Tips for Correcting Upper Back Posture
In one of our recent articles, we described various ways that you can start to improve your lower back posture. This is an extremely common issue for a lot of people, but upper back posture is starting to take over as an equal, if not bigger, problem. I know from personal experience, as issues with my upper back posture contributed to a herniated disc in my neck, which I'm still in the process of treating.
Poor upper back and neck posture is becoming increasingly common for one main reason: electronics. First, when desktop computers arrived in the workplace and homes, people began hunching over much more regularly. Then, as laptops arrived on the scene, many people used these in chairs or other seating arrangements in a way where they had to look down at their computer, flexing their neck to a significant degree.
Now, the really big problem is with smart phones, especially for children. "Text neck" is a term commonly used to describe neck and back problems that people end up with from constantly looking down at their phones. This is even more pronounced in children, as they will essentially grow into these poor posture patterns, and they can be left with numerous short- and long-term neck and back problems.
Therefore, in this article, I would like to provide some tips that I have personally found helpful in addressing my poor upper back posture. While this has been a long process, there were a couple things I did that significantly improved my posture quite quickly, and certainly addressed issues with my herniated disc. Really cementing in a truly good posture will take a long time, but getting started is the hardest part. We hope you find the following information to be useful in your health and fitness endeavors!
Visiting a Physiotherapist
I know it sounds like I'm taking the easy way out here, but it's really hard to get a sense of exactly what is wrong with your posture until a trained professional can view your alignment from many different angles. For example, you can't get an accurate sense of your posture from the side, as you will need to turn your head to look in the mirror. Even going in for an assessment, and maybe a treatment or two to get you started on some stretches and exercises, can be a good idea. I hate the cost and hassle associated with this, but there really isn't any substitute for good professional advice.
Many of the factors leading to poor posture are self-induced, and a physiotherapist will have a lot of ways to correct this. Speaking to the upper back and neck, I found a couple things to be quite helpful.
First, if you work on a laptop computer, it can be worth investing in a remote keyboard and mouse. This way, you can prop up your laptop on a pile of books and use it as a monitor. This is actually the arrangement I have going on as I write this. In this way, you won't be constantly cranking your neck to look down, or hunching in and jutting out your chin as you look at the screen. At first I was worried about the cost of these items, but I was able to quickly and easily find good cheap remote keyboards online.
The second major change I made to my daily life was sleeping on my back. I must say that this was not something the physiotherapist suggested, but when I first herniated my disc, it was the only way I could sleep comfortably. I'm typically not a back sleeper, so this was really difficult at first, but now I can easily sleep most of the night on my back. Even if I only spend about half the night on my back, I still find it helps. I think this is because it opens my shoulders up a bit at the front, and my neck is more or less in a neutral position.
One thing that I don't use consistently, but can certainly help some people, is a posture corrector. These are very simple braces that look almost like the straps of a backpack, but without the actual pack part. They provide tension on your shoulders to pull them back, which can help alleviate pain caused by poor posture, and can also help train you to maintain this position. The only thing to be careful of is that you don't rely on the brace itself. Eventually, you will have to be able to hold correct posture on your own, which also requires training certain muscles to be active. So if you use a posture correcting brace, just try and wear it periodically, but don't rely on it.
Neck Stretches and Exercises
If you tend to jut your chin out a lot without realizing it, such as when working on a computer, then it can be helpful to practice bringing your chin and neck back into a neutral alignment. This can be done very seasily, especially at first, by gently tucking your chin back in as if to form a double chin. Gently doing this to a point where you just begin to feel a little restriction, then releasing, and repeating a few times, can help to slowly free up tension in your neck and train your body to progress into a more neutral alignment.
Don't take this as a strenuous exercise, but rather, just something you do for a minute every day. I typically do this in the shower every morning. I'll activate my core a little bit (not quite a full "flex"), stand up straight, make sure my shoulders are drawn back so as not to slump, and then i'll slowly and gently make a double chine 5-10 times in a row. I find doing this on a daily basis has really helped with my herniated disc, and also has ingrained a more neutral alignment into my normal posture.
If you are doing this to treat an injury, we highly suggest visiting a doctor or physiotherapist first, as there is a good chance your injury is different from mine and may benefit from other exercises instead. In the mean time, consider this as a method to improve posture over treating an injury.
Another reason a physiotherapist can help is by figuring out which muscles are weak relative to other ones. For me, my superficial neck muscles, that is, the ones that lie in the outermost layer, are the strongest. This is usually the case, as they are the biggest muscles, but relative to a normal proportion of strength, my deep neck muscles are quite weak, which leads to me jutting out my chin a little more. By strengthening these muscles, they will provide a more constant tone, ultimately bringing my chin back in even when I'm relaxed. I would describe the exercise, but since this is such a specific application, it's best to let a physiotherapist who can see you in person be the judge of what exercises are best.
