Not surprisingly, all the hunching, slumping and slouching of modern-day life are taking a toll on our bodies. Reading and working on our computers and smartphones…spending large amounts of time in the car…watching TV on the couch. Life in the 21st century is filled with many pleasurable conveniences and one giant modern-day nuisance—chronic pain.
Specifically, the sitting and slumping compress the spine and overtax the joints. Over time, poor posture weakens the muscles along the back of the body known as the posterior chain. These powerhouse muscles—the back, glutes and hamstrings—are intended to do the heavy lifting, working to protect the joints and skeleton.
Excess sitting and inactivity cause the posterior chain to weaken, while the chest and quadriceps overdevelop to compensate. This causes joint degeneration and all of its debilitating symptoms, such as headache, neck, back and hip pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, plantar fasciitis and more. Compression squeezes the internal organs, too, impacting your breathing, your digestion and your immune function.
I created Foundation Training, a series of corrective body-weight exercises that allows you to use gravity to counterbalance the physical changes caused by inactivity. It healed my own chronic back pain, and I’ve watched as thousands of patients—from former professional basketball players in their 40s to decorated Air Force veterans in their 70s—have experienced great success and eventual pain relief with this system.
When you reactivate and strengthen the chain, your body rediscovers how to move properly, the pain dissipates and, eventually, stops.
Here are four good starter exercises that will help engage your posterior chain and reactivate neglected muscles—without going to the gym or investing in any special equipment. It is the standard way to enter and exit the positions for all of the exercises.
Decompression breathing. The first of these exercises, called decompression breathing, is present in every future Foundation Training pose.
A curled or hunched stance hinders the lungs’ ability to expand and contract, leading to shallow breathing, which in turn shortchanges every other organ and process in the body. Decompression breathing works to actively lift and widen the rib cage while simultaneously strengthening all of the muscles that are required to keep the rib cage there.
Stand tall, toes touching, an inch or so between the heels. Place your thumbs on the bottoms of your rib cage, pinkie fingers on the tops of your pelvic bones. Inhale deeply, broadening and elevating the rib cage as much as possible, and trying to increase the distance between your thumbs and pinkies. As your chest lifts up and expands, you begin to experience a widening of the rib cage in all directions. Remember to keep the back of your neck long and shoulders down.
As you exhale, imagine your rib cage remaining in its expanded state. The goal is to maintain that upper-torso expansion when you exhale. Inhale again, filling out even further, using slow and controlled breaths. Breathe in for three to five seconds, and breathe out for five to seven seconds with every decompression breath. Do this for 10 breaths, and you should instantly feel taller and more energized.
Supine decompression. As with the previous move, this is about strengthening and expanding your lungs and lifting your chest so that your internal organs are no longer squished. Begin by lying down on a yoga mat, face up, with your hands resting on your chest and your legs and feet touching each other. Your neck should be long—imagine lots of space between the bottom of your head and the base of your neck. Move your hands to the ground, slightly away from your sides with your palms up.
Start to squeeze your knees together, engaging the leg muscles. At the same time, flex your feet so that your toes point toward the ceiling (heels remain on the floor), and press your hands into the ground (try to get every fingernail touching the floor).
Keeping your knees squeezed and feet together and flexed, lift both knees a few inches off the ground—your knees will bend, and your heels will naturally move a few inches closer to your rear end as you do this. Extend your arms above your chest with your fingertips touching, forming a ball. Continue to lift your extended arms overhead with your fingertips still in the ball position, lifting your chest higher with each breath. You should feel tension in your pelvis, shins, arms and neck. Repeat the move 10 times, with the same breath count as you used for the standing decompression breathing.
Reawaken Your Posterior Chain
Even active people can have weak posterior chains—back muscles, glutes and hamstrings—if they spend the majority of their time sitting or have chronic poor posture. Every time they exercise or go for a stroll, they’re exercising the wrong muscles. The muscles in the front of the body end up doing the heavy lifting, so to speak, fighting gravity every step of the way. At the same time, the powerful muscles along the back of the legs and hips learn to live in a short, tight, underutilized position.
To shift the burden of supporting your body back to the strong posterior chain, you need to challenge those long-neglected glutes, hams and back muscles with these two very effective exercises…
The Founder. Stand with your feet wide, about three feet apart. Your weight should be in your heels, arms down at your sides, chest up, shoulders down. Your chest should be fully expanded and held high (higher than what might feel natural or comfortable). Face forward and take a deep decompression breath, expanding the rib cage.
Next, begin to hinge at the hips, knees very slightly bent, extending your hips back behind you, as if you were starting to sit down in a chair. At the same time, reach your arms in front of you, as if you were pretending to touch the top of an imaginary doorway. (You’ll be in a pose similar to a chair pose in yoga.) Look straight ahead, keeping your head in line with your spine. Hold for 10 seconds, breathing deeply while keeping your chest elevated. Let your back muscles burn—they’re getting stronger! Lift your arms up a few more inches, pointing toward the seam where the wall meets the ceiling. Your gaze remains straight ahead. Hold for 10 more seconds. A few Founders a day will strengthen your muscles. When done well, it’s a powerful pose.
The 8-point plank. Begin by lying on a yoga mat, stomach down, head and upper body propped up as if you are in a sphinx pose. You’ll be propped up on your forearms, hands flat on the floor, elbows a few inches in front of your shoulders. Your forearms will point straight ahead, and your palms should be flat on the floor. Flex your feet so that your toes press into the ground. Your knees should continue touching the ground. Note: You now have eight points of contact with the floor—two hands, two elbows, two knees, two feet.
Start decompression breathing. With each inhale, feel your ribs expand—you’ll feel a lifting sensation in your upper body, almost as if your back is floating up toward the ceiling. Continue pressing your palms, forearms, knees and toes into the ground as your upper back lifts. Eventually, your pelvis will follow, lifting a few inches off the ground.
Note: The eight points all stay on the ground. Allow your head to sag—keep your neck long and your chin back, and gaze at your hands. Continue decompression breathing for five to 10 breaths, then gently lower yourself back down.
Perform several of these planks a day for three to six months to elicit a major shift in your posture, pain and overall health. The exercises will activate muscle connections. Each time you practice, you are improving upon a neurological pattern. You won’t just get stronger, you’ll get better.
You can find free tutorials for each of the exercises shown in this article by searching “Foundation Training” at YouTube.com.
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