One of the first foundation skills that I teach at Professional Voice Care Center in Voice Session 1 or Singing Lesson 1 is posture and alignment. As soon as I present this concept in our sessions, people look at me, sometimes with confusion, like “Why posture?”, with abject fear (“I have to sit up straight?”), or with indignation (“But I am sitting up straight!” P.S.: You’re not.). But like it or not, good posture is essential for a good voice…and for so much more.
So, what’s all the buzz about posture being good for you? Let’s put it this way: posture helps EVERYTHING: breathing, pain management, digestion, preventing headaches, promoting good sleep….and, yes, good posture happens to help your voice. But let’s first make a case for the non-vocal benefits of good posture….and scare you a little about what might happen if you DON’T use good posture.
For instance, according to the article 9 Ways Posture Affects Your Health That Might Surprise You by Kyli Rodriguez-Cayro, we learn that good posture can greatly improve your energy level and enable you to remain more active while limiting pain and alignment-related injuries. Your diaphragm (the “breathing muscle”) will be in optimal position for breathing. Good posture can even help with self-confidence! (Remember that the next time you walk into an audition or job interview). The article gives some great examples of stretches and concepts that you can make use of throughout the day to release tension from the muscles and get out of your sitting slump, including the 20/20/20 rule: every 20 minutes stand up to stretch and look 20 feet away for 20 seconds. The 20/20/20 rule is good for relieving sitting-in-front-of-the-computer eye strain as well. Proper head/neck alignment can also help to prevent cervicogenic headaches.
Here’s something all of you chronically tired people need to read. According to Christina Ciccione, P.T., DPT, Clinical Director of Professional Physical Therapy in Baldwin, NY, poor posture can make you feel more fatigued than usual, because the body must work harder to keep you upright. This causes us to expend more energy, leaving us fatigued. And fatigue affects voice quality, breath support, vocal pitch, etc.
Poor posture can also hinder digestion, and lead to such maladies as acid reflux and heartburn, as the organs in our abdomen are compressed by our slumping. Poor habits of posture can lead to numbness or tingling in the extremities, increased mental and physical stress, and lead to joint problems including arthritis. (Our bones and joints need to be in good alignment so that our muscles are used correctly, to prevent excessive wear and tear of the joint surfaces).
But what about posture’s effect on voice production? As Thila Raja, SLP points out, when the head is pushed forward, the neck and throat muscles stiffen. The larynx (the voice box) is not free to move as it should, adversely affecting vocal function. I usually explain it like this: if your posture muscles in your legs and back are not doing their job of holding you up against gravity, the smaller, more delicate muscles in your neck, tongue, jaw, and around your larynx will tense instead. That can lead to neck pain, jaw issues, vocal tension, and increased vocal effort. Stiff neck muscles and tense TMJ (jaw-hinge) joints are closely related too, according to Raja. Remember that, the next time you’re slouching in front of your laptop, leaning your jaw on your hand and craning your neck forward. When I demonstrate this position to my clients, I sometimes experience a back-of-neck spasm. And if you don’t believe that this position causes vocal tension, just try singing or speaking with your head craned forward, shoulders rounded, and chest dropped. Now straighten up and see how much easier it is to produce a good-quality relaxed voice.
According to a 2006 report by the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, slumped posture produced the worst lung capacity and expiratory flow of any postural position tested. This study is discussed on the Iowa Chiropractic and Sports Injuries Clinic website, where they make some helpful suggestions for improving and maintaining good posture. These include: get a good mattress, maintain normal weight, get regular exercise and stay flexible, use the proper height chair at work, and get your vision checked (I’ve been guilty of sticking my neck out or hunching over to see tiny print!).
Recently, a rather scary article came out in the Washington Post, citing a 2018 study in Scientific Reports that young people were “growing horns” (bone spurs actually) out of the base of their skulls from hunching over their smartphones and tablets. (You’ve heard of text-neck or tech-neck, right? That’s the position they’re referring to). Experts were somewhat skeptical over these findings, as the study’s authors may have had some conflicts of interest. However, the truth is that people who sit with their necks chronically craned forward can develop arthritic changes, disc degeneration, neck tension/stiffness, pain, and headaches. And they weren’t even looking at voice problems!
The good news: these bad habits of posture are fixable! We can all learn to improve our posture and alignment, and awareness is half the battle. So here’s how to get started on your quest to build healthy posture habits:
The 3 Easy Rules of Posture
Let me start this section by saying that the 3 Easy Rules of Posture are simple to learn, but for some, they’re difficult to make habitual. Not only are we training posture muscles, we’re also training the big “muscle” between the ears…your BRAIN! As they say, old habits die hard. But just remember how many benefits you’ll get from improving your posture. So here we go with the 3 Easy Rules for seated posture (which in my opinion is harder than standing posture…we’ll get to that in a bit).
RULE #1 – Shoulders and Hips
Your shoulders should be in a straight line directly over your hip bones.
Avoid slumped posture, where your shoulders would be in front of your hips.
