How can I improve my posture?: understanding muscles
I have written about this topic as it is good to understand what can occur to the muscles within your body. This will help you understand a little better what can occur in the body that can lead to ‘poor posture’.
Muscle’s Elastic properties
Muscles are made up of packages (known as units) of ‘elastic’ (rubber band like) fibres. These fibres are prone to becoming too tight or overlengthened (hypertonic). Within your muscles and their tendons are cells which regulate the length at which they should be operating. These cells are monitored by the brain so that each muscle is held at a set length, this set length can be altered depending on how the body is utilised on a day to day basis and by stretching techniques such as ‘Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation‘. A good example of a muscle that can operate at a length that is too long is the hamstring muscle. If a person has a pelvis that is tilted forwards due to tightness of muscles such as those of the front of the hip, top of the rear aspect of the pelvis and muscles of the lower back then the hamstrings get pulled too long. This often gets mistaken for ‘hamstring tightness’. When this occurs it is known as the muscle becoming ‘locked long’, a contributing factor to this posture in regards to the hamstrings is that of sitting and sports that heavily use the hip flexors, such as in football.
Fascia’s Plastic properties
What links each muscle together is a tissue called fascia, this tissue is also prone to getting tight and has been found to have muscle fibres in it. However, in fascia the muscle tissue is different in that it is ‘smooth muscle’ tissue as opposed to normal muscles which are made up of ‘striated muscle’ tissue. This basically means that you cannot control its ability to contract, it contracts of its own accord depending on environmental factors and its role. Smooth muscle can also be found in your gut where its role is in the movement of fecal matter. Fascia’s properties are more ‘plastic’ in nature and therefore require a longer hold when stretching to achieve length (activities such as yoga are great for this).
When stretching, it helps to have the muscles warm to get a maximum stretch (such as with hot yoga AKA Bikram Yoga). However to make the most of your new found flexibility research suggests applying cold on the regions of stretch to ‘lock in’ the new length for a longer period of time. If you do do ‘hot yoga’ I would highly recommend taking a cold shower or for those that are brave an ice bath to really watch your flexibility improve!
Another aspect of muscles is that they can refer pain to another region of the body when they are either ‘too tight’ or ‘locked long’. This occurs due to trigger points forming within the muscle fibres, I talk about trigger points briefly here in this post.
Postural vs Phasic muscles
Muscles around the body also have different roles, this is important as it is important to remember what the muscles true role is so as not to cause it to function incorrectly. For example, amateur weight lifters often train their upper shoulders and neck muscles to make their shoulders look larger (muscles known as upper Trapezius and Levator scapulae). However the way a lot of individuals go about this is incorrect, lifting moderate to heavy weight for 8-10 reps for 3 sets in this region will lead to tightness and compensations at this region rather than a noticeable gain in size. These muscles are known as postural muscles and are designed to be trained to keep the head and shoulders in the correct positions all day long, not lift heavy objects at awkward angles. If they are going to be trained for size then a light to moderate weight with lots of reps is what is necessary to build up its endurance, only then will size increase while maintaining function. As well as training these muscles their opposites must also be trained to prevent poor posture, these are the lower and middle muscles of the back that support the shoulder blades (known as lower trapezius, middle trapezius, rhomboid major and serratus anterior). If these muscles are not trained then the shoulders are more prone to being shrugged and rolled forward constantly. Anyway, back to my main point, there are also ‘phasic muscles’, these muscles are those such as your biceps, these are designed to be used to lift heavy objects etc and training with heavy weights for 8-10 reps for 3 sets in this area is perfectly fine for its required role.
And finally… Nutrition
No body health related post would be complete with out mentioning nutrition. Our muscles thrive on good nutrition, there is loads of great information on healthy eating out there on the net though here are my recommendations. Lots of water and read this post: What should I be eating? If that post is too intense for you then read this one, its a lot less caring about the specifics and hones in on the simple principle of generally eating foods with “low calories but good nutrition” rather than foods with “high calories and low nutrition”. I like this principle as it makes deciding what to eat a lot easier! Stay balanced :-).