The key to a happy, healthy body is posture. Posture is the way you carry yourself. It’s the position in which you hold your body either sitting or standing. Without it, you will get muscular imbalances which will lead to aches and pains, your balance will suffer, and you will probably end up with neck and back aches. If you want to stay fit and well, I would definitely start with posture. It should be at the lead and the first thing you think about before any movement or activity.
Your body can carry a lot of issues before you realise that there is a problem. Knots, muscle fibres stuck together, tension and stiffness can all live inside you without you realising that they are there. Ever had that pain in your shoulder or neck that just came out of nowhere and was agony for a few weeks? That would have been there building up, growing for months, the muscles getting tighter and tighter until, ahh, pain. It didn’t need to get to this, and you could have prevented it altogether. All you needed to do was to be more in touch with your body, recognise the symptoms and fix it. It’s easy to do when you know how, but like everything in life, knowledge is power. Again, if your posture is in check, this can help prevent these issues.
Over time, your body develops habits. To see this in action just look at the way you drive, the way you sit in your favourite chair or the way you stand when you are talking to someone. These habits become repeated actions. You do them again and again, and eventually the muscles shorten and tighten. This tightness puts extra stress on your ligaments and joints, which in time can lead to other problems such as wear and tear and arthritis.
If you can keep your muscles happy, and minimise their stress, this will help in keeping your bones and joints happy and in their correct position, reducing unnatural wear and tear because everything is sitting where it’s meant to be.
Before we start working out what’s wrong, let’s do a little test.
• I want you to stand tall. By this I mean stand up straight. Try to relax your shoulders, and put them where you think they should be.
• Take in slow, controlled, regular breaths, in through your nose and out through your mouth.
• Now stand with your feet hip distance apart. Look straight ahead and walk on the spot. Don’t lift your feet too high. Try to make the action feel as natural as possible.
• Do this for one minute continuously and FEEL. Try to take your mind into your body and feel what is going on.
I have found that when people concentrate too hard, they stop breathing, so make sure you breathe, then consider these questions and note anything else you feel.
• What are your arms doing? Are they motionless or moving?
• Where do you feel tight?
• Are you managing to stay on one spot?
• Is there pain in your back?
• Is one leg working better than the other?
Walk on the spot for a minute and feel.
Now the minute is over, take a moment to think. Listen to your body. What is it telling you? What was the most important thing you took from that exercise? Did everything feel ok or was there something niggling that perhaps shouldn’t have been? You can learn an awful amount from just one minute of simple exercise, listening to your body.
When I take on a new client, the first thing they often say to me after a session is, “Well, that never used to hurt before”. Well, of course it didn’t, because they never used it and didn’t know there was as problem. Our lives are so busy that we become detached from ourselves. We stop listening and stop feeling. It’s now time to reverse that and take back control.
If you are going to improve your posture then you should definitely start with your spine. In my eyes, the most important component in total body health is maintaining a neutral lumbar spine. Or in other words, sorting out your lower back! Through bad posture, your lower back is where you hold all the tension and stress built up in your body during the day. It keeps building up until, one day, it simply can’t cope any more. Your muscles go into
spasm, your hips go out of alignment or you damage a disc. Basically, things are not in the position they are meant to be in and something has to give.
First of all, you have to work out what is a neutral lower spine.
If everything works as it should, your core is on and your spine is neutral. If it’s not then all
your body weight is passing though your lower back, and that is what gets you into trouble. Body weight should pass naturally through your core, thighs and feet, not your back.
I think of the core as the starting point of any body action. Your core is responsible for holding everything in place when you use your body. This involves many muscles, from those deep inside to the muscles you can see on the surface. At this stage, you don’t need to understand all of these muscles. All I want is for you to understand how to engage your core and, in doing so, protect your back.
Stand or sit, Relax your shoulders and soften your knees. Now think about your neutral spine by making sure you feel no pressure in your back. Engage your core by gently pulling in your navel and imagine drawing it up to your chin. Not too much, just enough to feel the muscles working. Now hold that position for a few seconds, remembering to breathe.
The chest stretch
A tight chest will pull your shoulders forward, put pressure on your neck and back and make it really difficult to maintain your core. The pectoral muscles in your chest are strong and very powerful. To give you an idea of their strength, they can be trained to lift your own body weight! Pretty much everybody has tight chest muscles, so they really need looking after to work well. When tight, they contribute to bad posture and can restrict your
breathing. The pecs attach to your rib cage, so if they are tight, your ribs can’t expand to their full potential, limiting the amount of air going into your lungs in deep breathing.
Let’s start loosening off those pecs.
• Stand tall with a neutral spine and your feet hip distance apart.
• Open your chest and relax your shoulders. Activate your core.
• With straight arms, interlock your fingers behind you. Push your arms up while pulling your shoulder blades together.
• Stop and hold the stretch when you feel your chest opening and your arms won’t go up any further. Hold for 20 seconds, taking in big breaths. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Keep looking forward, trying not to bend your neck.
For this exercise you will need a tea towel and a chair. The type of chair is extremely important. When you sit in a chair to exercise, you want to make sure that your knees are at the same height as your bottom or slightly lower. If your knees are higher than your bottom, this changes the angle of your hips and lower back and makes it difficult to maintain a neutral spine.
A classic example of this is sitting on a sofa. On a nice comfy sofa you will see your knees are much higher than your bottom. Now try to stand up from that position with correct posture and a neutral spine. It just doesn’t happen. The only way to do it is to shuffle to the edge of the sofa, sit up straight and push up with your core and thighs.
