Woman's Posture from a Man's Perspective

Pay attention to your posture, ladies, and the men will pay attention to you!
by John Paul Catanzaro

Do you want to perform better at work or sport?
Do you lack energy and feel constantly fatigued?
Are you suffering from backaches or muscular pain?
Do you want to portray a positive self-image?
Do you want to command respect in meetings?
Do you want to develop presence when entering a room?
Do you want to look taller and more confident?
Do you want to appear more attractive to the opposite sex?

If you answered YES to any of the above questions, read on.

Posture, posture, posture - why is it so important, you may ask? Well, forget about the fact that proper posture can help your aching neck and back. Don't even consider the importance of posture in injury prevention and sports performance. And least of all, who cares about slowing down or even halting the development of arthritis or osteoporosis? What if I was to reveal a secret on how to naturally make your breasts appear larger and your waist smaller in an instant! Now, did I make you sit up straight to listen? That's right - the answer lies in your posture.

Let's face it, almost everything we do is in front of us; we do not have eyes in the back of our head (my mother is the only exception!) Now with that said, here's a sure recipe for disaster: add a tiny forward lean with a touch of gravity, and you have a condition called slouching, a.k.a. poor posture. This bad habit repeated constantly over a long period of time (admit it, we all get lazy and slouch) will result in a faulty aligned body with many muscle imbalances. As a result, undue stress is placed on the bones, joints, ligaments and muscles of your body.8 Thus, bad posture is not only an aesthetic problem affecting appearance, it can also give rise to discomfort, pain, and/or disability.16 On the other hand, a well-aligned person is able to use gravity to remain upright and move freely rather than constantly fighting it; bones go where muscles place them (i.e. it's like setting up a tent - you adjust the ropes not the pole if it is not standing straight.)5 Unfortunately, many people ignore the powerful role that posture plays on their health.

Although posture is typically viewed as a static condition, it also influences the way we move. Posture can be simply stated as the position from which movement begins and ends - it reflects the arrangement of one body part to the next. Of course, ideal posture is the position of the joints from which the body functions most efficiently.3 In order to achieve proper posture, though, you must have adequate joint range of motion (i.e. flexibility) as well as a balanced set of postural muscles (i.e. muscle strength and endurance.)11,16 In other words, you must train the body to walk, stand, sit and lie in positions that place the least amount of strain on supporting structures during movement or weight-bearing activities.11 I hope the message is clear: we must strive for balance in our bodies and pay greater attention to our posture.

Assessment 

Here's a little game that I want you to play with a friend - preferably a male friend and, of course, clothing is always optional - in order to evaluate your posture. This may seem very silly, but do it anyway. I want you to shake, wiggle, and jump up-and-down for about a minute. Basically, pretend that you're dancing while slightly intoxicated which, for some of you, should feel quite natural! The trick is to perform this exercise with your eyes closed. After thirty seconds or so, your friend will yell "STOP" and you should remain standing still (assuming that you are actually sober) in a posture that feels natural to you while keeping your eyes closed. That last point is very important. Posture is best evaluated when removing any visual stimuli and then moving/shaking around to distort the senses so that you revert to a natural position. So, keep your eyes closed as your friend thoroughly (and I mean t-h-o-r-o-u-g-h-l-y) evaluates you from the front, back, and side (refer to the following checklist for the appropriate criteria.) If no friend is available, pull out a few photographs of yourself - you know the ones with your eyes closed - and laugh. I mean evaluate them. Rehabilitation specialist, Paul Chek, whose ideas are presented throughout this article states it best when he says, "postural alignment is the key evaluation method because posture never lies!"

Posture Checklist

View from Front and Back:
(check for symmetry)
- Head straight
- Hips and shoulders level
- Hands parallel to each other
- Knees over middle toes
- Feet straight
View from Side:
(check alignment)
- Ankle, knee, hip, shoulder, and ear line up
- Chest up, shoulders back, head erect
- Slight bend in knees and elbows(i.e.unlocked)
- Natural arch in lower back

Fig. 1 Front View

Fig. 2 Back View

Fig. 3 Side View

Here are two simple tests that you can perform on yourself to check your postural alignment:

  1. Stand with your back about two inches away from a wall. While keeping your feet flat on the floor and hip-width apart, lean back towards the wall (Fig. 4). If your shoulder blades and buttocks touch the wall simultaneously, then you are in complete alignment. However, if one side of your body touches the wall before the other or your shoulders touch the wall before your butt does, then you have an imbalance.
  1. While standing against the wall (make sure your heels, butt, upper back and head are touching the wall), try to slide your hand between the wall and the small of your back (Fig. 5). If your hand gets caught between your back and the wall, then you have a normal lumbar (lordotic) curvature. If you can barely get your fingers through, then you do not have enough of a curve in your lower back, or if your entire hand slides through, you have too much lumbar curvature.

