Stand up straight - Posture IS important!


by Kate Richardson (originally printed April 2013, GBC Layout)

“Stop slouching!”  “Stand up straight!”  “Tuck your bum in!

We’ve all heard this dozens, if not hundreds, of times from our coaches and parents.  We obey, making the requested corrections (and somehow grow an inch or two in the process). Every time, though, we end up shrinking back to our original postures, don’t we? It’s just easier that way!

But do you know why your coaches and parents keep reminding you to fix your posture? It’s not just because you look “more presentable” that way!  Poor posture is one of the biggest risk factors for injury in gymnastics, so by trying to correct it they really are looking out for you.

Gymnastics is a tough sport, and as a result there are a number of injuries that are common to gymnasts. If some of these can be avoided by something as simple as fixing your posture, it makes sense to focus on it, doesn’t it? Let me start with the most common postural fault in gymnasts, what causes it, and what you can do to fix it.

The most common postural fault among gymnasts is the arched lower back - in medical terms, this is called a lumbar lordosis. You are meant to have a bit of an extension curve in your lower back, just like your upper back is meant to be curved slightly in the opposite direction – into flexion. These natural curves help your spine to absorb some of the compression forces going through it, for example when we jump and land. Too much of an arch in the lower back, however, is not normal, and can lead to injury and pain.

Some people are born with more of an arch in the lower back than others; but there are a few other factors associated with a lordotic posture that are almost always present as well, and that are much easier to fix.

The first is tight hip flexors. In standing, your hips should be fully extended so that your center of gravity is directly above your feet. If your hip flexors are tight, and your hips do not happily extend all the way, you will still want to keep your center of gravity directly over your feet, so you will make up for your slightly closed hips by arching through your lower back. 

Another very common factor is weak core muscles. The deep abdominal muscles are meant to support each segment of the spine. If they are weak, or simply not turned on, the spine will rely on its passive structures (the bones and ligaments) to support it, and will collapse further into its natural arched position.

The next time you are standing for a long time, like after a long day at the mall, have a look at what your posture is like. I bet that your lower back will be more arched than usual. This is because your core muscles will be tired from keeping you upright all day, so they will have turned off. You are no longer actively supporting yourself through your trunk, so you will be relying on your passive structures, and will have fallen into a bit of an increased arched position in the lower back.  If your core muscles are weak, or if you just don’t use them in a normal standing position, this will be the case all the time, not just after a long day of shopping.

When a certain posture or position is held, or reinforced over and over again, for an extended period of time, your tissues adapt around that posture. 

The muscles that are always kept in a shortened position in that posture (in this case, your hip flexors and the extensor muscles in your back) actually become shorter in length; conversely, the muscles that are always kept in a lengthened position (in this case your abdominals and glutes, or bum muscles) become stretched out and weak.

In this way, your muscles actually change in a way that holds you in that position, so that a posture that may have just been a bad habit initially will actually become permanent.  Furthermore, the ligaments that support the joints in the spine change too.

If you are constantly relying on your ligaments to support your spine in standing, and not your core muscles, you are putting constant stress on these ligaments. Over time, this constant stress causes them to stretch, making them less able to restrict the motions they are meant to resist and, therefore, creating more motion in these segments of the spine.

This brings us to the reason why a lordotic posture is problematic: it generally leads to hypermobility, or too much motion, in that part of the lower back. 

When we move, our bodies always choose the path of least resistance.  This means that if one joint moves much more easily in a particular direction than the joint next to it, the body will always move primarily through the more mobile joint to achieve the desired motion or position. 

For example, say you are trying to arch through the entire body, like in the first half of a back handspring; if your lower back extends much more easily than your hips, you will create the position by arching mostly through your lower back.

When most of the motion occurs through a particular segment of the spine, the forces going through it, which are usually absorbed evenly throughout the spine, are now borne mostly by the hypermobile segment.

When this happens over and over again (how many back handsprings do you think you have done this year?!), it becomes too much for the structures supporting the joints in the lower back to bear, and they begin to break down, ultimately causing injury to the tissues and pain.

So what can you do? 

There are a few very simple things that you can do to improve an arched lower back posture, and to prevent it from leading to breakdown.

  • Fix those factors that you have control over: stretch your hip flexors and strengthen your abdominal muscles.  Here are a few simple exercises you can try:

Hip flexor stretch: Keep your hips square and your back flat, and tuck your bum under (as if you were tucking your tail between your legs) (see picture).  Hold for 30 seconds, 3 times each leg

Posterior pelvic tilts: Lying on your back with knees bent, use your abdominal muscles to tuck your bum under (tail between your legs) and flatten your lower back against the floor.  Hold for 10 seconds, and repeat 10-15 times.  This can be progressed by holding this position (back flat against the floor) while moving the arms and legs, for example extending one leg out at a time.

Both of these exercises can be combined by lying flat on your back, legs extended out straight – use your abdominals to flatten your back against the ground as in the exercise above.  Try and keep your legs straight and flat on the ground – this should create a bit of a stretch in your hip flexors.  Hold for 10 seconds, 10 times.

  • Be aware of your posture – pull up your puppet string! As discussed before, the longer a poor posture is maintained, the more your tissues adapt around it and the more permanent it becomes. The key, then, is to prevent poor posture from becoming habitual.

Try and be aware of your posture frequently throughout the day, and not just at gym – you spend just as much, if not more, time at school and at home than at gym, so it is important to be aware of how you are standing there as well.

To make sure you are standing with good posture, imagine that you are a puppet, with a string running up your back and out the top of your head. Imagine that someone is pulling your puppet string up, lengthening your spine and making you a little bit taller.

The more you think about it throughout the day, the more of a “good habit” it will become.

Now that you know how important posture really is, try these simple things to optimize yours… and maybe don’t get too frustrated with the constant reminders!

Kate Richardson was a BC gymnast for 15 years, and part of the Canadian National team between 1999 and 2004.  She represented Canada at the 2000 and 2004 Olympic Games before competing at the collegiate level for UCLA.  She now works as a physiotherapist at New West Sports Medicine in New Westminster (