Watch people when they stand up from a seated position. Firstly, their hands go on their knees putting unnecessary body weight into the knees, then they lean forward, putting too much body weight into their back. They then push up with a bent back, with their knees turning inwards, and finally straighten up, with all their body weight in their lower back.
Things to avoid when standing from seated
• Avoid bending forward and placing your hands on your knees.
• Try to stand up with a neutral spine, keeping your bodyweight out of your back and instead using your bottom, thighs and core.
• Avoid bringing your knees together, keep your knees apart. Your knee should be over your foot
• Try to avoid standing using your back
• Keep your spine neutral and don’t lean forward
Use the following technique to stand from a sitting position in a way that will strengthen your muscles instead of weakening them.
• Sit on the chair with your core on and a neutral spine.
• Place your feet at hip distance apart, toes slightly facing out.
• Take in a breath.
• With relaxed shoulders and an open chest, breathe out and push up using your thighs, buttocks and core muscles.
Through this exercise you have strengthened your core, thighs, buttocks, back and hips, as well as your body in general. Before learning this technique, you were at risk of weakening your body and causing imbalances through habit. Imagine if you had the discipline to stand in this way every time you got up from a chair? By just using this simple technique you
are doing a power of good for your body. You are exercising naturally and keeping your muscles strong with minimal effort.
Tea towel pulls
• Sit on a suitable chair that allows your knees to be level with your bottom, with your spine away from the back of the chair.
• Have your feet hip distance apart and your knees bent at a 90-degree angle. This is important because if your feet are pulled back behind your knees, that will engage the back of your thighs, which will pull on your back.
• Now hold the tea towel by each end above your head. Keep it taut but don’t pull too hard. Engage your core and make sure your spine is neutral.
• Keep your eyes facing forward and pull the tea towel down behind you to the base of your neck, keeping the towel straight.
• Then pull the towel back up again to the starting position.
If all is well you should have managed to pull the tea towel up and down with ease, working the muscles in your upper back. If you have a tight chest, neck or shoulders, your head may
have tilted forward, or you may have felt a pull in your neck or back where you were straining, or your arms wouldn’t let you pull down to the base of your neck without a bend in the towel. This is all down to tightness and imbalance in your neck, chest, arms and upper back.
To try to fix the problem, don’t do too much at once. If you can’t pull the towel down to your neck without it bending or your head dipping, just pull it down to the top of your head. When you can do that, try to pull it down slightly behind your head, and then pull it down to your ears. Do this in stages and eventually your muscles will loosen off, enabling you to pull the tea towel right down to the base of your neck. When you can do this, you will really feel the benefit of your chest opening and stretching, and your shoulders and muscles in your upper back strengthening.
• Try not to arch your back by maintaining a neutral spine.
• Keep the towel taut.
• Only pull down to your neck, no lower.
• Don’t bend or tilt your neck.
Now you are going to stretch the large muscle in your upper back, the trapezius. It’s one of the muscles that will play up if you are under stress or have poor posture. It will cause aching or sometimes burning sensations from the top of your neck down to your shoulder blade. When things get really bad, you may even feel this down your arm. This muscle is easily what I spend most of my day treating with massage. Whether it’s down to a tight chest pulling the shoulders forward, bad posture or emotional stress, these factors all affect the trapezius muscle, causing knots and tension. Other common reasons for trapezius tension are holding a phone between your ear and shoulder, carrying a heavy bag, and bra straps that are too tight. All place too much stress on the muscle, which causes it over time to shorten and tense up.
Chin to chest stretch
• Do this exercise sitting down. Sit up straight with your core engaged and a neutral spine. Relax your shoulders and breathe in.
• As you exhale, slowly bring your head forward, taking your chin towards your neck and down to your chest. You should feel the stretch running from your shoulder blades all the way to the base of your skull.
• Hold this stretch for 30 seconds. When finished, try not to raise your head up too quickly to avoid dizziness.
• Stand up with an engaged core and neutral spine.
• Pull your shoulders up to your ears. Hold for a few seconds and then gently lower them to a relaxed position.
• Repeat this 10 times.
If this feels ok, add a roll. Pull your shoulders up to your ears and then roll them back behind you. When they reach their highest point, start to lower them to a relaxed position. Repeat
this 10 times.
You may feel some crunching or clicking. Don’t worry – this is a good thing! You are feeling the knots in the muscles loosening off, relieving the tension. Muscle is a soft tissue. When you touch it, it should feel soft and relaxed. When it’s tight it becomes stiff and hard as the fibres shorten. When I’m massaging, this is what I’m looking for, feeling through touch. Sometimes, the muscles get so tight and so hard they actually feel like bone. This is when
the massage gets deep and my elbow comes out. The tissue becomes so stiff and knotted that my fingers just haven’t got the strength to break it up, so I have to use my body weight,
directed through my elbow, to start easing off the tension. When it gets to this stage, I am literally ripping the muscle fibres apart to separate them. It’s not a nice massage and I don’t like doing it as it causes my clients pain, but it’s what needs to be done.
Hug the tree stretch
• Stand up with your feet hip distance apart, with soft knees and a neutral spine.
• Imagine that there is a massive tree in front of you with a large trunk and give it a cuddle. Hug it with your fingers clasped together and elbows bent.
• Feel the trapezius muscles pulling away from each other, pulling outwards away from your spine. Draw that feeling into your shoulders and down your arms.
• Gently lower head so you are looking at the floor. This will stretch the trapezius further. When you are happy that you can feel an effective stretch, hold it for 30 seconds.