Ask the Experts: Good Posture

I hear so much about the importance of good posture. What exactly is it, and how does it benefit my sports performance?

Having good posture is when your body is aligned for maximal efficiency and function. When its not in optimal alignment, your muscles and joints must work harder because they cant relate to each other as they were designed to.

This creates inefficient movement, causing you to waste energy during your workouts and daily activities. Bad posture also can lead to chronic aches and pains, as well as make you more susceptible to injury.

Proper body alignment maintains and supports the natural curvature of the spine. To find out what this feels like, lie flat on your back on the floor with your knees bent. You should feel contact with the floor in the following places: behind your head, at your shoulder blades, at your lower ribs and at your sacrum (the triangular-shaped bone that makes up the base of your spine underneath your gluteal muscles.)

There should be a space at your neck and the small of your back. Then, one at a time, straighten your legs until theyre shoulder-width apart on the floor. You can also check your alignment while standing with your back against a wall. Your head, shoulders, ribs, sacrum, thighs, calves and heels should touch the wall.

Its important to maintain proper alignment when seated, as well. While sitting, try to keep your ears, shoulders and hips in a straight line, just as they were in the exercises above. Place your pelvis against the back of the chair for support. If the back of your chair is flat, use a support (lumbar pillow or rolled up towel) at the small of your back to maintain its natural curve.

Good posture is achieved and maintained only through conscious effort to correct the bad postural habits youve developed over time -- like slumping your shoulders, jutting your head forward or rounding your back. Try to be cognizant of your posture throughout the day.

If you catch yourself rounding your shoulders or slouching in your chair, straighten up by lifting your shoulders up and back. Draw your navel into your spine to activate your abdominals to maintain proper alignment. It may also help to stand up and align yourself against the wall to remind your body what proper posture feels like.

Having a strong core is critical to maintaining good posture. Add core-strengthening exercises like glute bridges to your training routine to make it easier to stay aligned during the day. Pilates is also great for core building because it focuses on muscles that stabilize the spine. Even just trying to maintain optimal alignment throughout the day can help strengthen your postural muscles.

When it comes to sports, proper body alignment is key to peak performance. Being in good form -- whether running, swimming, biking, lifting weights -- means that your body is aligned for maximum efficiency in that sport. When you workout with optimal body alignment, you minimize stress and strain on your muscles and joints, which helps increase performance and decrease the risk of injury.

For further guidance on getting and maintaining good form, have your postural alignment evaluated by a professional such as a physical therapist, chiropractor, orthopedic specialist or a trainer certified as a posture specialist.

As a triathlete Im in pretty good shape. But Im developing pain in my neck, shoulders and lower back, which probably is related to spending hours a day sitting in front of a computer. What can I do about this, and could strength training and/or stretching help?

Our bodies were designed for movement, but the sedentary nature of most jobs today often forces us to remain for long periods of time in one position, usually sitting at a desk. Unfortunately, this can wreak havoc on our muscles and joints, leading to stiffness and pain.

To prevent the damage caused by spending your days in front of a desk, make sure you maintain good posture while sitting at your workstation (see previous question,) and try not to remain in one position for longer than 20 to 30 minutes at a time. Take frequent breaks away from your desk.

These don't have to be long; spending just 10 seconds doing simple exercises will help. For example, stand up and gently bend backward to loosen your lower back. While standing or sitting, roll your shoulders up and back, rotate your neck from side to side, or stretch your arms out to the front and bend your fingers and wrists up and down ten times. These movements will increase blood flow to the muscles and help prevent them from getting stiff and tired.

Its also important to make sure your workstation is set up to minimize body strain:

  • Adjust your chair height so that your feet fall flat on floor with your knees no higher than your hips.
  • Maintain the natural curvature of your lower back with an ergonomically shaped chair (extra cushion at the small of the back) or lumbar pillow.
  • Make sure your keyboard slopes downward, and position it so that your forearms are parallel to your thighs.
  • Center the monitor directly in front of you at eye level to avoid dropping your head or twisting your neck to see it.
  • Place frequently-used objects, such as the computer mouse and telephone, close to you to avoid over-reaching.
  • Use a headrest or hands-free device when talking on the phone rather than cradling it between your ear and shoulder.
Staying active outside the office helps prevent work-related aches and pains, so as an athlete you already have the advantage. But you may want to try adding exercises that strengthen your upper back muscles to your training routine, like bent-over rows or lat pull-downs. Regularly stretching your chest and shoulders can also help improve your posture and minimize the downside of being a desk-jockey.

What is an ACL injury? Are women more at risk because of their wider Q-angle? What are the best ways to prevent it?

ACL stands for anterior cruciate ligament, the main ligament that provides stability to the knee joint. Athletes who perform a lot of cutting and jumping movements are most at risk. These include basketball and tennis players, as well as snowboarders, wakeboarders and skiers. Trail runners who log many of their miles on very uneven surfaces, climbing hills and dodging rocks and holes, may also be susceptible to ACL injuries.

No matter the sport, however, women are at greater risk of injuring their ACL than men are. This is in part because women have a larger Q-angle, the degree to which the pelvis angles out from the knee.

Many of the muscles that control movement and stability of the knees attach to the pelvis, and since the pelvis and knees are not aligned as vertically in women as they are in men, women experience an outward pull on the knee by these muscles, predisposing them to injury.

Another factor is that women, in general, lack sufficient strength in their quadriceps relative to their hamstrings and have less muscular control in the hip and knee. In fact, one of the best things an athlete can do to prevent an ACL injury is to correct this imbalance by strengthening the inner and outer thigh muscles and stretching the piriformis (muscle running from the base of the spine to the top of the thigh bone in the back,) hamstrings and hip flexors (muscle connecting the thigh bones and pelvis in the front.) Your goal is to have adequate strength in your quads relative to your hamstrings.

You should able to lift two-thirds of the weight with your hamstrings that you can with your quadriceps, in isolation. In other words, if you can lift 60 pounds for 10 reps doing seated leg extensions, you should be able to lift 40 pounds for 10 reps doing hamstring curls lying on your stomach. Strengthening your core can also help prevent ACL problems because a strong core provides better support and transfer of force between the lower and upper body.

When landing from a jump or changing directions, your knees should remain aligned with your hips and ankles, instead of moving inward. By practicing movements such as jumping or cutting from side to side in a slow, controlled manner to stay in ideal alignment, you can minimize your risk of ACL injury.

A former Division I collegiate volleyball player, Dawn Duran is a physical therapist, certified strength and conditioning specialist, and Pilates instructor in Salt Lake City, Utah.

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