Perfect Posture

There is a trend today to identify postural imbalances in athletes. Such an assessment is only effective, however, if it is done in a dynamic environment.

By Vern Gambetta

Vern Gambetta is the President of Gambetta Sports Training Systems in Sarasota, Fla. A frequent contributor to Training & Conditioning, he can be reached through his Web site at: www.gambetta.com.

Training & Conditioning, 16.2, March 2006, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1602/posture.htm

Many of us have less than fond childhood memories of being told to: “Stand up straight, don’t slouch!” As coaches, we may now hear ourselves giving our athletes similar instructions: “Stand tall … Get your back straight on that lift … Let’s see good posture on this agility run.”

Because the back is such an important part of almost every athletic movement, having it in the right position is critical for optimal sports performance. Good posture is closely related to functional strength and motor control, and is absolutely necessary to produce efficient movement along the kinetic chain.

However, good posture in athletics is not what your parents were talking about when they told you to stand up straight. And that distinction is key to understanding the role of posture in strength and conditioning.

Dynamic, Not Static
When I am teaching coaches about posture and postural control, I often present a word association game. I ask participants for the words most commonly equated with posture, and they usually respond with things like: upright, stiff, still, alignment, perfect pose. Then I ask them to think about sports movements. It soon becomes clear that the conventional meaning of posture is far removed from posture in a functional athletic context.

When posing for photos or giving a presentation, our posture is static. In sports, posture is dynamic, always moving. Good athletic posture is actually a series of postures linked together to produce efficient movement.

There is a trend today to identify muscular imbalances in static positions and seek to correct them. But static postural measurements are a non-functional baseline. Unless there is some clearly evident pathology or deformity, I have found over the years that static posture has very little relationship to movement.

Think about what happens to postural imbalances when the athlete is asked to move. Are they relevant to the athlete’s movement? If they are corrected, will there be a change in performance? I have found that when one static imbalance is corrected, another will appear somewhere else.

Currently, posture grids are a very popular way for athletes to assess their posture. The grids and other static analyses of posture are easy to administer and interpret, and profound conclusions are often deduced from them. But such analyses really have little or no carryover to movement. It certainly is simpler to assess an athlete standing still than when he or she is moving, but because performance is not about one posture, the grids have limited value.

We also need to get away from the concept of “ideal posture” and instead think in terms of individual needs and sport specificity. An ideal posture for the handshake to start the game is not an ideal posture for passing a volleyball or tackling a rusher. And a posture that works well for one athlete may not work as well for another.

Think of NFL Patriot quarterback Tom Brady’s posture when getting ready to pass a football compared to the Falcons’ Michael Vick’s posture. Both are great quarterbacks, but the way they stand while launching a pass is very different. At the point of release their body movement is similar, but leading up to that point, they have an individual style that affects their posture.

In athletics, dynamic posture is what’s all-important. Dynamic posture allows the body to maintain normal length-tension relationships among its muscles while the activity is being performed. This leads to the optimum ability to reduce and produce force. For example, the optimum posture for acceleration is the triple extension of the ankle, knee, and hip. This posture allows the body to exert maximum force against the ground to propel the athlete forward.

Proper dynamic posture also leads to coordinated movement. Each posture in movement is a momentary alignment of body segments, and successful movement is determined by the ease of transition from each posture to the next. If one segment or link in the kinetic chain is out of sync, there is potential for a performance error or injury.

How to Assess
Ultimately, the test of good dynamic posture is whether it results in easy transition to the next posture. So, how do we assess posture in a dynamic environment? The first step is training yourself to critique key points in movement. To do that effectively, you must know the athlete and understand the demands of his or her sport.

Although it may not seem sophisticated, the next step is simply to observe the athlete in motion. The best method is to use a combination of the naked eye and video. View the athlete from different angles and then watch him or her in slow motion on the video.

The analysis must be done with the goal of the movement in mind. Remember that posture is highly individual to each person’s body structure and highly adapted to the activity the athlete is engaged in. Observe the flow and pattern of movement, and do not try to pick out small defects. If there is smoothness and efficiency to the movement, then everything is acceptable, even if a defect was detected in a static position.

However, if there is not a flow to the athlete’s movement—if there are breaks in the movement or there is a lack of rhythm—then there is a problem. When this is the case, observe the athlete more closely. First, focus on the major movements and see if they are in sync. Then, look at smaller body parts and see if they are working in coordination with the bigger ones. Be sure to start out with a clear concept of what the movement should look like. How does the athlete you are observing match up to that concept?

