Posture is a tricky thing. There’s not much research to show that transforming our posture will improve your health or athletic performance. After all, what often happens is that our posture adapts to our lifestyle. If you play a sport that benefits from a certain posture, your posture will adapt to help you. For example, sprinters will often have hips that are tilted forward. Is that stereotypically good posture? No, but it makes them better sprinters.
The problem is, a lot of us spend most of our time sitting at desks, and so our bodies adapt to become even better at sitting at desks. Our bellies pop out (lordosis), our upper backs hunch over (kyphosis), our shoulders tilt inwards, and our neck juts forward. That may not cause us any problems, at least not right away, but it makes us look weak and unathletic, because we are.
If you took a look at the famous Hollywood sex icons, you’ll find some commonalities. They tend to have well-developed shoulders, chests, and upper backs. They often have abs. And they all stand tall and straight, projecting confidence and strength. They have great posture.
And it’s true. If you can transform your posture, you can improve your appearance. There’s no doubt about that. Having strong posture looks great.
But how do we do it? How can we transform our posture?
Why Do People Have Bad Posture?
Most people try to transform their posture from the outside in, but it often works better to improve it from the inside out. They do postural exercises in an attempt to look stronger. But it’s usually better to build muscle, become stronger, and let your posture adapt to match. As you build muscle, your postural muscles will grow stronger, and your posture will transform.
For example, let’s take a common postural issue: lordosis, also called anterior pelvic tilt. What’s happening is that our pelvis is tilting forwards, making our stomach jut out, like so:
The most common advice you’ll get is to improve your breathing, stop spending so much time sitting, and to learn how to tuck your pelvis back down. And that’s all great. That can help. But it’s just the first step.
The other approach is to ignore all of the common postural advice and to just start building muscle. However, packing muscle on top of bad posture won’t necessarily fix the problem. Remember the example of the sprinter? Having hips that are tilted forward isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It depends on the situation. For instance, you’ll see a lot of strong weightlifters and powerlifters arching their lower backs like that while squatting. It pulls their hamstrings and glutes tighter, which can give them more power at the bottom of the lift.
So how does this make sense? Will building muscle help or not?
Improving Posture by Building Muscle
Building muscle can improve our posture, but only if you lift in a way that strengthens your posture muscles in the way that you want. Instead of doing low-bar squats with an arched lower back, consider doing goblet squats or front squats with a neutral spine, like so:
Before doing your goblet squats, you can do some breathing drills to help you improve your bracing, and you can warm up with some dead bugs to help activate your abs. From there, you can do the goblet squats, and now you’re strengthening the muscles that will help you transform your posture.
Here’s a before and after photo of a friend transforming his posture:
As you can see, in the before photo, he’s already pretty strong. He’s already lean. He’s active and in great shape. But his hips are tilted forward, he’s leaning to the side, and his belly is sticking out. He’s got a turtle-shell pot belly. A gut made of abs.
This is when we came into contact with our business partner, Marco, who was working as the strength coach for his university football team, then went on to coach professional football players and our Canadian Olympic rugby team. He saw this kind of thing all the time. Lots of world-class athletes have “bad” posture. Not “bad” in the sense that it’s hurting them, just bad in the sense that they don’t like how it makes them look.
Marco’s job, though, was to make sure that they were strong and tough, able to tackle 200–300 pounds linebackers, and able to withstand being tackled themselves. To do that, he had them lifting weights, building muscle, and gaining strength. He had them doing a variety of big compound lifts:
- The front squat
- The bench press
- The deadlift
- The Romanian deadlift
- The overhead press
- The chin-up
- The barbell row
To do these lifts properly, and to transfer strength from our lower bodies to our upper bodies, it can really help to have what’s called a “neutral spine,” like so:
On the left we have a guy deadlifting with a “neutral” spine, which limits the stress on our spinal disks. This is good deadlifting posture. It helps to keep the lift safe. And then on the right we have a guy deadlifting with a rounded lower back. This is generally considered bad deadlifting posture, given that it increases the shear stress in our spines, increasing our risk of getting a lower back injury.
So when teaching guys how to deadlift, you need to teach them how to lift with good posture. That posture might be a little bit different from good sprinting posture, or good sitting posture, but it just so happens to be the posture that makes us stand taller, straighter, and look more attractive.
The deadlift, then, can be a great tool for strengthening the postural muscles that will transform our posture. As you gradually get stronger at the deadlift, your spinal erectors will grow bigger, and you’ll find it easier to maintain good posture in your day-to-day life. You’ll have adapted to the lift.
The Best Exercises for Improving Posture
There are a few lifts that are especially good for improving our posture:
- The conventional deadlift, which strengthens the spinal erectors in our lower backs.
- The front squat, which strengthens the spinal erectors in our upper backs.
- The plank, which strengthens our abs and obliques, teaching us how to maintain a rigid torso.
- The push-up, which strengthens our abs and obliques, as well as our serratus anterior muscles (underneath the armpits).
- The overhead press, which strengthens our abs, obliques, and transverse abdominis muscles as we struggle to press weight overhead.
- The chin-up, which strengthens our abs as our hips try to tilt backwards.
But there’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario here. If we can do these lifts properly, we can strengthen our posture. But if our posture is bad, how can we do these lifts properly? What comes first?
The approach we use is to train our posture with our warm-ups. This doesn’t cause permanent improvements. It’s not very good for bulking up our postural muscles. These are just postural drills. But it helps us learn how to lift. These warm-ups include:
- Breathing drills, such as the 90/90 hip lift.
- Deadbugs, which teach us how to keep our torso rigid while moving at the legs and shoulders, and actually do a pretty good job of strengthening the abs and obliques.
- Birddogs, which are like backwards deadbugs.
- Planks, which strengthen the abs.
- Side planks, which strengthen the obliques.
And then it’s time to lift, which is when the real magic begins. These drills help us to lift with better posture, and the lifts help to strengthen that posture. Over time, we grow bigger and stronger, and we stand straighter. We can transform our posture:
Sample Before & After Posture Transformation
So we’ve shown you how we helped our roommate, Willem, improve his posture over the course of a few months. But that’s just one example. To prove that this can produce consistent results, here’s what happened to my other roommate during that exact same time period:
In the first photo, you can see Jared trying his very best to stand with good posture, and it isn’t working very well. It doesn’t look very natural, and as soon as he relaxed his muscles, his posture crumbled.
In the second photo, he decided to stand with his “natural” posture to see if he could improve it over time. The next month, he was already beginning to straighten out. And in the final photo, he’s standing with comfortably good posture, without needing to focus on it.
Over the course of 90 days, simply by following a good muscle-building workout routine, and doing his best to lift with good technique, Jared was able to gain 27 pounds while radically transforming his posture.
For more, we’ve got a few articles that you might find interesting:
- How to build a stronger and straighter upper back
- How to train for muscle size
- A beginner workout routine for skinny guys
And, of course, if you want us to guide you through the entire process of building muscle and transforming your posture, check out our Bony to Beastly Bulking Program.