Fig. 4 Wall Test 1

Fig. 5 Wall Test 2

Posture-Related Problems for Women 

Women tend to experience several posture-related problems. Although many people think that large breasts are enviable (and let me just get this off my chest, I think I speak for all men when I say that this type of thinking is wrong!), many problems exist for large-breasted women: shoulder and back strain, headaches, sagging, sore shoulders, and poor posture. Breasts encourage the shoulders to round forward - the bigger/heavier the breasts, the greater the rounding that occurs. Unfortunately, as the shoulder girdle migrates forward, the head is also pulled forward resulting in a forward head syndrome and a kyphotic posture. It is this kyphotic , or hunchback, posture that encourages slouching especially in taller, well-endowed women. It is interesting to note that the current trend of breast augmentation surgery is causing a slew of lower back patients because their back muscles are not strong enough to counter the extra weight of the chest implants. As a result, these women develop poor posture and experience unnecessary pain (as you will read later, it is important to stretch the tight chest muscles and strengthen the weak back muscles in your exercise program to achieve/restore proper balance.) Breasts appear larger with good posture! Read that sentence again. Therefore, try to improve your posture first before ever considering any kind of surgery! You don't need to be huge to experience a little extra attention; just pull your sternum up high and welcome the gazes not to mention better health.

Another condition common to women is osteoporosis ("porous bone"). Due to a reduction in physical activity and subsequent loss of muscle, a decrease in bone mass and fragility occurs causing skeletal disfigurations. "Kyphotic postural change is the most physically disfiguring and psychologically damaging effect of osteoporosis and can contribute to an increment in vertebral fractures and the risk of falling." Unfortunately, it has been found that many females lose their ability to extend the thoracic spine and develop kyphosis at a relatively young age (starting as early as 22 years old.) This is, yet, another reason to exercise on a regular basis (particularly weight bearing exercises - don't be afraid of strength training!) and pay close attention to your posture.

Since women are designed with wider hips (causing something called a greater Q-angle between the hips and legs when compared to men) to facilitate the child-bearing process, the pelvis will undergo anterior (forward) pelvic tilt if an imbalance exists between the hip flexors and the lower abdominals. This is quite common since the hip flexors (in particular, the psoas muscle) tend to be the tightest muscles in the human body and are much stronger than the often weak lower abdominal muscles. As a result, the pelvis tilts forward causing a hyperlordotic posture (or too much arch in the lower back) and a distended abdomen. Inevitably, this will eventually lead to lower back problems and may also cause pain to occur in the hip, knees, ankles and feet. Although posture does naturally change during pregnancy, a forward pelvic tilt will not make childbirth easy!

Women make this problem worse by wearing high-heeled shoes which causes further anterior pelvic tilt and will also tighten and excessively shorten the calves. Women who wear heels often tend to lean forward when squatting; this will lead to problems when picking up a heavy object from the ground because the greater you lean forward when squatting or bending, the greater the strain on your lower back. In this situation, the calves must be stretched often (remember to warm-up first though) and it is recommended that flats be worn. It has also been postulated that constrictive clothing such as tight collars, belts, girdles, and garters could adversely affect the spine and compress the abdomen producing a multitude of symptoms. It is far better to activate your deep abdominal wall naturally; thus, the first step towards obtaining a flat stomach and reducing joint discomfort should be to improve your posture.

Awareness 

Did I catch your attention yet? In order for you to improve your posture, you must first become aware of your posture and any bad habits that you may have developed. So, I suggest that you check your posture, no matter where you're at - whether you are sitting, standing, or lying down - every 20-30 minutes (set your watch if you must.) You may get into the habit of checking and correcting your posture when the phone rings, when receiving or sending email, during commercials, or even when you are just talking to someone face to face. For example, it is common to lean on one side or stand with most of your weight on one leg; correct this problem by distributing your weight evenly between both legs and stand tall. Simply visualize being pulled up by your head to help straighten out!

Exercise 

You must also aim to correct poor posture with your exercise regimen. As a matter of fact, posture generally dictates the design of my training programs. It is absolutely crucial to train in perfect posture since the body adapts the posture that you train in when performing similar movements outside of the gym. For instance, if you round your back and poke your head forward when performing an overhead press in the gym, guess what's going to happen when you try to place that heavy dish on a high shelf? Next time, try placing a bean bag (you know the ones that kids play with at school; you can easily make one by filling a sac with popcorn kernels and sewing it shut) on your head when you perform that overhead press. In the past, girls were told to practice walking while balancing a book on their head. You can apply the same line of thinking to the gym by balancing a bean bag on your head while working out. This will force you to maintain an erect posture.

