Reader Ann Ranson asks: “What are the best exercises to strengthen the core and improve posture?” Kathleen Trotter, Globe Health‘s fitness expert, says it’s equally important to know which exercises are conducive to “anti-posture.”
The worst offender is any abdominal exercise where you curl your body forward – think crunches and bike kicks because these reinforce a hunched posture. I also consider them “anti-posture” because crunches primarily work the superficial rectus abdominals (a.k.a. “the six pack”), which means that they don’t train the entire core or help support the spine.
The other exercises that don’t promote good posture are chest exercises like the push-up and bench press. If your chest becomes stronger than your upper back your shoulders will be pulled forward into a rounded posture.
Don’t panic: I am not arguing that you should avoid working your chest or doing crunches. But I advise picking functional core exercises like planks and bird dogs over crunches, and prioritize strengthening your upper back over your chest. If you do an “anti posture” exercise, no problem – but make sure you also do a minimum of one, but ideally two, “pro posture” exercises.
My advice for a “pro posture” upper body routine:
1. Stretch out your chest – tight chest muscles will pull your shoulders forward. Try lying face up on a foam roller for two minutes after every chest workout, and ideally nightly before bed.
2. Strengthen your upper back muscles. A strong upper back will help you stand tall. Consider doing two upper back exercises for every one chest exercise. For example, if you do push-ups, do rows and reverse flys.
Here is my tutorial for one exercise that works both your legs and upper back:
3. Strengthen your rotator cuff muscles with side lying dumbbell external rotations. Lie on your side with the arm closest to the ceiling resting on your hip, bent at ninety degrees. Use the muscles behind your shoulder blades to rotate your arm bone in your shoulder socket so that your knuckles move towards the ceiling.
A strong core will also help maintain great posture:
Prioritize functional core exercises like planks, V holds, bird dogs and wood chops over isolation exercises like crunches. Functional exercises work your abs in addition to the other muscles that form your core. Plus they integrate your trunk into the rest of your body and prepare you for real life.
Here is my tutorial on how to do a proper plank – and avoid common errors:
Back extensions are also a great exercise for posture and core: With knees on the floor, place your stomach on a stability ball, chest rounded over the ball. Use your bum and lower back to lift your chest up to hip height 10 times.
One final point: Exercises alone can’t make up for sitting or standing in a rounded or twisted posture for eight-plus hours per day. For good seated posture at a computer, try positioning your computer so that you don’t have to twist or look down to type. If you or your employer can afford it, look into a standing desk that moves up and down. If that isn’t realistic, work at a surface that is chest height a few times a day. The goal is to alternate sitting and standing.
Most importantly, give yourself a mental and physical break by getting up regularly and walking around, with shoulders back and core engaged.
For more fitness tips and advice, watch Kathleen Trotter’s Fitness Basics series.