For the visual learners, please check out the video at the end of this post.

 

Lower Back Bend Isometric Hold

This hold will look very familiar to most of you. It is a simple shoulder bridge, focused on the muscle groups that you will need in Back Bridge. Both knees are bent, hip width apart with feet parallel, and the heels are close to the butt (exact distance will vary but find something comfortable for you).

They key components of this hold are:

  • Start by pulling your heels and butt towards each other to fire the muscles in the backs of your legs
  • Extend your hip flexors by using the lower glutes to lift just the tailbone up off the floor, keeping the rest of the back flat
  • Make sure that the hip flexors stay in the lengthened position as you lift higher off he floor (for more info on why it’s important to lengthen the hip flexors to protect your lower back see this blog post on back pain in backbends)
  • For bonus points extend the arms up overhead and press them gently down into the floor while keeping the chest opened

Hold for 30-60 seconds, repeat 2-3 times

 

Upper Back Bend Isometric Hold

The upper body hold is often less familiar to the body, which makes it especially important. This hold does require a certain amount of wrist flexion, so if your wrists are tight I definitely recommend a good wrist warm-up and the addition of yoga blocks under your hands to help mitigate the pressure on your wrists (see the video at the end for a visual, the blocks come in at  4:03).

The key components of this hold are:

  • Place your palms flat on the floor or on the yoga blocks just above your shoulders, spread out your fingers to engage your wrist muscles, and make sure your fingers are pointing towards your shoulders not out to the sides
  • Forearms are parallel to each other, not opening out to the side like little wings, while the elbows reach back past the ends to upwardly rotate the shoulders and decrease pressure on the wrists
  • Keep your head and hips resting on the floor while just your upper back lifts, opening the chest towards the ceiling
  • The dream is to feel the engagement in your upper back, not your neck, chest, or shoulders. If you are not feeling your back muscles, keep your upper back on the floor and just work on pressing your hands down until you get acquainted with those back muscles

Hold for 30-60 seconds, repeat 2-3 times

 

Pushing Up Into Back Bridge

After doing these isometrics, you are ready to attempt pushing up into your Back Bridge! The push up happens in three stages.

  • First, start your lower body isometric hold.
  • Second, start your upper body isometric hold but this time continue to push up until your head starts to lift, pausing with the top of the head gently resting on the floor (make sure that most of your weight is in your hands, not pushing down into your delicate neck vertebrae).
  • Align your arms so that your forearms are parallel and re-engage those same back muscles you felt in your isometrics, then use them to push your arms straight.

Ideally, this should feel like a lot of work on the back side of your body while the front side of your body gets to open up. If it doesn’t feel that way, it’s ok! Keep working on your isometrics and the muscles will start to learn their new jobs.

Check out the video below for a visual guide to walk through the exercises, and happy Back Bendings!