Also avoid the reclined posture (my favorite, by the way 😊), where your shoulders would be behind your hips. Both of these would put detrimental drag or pull on the muscles around your larynx and potentially create more vocal strain.
RULE #2 – Chest Up
For the second rule, your chest should be up high. Imagine a cable attached to your sternum (i.e., breastbone) and hooked up to the ceiling. And this is the kind of cable that holds up a suspension bridge: it’s strong and it doesn’t stretch, so no fair slouching.
RULE #3 – Chin Tuck
For the third rule, think of a turtle’s head. We don’t want it poking forward out of the shell.
We want our head position to resemble the turtle pulling his head back into the shell (just not all the way!). Your chin will be positioned closer to your neck, without being squished into it. Another way to achieve the correct head position for optimal voice: if you were gazing out to the horizon, look about 5 degrees below the horizon, and there’s your chin tuck.
As for standing posture (I told you I’d get to that 😉), Rules #2 and #3 are the same as with sitting posture. With Rule #1, your shoulders, hips, and feet should be lined up in a straight line, knees slightly bent (or what we call “soft” knees). That leaves out the “feet together” posture, the “feet wide apart” posture, the “feet crossed” posture (seemingly an epidemic here on Long Island!), and the “leaning on one hip” posture that we often catch ourselves doing. The shoulders-hips-feet rule is the best one for the speaking and singing voice.
Or if you can’t remember all that, try…
The Breastbone to Belly Button Rule of Posture
Here’s a quick rule of thumb…and pinkie….to help you improve your posture, and it’s easy to remember. It’s difficult to take a full breath with your chest sitting on your abdomen and your “innards” compressed. If you can lengthen your torso, you can improve posture and breathing. Here’s how we teach it at Professional Voice Care Center:
Position your hand so that your thumb points upward and your pinkie points downward. Extend your hand open so that the thumb and pinkie are as far apart as they can be.
Next, place your thumb at the bottom end of your sternum (your “breastbone”), and your pinkie should touch your belly button. With your hand spread out fully, your torso should be extended and upright.
Now, watch what happens if you slouch. Notice in the photo below that the fingers are no longer extended. Your posture is now compromised; your breathing and voice will suffer.
The Breastbone to Belly Button technique is an easy technique to use anytime you want to check or correct your posture.
By the way, just in case anyone questions whether bad habits of posture cause pain and dysfunction in our musculoskeletal systems, I am typing this while sitting in a tiny domestic airport in Iceland, waiting out a weather delay. I went from perching the laptop on my knees, to finally finding a vacant table next to a socket. Even so, while sticking my neck out and not being able to get my hips under my shoulders, I’m getting a doozy of a neck and backache!
So, let’s learn a few techniques to release muscle tension and get into better posture and alignment. Without getting into a slew of highly technical posture exercises, let me give you a few of the easy stretches we do in our center. (Please Note: these exercises do not take the place of advice or techniques from your physician, physical therapist, or other qualified physical health expert. If you have severe musculoskeletal issues, seek the advice of your treating health professional before beginning any stretching or exercise program).
The Eagle Stretch for Collapsed Chest
With your chin tucked in and down slightly, put your bent arms out to the side in the shape of a big “W”, hands pointing upward. Pull the elbows back toward your body, like the wings of an eagle when he dives, as if you could begin to touch your shoulder blades together (not that far, though) and pull the elbows down slightly. DO NOT hunch your shoulders up. Feel the stretch in the “pecs”. Hold for 5 seconds, then release. Repeat as often as needed.
The Climbing Stretch for the Spine and Ribcage
Extend your arms upwards alternately, like you’re climbing a very large ladder. Feel the stretch in your spine and between your ribs.
The 3-Answers Neck Stretch
Gently, and without going to the extreme, stretch your neck up (not all the way back!) and down (like saying “yes”), right and left (like saying “no”), and tilted with ear toward alternating shoulders, (like saying “maybe”). Feel the stretch in your neck muscles.
The Neck Resistance Exercise
Clasp your hands behind your head near the base of your skull. While maintaining a slight chin tuck, press your head back against your clasped hands. Hold for a few seconds. When you release, you’ll feel as if your head floats into the correct position.
Here’s a helpful article with suggestions for sitting, standing, and sleeping alignment.
And this article has 5 easy and effective exercises to correct forward head and text-neck, as well as a really informative video. (For instance, did you know that the average head weighs 10-14 lbs.? And for every inch forward that head is moved, it’s like creating an additional 10 lbs. of weight stressing your neck and back muscles, ligaments, and joints of your spine, forcing them to work that much harder to hold your head up. Whew! That’s too much work for my neck!).
Plan on incorporating any of the exercises presented in these articles, video, or this blog every day, because posture IS that important. And remember, good posture isn’t just important for voice, it’s important for LIFE! And speaking of “good for life”, here’s the position I often like to be in…cuddling with my Buddy and Zara!
Wishing you great posture, relaxed pain-free muscles…and the Choice Voice you’ve always wanted!