During midterms and finals, you may find yourself studying in a hunched-over position for a long period of time. Likewise, going to work and sitting in front of a computer all day long can also cause you to adopt the hunched-over position. This hunched position can cause your body to “remold” itself in order to accommodate the new posture.
Unfortunately, your body prefers to maintain as close to “optimal” posture as possible. This means the muscles on opposing sides of the joint will begin to play a tug-of-war game in an attempt to restore balance in muscle length around the joints. The likely result of this tug-of-war is chronic back pain. The pain is caused by muscles on one side of the joint becoming short and tight (typically along the front of the body), and the muscles on the opposite side of the joint getting too stretched out (typically along the back side of the body). The stretched out muscles form knots as they spasm in an attempt to return to their normal resting length. These painful spasms are due to the tight muscles on the other side of the joint refusing to let go.
Paying attention to your posture on a regular basis is the most effective way to combat this discomfort. You can also take steps in the gym to alleviate your pain, realign your body and build awareness in your posture habits.
When performing exercises that are corrective in nature, there is a specific order in which you must execute them. First, you should focus on stretching the muscle or muscle group that has become short and tight. Once you have thoroughly stretched the muscle, you can then focus on strengthening the muscle on the opposing side of the joint. A tight muscle group will not allow its opposing muscle group to reap the benefits of the strengthening exercises unless it has been stretched out first. Once tight muscles are relaxed, you will see much faster results.
The following pairs of exercises demonstrate a stretch, which is then followed by a strengthening exercise. These exercises focus on the muscle groups located down the length of the torso:
1. The chest muscles generally become tight when you sit in a hunched position, so stretch them first and then follow with a strengthening exercise to target the lengthened muscles located on the upper-back between the shoulder blades.
2. The abdominal muscles (particularly the upper abs) tend to become tight as well when you are sitting hunched-over, so first perform a stretch to loosen them and then follow with an exercise to strengthen the deep, back muscles and glutes.
3. Lastly, the hip flexor muscles are shortened when you sit with your hips flexed all day long. First stretch the hip flexors and then follow with a strengthening exercise for the glutes and hamstrings.
When you are stretching to correct posture, you should perform a static stretch, which allows the muscle to spend enough time in the stretch to fully relax. Hold these stretches for a minimum of 20-30 seconds to see results and perform 1-3 sets depending on how tight you are feeling. The recommended strengthening exercises use only body weight, so you are able to perform higher repetitions (in the 10-15 rep range) for 1-3 sets depending on your fitness level.
Even if you are not currently experiencing chronic back pain from the stress of studying and sitting for prolonged periods of time, you can still benefit from these exercises! Prevention NOT correction is always a more effective method of training. As time goes on, our body suffers from the chronic overuse-patterns we adopt. If you can balance your time sitting and studying with these healthy exercises, you are much more likely to reduce back stress or avoid it altogether.
By Sarah Kirtland and Leila Seed