Working Out Can be Hazardous to your Health!
Part I – Posture First
By Craig Valency, CSCS
Going to the gym and working out is supposed to be good for you, right? Well not always – what you don’t know could hurt you! In this article I will describe how your posture is compromised while you are at work. You will see how going to the gym and working out with “desk” posture can actually lead to injury or at least reinforce bad posture. You will learn the 3 steps necessary to make a permanent change in posture along with some exercises you can do at the office to help maintain your posture and relieve stress.
If you’re like most people you spend a good part of your day sitting at a desk hunched over a computer. Constantly being in this position may result in problems with your posture that can worsen over time if you work out improperly. Because we are seated for so many hours of the day our hip flexor muscles become chronically shortened. Therefore, the opposite muscle (buttocks) must therefore be chronically lengthened or weak. That’s one reason why sitting all day contributes to a flabby butt! Unfortunately, tight hip flexors are not your only problem with a sedentary job; your upper body suffers as well! Sitting at a desk day after day with your hands on the keyboard, your back rounded, and chin forward gazing at the screen, will cause your chest muscles to shorten, adapt and mold to this posture. At the same time you will also develop lengthened muscles between the shoulder blades and the deep neck muscles that pull your head back. This posture can eventually lead to tension type headaches, shoulder pain, and breathing problems!
After eight hours at the office, you go to the gym to release the stress that has accumulated over a long day of work. After warming up hunched over a stationary bike for about 10 minutes, you do lat pull downs behind your head, then some sets of chest press, and the usual heaping dose of sit ups or crunches. You now just reinforced the forward head posture, the rounded shoulders and flexed, rounded spine you’ve been molding so efficiently at work. The only difference is that you added weight to strengthen your already imbalanced posture! Besides reinforcing bad posture, you may be doing major damage to your rotator cuff. When you do any upper body exercises with rounded shoulders you create an impingement every time you extend your arm. The sub-acromial space, the area that your rotator cuff tendon passes through, narrows as you extend your arms when you have rounded shoulders and you are, in essence, slowly sawing into your tendon, and one day . . . rip!
The key to solving these problems is to get a postural assessment. Once you know what is out of balance it is imperative to address all imbalances first. The conventional wisdom still being espoused today (and by me a couple of years ago) says that the solution to posture problems is twofold: first stretch the shortened and tight muscles and then strengthen the lengthened, weak and flabby muscles. In theory this sounds great but the problem is that muscles normally contract and relax in sequence. But now the rounded back muscles, for instance, are under continuous strain just from holding the head in that forward position so they don’t ever relax. In the body’s infinite wisdom it sends out some help in the form of collagen that gets secreted in and around the muscle. These fibers align along the lines of tension and essentially act as a strap to help the muscle hold that posture. So in a sense the body is being solidified like stone into the dominant posture you hold all day.
If you are discouraged, don’t worry, there is a solution to this problem! The collagen fibers can be reabsorbed and the body can be fully restored to function; but simply stretching the muscles won’t do. Even though the muscles in your rounded back are longer than normal and the front muscles of your chest and abdomen are shorter, they both are essentially locked in place, so simple stretches aren’t enough, and pulling your shoulders back won’t stick. How many times have we been told to sit up straight and stop slumping? It lasts about 30 seconds and you can’t hold it anymore– those “straps” are in place conspiring against you!
There are three main requirements necessary to make a permanent change:
- First you must “prime” the muscle to get the fluids flowing again, and break up scar tissue, through deep body work such as massage, Rolfing, foam rolling and massage sticks.
- Second, the neurons that innervate the muscles must start firing again through proper exercise. This program of corrective exercise should precede a traditional weight-training program, or you could do more damage by reinforcing poor posture.
- Third, you’ve got to ease the forces that have been exerting a pull on those muscles that caused the problem in the first place.
- This can be accomplished through subtle ergonomic changes in seat height or sitting on a ball instead of a chair, or keyboard placement for example.
- You can also set an hourly alarm on your computer or watch, and do 10-15 repetitions of 4-5 basic postural exercises at work..
- After 8 hours of work you will have done 20 to 30 sets and over 300 repetitions. After one week that is 1500 repetitions of “anti-gravity” postural exercises, and that doesn’t count the powerful effect of doing proper, targeted exercises in the gym 2-3 days a week!
Here are some simple exercises you could do at work every hour or two to help promote good posture. Do all of these in the standing position (choose at least 4-5 exercises per day. Total time for the 11 exercises is 7 minutes.)
Watch a demonstration of all the exercises here:
- Deep breathing: inhale through the nose with arm lift in front of body & exhale through the mouth with arms descending on side of body (10 reps)
- Neck stretches: side to side; (hold 15 sec)
- Toe touch to overhead reverse reach (10 reps)
- Side bends with overhead side reach (10 reps each side)
- Torso rotations with arm reach at shoulder height (10 reps to each side)
- Lunge stretch for hip flexors
- Straight up reach (5 reps)
- Side bend with reach (5 reps)
- Rotation with reach (5 reps)
- Sword draw one arm (10 reps each arm)
- Chain breakers (15 reps)
- Scapular retractions (10 reps; hold each for 2-3 seconds)
- Neck/chin tucks (10 reps; hold each for 2-3 seconds)
- Deep Breathing: knees slightly bent, bend over 45 degrees with straight back, arms in front of you. Inhale as you stand back up straight and pull elbows back (10 reps)
I hope you can see that just going to the gym alone is not a good thing if you are not doing the right thing! First fix what is out of balance then build on that solid foundation. To correct years of postural imbalance, get an assessment then get some body work to “unlock” the muscles. Then do the right kind of exercise to strengthen and stretch the muscles correctly. And finally make sure you are maintaining your new look with postural resets periodically through-out the day at work. In the beginning you may have to do them every hour at work but in time you can cut it down as you start to adopt better posture more naturally.
In part 2 you will learn the basic exercises to do at the gym to set the stage for effective strength training.
Craig Valency is a Certified Personal Trainer and is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the National Strength & Conditioning Association (CSCS). He earned a bachelors degree from UCLA. He has completed coursework in Kinesiology & Exercise Physiology at UCLA, UCSD & Miramar College for prerequisite work towards a Doctorate in Physical Therapy.
Craig is currently working at Fitness Quest 10, an elite personal training and athletic conditioning facility. He specializes in developing holistic training programs promoting lifestyle change for permanent results in weight loss, toning, strengthening, dynamic flexibility, balance, athletic performance & whole body functional strength & power. He can be reached at email@example.com.