Fix Posture by Influencing the Nervous System

I wanted to share my experience with posture and what I have found to work best for myself, my therapy patients, and fitness clients. I’ve worked in the fitness and rehab industry for six years and have been obsessed with the concept of posture since I started exercising 10 years ago.

I’ve performed every scapular retraction, chin tuck, TA pull in you can think of, but nothing ever really “stuck” for me. It wasn’t until the past two years I really started making a difference in my posture. Below, I’ve overviewed some educational pieces as well as three exercises that made the biggest impact on my posture.

TLDR;

Posture can be defined as the positions we attempt to get into and out of via movement. It only becomes “bad” posture when we get stuck in one of these positions. The best way to get “unstuck” or change your posture is to influence the nervous system via breathing and neuromuscular positioning activities.

Many people associate the word “posture” with how one stands or sits. In western cultures, it has become a way to separate someone that is athletic or fit and someone that is unhealthy. The word is a centerpiece for many physical therapists, chiropractors, massage therapists, and personal trainers in their methodologies and marketing. Let’s look to define what posture really means and what it takes to change it.

What Is Posture?

“Posture is a reflection of the “position” of many systems that are regulated, determined, and created through limited functional patterns. These patterns reflect our ability and inability to breathe, rotate and rest symmetrically.” — RON HRUSKA JR., MPA, PT

Robert Hruska is the founder of the Postural Restoration Institute and specializes in chronic pain, human biomechanics, and neuromusculoskeletal retraining. The guy has been in the posture game for 30+ years.

From the above quote, we can see that posture isn’t just some rigid standing pose. Rather, it’s different positions in space that we as humans move into and out of. This is based off the process and view of allostasis. Posture is every phase of your walking, how you squat, crawl on the floor with your doggo – it’s every movement we do on a microscopic level.

Our ability to assume different postures is one of the many reasons we’ve been successful as a species. We’re able to manipulate our body and environment around us to adapt to different needs for survival.

For example, imagine trying to hold an upright posture when needing to crawl through a hole in the ground. Impossible right?

How Does Posture Get “Bad?”

We typically think of “bad” posture as being slouched, hunched back, having a forward head, etc. but really it’s having a lack of movement options or being “stuck” in a certain position. For example, having rounded shoulders and excessive kyphosis is a normal position humans can get into. But it becomes an issue when we cannot get out of that position.

You can pull your shoulders back all day at your desk or while standing up, but you’ll always find yourself falling back into that position (I’m speaking from experience).

When you’re stuck in a position or “bad” posture, it’s usually due to the nervous system holding you there via muscle tone, though fascia and bone morphology may have an influence as well.

Many factors such as stress, habit, age, and plenty more add up to you being stuck in these positions. The nervous system feels safe and successful in the position, thus it become the new “default” for you over time. The body then takes this position or “bad” posture and starts using it for other movements such as standing, walking, etc.

So How Do You Change Posture?

So assuming you’ve bought that posture isn’t a single, rigid upright position, how do we change all of these small movements that we do to create new “defaults?” Well, the body uses many different systems in order to create movements and perceive our environment.

This is all controlled by the brain and nervous system and is constantly bringing in data and processing it in order to match the need of whatever we’re doing. So trying to control this consciously is nearly impossible.

It’s hard enough just keeping your shoulder back at your desk, but imagine having to control every muscle fiber in your body while you walked across a busy street. Again, impossible right?

Good thing we have an amazing brain and nervous system that can modulate all of this information for us. This allows our conscious mind to focus on whatever task is at hand like getting food, scrolling through Instagram, or pulling your dog away from the nasty garbage on the sidewalk.

Influence The Nervous System

To truly change how your body is associating with its environment and how it holds itself in space, we need to get the brain and nervous system on our side. One way to do this is by breathing or utilizing the respiratory system.

There’s a lot of bang for our buck here as breathing can influence the abdominals, ribcage, spine, and organs while also tapping into the nervous system via the vagus nerve that passes through the diaphragm (polyvagel theory).

Now, your scapular retractions, chin tucks, planks, and other posture exercises are not bad. But they’re not necessarily efficient as they do not take into account the nervous system. You can create some neruoplasticity by doing the exercises long enough, but it does not guarantee that they will transfer over into a new, unconscious posture or “default” positioning.

To be honest, my goal was not to improve my posture. Literally, everything I had tried failed. I went to three physical therapist, two chiropractors, and multiple personal trainers that were “posture specialists.” Never had any luck, so I decided to give up on the goal. I instead focused my efforts on decreasing the hip and back pain I had suffered from for three years that was keeping me from the gym.

That’s when I stumbled on all of the above information and I haven’t looked back since. This was just the start of my process and I have now surpassed just standing better. I’m now squatting, sprinting, deadlifting, and moving better than I ever have in my entire life.

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