Some coaches like to look at muscular balance when assessing posture and movement. But I think we can go too far with this idea. We must remember that the body is fundamentally asymmetric. It is unrealistic to think of muscular balance right to left or front to back—the body is not designed that way. We must think of proportionality rather than symmetric muscle balance.

For example, quads are bigger than hamstrings. Does this mean that the quads are overdeveloped, or conversely, that the hamstrings are underdeveloped? I would say no, because they are proportional. The pecs are naturally stronger than the muscles of the upper back, but they should not overpower those muscles. If they do, there is high risk of injury.

Building Good Posture
Posture is clearly an integral part of many aspects of movement. In fact, I believe that dynamic postural alignment and subsequent dynamic muscle balance are fundamental movement skills. So it should be no surprise that a training regimen for good posture is very similar to any functional strength and conditioning program.

We need to train strength, flexibility, balance, and movement. We need to incorporate multi-joint and multi-plane work with high proprioceptive demand. We need to target deficiencies with remedial work whenever warranted.

In the classic text Anatomic Kinesiology, authors Gene Logan and Wayne McKinney have termed the muscles that are most active in resisting the force of gravity the “anti-gravity muscles.” They go so far as to state that “the anti-gravity muscles are the most important muscle groups, which make possible the maintenance of body postures in sport, exercise, and dance situations.”

The four primary anti-gravity muscle groups are: the gastroc/soleus group, the quadriceps group, the glutes, and the erector spinae group. When the body is upright, as is the case in most sport activities, the anti-gravity muscle groups work in conjunction with other muscle groups to maintain upright posture. These muscles act on information from three major sensory systems in the body: the proprioceptive, vestibular, and visual systems. Therefore, movements that work these muscles must be given prime consideration in a conditioning program.

Similarly, the abdominal complex, or core muscles, play a major role in dynamic posture. They give the body structural integrity, which allows the limbs to position and reposition themselves according to the demands of the activity. The core must be trained daily. It should be incorporated into a warmup, have a distinct module within the actual workout itself, and be addressed during cooldown. The majority of core work should be done upright and moving to enhance the transfer to postural improvement and to activate the muscles of the core as they are used in movement.

To achieve proportional muscular development, focus the training on movements, not individual muscles. For movement to be efficient, muscles must be recruited in patterns that mirror those demanded by the activity and that allow for optimum firing frequency.

A good distribution of pulling, pushing, and squatting movements should be considered. The body must also be put in positions that force it to work against gravity in postures similar to those in the athlete’s sport. An overemphasis on work in a supine and prone position, for instance, will not transfer to dynamic postural improvement.

Tight muscles can contribute to poor dynamic posture, so a sound program of functional flexibility that addresses the target muscles must also be part of the athlete’s daily routine. The gastroc/soleus group must be stretched daily, since it governs the production and reduction of force against the ground. The same is true for the psoas, as a shortening of the psoas will have a profound negative effect on dynamic posturing and movement. Stretching the lats and pectorals, as connectors of shoulders to hips, should also be on the list.

What type of strength training will hinder good posture? Overemphasis on the bench press can, as it causes a round-shouldered posture. This is caused by tight pectorals, which, when coupled with upper-back weakness can lead to shoulder problems. In the lower extremities, an overemphasis on quad work can have many negative results. The glutes and hamstrings are more important in many ways, but tend to be neglected because they can’t be seen in the mirror.

If an athlete has particularly bad dynamic posture, he or she may need some remedial work. First, analyze the posture to ascertain the cause. If it is a weakness in a particular muscle group, then those muscles must be targeted for recruitment. Postural deviation can also be caused by tightness. If that is the case, then a specific functional flexibility program must be designed to address the problem.

Posture & Lifting
One of the most important times for athletes to work on correct posture is during weightlifting. Good lifting posture will significantly enhance the gains made from weight training and help athletes avoid injury.

To start, the athlete must have a good base of support. For pulling movements, the base should be about hip-width apart. For squatting movements, the base should be wider, at least shoulder-width, depending on the athlete’s body proportions.

The weight distribution should be even and the athlete should feel like he or she is pressing against the floor. There should be proportional bending of the ankle, knee, and hip. Puffing the chest out will put the back in the correct position, and the head should be neutral.

Training to enhance dynamic posture is all part of a sound, well-rounded athletic development program. Dynamic posture is a major contributing factor to athletic performance, so it must be part of daily training. Remember, we are training athletes to move, not to stand still.