Regardless of your fitness level and current regime, the majority of you will benefit from adding at least a few of these techniques into your weekly plan. I know this with certainty because they are designed to combat a particular set of postural problems, and subsequent injuries, that as I see everyday.
Cases of these problems and injuries continue to rise in prevalence year after year after year. Why? What as a population are we doing so differently now? What are we doing in ever increasing frequency year upon year that could be so detrimental to our health?
Am I about to ramble on about diets again?
Am I referring to the over prescription and reliance on pharmaceuticals?
No, (but don’t encourage me).
The answer is SITTING.
At desks. On couches. On transport
ALL DAY LONG.
That’s right; sitting is the big evil people. I won’t dwell on its sinister relationship to worldwide obesity, diabetes and heart disease in this blog, but the cruel adaptation of prolonged sitting that we have had forced upon us by technology is wreaking havoc with our very own structural integrity.
There are patterns of postural imbalances and dysfunctions that are so common nowadays and they can all be directly attributed to long periods of sitting. Ever since we diverged from swinging around in trees and scrounging for food we were meant to spend the majority of our time upright and moving around. This article isn’t a lecture about how much more we should be moving around during the day – because, let’s face it, sitting at computers is here to stay – it’s a helpful guide of exercises and techniques to combat the situation.
You may be thinking that you are one of the lucky ones that has so far evaded any symptoms related to the insidious attack of the chair, but ask yourself this; will you still be working from a desk in a year’s time?
In 2 year’s time?
In a decade’s time?
Regardless of how you have managed so far, if you are required to sit at a desk to make your living, excessive sitting will have its way with you and disrupt your life sooner or later. Prevention is always better than rehabilitation. Stitch in time saves 9 and all that.
The exercises are very simple to do, require very little equipment, and can be done at home or the office.
So even if you aren’t a member of a gym, you have no excuse.
Here are the exercises from head to toe (or shoulder to butt to be more precise)
1) Row to Horizontal External Rotation – Progress to a Wide Resistance Band Face Pull
- Start with a light resistance band. You’ll be surprised how difficult it becomes and how quick fatigue will set in. With a light band you always have the option of standing further away from where it is fixed or doubling it over to increase the resistance. You can do this exercise with a cable machine at the gym, but I recommend using a resistance band because the gradual increase in resistance in the band during the movement occurs at the same time that more muscle fibres within the active muscle crossover. Basically the movement gets harder at the same time the muscle moves into a stronger more position. This is a smart way of manipulating what is called the ‘strength curve’
- Attach the band/cable at around waist height or lower and hold it with your arm outstretched in front of you.
- Start with a tiny bit of tension already in the band and retract the shoulder blade towards the spine keeping your shoulder depressed –not up by your ear, then lift your elbow up level with your shoulder and bend the elbow to 90° but no less.
- Once your elbow reaches the level of your shoulder the aim is to rotate your fist backward past your ear without bending your back to achieve more movement. Do not move your elbow from where it is throughout the movement and don’t allow the angle of 90° to change throughout
Start with performing 3 sets of 12-15 reps to begin with. Once you feel confident in the movement on both sides being relatively symmetrical, progress to performing both sides at the same time as a Wide face pull also demonstrated in the video.
Range of Motion
Getting your forearm to approach a vertical position without arching your back as a substitute movement may be challenging for many at first, in which case you already have significant shortening and limited mobility in your shoulder which may not be corrected by this exercise alone. But don’t give up; Mobility treatment in the form of Myofascial Release Techniques (MFR) are the most effective for this problem but deep tissue massage and joint mobilisation could also help. Ask specifically about myofascial release techniques from your Physiotherapist, or other manual therapy practitioner. Foam rolling and stretching will also help but more on that later. It is likely that your Pectoralis minor and major, Subscapularis and Teres major muscles are the culprits and what need worked on.
Get stuck into these muscles with your own fingers, or pressing golf balls, hockey balls or something similar into the muscle. The trick to self-treatment is; where you find areas in the muscle belly or tendon that are really friggin tender- that’s where you need to massage, and HARD.
Treatment from a therapist will complement anyone and help the execution of all of these exercises in this article but if you are not able to get your forearm vertical at the end point of the exercise, treatment may be necessary.