You must be patient in your quest for improved posture. To your nervous system, it takes approximately 300 repetitions to form a new skill; however, it takes more than 5000 repetitions to reformulate a skill. In other words, it takes a long time to break bad habits! Eventually, though, you can transform your old posture but only with lots of practice! It is well known that proper posture will protect you from injury in the gym and will increase performance. Also, women who have had caesarean sections will need to retrain the deep abdominal wall muscles (transversus abdominus) to activate effectively. Therefore, in most cases, corrective exercises must aim to strengthen the long, weak muscles, and stretch the short, tight muscles.

Note: I recently read a column on the internet that recommends strengthening your chest and upper abdominal muscles by performing presses and crunches respectively to improve your posture. This is faulty advice that will further encourage muscular imbalances and result in even poorer posture because a) the stronger and tighter your chest muscles become, the more your shoulders will round forward, and b) the stronger and tighter your upper abdominals become, the more you will slouch. Instead, aim to strengthen your lower abdominals and back muscles while stretching out your upper abdominals and chest muscles. If your posture is poor, improper strength training can actually accelerate your body's breakdown.

In order to influence the postural muscles with exercise, you should hold static (isometric) contractions. I recommend starting with five second holds in the contracted position and working up to ten seconds over a period of time. You should perform 10-12 repetitions per exercise and progress by adding 1 second to each repetition every week. When you can comfortably complete a set for a full two minutes (12 reps x 10 seconds per rep = 120 seconds), then it is time to make the exercise more difficult (i.e. add more weight where applicable, extend your arms or legs further out, or move on to a different exercise.) Stretches should be held for a minimum of 15 seconds. Remember to breathe while stretching (you won't believe how many people forget to do this) and do not bounce or jerk! Here is a list of strengthening and stretching exercises for you to perform on a daily basis.

Strengthening Exercises:

1. Pelvic Tilts (Fig. 6)

2. Prone Cobra (Fig. 7)

3. Abdominal Vacuum (Fig. 8)

4. Cervical Retraction (Figs. 9 & 10)
 

5. Split Squat (Figs. 11 & 12)
 

6. Bent-Over Lateral Raise (Figs. 13 & 14)
 

7. Seated Arm External Rotation (Figs. 15 & 16)
 

Stretching Exercises:

1. Chest Stretch (Fig. 17)
2. Wrist Stretch (Fig. 18)
3. Calf Stretch (Fig. 19)
4. Abdominal Stretch (Fig. 20)
5. Hip Flexor Stretch (Fig. 21)

 

   6. Hamstring Stretch (Fig. 22)
  

Tips

You don't need a high-powered vacuum cleaner and a small incision to look thin - just improve your posture and you will look skinny instantly (of course, proper nutrition and exercise may help a little, too!) Drawing your belly button in is a quick way to flatten your stomach and appear thinner. This is an exercise that you can practice several times a day anywhere you are. A great place to start is in your car (keep your abdominals tight for as long as you can; over time, you will be able to hold that contraction for greater distances - challenge yourself!) Some people even go so far as tying a string around their midsection (along the beltline) to aid awareness. However, there are some drawbacks: 1. Drawing in the navel (and subsequently activating your internal girdle called the transversus abdominus) could make breathing/respiration difficult especially if you are exercising where the need for oxygen is much higher, and 2. In order to truly increase intra-abdominal pressure, you must take in a deep breath and hold it while bracing the abdominals. Along with a neutral spine, this is necessary when lifting heavy loads. For these reasons, I often recommend keeping the abdominals "tight" (neither pushed out nor pulled in) to promote good posture and to help protect the spine.

Here are some other tips to help you improve your posture:

1. Setting your car's rear view mirror higher forces you to sit tall when driving. Also, pretend that your shoulders are pinned to the seat.

2. Alternate sides when carrying your luggage or briefcase; favor two strap bags when possible.

3. Learn to use a headset or handsfree speaker when talking on the phone (again, alternate sides if this option is not available to you).

4. Lay lengthwise on a foam noodle (the ones that children use to float in water) for 15-20 minutes a day to help reduce a hunchback posture (see Fig. 23).20


Fig. 23 Lying on a Foam Noodle

5. Sit on a Swiss Ball as often as possible (i.e. when watching tv, working on your computer, talking on the phone, etc.) to improve balance/stability and posture.3

Fig. 24 Exercise Equipment:
(from left to right) 
- rocker board
- exercise mat
- SitFit
- Swiss ball
- dumbbells
- foam noodle
- wobble board
- aerobic step

 

 

Ergonomics

We spend the majority of our lives seated. It has been postulated that up to 40% of our lives are spent sitting whether we are working, eating, driving, watching tv, or on the toilet. Why not take advantage of this common position and use it to influence our bodies and health positively. Unfortunately, it is common in today's society to relax the trunk musculature and slouch when sitting. What people don't realize is that there is a strong association between neck posture and back posture. As soon as the head starts reaching forward even slightly, posture begins to collapse leading to scapular protraction (rounded shoulders), faulty head and neck posture, improper trunk stabilization, and improper respiration. If you experience back pain, neck pain, or even carpal tunnel syndrome, you should seriously evaluate your workstation and sitting posture.

