Have you ever found yourself sitting—whether it’s working, eating, reading, or lounging—and stopped what you were doing to consider just how horrible your posture is? Please, I know I’m not the only one. Nowadays, chair pillows, slouch-correcting sports bras, and posture-training tech devices exist to help teach people how to pull their shoulders back and sit up straight. But having to invest in these tools can quickly take a toll on one’s wallet. Thankfully, posture exercises, like the ones that target your erector spinae (or deep back muscles) are entirely free.
The erector spinae are a group of rope-like muscles that run up and down the sides of your spine. They’re largely responsible for stabilizing the back and allowing us to freely rotate, bend, and extend. According to Deidre Douglas, EdD, a Les Mills US presenter and instructor, it’s this column of muscles that plays such a vital role in good posture.
So, the next time you find yourself contemplating your rounded shoulders or the not-so-subtle buffalo hump at the base of your neck and want to do something about it, take a moment to strengthen your deep core stabilizers with some of Dr. Douglas’s top-five erector spinae exercises below.
But first: Why it’s important to strengthen the erector spinae
By now you know the basics: The erector spinae plays an integral role in good posture. But here’s why. “Poor posture causes these muscles to become weakened thus limiting the support when standing and sitting,” Dr. Douglas says. “Soreness and pain can present themselves when these deep core muscles are inactive, strained, or immobile for extended periods of time.”
5 exercises for strengthening the erector spinae
1. Bird dog
Although this move is normally thought of as an abs exercise, your back will thank you, too. Begin on all fours in the tabletop position, with your knees under your hips and your hands under your shoulders. While maintaining a neutral spine—this means a natural curve in your lower and upper back—raise your right arm and left leg into the air stretching them long and keeping your shoulders and hips parallel to the floor. Lengthen the back of your neck and tuck your chin slightly to gaze down at the floor. Hold there for a few seconds, remembering to breathe in the process. Then, lower back down to all fours, and repeat on the other side. Dr. Douglas suggests alternating between sides for two to three sets of eight to 12 reps for the most relief.
I for one never look forward to this exercise, but according to Dr. Douglas, it’s an important movement to master for the well-being of your erector spinae and posture at large. Lie face down on the floor with your legs straight and arms stretched forward resting on the floor. In a smooth and slow motion, raise both arms and legs a few inches off the floor. “Use your back muscles, not your leg and arm muscles, to do the work,” Dr. Douglas says. Hold there for a few seconds then lower back to the ground. Repeat the movement for eight to 12 reps.
3. Seated good morning
You don’t even have to stand up to do a lot of good for your erector spinae. Sit on a bench or chair with your hands behind your head, fingers interlaced, and elbows wide. Draw your bellybutton toward your spine to engage your core, and then slowly hinge at the hips to lower your upper body toward the floor until parallel—take care not to roll your shoulders forward and keep your chin slightly tucked but not resting on your chest. Stick your butt our to keep the natural curve in your lower back as you lower the upper body. Pause there for a few seconds then slowly return to your starting position. “Repeat two to three sets of eight to 12 reps,” Dr. Douglas says.
4. Child’s pose
(Find a demo at 5:40)
Sure, child’s pose is a relaxing yoga posture to fold back into when a vinyasa flow gets a bit too intense, but it’s also a mobilizing movement for the erector spinae. Start on all fours, then walk your palms forward of your shoulders. Keep your arms straight as you open your knees wide, press your hips back, and sit your butt onto your heels while lowering your chest toward the floor. From there, relax your shoulders toward the ground and aim to touch your forehead to the floor. “Rest in the pose for as long as needed,” Dr. Douglas says, noting that 45 to 90 seconds is typically a sweet spot. “Repeat as needed for relief,” she adds.
5. Seated child’s pose
Looking for a movement you can do while still sitting at your desk? Dr. Douglas says seated child’s pose is a great option for strengthening (and relieving) the erector spinae. “Sit on a chair or bench with your knees and feet hip-width apart or slightly wider,” she says. “Lower your torso and forehead between your knees. Extend your arms toward the floor between your feet or alongside your legs with your hands relaxed on the floor or thighs.” Relax there until you feel relief. Again, 45 to 90 seconds typically does the trick.
One more thing
“The erector spinae muscles work hard in our day-to-day lives to simply help hold us upright,” Dr. Douglas says. “Since so many of us spend long periods of time sitting and hunching forward, these muscles can become weak. It’s important to strengthen these core muscles to help keep them in tip-top shape so we can bend and move around freely in our day to day activities.”