Standing up straight seems easy enough, but thanks to the excessive amount of sitting we do, many of us struggle to maintain posture that would make Grandma proud.
Spending too much time on our butts, hunching over our phones, and even using crummy form in the gym can really wreck our posture, according to Stuart McGill, Ph.D., professor emeritus of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo and author of Back Mechanic.
And that has a greater impact than just making us look shorter and schlumpy. Bad posture can lead to stress and pain in your back and hips that can affect your ability to move and exercise, McGill says.
The tricky thing is, not all crummy posture is created equal. Your personal breed of poor posture (whether it’s sloping shoulders or shifting hips) stems from your daily routine and lifestyle—and if you’re not in pain, you might not even realize how out-of-whack your back is.
Below are the four most common posture-wrecking issues, and what you’ll need to do to correct them:
Issue #1: Your Hips Are Stuck Back
If it takes you a while (like 30 seconds) to fully stand up after sitting for a few hours and you notice that you cannot pull your hips forward and stand upright, chances are you have tight hip flexors (a.k.a. psoas muscles), which connect your lower spine to the front of your thigh bones. This is a common issue for people who sit for long periods of time—like those of us who work sedentary jobs, McGill says.
Not only do tight hip flexors make walking uncomfortable and stiff, but they prevent our hips from moving forward, which then pulls our lower back out of its natural hollow curve, he says. And being in this unnatural position puts a lot of extra pressure on our lower spine.
The Fix: Perform Forward Lunges with Hand Internal/External Rotations
To help your lower spine relax back into its natural curve, you need to stretch.
Start in a standing position with your arms at your sides. Step your right leg forward and bend at the knee to lower into a lunge. Your legs should be bent at the knees. Reach your left hand up overhead, drop your left shoulder slightly back, and push your palm towards the ceiling. As you push your left palm up, you’ll feel the stretch in your left hip flexor. (Your muscles’ protective tissues connect all the way from your arm, down your torso, to your hip flexors.) In this position, rotate your left hand back and forth a few times.
Do two or three reps on each side, holding each rep for about 10 seconds.
Issue #2: You’re Slouched Too Far Forward
If you stand with your shoulders slouched forward, your stomach relaxed out to the front, and your butt tucked under, we’re talking about you here. In this classic image of poor posture, we exaggerate the natural curves in our backs (a hollow curve at the neck, and outward curve at the upper back, and a hollow curve at the lower back), says McGill.
Normally, the muscles in our torso support our spine and help us maintain the slight curves our back has in proper posture, says McGill. But when we don’t have enough muscle, the discs (the pliable shock-absorbers between the vertebrae of our spine ) and elastic tissues (like ligaments and fascia)—especially in our lower back—bear the pressure of our body weight, says McGill. And that’s a recipe for pain and impaired mobility over time.
The Fix: Re-Train Your Hips
To take that pressure off your lower back, you need to move your spine back into a more neutral position. To do this, imagine straight lines extending down from your ears, through your shoulders, through your hips, and into the middle of your feet, McGill says. This will help you shift your hips beneath the center of your weight and pull your shoulders back. Simply being aware of your body position and reminding yourself to stack your spine back in that neutral position can help you re-learn proper posture, he says.
You should also consider this posture issue an invitation to work on your core strength. That might mean hitting the weights regularly or using your own body weight to build strength. One bodyweight option is Pilates, which can increase core stability, according to a study published in Isokinetics and Exercise Science. (Participants saw improvements after eight weeks of three weekly Pilates sessions.)
Issue #3: Lifting Weights Improperly Has Landed You With A Disc Bulge
When you excessively flex or extend your back while under stress (like when lifting weights with poor form), the repeated pressure over time can make the discs between your vertebrae bulge or full-on rupture.
Sitting puts pressure on a disc bulge, while walking reduces it, so if you have back pain after just a few minutes of sitting but can walk around okay, this may be your issue.
For some people, disc bulges occur from squatting or deadlifting beyond their natural range of motion. It all depends on your hips. Some people have deep hip sockets, so at some point when they squat deep or reach to deadlift a barbell up off the floor, their thigh bones hit the front of those sockets. This point should be the end of their range of motion, but most people allow their lower back to flatten so they can continue lowering. Putting your spine in this unnatural position while bearing extra weight puts immense pressure on your discs, and can lead to a bulge or rupture. (This is less of an issue for people with shallow hip sockets, whose hips have a greater range of motion, and who can squat deeper or deadlift from the floor without having to flatten their back.)
The Fix: Correct Your Form and Support Your Back
A certified strength and conditioning coach or physical therapist can help you identify your safe range of motion for the aforementioned exercises.
Follow the video above to determine the best squat depth for your hips and avoid deep “ass-to-grass” squats if you have deep hip sockets. Similarly, those with deep hip sockets should deadlift a barbell off of raised blocks instead of off the floor. Widening your stance for squats and deadlifts can also increase your hip mobility and help you get lower without straining your back.
You also don’t need to drop it super-low to benefit from squatting. Hit the rack and make sure your form looks like the following to guarantee you’re squatting safely:
Step underneath a racked barbell and allow it to rest on top of your upper back muscles. Grip the bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Inhale and un-rack the bar by stepping both feet backwards. Keeping your core tight, sink your hips back and bend at the knees to lower the bar until your thighs are parallel to the ground. Then, exhale as you press through your heels to drive your hips up vertically and push the bar back towards the ceiling until you’re standing straight up.
Related: 3 Ways To Improve Your Squat
If you suspect you already have a disc bulge, it’s time to see a doc. You can also use a LumbAir back pad whenever you sit for an extended period to restore the natural curve of your back and reduce the pressure on the disc, McGill says. Slowly, over time, the disc bulge should heal.
Issue #4: You Have Weak Glutes
Strong glute muscles help keep your hips centered beneath your weight. Weak glutes, though, whether from too much sitting or not enough strength training, can allow your hips to shift too far back and cause hip or lower-back pain, says McGill.
The Fix: Hip Thrust
With the right technique, the hip thrust can target and strengthen your gluteal muscles to help get your hips back in proper placement.
How to do it: Lie on your back, bend your knees, and put your feet flat on the floor. Grip the floor with your feet, squeeze your glutes, and drive them towards the ceiling, bringing your pelvis off the floor. Push your pelvis up until your torso forms a straight line from your shoulders to your tailbone. “Focus on squeezing your glutes and imagine pushing your feet and knees away from your body,” says McGill. This will ensure that you’re using your glutes and not your hamstrings.
Perform three sets of three to five reps at the beginning of your workouts or once a day.