"Pull your shoulders down and back." Whether from your parents, a coach, a teacher, or a friend, you’ve likely heard that posture correction cue. Whoever said that cue probably meant well - except pulling your shoulders "down and back" isn't the best way to go about getting better posture. While it might look like someone who has good posture is pulling their shoulders down and back, it’s not what you need to do to make your posture better.
The truth is that strong posture doesn’t have you squeezing your muscles
all day long to hold the good posture.
Why does good posture matter anyways?
Put simply, having better posture means good things for your physical well-being. You’ll breathe better, getting more oxygen in and carbon dioxide out, when you have better posture.
- You lower your risk of excessive degeneration of your bones, since your spine will be stacked and well-organized, and your shoulders and hips will handle their appropriate share of the load of your body.
- You have less risk of musculoskeletal pain, meaning soft tissue sits in a good length-tension relationship, and you avoid excessive tightness in the muscles of your back and neck.
- Your lymphatic and circulatory systems are free to flow with ease, allowing for good blood flow and lymph drainage.
- On top of the positive benefits for your health, you also physically, emotionally, and mentally feel better when your posture is better.
So if "shoulders down and back" isn’t great, let’s get into what is great for your posture.
What is "good posture"?
There is no one perfect posture that everyone must achieve, but good posture usually means this:
- The head is stacked over the torso such that the earlobe lines up with the middle of the deltoid
- The chest is open
- The shoulders are not scrunched into the ears
- The arms hang naturally at the sides with palms facing the body
- The shoulders are stacked over the hips
- There is no excessive curvature of the spine, but there is a natural S curve throughout the spine
It’s not just your shoulder blades that need attention
So why isn’t your posture great? There could be several reasons. You might be dealing with a forward head position, which looks like this. Compare it to the side-by-side image of better posture.
Here’s how you can start fixing forward head posture.
Another contributor to sub-optimal posture is missing thoracic extension. Thoracic extension is what’s happening when you bend backward (like into a backbend.) More realistically for normal life though, it’s what you do when you straighten your spine up from rounding it forward. When you spend much of your day in flexion, it changes how you stabilize your torso and how you breathe, not to mention it can contribute to forward rounded shoulders and a chest that seems to be caving in.
One of the best ways to improve your thoracic extension is to improve your breathing mechanics. This post from Lucy Hendricks, Restorative Breathing Coach, will help you get started.
Now you know that you need your head and spine in a better position if you want better posture, let’s go back to the scapulae.
Why "down and back" isn’t the best
Remember, your torso is a 3-D structure, and your shoulder joint has a multitude of ways it can move around the torso.
Not only can the scapulae shift forward, protracting around the torso - like someone with slumped forward shoulders would – they can also retract, pinching together towards your spine.
They can also tip forwards or backwards, rotate up or down, and elevate and depress.
All of those movements are made possible by the soft tissue that attaches to the scapula, and is linked up to the ribcage, humerus, and clavicle to make up the entire shoulder girdle.
By doing the traditional "down and back" cue for your shoulders, you’re flexing your lower trapezius and rhomboid muscle fibers to depress and retract the scapulae. Here are the problems with that:
You can make your levator scapulae tight as a guitar string. By squeezing the shoulders ‘into position’ using the "down and back" cue, you might lengthen the upper trapezius beyond it's normal length-tension relationship. When that happens, some other muscle must pick up the slack. Often, the levator scapulae will take on the job, as it flexes and pulls the scapula back up towards the head, and becomes very tight and painful in the process.
You disrupt normal scapular rhythm. Another possible effect of the "down and back" cue is a significant flexing of the rhomboids, without supporting contraction from the rest of the muscles that would pull the scapulae around the torso.
Do this often enough and the rhomboids will learn to hold that flexed position, and the scapulae can start crowding the spine. That’s a problem because to avoid shoulder pain and injury, you need your scapulae to be able to move well, glide easily, and not impede on other bony structures.
And if the scapula doesn’t glide well with the shoulder, pain and impingement can happen. You want your scapula to protract and upwardly rotate as you lift your arm. And having them squeezed towards your spine with a constant isometric contraction of the rhomboids and middle trapezius disallows that.
You’re not actually improving your posture. The goal of "good posture" isn't to have a rigid posture held in place by a few muscles squeezed intensely. Try it right now. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and drive them down towards your waist.
Now try to move in any other way, while maintaining that squeezing position you just created. Feel the resistance your upper body has created? That impacts all of the other ways your upper body needs to move.
