At this point, you're no stranger to working from home, cranking out Netflix marathons, and unwinding over a puzzle, so back pain and neck strain from slouching might feel like the norm. But those aches and pains don't get left behind in your home office or on the couch — here's how your posture affects your workout, too.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 70% of Americans are now working at home, according to data from Pew Research Center. And all that time spent hunched over your kitchen counter or with your neck jutting out towards your computer screen can mess with your spinal alignment, says Dr. Sharif Tabbah, a physical therapist and co-founder of Athletix Rehab in Miami. This not only causes pain in the moment, but can also impact your muscles' ability to do their job while you exercise. In other words: Having good posture isn't just important for your WFH setup, but for your overall fitness game.
Here, fitness experts explain how your posture can impact your workouts along with what you can do to get your alignment back into working order.
What Poor Posture Does To Your Body
Imagine your spine is a tower of building blocks. When you're sitting or standing up straight, the building blocks are stacked securely on top of each other, says Tabbah. But if a few of those building blocks (or vertebrae) shift forward, suddenly the tower is on the brink of collapse. That's your body in poor WFH posture, he says.
Over time, not only can this improper alignment cause body aches, but it can change the length and strength of your muscles, according to Tabbah. "The muscles on your back side are getting lazy from being overstretched. They’re relaxed all the time from rounding over," he tells Bustle. "The muscles up front, like in our chest and the front of our shoulders, become really tight and short."
Your muscles are meant to start in one place and attach at another, he says. But when the distance between those two points is altered, then the muscle starts to work in a way it's not designed to, which can contribute to pain or stiffness in your low back, neck, and shoulders.
How Your Posture Affects Your Workouts
Because poor posture literally changes how your muscles work, it doesn't just go away after 5 p.m. "Good posture allows for proper alignment of the body, which promotes optimal functioning for our muscle, ligaments, and joints," says Austin Martinez, certified trainer and director of education for StretchLab. "When out of alignment, this may not allow muscles to function properly and/or require other muscles to take on an additional load." Adding weights to the picture can make things worse.
Poor alignment doesn't just cause irritation in the moment — it can kill your workout form."Having poor movement patterns while adding strain [of weights or resistance] is similar to building a house on top of no foundation," says Martinez. Take weightlifting, for example. Slouching while you bicep curl can put unnecessary strain on your back since your rounded shoulders are pulling at the muscles on your back side. Add in the extra dumbbell weight, and your back muscles are working overtime to keep you upright, says Tabbah, which can cause pain when all you wanted was a stronger bicep.
The same goes for higher-impact workouts like running, he points out. Mile after mile of jogging with poor form can repetitively pound micro-trauma into your muscles and joints and lead to overuse injury, according to Tabbah. If this sounds familiar, that's because it's extremely common — research shows that most fitness-related injuries are due to overexertion, according to a 2015 survey of thousands of ER patients, and one main culprit behind overexertion is having other muscles overcompensate if one is shortened (from, you guessed it, improper posture).
Poor posture can also limit your mobility, according to Kristin Sudeikis, professional dancer and founder, CEO, and creative director of FORWARD__Space. As your body becomes accustomed to the WFH slump, it can lose its flexibility, range of motion, and stability, all of which are necessary to help you comfortably and safely move through any type of workout.
How To Improve Your Posture
It all comes down to tackling bad posture at the source: your WFH setup. For ergonomic, spine-friendly support, you'd sit in a desk chair with your arms and legs at 90-degree angles. Your screen should be directly in front of you, about 18 inches away from your face, says Tabbah. Then, it's equally important to incorporate regular movement, he adds. Stand up, walk around, or squat it out throughout the day to activate muscles weakened from sitting at your home office.
When it comes to your workouts, never skip your warm up, cautions Tabbah. Easing your body into the exercise will help activate the muscles in your back and stretch the ones on your front so that you're not starting your sweat sesh at a postural deficit.
"Working your back side with exercises like squats and back extensions can strengthen the muscles you need to help you stay firmly upright."
Once you're in full sweat mode, you can also target certain muscles to prime your body for better posture during the WFH marathons to come. "It's really important that we shift our workouts now to include — if not emphasize — mobilizing and stretching the front side, like our shoulders, chest, and hip flexors, and strengthening the back side, like our extensors and glutes," says Tabbah. Chest stretches or heart-opening yoga poses can help lengthen short, tight shoulder, chest, and hip muscles. And working your back side with exercises like squats and back extensions can strengthen the muscles you need to help you stay firmly upright. Whatever you do, make sure to work through those exercises in proper form, says Martinez. Otherwise, you can put your body at risk for injury.
You can also turn to small modifications in your movements to ensure your alignment stays safe and stable while you exercise, according to Sudeikis. Pulling your belly button in towards your spine can help engage your core and support your back, she says, which stacks your vertebrae (your building blocks!) for more efficient movement. "It's also important to release any tension in the neck and shoulders, soften the knees to protect your lower back, and lift your sternum, chin, and head," she tells Bustle. "Our eyes are so often downcast on our phones and screens, so lifting our eyes up and out is essential to our physical and mental health."
(2020). How the Coronavirus Outbreak Has – and Hasn’t – Changed the Way Americans Work. Pew Research Center, https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2020/12/09/how-the-coronavirus-outbreak-has-and-hasnt-changed-the-way-americans-work/
Gray, S. (2015). The causes of injuries sustained at fitness facilities presenting to Victorian emergency departments - identifying the main culprits. Injury Epidemiology, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5005555/
Austin Martinez, MS, CSCS, ATC, director of education for StretchLab
Kristin Sudeikis, founder, CEO, and creative director of FORWARD__Space and professional dancer and choreographer
Dr. Sharif Tabbah, DPT, CSCS, co-founder of Athletix Rehab in Miami