Stretching for Proper Shoulder Alignment
Even though I'm an athletic person with an education in Kinesiology and Biomedical Engineering, my upper back posture has always been terrible, but I just assumed this was genetic because my brother has a very similar posture as well, and we are completely different people in many regards. With no physical health problems related to my posture, I figured why fix something that isn't broken? The answer I should have thought of was because eventually I will break.
This is exactly what happened. As I've grown a little older, a little stiffer, and have generally found it more difficult to put as much time towards physical activity, my body eventually broke down. I herniated a disc in my neck simply from swinging a bat, and this affected virtually everything I did and has been extremely tumultuous to treat. Had I corrected my posture earlier, chances are I could have avoided this problem altogether.
Nevertheless, there's nothing I can do about that now except for do my best to fix my posture. Therefore, the following tips are more related to my individual posture problems, but many of these issues are quite common, so hopefully you can take something useful away from this information.
Latissimus Dorsi Flexibility
One of the major reasons why some people, like myself, have their shoulders being pulled down in a neutral position is because of tight latissimus dorsi muscles. These muscles are the superficial back muscles that form a V-shape in people who have well defined traps. These are the muscles that are primarily activated when you perform a pull-up (or lat pull-down on a machine), and given they are in use during a lot of other activities, it's easy for them to become tight without you really noticing. The lats connect to the very upper and inner portion of your arm, so when they become tight, they effectively pull your shoulders down, which in turn makes your trapezius muscles (traps) overcompensate
The video below is a demonstration of a stretch for tight lats, courtesy of Diesel Strength and Conditioning. This stretch is quite simple, as it really just requires something for you to hold on to, whether it's a door knob, a ledge, a pole, whatever works. Basically, you want to bend your knees in a squat position and stick your butt out. Do this gently and gradually at first, and as you pull with a straight arm, you will feel the stretch up your side on the sides of your back on the side of the arm being used.
One thing to remember is to try and keep a neutral neck position, which is pretty hard considering you're looking down at this point. You don't have to be too picky, but rather, just be aware of any potential jutting out of the chin, or any extreme extension or flexion of the neck. Being able to relax as much as possible while stretching will often make it more effective. I do this stretch everyday at home and found it helpful in allowing my shoulder to release back up in a more normal position. Not perfect, but getting there!
Pectoralis Major and Minor Flexibility
Together, the pectoralis major and pectoralis minor muscles form the chest muscles. These are the muscles that are primarily active during a bench press, seated chest press, or during a fly exercise. They function to generate the pushing motion by drawing your humerus (upper arm bone) towards your chest. In this sense, when the pecs become tight, they draw the shoulders inwards towards the mid-line of your chest.
While it's really easy for the pecs to become too tight, especially if you are working out a lot or they are heavily involved in your profession, they are actually very easy to stretch at home, or really anywhere (see image below). This image shows the most common stretch for the pectoralis muscles, but there are lots more that you can easily search online, many of which are just as easy.These stretches will help your shoulder be able to draw back into a less forward-slumping position.
Strengthening the Core and Back Muscles
In terms of strengthening muscles, unfortunately, there is no wide-sweeping solution that we feel comfortably offering. The muscles you will need to strengthen depend on your exact condition, which will need to be assessed by a doctor or physiotherapist. Furthermore, different exercises may be more or less suitable for different people, which again, is why we don't want to definitively say you need to strengthen this muscle or that muscle.
However, one thing we can feel confident saying is that if you are able to strengthen your core in a gentle manner without placing a lot of pressure on your upper back or neck, that this can actually help with those upper regions as well. The main thing to keep in mind is activated your core, but try as hard as possible not to tense up your neck, upper back, or shoulders.
For example, when I lay on my back and do alternating leg raises, I have a tendency to tense up my shoulders, and I can feel them trying to draw themselves inwards, even though I'm only trying to activate my core muscles like my abs and lower back. I will also notice that my neck really tenses up, especially the smaller deep muscles at the front of the neck. Therefore, trying to dissociate other muscles from your core while activating your core can be a good way to strengthen your posture and train your body to not slump during every activity.
We realize this is by no means a comprehensive and detailed plan to correcting your posture, but hopefully this will give you some ideas that you feel confident about trying while you wait to see a physiotherapist. These stretches are generally healthy to perform in general, and simply being aware of your posture, especially the times when it's at its worst, can go a long way towards improvement. Good luck!