// Make perfect posture second nature

by Lesley Gray

In 1993 I inflicted a serious back injury upon myself as a result of too much hard and mindless exercise. I ended up with three prolapsed discs and a sprained sacroiliac joint – bad news for a group exercise instructor – and the doctors said I would never work in the fitness industry again. Determined to prove them wrong, over the following five years I sought to rehabilitate myself, trying countless treatments and movement modalities. Today I teach 20 classes a week, including yoga, Pilates, cycle, BODYPUMP® and freestyle low impact and muscle conditioning. The knowledge I gained about the body during those five years has been invaluable and I now apply it to everything I teach, which has resulted in my helping dozens of people to get moving and exercising again – sensibly. 

THE NEGLECTED FITNESS FACTOR


Picture this; a beautiful girl decked out in designer clothes with perfect make•up and hair – but something is wrong. Her head pokes forward, her shoulders round over and there is a slight hump on her upper back – and this is when she is sitting down. It gets worse. She stands up in her patent heels and her backside sticks right out and the arch in her lower back looks very uncomfortable. You’ve seen this girl before in your classes and working with a personal trainer on the weights floor at your facility, but all of her efforts have not addressed a very important factor of fitness: POSTURE. 

Poor posture is a common occurrence that we can all suffer from to some extent. The continual inappropriate use of muscles, both in stillness and in movement, affects the musculoskeletal system. Sometimes poor posture or alignment may arise from congenital factors or injury, but more commonly it is caused by a lack of awareness and poor use of the body. 

Poor posture is defined as the body not being in optimal anatomical alignment, and may take the form of a forward-thrusting head; sloping, hunched or rounded shoulders; humped upper back; overarched or flattened lower back; protruding abdomen or hyper-extended knees. People often think that they are destined to have poor posture forever, but this is not true. As instructors and personal trainers we have the opportunity to educate and help our participants and clients achieve and retain good posture. 

CURSE OF THE PROFESSIONAL SITTER

Today’s lifestyle is overwhelmingly sedentary, with the majority of workers and students spending their days sitting hunched over computers. In these non-ergonomic conditions (i.e., the chair and desk are not properly set up to suit the individual) the professional sitter struggles to stay comfortable, which results in the emergence of compensatory patterns such as leaning on one arm, slouching to one side or tucking one leg beneath the backside. Consequently, the skeleton becomes poorly aligned and the ‘bad’ position becomes a habit which is automatically assumed whenever the individual sits down. 

To commute to their places of work or study, these same individuals will often travel long distances by car or public transport – more sitting. When they get home exhausted, the comfortable sofa calls and the television beckons – yet more sitting. And throughout their day, the professional sitter is unaware of the impact these bad positions are having on their posture and body. 

Of course, a small percentage of these sitters will attend a gym, but they may not know how to choose activities and classes that will bring balance to their bodies. The relentless sitting makes them tight in the hamstrings, hip flexors, chest and shoulders; their breathing becomes shallow and their spine and joints lose mobility. For these individuals, it would be more appropriate to engage in an overall flexibility/ mobility session than to jump on an indoor cycle or grab a pump bar. But if we do encounter them in our classes and training sessions – and we do – then we can educate them about good posture and ensure that we provide a balanced workout that includes a flexibility component. 

BECOMING AWARE

Examine carefully the exercises you are prescribing, being mindful not to overload already-tight muscles and compromised joints, e.g., abdominal work that includes too much rectus abdominus and hip flexor overload is inappropriate. Look at your participants and clients and notice their postural abnormalities. Ensure you include strengthening of the upper back and posterior deltoid and flexibility work for hamstrings and hip flexors. It is useful at this point to check yourself out in the mirror; are you a role model of good posture? 

Good posture is defined as the skeleton being in optimal anatomical alignment, with the weight evenly distributed over the feet and the bones lengthening upwards. Contrary to frequent assumption, attaining good posture does not have to be a struggle. The first thing that is needed is awareness of how the body is placed in space. Lack of awareness is very common. The modern mind is usually busy, agitated, distracted. People need to be guided and coached as to how to enhance the mind body connection and to develop and value ‘awareness’. 

Movement modalities such as the Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais – and certain types of yoga and Pilates – encourage being ‘aware’, ‘letting go’ of tight muscles, ‘lengthening’, moving with lightness and ease, connecting mind to body, being in the ‘present’ and breathing deeply. By way of both personal experience and professional education, it is beneficial for all instructors and personal trainers to attend lessons in these methods in order to experience just how amazing the body can feel – and they are ideally positioned to pass this knowledge on to clients and participants. 

CUE, ENCOURAGE, BREATHE

As a person becomes more aware of their physical self, they will notice what their muscles are doing and how their joints are aligned. This lays the foundation for better functioning of the musculoskeletal system, and also has the psychological effect of bringing a sense of unity, peace with oneself and centredness – of being ‘in the moment’. 

To encourage this awareness, as you open your class, whatever it may be, you can say something like, ‘I’d like you to forget about things unrelated to this class. Try to concentrate on how your body is feeling as we go through the various exercises. Listen to my technique cues and apply them’ or ‘Let’s all engage brain, connect our mind to our body, align and stabilise the joints and focus on what we are doing. Forget about the other stuff’. Personal trainers can subtly discourage the self-distracting chatterbox client and get them to focus on every repetition. 

Remind intermittently about smooth, deep breathing, which does great things for posture. All the slumping forward of the professional sitter inhibits the ability to take deep inhalations due to compression of the diaphragm. The expansion of the lungs encourages extension of the spine and full exhalation fires up the transverse abdominus and pelvic floor. If the person is aware of their breathing and focuses on correct breathing technique, their posture will improve and all systems of the body will be stimulated. All of us – participants, clients, instructors and personal trainers – would benefit from performing a few minutes of concentrated deep breathing every day. The old saying ‘take some deep breaths’ is very wise. Yogis have performed pranayama (specific breathing techniques) for thousands of years. Instructors take note: talking continually during your classes does not allow you to breathe properly. Find moments to be silent and connect with your breath. 

The message about good posture can be relayed to group exercise participants during the warm-up, using a bank of descriptive cues such as ‘lengthen your spine’, ‘stand tall’, ‘feel upright and open’. Personal trainers should ensure their clients are in good posture before they begin a set of exercises, and watch closely and correct if necessary. 

Aside from awareness, the most important factor for attaining good posture is a willingness to improve. Instructors and personal trainers need to be excellent role models and believe and sell the benefits. Connecting the mind to the body does require concentration and dedication, but after a while assuming optimal alignment and good posture will become instinctive and habitual. 

And in addition to the health benefits, good posture is the ultimate and free fashion accessory, making you look and feel sensational no matter what you are wearing.  


Click here to download a handout containing helpful hints for you, your participants and clients.

Lesley Gray, DipYoga
Lesley’s 25 years industry experience encompasses teaching every style of group exercise, as well as training and mentoring instructors; choreographing, coaching and judging competitive aerobics and managing group fitness. An Indoor Cycling Experience (I.C.E) master trainer and regular convention presenter, Lesley lives by her mantra ‘do it right to get the best results’.

NETWORK • SPRING 2008 • PP12-15