“Chest out, shoulders back, chin up!” for long the military mandate for standing at attention, is still regarded by many as the correct procedure for standing straight. Other regimens have the chest out but the chin tucked in, a posture of rigid unnaturalness if ever there was one. Then there’s “pulling the string up from the top of the head,” a mental image that is scarcely more conducive to a natural stance than the outmoded method of walking with a book on the head. Confusion reigns and slouching gains the upper hand. But that, at least, is natural.
Which brings up a point: If slouching is so natural, why isn’t it comfortable?
The reason we even try to keep our backs straight is because slouching produces negative biofeedback. To our bodies’ sensory system, it feels as though a fatiguing weight-load needs to be thrown off. And our bodies are right. There is a weight-load, but it can’t be got rid of. What it needs is support.
As explained in last month’s column, an expanded ribcage helps support the weight of the upper body. However, this does not prevent the upper back from “falling out” in a slouch.
The muscles that support this area are the ones between the shoulder blades, next to the spine. When unused, however, these muscles become weak and tire easily. Constant fatigue augments their weakness, resulting in a long-term trend toward a permanently rounded back and a corresponding rounding of the shoulders.
For anyone concerned about this eventuality, the only natural solution to standing straight is to strengthen the support muscles so the back is “propped up.” When this happens, the chest opens (without the lower ribs protruding) and the shoulders sit squarely to both sides.
As previously stated, however, such maneuvers require the body to be loose enough for these changes to take place. But again, stiffness can stand in the way and that must be dealt with first.
In general, any exercise that alternately flexes the spine forward and backward has a loosening effect. The accompanying exercise is an example of this. It has the added benefit of “unsticking” the shoulder blades and is also helpful in releasing tension and reducing the feeling of fatigue.
Once the back has loosened, the support muscles can then be more readily strengthened. With both flexibility and strengthening accomplished, standing straight is no longer an effort or unnatural, but a matter of remembering what to do.
Flexibility For the Back
Sit forward in a chair, feet flat on the floor and spaced comfortably apart.
Inhaling, bend the elbows to both sides at shoulder height (or just below, if the shoulders get lifted with the arms at that height). Exhaling, simultaneously press the shoulders backward and the chest forward, contracting the muscles in the upper back. (The elbows should be kept wide apart and the shoulders down so the shoulder blades don’t actually come together and narrow the back. The head is naturally erect and the abdominals lightly held to prevent arching.)
Inhale as the arms return to the side and exhale again as the position is reversed: the elbows pull forward (again, kept wide apart to increase the stretch through the back), the back presses out and the head is down over the chest. (There is a slight rocking of the pelvis over the “sit-bones,” or ischium, with each movement – forward on the forward flexion and backward as the back presses out.)
Alternate the forward and backward flexions several times, using the arm movements to provide opposing pressure.
If the flexions are done fairly slowly, the pressure into the spine can be more concentrated and the movement will coincide naturally with the breath.
A good finishing touch to further loosen the shoulder blades is to circle the shoulders loosely (front to back), with the elbows lowered to the sides, but still bent.
Strengthening the Back Support Muscles
Sit on the floor, knees bent, feet and knees spaced hip-width apart. Place one hand under each thigh and relax the back.
Inhale fully. Exhaling steadily through the mouth, simultaneously pull on the legs to bring the back of the pelvis upright (extend the legs forward a little if the lower back remains rounded); draw the abdominals in strongly and pull downward on the shoulder blades. (This should not pull the scapula together nor cause the lower back to arch. Rather, it has the effect of lifting the sternum slightly and broadening the chest.) Shoulders remain over the hips throughout.
Maintain the grip in the upper back until the muscles tire, then relax the back slowly and inhale deeply again before repeating.
The back should be pressed outward to stretch the muscles after several times of straightening the back.
Once a firm grip on the muscles has been accomplished, the exercise can be increased in intensity for further strengthening. The procedure remains the same but the hand grip is loosened after the contraction in the back is secured. This will also cause the abdominal and groin muscles to hold more strongly.