Why it's important
Slumping over desks all day causes our shoulders to follow the path of least resistance. Gravity coupled with repetitive tasks that require us to position our arms and shoulders rotated in and flexed out in front of us causes the shoulders to gradually set in this direction. The lack of stretch applied to the muscles, tendons and ligaments in the front of the shoulder leads to them shortening. Conversely, the muscles that appose these movements –antagonist muscles- become weak and inactive because of the excessive stretch and lack of stimulation they receive.
Making Matters Worse
Guys that leave 8 hours of sitting at work and head straight to the gym (good) but train only their beach muscles –Chest, abs and guns- and often only in partial ranges due to the already lacking mobility (bad). Don’t neglect posterior chain training guys –everything you can’t see in a mirror. No girl wants a guy to look like Gollum from behind, even if you think you look like Hercules from the front. FACT.
Girls can exacerbate the problem by wearing ill fitting bra’s which promote the forward slump of the shoulders. True story. There are actually professional bra fitters at some lingerie shops who can help you with sizing if you are unsure Apparently they estimate up to 80% of females wear the wrong size bra. – Don’t ask me how I know this. I just do.
I should point out here that performing chest exercises is just as important for females -as long as they are performed to full range to avoid the pitfalls that a lot of guys fall into mentioned above.
Many girls, even ones that frequently hit the gym still view Press-ups, Dumbbell and Barbell Chest presses as male-orientated exercise and so do not include them in their program. For example, learning the correct technique of a full range dumbbell chest press will not only help to strengthen and add stability to the shoulder, it will also help a person get a correct feel – increasing proprioception in that shoulder throughout the movement. Correcting any anterior slumping of the shoulders by strengthening the back and then strengthening the pectoral (chest) muscles in their correct more lengthened positions will actually give lift and firmness to the breasts – so its a win-win situation ladies!
2) Lower Trapezius Raise
- Start with a light weight or even just your hand as you start out.
- Bend over so your back is flat and close to horizontal. Support yourself with one arm on a bench or alternatively, rest your forehead on the opposite forearm on a higher surface. Use a split stance with the foot of the support side in front and the foot of the lifting side back.
- Let the working arm hang down straight be your side.
- Initiate the movement by contracting your shoulder blade back toward the spine, and down slightly to avoid shoulder elevation.
- Maintain this contraction, keep your elbow straight and lift your arm up in front of you at angle where there is roughly a foot’s distance between your ear and bicep at the top of the movement.
- You should reach a position where if you were to look side on, your bicep should be just above the level of your ear. If it is not, the weight is either too heavy or –yes you guessed it- more soft tissue work required on the same culprit muscles mentioned in the first exercise!
- Slowly lower the weight back down to the start position for a count of around 3-4 seconds. Only then can you relax your shoulder blade and let it slide downwards around your rib wall before starting the next rep.
Perform 3 sets of 12. Once you are comfortable with this rep range and technique on both sides, increase the weight slightly. Do not worry if you have to start this exercise with less that 1KG or even weightless in order to reach the end range of the movement. Correct technique is everything.
Why it's important
This is a favourite of strength coach Charles Poliquin for correcting shoulder imbalances and a really effective exercise. It is aimed at correcting anteriorly slumped shoulders too, but more so through its effect on the muscles responsible for retracting the shoulder blade (drawing it in toward the spine) and maintaining that control.
Weakness from inactivity and stretch on the muscles controlling this shoulder blade movement causes them to roll forward and sit more anteriorly, it can cause ‘winging’ of the shoulder blade which is increasingly common. Test it for yourself. Put your hand behind your back, reach up your back almost as high as you can and then completely relax your shoulder. Do you feel your shoulder blade wing out? Use a mirror or a friend to video it. If it looks like might start flying if you repeat the test really fast, chances are you have some work to do.
Flexibility vs Stability
When too many restrictions occur around or in the shoulder joint, the Lower Trapezius, Rhomboid and Serratus anterior muscles ‘give up’ their control of keeping the shoulder blade flush against the back and allow the shoulder blade to wing and shift around the side of the ribs (towards the front) excessively. It does this in an attempt to maintain full shoulder movement that it has otherwise lost from the other restrictions in the front of the shoulder. The body sacrifices stability in exchange for regaining lost flexibility. Not ideal.
3) Reverse Vertical Crunches
- Lie flat on your back with your hips flexed at 90° and knees straight so both legs are perpendicular to the ground without the hips rising off the floor. If you can’t achieve this position, slightly bend your knees (but again, back to the therapist: you need soft tissue and lengthening work on your hamstrings and back if straightening is unachievable).
