Practical Posture Practice
Phew! Say that one three times fast! 🤣
Getting Started With Fitness
Congratulations and welcome to your fitness journey! Whether you are brand new to purposeful physical activity or you're returning after being away for a while, you have recognized the value and importance of movement in maintaining your health and wellness.
There are many different types and methods of physical training to choose from depending on your ultimate fitness goals. The 'fitness space' can be both confusing and intimidating with so many different options to choose from, each with its share of ardent supporters shouting from the rooftops that their way is the best (or only) way. In this sea of choices and noise, one of the most common questions I receive as a Personal Trainer is "What should I do?".
Choosing an activity or training program really depends on your wants and needs. At a very basic level, the "best" choice will be the one:
That you enjoy
That moves you toward your goals
And ultimately, one that you will do consistently
Regardless of WHAT you choose to do, or WHY you choose to do it, HOW you do it is critical. The What and Why are personal and subjective, the How can literally make or break you.
"THE" Most Important Element of Physical Training
Everyone seems to want to know how much weight they should lift, how often they should train, how many sets and reps they need to perform, or whether they should focus more on cardiovascular or strength training. These are all legit questions, but before you pick up your first weight it's important to understand how to do it correctly. Proper form while executing a movement is going to help you maximize the benefit of the movement while minimizing the likelihood of injury.
Important caveat: no one can guarentee a specific result or that you won't get injured. Realistic expectations and an understanding of your personal limits is essential in safely achieving your goals. There's a legitimate reason why all recommendations for fitness activities carries the disclaimer that you should check with your physician before engaging in the activity as it may be contraindicated based on an existing medical or physical condition.
The Essence of Form
Alignment and Posture are key, and while the terms are often used interchangeably, they do have slightly different meanings.
Alignment means the arrangement in a straight line, or in a correct or appropriate relative position(s).
Posture is the position in which someone holds their body when standing or sitting.
The goal is to maintain a posture that is in proper/beneficial alignment to protect your body as you move and carry out the daily activities of life.
The first step in the process is identifying good alignment while standing. Ideally, your feet will be approximately hip-width apart, your weight balanced evenly on your feet, knees relaxed, your ribcage is centered over the top of your pelvis, your shoulders are level and slightly drawn back (but not exaggerated) and you have a neutral spine.
Trainers toss around the term "neutral spine" like candy, but what does it really mean? A neutral spine is when the 3 natural curves of your spine – your cervical (neck), thoracic (middle), and lumbar (lower) curves – are intact. You should feel relaxed, but not "slouchy" and your breathing should be effortless.
The Dowel Rod Test
One of the first assessments I perform with a client to provide a quick check on their initial alignment is the dowel rod test. You'll note in the first picture below that I'm standing comfortably and the dowel makes three points of contact: just above my tailbone (sacrum), between my shoulder blades at the thoracic spine, and at the back of my head.
For many people, simply being aware of this alignment is a big step toward correcting it. Perhaps as you were growing up you were told to "stand up straight", "hold your head up", "stick your chest out, suck in your gut", all variations on the theme of maintaining 'good posture'.
I used to laugh at my grandmother when she used to tell me stories of having to walk around with a book balanced on her head to build better posture. I'd tell her "Gram, that was in the old times, people don't do that anymore!". True enough, it may a bygone feature of "poise and etiquette" training, but practically speaking, many cultures still balance bundles on their heads as a means to transport unwieldy loads between point A and point B.
There are a few medical conditions affecting spinal alignment that can throw a monkey wrench into this alignment process. Will the presence of one, or more of these conditions prevent you from exercising? Not necessarily, but there may be alternatives to performing specific exercises based on your situation. When working with a dedicated trainer, one of the first steps they may have you do is to complete a Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire (PAR-Q), a common method of uncovering health and lifestyle issues prior to beginning an exercise program. The results of the PAR-Q could flag the Trainer to have you receive a specific medical release to train.
Kyphosis. An exaggerated convex curvature of the thoracic region in the sagittal plane. This produces the so-called "humpback" or "dowager's hump", a condition commonly resulting from osteoporosis.
Lordosis. is an exaggerated concave curvature of the lumbar region in the sagittal plane, also known as "swayback". Temporary lordosis is common during pregnancy.
Scoliosis. A lateral curvature, is the most common abnormal curvature, occurring in 0.5% of the population. It is more common among females and may result from unequal growth of the two sides of one or more vertebrae so that they do not fuse properly. Scoliosis can further be defined by the nature and direction of the lateral curvature.
Application: Hip Hinge
The Hip Hinge is one of the basic patterns of human movement, used primarily in lifting objects from the floor. Whether it's a laundry basket full of wet clothes, or a barbell loaded with weight plates, the mechanics of the hinge are the same, and form is critical.
As I move through a hip hinge I maintain that same basic alignment from tailbone to my head, bracing my hips and core. My breathing is "connected", that is to say, my diaphragm and pelvic floor muscles work in concert as I breathe, providing internal stability to my core. As I drive my hips back, my body naturally hinges forward. Focusing on driving the hips backward as opposed to lowering the torso or arms will help ensure your body stays in alignment.
Many people confuse 'bending over' and 'reaching' for a true hip hinge movement and they lead with their chest and arms, often rounding the back and not engaging the big muscles of their legs. While it's not necessary to execute a perfect hip hinge to pick up a dropped pen or something very lightweight, it's key for heavier objects. I won't get into the finer points of the hinge here other than to say that it's important to maintain proper alignment to fully utilize the muscles of your posterior chain (specifically the Gluteals and Hamstrings)
The Eyes Have It
A frequent reminder to my clients is to be mindful of where they are looking. Your line of sight will affect your alignment, it's like the ripple effect when you toss a stone into a pond. Where your eyes go, your head goes, where your head goes, you're shoulders go, as your shoulders rotate, your spine follows, etc.
Perhaps you heard a loud noise that distracted you, or you look toward someone who is talking to you, maybe you're watching the weight stack on the machine (like it's mysteriously going to get lighter!) or you simply want to watch yourself in the mirror. As a rule, you want to avoid all those situations as they pull your head, and potentially the rest of your body out of alignment.
Imagine if, in the picture above where I'm demonstrating the hinge, I lift my head to watch my progress in the mirror. Lifting my eyes to see in the mirror is going to move my head back and change the angle of the curve in my cervical spine. Will I fail on my lift? Naw, not likely, but if I am habitually doing this I may end up with a sore or strained neck at the end of my workout.
Does that mean you shouldn't check your form in the mirror? NO! Check your form then return to your proper starting position. If you really want to see how you're lifting, set up your smartphone camera, record the lift, and then analyze the video.
It's super easy to work on alignment and posture at home and you don't need any fancy expensive equipment. Most hardware stores sell dowel rods (usually wherever closet rods are sold) but you could just as easily use a broomstick or similar object. It should not bend and it should be long enough to span the distance between the top of your head and your tailbone. I personally find that a stick 6" taller than me is best so I can check my standing alignment with the stick planted on the floor. I believe I paid $10 for my 6-foot length of dowel rod at The Home Depot. Practice (and photograph) your standing alignment with the stick, this may be easier if you have someone take the pictures for you.
My warm-up drill for Hip Hinges is 3 sets of 30 reps daily with the dowel in place maintaining all three points of contact.
Remember, regardless of WHAT you choose to do, you want to make sure it's effective at helping you reach your goals. Starting with proper alignment and having the awareness to maintain your form during exercise is going to a key to your success!