Let’s see if we can fix the epidemic of ‘gorilla posture’ in my usual explicitly detailed style.
Don’t let the title fool you – you don’t need to be ‘gorilla big’ in order to receive the benefit of what’s about to follow. You can be a pencil neck and still take as much away from today as the meatiest of meatheads.
‘Gorilla posture’ implies one is constantly in a state of muscle flexion. In other words: at any given moment, at least one major muscle is tense. It usually occurs from from the application of thoughtless training splits/programs. I bet the gorillas would actually strike a better training balance than many ‘brahs’ out there. Let’s face it, gorillas are strong mofos!
The most common symptom of poor posture is an over developed chest relative to the opposite muscles (the back). This all adds to the anteriorly flexed look that our demo model, the gorilla above has. There’s basically limited capacity for extension of the thoracic spine.
An example of thoracic extension – a place that would make some of you cry
I know it’s unlikely that anyone reading this would have never exercised with resistance (weights) in their life, but there’s plenty of gym virgins who are just as limited as the ‘muscle-heads’ in terms of posture and movement. You may read this as a ‘lifter’ and realise this even applies to your fat uncle whose only exercise is carrying crates of beer from the garage to the fridge. Or your geeky younger brother who was always beaten in arm wrestles by girls and now spends 75% of his waking hours playing World Of Warcraft.
Putting you under the microscope – some posture tests!
These tests are simple and can be done virtually anywhere. All you need is a home or even an office.
The ‘pen test’
If I tell you what you’re looking for here, it will skew the results. Pick up 2 pens and let your hands hang by your sides. Now have a look at where the pens are pointing. As you look down, are they pointing in, straight, or out relative to your body?
(image via builtlean.com)
I’ve rarely – if ever – seen anyone’s pens point out considerably (at least without them trying to do so). Most will gravitate in somewhat. The greater the angle of inward rotation, the worse your posture will generally be.
The ‘arms overhead test’
Keep your arms extended and flex your shoulders as you raise them overhead. Can you get your arms in line with your ears WITHOUT compensating at your lumbar spine? Your pelvis should remain NEUTRAL at all times.
Left: lumbar spine extension to compensate
Keep in mind this is only level one! These tests can be intensified by doing them A) on the floor OR B) against a wall.
These are humbling and you don’t have to be the hunchback of Notre-dame to fail to do these. In fact, I know people personally who struggle to keep their head, upper back, sacrum and heels all against the wall – without adding in the flexion of the arms!
Gauge the level you find yourself at. Awareness is the first step to correction.
The ‘photo test’
Have a nostalgic look through old photo albums. With all the social media fanaticism nowadays, you don’t need to be old school and actually whip out an actual album. Just scroll through your Facebook or Instagram pics. Have a look at how you stand generally. Are your ears and shoulders in line, or does your head sit in front of your ears?
If you’re not very photogenic or camera shy, then simply stand side on to a mirror, relax and assume your normal posture. Have a look for the ear/shoulder alignment.
The ‘prone cobra/shoulder dislocate test’
These 2 exercises are not just corrective tools, but assessment tools too. That’s why I like them so much. They are staples of my warm up sequence and frankly, they’re movements we don’t do enough.
Shoulder dislocates are done with a band or broomstick. Take a grip wider than shoulder width, and keep the band/pipe/broomstick at your hip crease in front of you. Simply lift it up and bring it back over your head all the way down to your sacrum/lower back/butt.
Hold it there for a brief moment and then return to the starting position. Can you do repetitions? How does it feel just holding the end position? Notice the pecs, biceps and shoulders are all on stretch; what a feeling.
(Related: 1 exercise for healthier shoulders)
For those with severely restricted access to equipment may prefer the prone cobra……….
Keep the chin tucked and hold it for 30 seconds. See if you begin to struggle or droop. Again, gauge how hard it is. Put a number to it out of ten in terms of difficulty/discomfort.
Developing optimum posture for life
We will break this remedy section into segments; we’ll start with the more foundational stuff and diverge into more specialist corrective options.
Your habits determine who and what you are! (Fix #1)
Your general posture is going to be a mould of what you’ve been doing, subconsciously, for months – maybe even years. We all have these mannerisms or traits that we do whilst blissfully unaware of. Even how you sleep plays a pivotal role in posture and pain symptoms. I would sleep on my right side only for years as a kid and it’s no major shock that I have a mildly protracted shoulder on that side.
Just being conscious of how you move will have an outstanding impact on postural correction. It may be as simple as telling yourself over and over, “keep the chin tucked”. Or, “push the chest out”. Maybe even….”keep my lower back flush against the chair”.
Be aware of how much you sit – make a pact to not sit longer than 30 minutes without standing up and doing some basic stretches or posture drills.
Your body adapts to what you subject it to. All we need to do is reprogram ourselves into better movement patterns which facilitate stronger posture.
Specific & progressive stretching (Fix #2)
The problem with stretching is most people have no idea why they’re doing it. “I’m doing it because bodybuilding.com said I should”, said Billy. You can stretch nearly every muscle in your body, but the real question is: DO YOU NEED TO?!
For the majority of cases, it’s the nervous system that governs your flexibility in various areas. Either as a protective mechanism due to neighbouring muscles being weak or because it has a hard time communicating with the muscle(s) in question due to lack of use.
Getting back to topic, in the case of ‘gorilla posture’ (tight pecs, rounded shoulders and weak upper back musculature), stretching can play a supporting role in combating the issue. Stretching the pectorals and the anterior deltoids would be ideal. This is where you need to fully identify which muscles are genuinely tight due to over-development and/or poor lifestyle habits.