Actively flexing your muscles to hold your posture is not the answer.
Good posture is a combination of hard tissue (bones and their joints) being positioned well, and soft tissue (muscles, fascia) supporting that. And, it’s important to remember that soft tissue pliability and mobility impacts how hard tissue is positioned.
Your shoulders need to sit in a good position. But there are three often overlooked areas of your upper body that impact your posture. Understand more about these areas, and how to make yours better, and you’ll be well on your way to having better posture.
1. Increase mobility of your T-spine
Your thoracic spine, or T-spine, contributes heavily to your posture. If your pectorals, latissimus dorsi, and serratus anterior are shortened due to copious amounts of desk or car time, or heavy anterior-body training with minimal posterior-body training – no matter how much you pull your shoulders back, you’re fighting a losing battle against the length-tension relationship of your upper body.
When a muscle becomes overly shortened or has overly-increased tone, it needs to re-learn how to hold the new length-tension relationship with the other muscles working synergistically with it.
Essentially, you teach your body how it should function – and desk work or heavy anterior-body training teaches the body to round forward (if it’s not paired up with movement that takes the body out of that rounded or pulled forward position.)
Take action: Use a lacrosse ball (or tennis ball if you find the lacrosse ball too pain-inducing at first) and, using the ball, apply pressure to the pecs and serratus to increase the mobility of those areas.
Using your hand to move the ball around the area is fine to start. You can also use the wall to assist in applying pressure while you lean into the ball. These areas are notoriously tender for most folks, so start with gentle pressure.
The last thing you want is to increase tension and tone of the muscles of your upper body because you’re tensing in resistance from the pain of rolling out your pecs and serratus anterior.
The lats can be rolled out with a foam roller for a broad stroke mobilization or with a lacrosse ball if you know you have a particularly small area you want to get in to.
2. Strengthen your lower traps
Your trapezium muscle is large, and it’s made up of 3 sections, each section taking care of slightly different movement for your shoulders and back.
The upper traps are well-known for their ability to carry pain and tension after a long day at the office. (The upper traps also do actual movement functions, like medially rotating the clavicle, and assisting in scapular movement once the arm is slightly abducted.)
The mid traps are much less well known – they help pull the scapulae toward the spine, like the rhomboids.
The lower traps are often the least used and least trained part of the entire trapezius muscle
Even though the three sections all do slightly different things, they still work together. You don’t isolate one from the other entirely. So in training your back, it’s possible you’re getting some work out of the lower traps already.
But, it’s more common to see that the lower traps are under-active, just coming along for the ride during rows and even during the favorite posture-training exercise, the prone Y-raise.
Take action: The prone-Y Raise can be a useful exercise for the lower trapezius muscle, but due to the long lever of the arm, and difficulty a person with under-active lower traps would have in connecting to the lower traps to do the movement, it’s actually far more advanced than some would think.
Start with wall slides (these slides will move downward, not up like you mave have done in physical therapy if you ever had a rotator cuff injury). Aim to feel a contraction under your scapula and wrapping around your ribs, fairly underneath your armpit and slightly behind a line drawn down from the armpit.
3. Strengthen serratus anterior
If your posture isn’t strong, there’s a good chance your scapulae aren’t sitting in the best position to begin with – and pulling them “down and back” from that position can create more problems while also not solving your problem of missing postural strength.
Breathing correctly is one way to get the serratus anterior going. You’ll want to add in strength movements to further enhance the capabilities of the serratus anterior though.
Take action: The floor press is one of those ‘big wow’ exercises that also is fun to do, and really targets the serratus anterior. However, it is an advanced exercise, and one that should be progressed to slowly.
A great place to start is with a scapular wall slide (not to be confused with the previous wall slides. Demo’d here by Eric Cressey, a guy who knows a thing or two about shoulders (he’s a major contributor to the shoulder health of MLB pitchers), the scapular wall slide can teach you how to start feeling your serratus anterior better.
I’m also a fan of the serratus press, which is simple to start on. At the top of your push-up, or your straight-arm plank, press a little farther up so that you drive your torso up higher and engage your serratus anterior in the process.
This video will show you how to do the serratus pressing in three different positions:
You’ve learned five actions you can take to improve your posture, that have nothing to do with putting your shoulders "down and back." These action steps will help you improve how you sit, stand, and move - which is what good posture is all about.
Thanks to Kate Galliett for this information.