- Hold onto a heavy weight or support structure positioned above your head for stability- do not lift it. This will allow you to focus on keeping your entire back on the floor during the exercise and reduce neck strain than any alternative like having your hands down by your sides.
- Draw your belly button in towards you spine as hard as possible flattening your lower spine against the ground, then lift your hips off the floor no more than 2-3 inches, pause and then slowly lower.
- Make sure regardless of whether your knee joints are straight or have a slight bend that you are not pivoting or whipping the knee joints straight with each rep to gain momentum.
Start with 3 sets of 10 and build up to 20 reps. Stop if you start ‘dropping’ instead of lowering under control.
Why it's important
Your feet should lift almost completely vertical towards the ceiling. You may have seen variations of this exercise before. One typical variation involves lifting the legs vertical but from a start position with the legs horizontal on the floor. Only people that already have an excellent ability to isolate their core and are able to target their (already) strong deep abdominal muscles should do this variation.
Hip Flexors vs Abs
The majority of people I see doing it should steer clear of it until they have strengthened their core enough to stabilise the pelvis and lower back throughout the movement. What tends to happen is their lower back arch increases, the pelvis tilts anteriorly and the already overactive, tight hip-flexors do almost all of the work and stress the lower back, NOT their abdominals that they’re trying to train.
The hip flexor muscles attach to the front of your lumbar vertebra- your lower back, and then run through your pelvis to attach into the top of your femurs/legs.
The image opposite shows the hip flexor muscles in standing.
Look at the image and imagine the hips bending forward – as they do in sitting, it is easy to see how these muscles could become tight and short over a prolonged period of time. This is why it is a bad idea to strengthen and tighten these muscles further with incorrect abdominal exercises.
Even though the hip flexors aren’t always ‘actively’ contracting when we sit, the muscles spend so much time in that sustained posture that they become shortened and overactive. Conversely the gluteal muscles –Your booty- become inactive and weaken. The culmination of this along with tight hamstrings (again, due to excessive sitting) often leads to a sway back- excessive curvature of the Lumbar spine (lower back) and an anterior tilted pelvis in standing.
Although an excessive anterior tilt and sway back may give the appearance of ‘lift’ to someone’s butt it will actually lead to further problems down the line including hamstring weakness and low back pain.
Wearing heals too often can exacerbate this problem due to calf muscle shortening and bio-mechanical changes this creates further ‘up-the-chain’, but more on that another time.
The aim of these Reverse Vertical Crunches is to activate and strengthen the lower –often neglected- abdominals to combat the effects excessive sitting has on lower back health and pelvic floor strength.
The 6 Pack
Now although most people, particularly guys, want the 6 pack abs (Rectus Abdominis muscle) there is no point in trying to strengthen this muscle if the foundation muscles underneath resemble jelly. Strengthening only the R.A with crunches or sit ups will worsen an imbalance in this area. Looking at the image of the R.A muscle you can see that a contraction of the muscle must bring the pubic bone and rib cage closer together right? And now we assume overly tight hip flexors exacerbating the arch in the lower back, what is going to give? Yes It’s the outward curve in the higher vertebral levels, the Thoracic vertebra, and oops we now look like Quasimodo. Foundations come first.
4) Clam Glute Medius abductions with resistance band
- Use a resistance band loop or tie a length of resistance band into a loop and fix it around both legs so it sits just below or above the knee cap and lie on your side.
- Bend your knees to 90° and keep your thighs in line with your torso. This will ensure you better isolate the gluteus medius muscle and not activate other surrounding (stronger) muscles as much.
- Pivoting the top foot off the bottom foot, widen your legs apart only at the knees as wide as you can against the resistance band and then slowly lower the knee back to the bottom one.
- Rest your top arm on the top of your hip this will make you more aware of keeping your hip stable and you will also be able to feel the muscle contracting under your fingers. Rocking the hip back and forward is not allowed as it reduces the work of the glute medius.
Begin with 3 sets of 15 each side and like all these exercises, the more days per week you perform them, the better.
If its leg day at the gym, (so at least twice a week right everyone?) use 1-2 sets of these for 8-10 reps (to avoid fatigue) as a pre-activation exercise before any big lifts like squats, deadlifts, split squats, or lunges. It can work even without using a resistance band in this case. Pre-activation is a way of neurally ‘waking up’ specific nerve-muscle connections that don’t automatically switch on as they should due to years of neglect or postural imbalances that such things as excessive sitting causes. Doing this can bring a surprising increase in strength within seconds and you will notice an improvement in maintaining a better technique throughout the movement. A few single leg glute-bridges should also be thrown in for pre-activation on leg day.
