Your workout posture affects how you look and feel outside the gym.

Is your workout posture actually ruining your posture?

Your workout posture affects your posture the other 23 hours of the day.It seems most people see the obvious when they are at the gym, that they are working on strengthening their muscles (and hopefully stretching them out as well). But one not so noticed aspect of everything you do at the gym is your workout posture. Every exercise you do is training your body and nervous system to deal with all the movements you’ll do the 23 hours a day you’re not at the gym. That’s why proper form is so important.

“Habituation is the simplest form of learning. It occurs through the constant repetition of a response. When the same bodily response occurs over and over again, its pattern is gradually “learned” at an unconscious level. Habituation is a slow, relentless adaptive act, which ingrains itself into the functional patterns of the central nervous system.”

Thomas Hanna “Somatics” 1988

If you’re exercising with poor workout posture, when you use those muscles/movements outside the gym your body will follow the same patterns. Habituation, as Thomas Hanna puts it so clearly. So with that in mind, I want to discuss the big three most common postural/functional mistakes I see people making when working out. All three relate to the same postural distortion.

Dowager's hump, extra tissue at the base of the neck, is an outcome of poor posture.Now days, most people’s jobs involve sitting. Lots and lots of sitting. Lots of typing, staring into a computer screen. Unconsciously, most people will sit with their head forward of their shoulders. This unconscious behavior causes the strong muscles in the back of the neck to shorten (cervical extensors), the muscles at the base of the skull (sub-occipitals) to tighten (a cause of tension headaches) and the big muscles on either side of your throat (sternocleidomastoid or SCM) to shorten. This then habituates into a postural distortion called “forward head posture” (FHP). FHP can be the root of everything from headaches, neck and shoulder pain, dowager’s hump (that build up of tissue in the picture to the left) poor breathing patterns, back pain… the list goes on. Quite simply, it isn’t good for you. So motions in the gym that accentuate and even more strongly habituate this postural distortion have to be avoided.

3 Common workout habits that are just plain bad.

1. Lat Pull Downs behind the head

Oi Vey! This one drives me up a wall. I cringe every time I see someone pull the bar down behind their head. I will frequently go to the person and suggest the correct form and explain why, but after a while its like trying to brush back the ocean with a broom. The tide of poor form is overwhelming!

When you’re doing a lat pull down behind your head, the bar needs to have space to go. So if you’re pulling it behind your head, you have to move your head forward, into FHP. Not only are you accentuating FHP by forcing your head into this position, but you’re teaching your body that every time you use your latissumus dorsi muscles, your head should move forward. You’re teaching your body to continuously reinforce this postural deviation.

Don't make your posture worse at the gym! You're there to improve!When doing a lat pull down, the correct form is to lean back somewhat, looking up about 30 degrees and pull the bar to the top of your sternum, or breastbone, just below the collar bones. Your spine should also be fully upright, no rounding of the low back. This will emphasize the lat muscles to act as the primary movers and keeps the head in line with the rest of the spine. This will habituate a good, healthy standing and moving posture, reducing the effects of FHP.

2. Head popping forward (in varying exercises)

Related to the forced head motion of bringing the lat bar behind your head is an active FHP when using the arms and shoulders. I see this mostly when people are doing bicep curls or shoulder press. Whenever they reach the apex of the motion, either full flexion of the elbow in curls or arms fully extended overhead with shoulder press, their head will move forward, into FHP. When they return to the “resting” position their head travels backwards, closer to posturally correct. You see this a lot when people are really working hard and using weights that are relatively heavy for them. Again, you’re teaching your body a motion, that every time you use effort to bend your elbow to lift something, or reach for something over your head, your head will move into FHP. And if you pay attention to your body for even one hour a day, you’ll realize you do those two motions many many times throughout a day. So once again, it is very important to focus on how you’re moving.

Mirrors in the gym aren’t there for you to admire how sexy you are or how big your guns are. They are there to assist you in maintaining correct form. So as you’re doing these motions, watch your head. Is it moving forward? If so, every time you do these motions, give yourself a slight double chin feeling to activate your cervical flexors (the smaller muscles in the front of your neck that tend to be weakened by FHP). This will help keep your head over your shoulders and habituate healthy functional movements both in and out of the gym.

2. Spotting on the ceiling when doing abdominal curls/crunch/sit up.

Is this my most hated gym pet peeve? It might just be, mostly because I know there are still trainers who teach their clients with the bizarre idea they’re teaching good form.

When you’re doing an abdominal curl/crunch, your spine is rounding forward, into flexion. If you’re spotting on the ceiling, your head and neck are not moving with the rest of the spine. So while your spine is going into forward flexion, your neck is going into extension. They’re moving in opposite directions. That sounds like a bad idea to you too, right? When you’re supine (face up) and going into neck extension, you’re very strongly using the same muscles that cause FHP, the SCM, the cervical extensors and the sub-occipitals. You’re strengthening these muscles, which will only increase and reinforce FHP. Then you wind up needing to correct this later. Don’t go to the gym to create more things to fix later!

For good workout posture, fingers on your neck, not your headThe correct workout posture when doing abdominal curls is to feel a slight double chin feeling, without the chin touching the sternum. This actives the muscles in the front of the neck, the cervical flexors, and lengthens the back of your neck, taking force off the three FHP muscles mentioned. Now you’re moving your head with the spine, instead of moving against it. It’s a unified motion, your eyes looking in the direction you’re going the whole time. You would wind up looking toward your knees at the end of the motion.

What you don’t want to do, however, is use your hands to pull your head upward. That’s bad. Why even put your hands anywhere near your head? To make sure the shoulder girdle, head and neck are moving together in a unified motion. Interlace your fingers and put them on your NECK, not your head. Only the pinky bones should actually touch the head, right at the occiput.

Check yourself before you wreck yourself!

Remember, working out is for strengthening, but you’re also teaching your body movement and posural patterns. You can either teach patterns that will benefit your posture, ensuring healthy neck, shoulders and spine, or you can help break down your body and worsen the effects of today’s computer based, high stress lifestyles. Really seems like an obvious choice, huh? Form matters. Workout posture matters. Keep it in mind in all your exercises.


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