Once you’ve done that, you need to be meticulous about how you stretch. Where do you feel the stretch? Just because Google says it’s a chest stretch, doesn’t mean you’ll definitely feel it there. An abundance of people use too much of an advanced stretch variation and end up not stretching the target muscle as optimally as intended.
An example would be the seated forward fold (a yoga pose). Many people assume this pose is the cure-all to tight hamstrings, when in reality there’s much more going on; the mobility of the lower back plays an equal role in how far down you can go. Doing this pose while making a conscious effort to maintain a neutral pelvis would be more beneficial to lengthen the hamstrings, if that was the intention.
Application is everything
I’ve vowed to make stretching my purpose in life before. One full hour, seven days per week. Yeah, that’s nothing! Have a look at the people you see in the gym; there’s at least a handful that are cutting their nights out on the weekend short so they can get their stretch marathon in. This is a very unsustainable approach. I do mobility when I have time and it takes around 10-15 minutes – usually at the end of the day. And guess what? It’s not boring and I’m always motivated.
‘Little strokes fell great oaks.’
Structuring your training appropriately (Fix #3)
Usually I’m a stickler for balancing a program equally. Meaning, for every push pattern, you have a pull pattern. You do as much volume for each action and all being well, you avoid muscular imbalances. Now that’s assuming we’re starting from a position of perfection or neutral – and how many of us are perfectly balanced?
So if we precede from a place of imbalance, in order to correct this and counterbalance the problems we would actually need what I’ve coined, ‘intelligent imbalanced programming’. Translated as: We do much less of what’s led you to the situation you’re in, and much more of what’s required to shift you away from where you are.
Push to pull ratios
How much pushing to pulling do you do? Consult your training journal – you have one right?! Find out, on average, whether you do more pushing than pulling or is it equal? I’d be amazed if your pulling volume eclipsed your pushing volume. If it did though you would be one smart individual. One of the best kept secrets when it comes to avoiding shoulder pain, poor posture and structural imbalance is striving for a 2:1 ratio of pulling to pushing.
For those looking to combat postural issues, some even promote a 3:1 ratio! For every set of pushing (bench press, overhead press, dips, pushups, flies, pec deck etc..), you would do 3 sets of pulling (Bent over rows, Pendlay rows, chest supported rows, one arm dumbbell rows, rear delt flies, band pull aparts, seated cable rows, inverted rows, ‘scarecrows’ and even any hammer strength machine rows).
And make sure you vary the angles of rowing you do. You need horizontal pulling and not just vertical pulling. Doing lat pulldowns all day isn’t adequate; nor are chin ups. These are LAT dominant moves. Believe it or not, lats contribute to INTERNAL ROTATION. No thanks, we want EXTERNAL ROTATION!
Speaking personally, I am the odd individual that can do many more pull ups (vertical) than I can inverted rows (more horizontal). Usually inverted rows are a precursor to pull ups. But what did we say earlier? You get what you train – I’ve done tons more pull ups than rows throughout my ‘career’.
My lats and biceps are far more dominant than my scapular retractors; rear deltoids, rhomboids, middle and lower traps.
Breathing habits (bonus fix)
We live in a very tense world. When do you ever slow down and really pay attention to what you’re doing? Do you neurotically try to get everything done in record time just so you can be ready to tackle the next batch of ‘chores’? This overly rushed lifestyle we’re all semi-sucked into is yet another factor that’s detrimental to our posture; it prevents us from breathing properly; breathing deeply; consciously breathing.
When you have a collapsed chest (slouching), try breathing in as deep as possible. Notice how much air you can get in. Now, sit up as straight as possible. Push your chest out and tuck your chin. Lift the crown of your head high and inhale as deep as physically possible……..
Tell me which one brought in more oxygen? I thought so. Tension can be released very aptly by tuning into your breath. I know this is an element of meditation, but you can use it in day to day life if you become mindful of it.
Does posture matter that much?
We communicate using more than just our tongues; our language and speaking style. We communicate with our bodies. Body language is a science in itself – and a very complex one at that. Body language happens subconsciously, we’re very often oblivious to the signals or message we’re projecting. One of the first signals we send is how we carry ourselves. You might be driving a Ferrari and wearing a designer suit, but if you’re shoulders are rounded, your head hangs forward and you look at the floor every 5 seconds………the superficial stuff won’t save you.
Whereas you can be much worse of (superficially) and be received better by those you meet simply by sporting solid posture. There’s been studies conducted to show even spending enough time in a confident position will eventually cause one to feel confident.
Stand tall with your hands on your hips, I bet you feel like the man now, huh?
Unless you’re a sadist, you’ll desire a pain free life. Having muscular imbalances that bring about poor posture for too long can create chronic pain as the bones and joints bear pressure they’e not designed to, due to muscles not doing their job. Forward head posture, in particular, is associated with tension headaches, neck pain and even jaw problems. If that doesn’t scare you, we’ll go superficial again……….the presence of forward head posture is very ageing to your appearance.
You may think people don’t notice posture, some don’t. But once you start being aware of your own and consequently working to correct your posture, you’ll begin to become a member of what I call ‘the posture police’; you’ll spot dysfunctions in people easily, you’ll notice when your own posture de-gradates and over time, you might even become a better decipherer of body language.
Being more perceptive to the world around you can only empower you in an inordinate amount of ways.
2300 words later and I know you’re standing taller, safe in the knowledge you now have all the tools to portray the look of a confident human being.