I propose that we all practice active sitting. Not only should we concentrate on our posture when seated, but we should also focus on activating our core musculature. Since most chairs today have a backrest, we tend to get lazy when we sit and let our bodies disintegrate into the chair (what I term passive sitting.) Whereas, if we sit up straight and maintain a tight core, we can accomplish active sitting. As a matter of fact, I have most people sit on Swiss ball (the large, resilient ball in Fig. that looks like a beach ball but can be used for exercising) at work or at home. Since the Swiss ball has no backrest and is unstable, your core muscles are constantly active. Not only will the ball promote good posture, but it will also give your back and abdominals a great workout while you're working! The trick is to build up your tolerance on the ball. Sit on the ball for as long as you can and when you tire, you can return to your chair. As your endurance improves, you will be able to sit on the ball for longer periods of time. If you are unable to bring a large, inflated ball to your work environment, consider purchasing a product called a SitFit (see Fig. 24), which is an inflated disc that will fit over your seat and provide similar benefits. Let's promote optimal health and a great set of "abs" by practicing active sitting on a daily basis.

Note: Posture is important to parents as well - they should constantly observe their children and remind them to straighten up and sit tall when necessary. Most posture-related problems that adults experience stem from their early childhood. It has been suggested that little girls tend to stand with their tummies out because it is considered a "cute" posture. As mentioned earlier in this article, a forward tilt of the pelvis can lead to hip, knee, and back problems. As well, since good posture is a sign of being well brought up, many kids rebel by slouching and taking a casual approach to posture. So, nip it in the bud - your kids will thank you later.

Psychological Aspect

We know that smiling is a cue to openness and receptivity, but did you know that posture and body language can also describe a lot about you? Posture sends powerful psychological signals. The following list of postures and movements will give you an idea of what kind of message you are sending to others:

- Forward lean = attentiveness
- Drawing back or turning away = negative, refusing
- Expansion = proud, conceited, arrogant
- Forward-leaning trunk, bowed head, drooping shoulders, and sunken chest = depressed, downcast, dejected
- Slumping = apology
- Standing on one leg = pushover
- Standing evenly on both legs = forcefulness
- Head tilt and shoulder shrug = shy, submissive
- Jittery movements = fear
- Looking away = insecurity, dishonesty

"I raised my body erect again as one should walk, though my thoughts remained bowed down and shrunken." - Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Canto XII10

Social Aspect

There are many social ramifications associated with posture. Postures frequently express attitudes, feelings and moods. Body language influences many situations. Did you know that you stand a better chance of obtaining a new job if you display good posture during the interview? Proper posture commands power and respect; it exudes confidence and high self-esteem. A study has actually found that good, confident posture is as important as body build when judging attractiveness. Posture plays such a crucial role to models and athletes, as well, and could be the difference between winning and losing. It's no secret that posture is associated with beauty and grace. So, don't just strive for good posture, strive for great posture!

In general, there is a relationship between posture and health. But, what you may not realize is that you can instantly enhance your appearance - not just health - by improving your posture. Next time you walk by that guy with his tummy sucked in, pay attention to his posture. He's not just trying to impress you, he is also showing you how man (and woman) is meant to stand. (Give him a wink to acknowledge the great advice!) If you want to attract the opposite sex, proper posture will definitely help. Soon you'll hear guys whispering, "Hey, check out her posture!"

About The Author

John Paul Catanzaro is a CSEP Certified Exercise Physiologist with a Specialized Honours Bachelor of Science degree in Kinesiology and Health Science. He owns and operates a private facility in Richmond Hill, Ontario providing training and nutritional consulting services. John Paul has authored two books, The Elite Trainer (2011) and Mass Explosion (2013), and has released two DVDs, Stretching for Strengthening (2003) and Warm-Up to Strength Training (2005), which have sold copies worldwide, been featured in several magazines, and have been endorsed by many leading experts. In 2013, John Paul released two new webinars, Strength Training Parameters and Program Design and Body Composition Strategies, providing the latest cutting-edge information to fitness professionals. For additional information, visit his website at www.CatanzaroGroup.com or call 905-780-9908.

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