Why it's important
This is staple exercise of most track and field athlete’s -including Usain Bolt- So you should already be sold on it! It may look and feel like you’re on a Jane Fonda DVD but it pays dividends.
Footballers also benefit from a large volume of this exercise to counteract the opposing action of the powerful hip flexor and adduction muscles that result from regular thumping of a football.
But why do you need it? Weakness throughout all of the gluteal muscles is frightfully common as a dysfunction these days. By sitting all day long we weaken our posteriors a couple of ways:
This is when muscles on one side of a joint relax to accommodate contraction or force from apposing muscles on the other side of the joint. Remember the effect of the shortened and tight chest muscles vs the weak and stretched shoulder blade retractors earlier? Same deal here. The Hip flexors tighten up and the glutes become lazy and weak.
Another reason our glutes suffer is pressure. The constant pressure from the bodyweight directly above it that is being supported can cause occlusion of blood vessels and neural tissue connection to the glute muscles. This leads to a decreased ‘neural drive’ and reduced flow of oxygen-enriched blood to the neglected muscles.
The gluteal muscles are like our powerhouses; our ‘motors’ if you will. You only have to look at most athletes’ shapely behinds to understand the importance of a strong and healthy motor for performance and therefore efficient body structure and movement. They aren’t a muscle group you want to neglect. Cue gratuitous Jessica Ennis glute photo:
Glute Clam Raises work the Gluteus Medius specifically. This muscle sits more to the side of your cheeks –where many a desk-jockey may find a hollowing when they squeeze their cheeks together. Its main role is to stabilise your hip bones when you are upright and maintain horizontal alignment of the pelvis when the opposite leg is not in contact with the ground.
You know that sexy pendulum hip swing that Marylyn Monroe popularised when she walked? When unintentional it is actually a weakness of the gluteus medius muscle and so is not always a courting behaviour… Sorry guys.
If you are a ‘hip swinger’ but don’t see this as such a problem, just remember your 2 hip bones are responsible for wedging your sacrum –the very foundation block of your spine- in place in order to support all of your vertebrae and bodyweight from the waist up. Keeping the hips horizontally level when you’re upright will keep your spine healthier as you age.
It was actually hard to pick just one glute exercise because there are so many that are beneficial for the sitting postural dysfunction syndrome SPDS (yes I did just make that up). They are such a commonly neglected group of muscles. The exercise above I deem to be one of the most important and beneficial for glute development however everyone is different; If you’re interested in more butt- rehab and sculpting specific exercises you gotta check out Bret Contreras aka ‘The Glute Guy’. http://bretcontreras.com. I thought I liked butts but wait til you see the ton of research and hours Bret has put into the world of building better butts.
5) Foam Rolling and Stretching
Last but certainly not least least and one of the most important safe-guards there is. Not only for serial sitters but also for those who train frequently, and do not regularly get a form of soft tissue therapy or perform yoga. Hey, I too remember playing sport and weight training in my early 20’s and never needing to foam-roll or stretch and recovering from injuries in 4.23 seconds flat. Aging is a b*tch and I personally wish I had done more mobility and flexibility work when I was younger. Undoing something is almost always harder than doing it remember!
P.S; I'm not implying that I'm not still in my early 20’s...
Foam rolling is easy –but it can be uncomfortable. Basically find the most tender points in your muscles and roll them out like you’re flattening dough over a rolling pin. Below are a few of the most effective and easy- to-do techniques to counteract the muscle and fascial tightness that results from excessive sitting. Get rolling.
Why it's important
In terms of stretching, aim to do ‘dynamic stretching ‘ prior to exercising. This is when you move joints through their entire range of motion rather than stretch them statically. Static –hold- stretching is more effective after a training session when the muscle is more supple.
Earlier I suggested soft tissue therapy in the form of Myofascial Release MFR or ART (Active Release Technique) for movement restrictions. I can not emphasise enough the benefit you will get from at least an occasional session of this if you spend a large proportion of the day in one position. Conversely if you are very active and beat yourself up with regular training this can also be extremely helpful. Make it a priority. Myofascial Release Techniques can make significant changes in flexibility within 1 or 2 treatments and is the type of soft tissue therapy I recommend above all else for correction of all these mobility related issues. Yoga – as a dynamic/ active method of stretching will also fast track your results. Make the time.