Coach and movement therapist Vanessa Leone looks at how you can easily and quickly use posture and postural cues to impact the success of your training sessions, and your business.
As trainers, coaches, and instructors we know the importance of cueing, correcting, and teaching great posture during movement. However, many of us don’t delve any further into postural cues and the stories they can tell us. We don’t realise that our posture can literally shape our physiology – and that of our clients. We probably also neglect to consider the powerful role that posture can play in the success of our businesses.
If you haven’t seen Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on posture, it’s a great place to start your learning. This talk kicked off an array of studies on the intricate link between mood and posture. Many of us are aware that mood affects our posture almost instantaneously: anger, frustration, joy, and shock can all impact our stance in a split second. When we experience a sudden win, it’s chest up, open stance, maybe even arms thrown high and wide in celebration. A loss, on the other hand, will see slumped shoulders, deflated chest and head in the hands.
If you were asked to assume the posture of grief and sadness, you would know how to move your body to demonstrate this without experiencing those feelings. The question scientists are now looking to answer is, does it work the other way around? If you were to assume a posture associated with sadness – hunched shoulders, closed chest position and downward gaze – for an extended period, could you ‘trick’ your brain into feeling sad? There is a growing body of evidence to suggest this is highly probable.
If we investigate the science of mood, posture and emotion we can see how complex and interconnected they are. Emotions are not only associated with a ‘posture’ but also with the release of one or several hormones. Therefore, we never experience just the psychological ‘feeling’ of the emotion – we also experience that emotion in a very physical way.
Hormones can speed up heart rate and increase blood pressure, they can vasodilate or constrict and can change how the body uses insulin. Hormones are the slower and stronger messengers in the body and can dramatically impact every aspect of our health and wellness. By understanding a little of the scientific mechanisms behind posture, we can begin to understand how even a subtly negative change in position can start a chain reaction that results in significant consequences.
Armed with these insights, the first place all fitness professionals want to start is, naturally, with their clients. We know that exercise has the power to transform someone’s mood, but that takes time. What happens in the first five to 20 minutes of your session or class when your client is still highly stressed from work? What happens to their body during your high intensity class if their entire body is tense from anxiousness?
One of the many reasons clinicians use yoga alongside other therapeutic modalities is that during the initial part of the class, the instructor calls attention to participants’ feelings and emotional state, and tries to alter that state before movement commences. This has profound physiological, mechanical and emotional impacts for the participant.
The first step to changing your mood is acknowledging what it is you are currently feeling. After you have accepted this, breathwork is then used to either bring energy to the body by focusing on the inhale, or to downregulate the body and nervous system by focusing on the exhale.
During most conventional fitness practices, the warm up (if one is done at all) focuses solely on the body and rarely acknowledges how the participant is feeling. Whether you are a personal trainer, group fitness instructor or coach, I believe there is great benefit to be derived from attending some yoga classes. By doing so, you will be able to pay close attention to how instructors draw a connecting line between the mind and the body, and experience how this focus makes you feel. For some it may be positive, and for others it may heighten negative feelings. The point of the experiment is to find a language that is authentic to you, that you can adopt when working with clients to get them into ‘the mood’ or the correct posture to begin exercising.
Breath and body positions are best friends here. To increase strength, energy, vitality and intensity, focus on big, open postures that fully utilise the limbs. Instruct your clients to breathe in for slightly longer than they breathe out, in order to saturate the body with oxygen.
In classes, I am a big fan of having a warm up ritual. I repeat the same postures, movements and breathwork, depending on the class, and I allow time for my participants to ‘switch on’ to being in class. For my 1:1 clients, I do a quick assessment of their posture; how did they walk in, what does their voice sound like, do they look energised or deflated? This assessment can also include questions about their day or week, and how they feel. From there, I adjust the ritual based on what I have learnt. I can personalise the warm up to allow for bigger movements that will energise, or keep them on the floor and in smaller, safer positions to calm them down.
This simple approach to addressing your clients’ moods and posture before you begin can dramatically change how they feel, how much they trust you and the efficacy of your programming. Your fitness business is built on these very pillars and if you can draw your client’s attention to how good you can make them feel in the short term, as well as the long term, you will keep them for years. If you can allow your clients to feel emotionally and physically safe in your space, they will advocate for you and your business.
Knowing the benefits of working to positively impact posture and mood with our clients is one thing, but we can – and should – also use the same principles for ourselves.
A stressed coach, a bored instructor or a tired trainer can bring down the energy of a session very quickly. Your class and clients will mirror you subconsciously because you are leading them. How do you physically and mentally show up for your sessions? While we cannot have high energy for every minute of every session we do, we can use specific techniques to put us in the right frame of mind for teaching. The changes in posture that you can utilise to ‘trick’ your brain into changing your energy are incredibly powerful and only take several minutes to come into effect. The best way to integrate these for your clients and members is to start practicing yourself – so here we go!
I call this the ‘Need more energy without caffeine’ posture. It’s all about lifting your chin, opening your chest, and occupying space with your limbs. Think Wonder Woman with hands on hips, Usain Bolt finishing his race or the Power Rangers before a battle.
Take longer inhales for two minutes and either stand in these big poses or use your movements to occupy as much space as possible. Keep your gaze up and forward and drop your shoulders away from your ears. I personally use a Ballet/Cancan dancer high kick for that last burst of energy, but we all have our own unique flair!
I like to call this stance ‘I’ve had too much coffee and need to calm down’ posture. This is a little more tricky than the ‘energising’ posture, because we don’t want to confuse the brain and put it into a state of anxiety or sadness.
Keep your shoulders down and back, and your chin lifted, but reduce the amount of space you are taking up. Sitting cross legged on the floor or upright in a chair can be useful here. An alternative option is to lie on your back, with your eyes open doing some gentle hip openers or light stretches.
If you really need to calm down, use a longer exhale, although there is a risk that this may become too relaxing and cause you to feel a little sleepy, which may not be useful before teaching, or undertaking, a session. I personally find an even inhale-to-exhale ratio very helpful, with a small pause between each.
Avoiding postures that negatively impact us is probably the biggest challenge that most of us, including our clients, face. The problem with our continual engagement with our phones and, for many people, constant sitting is that it’s all too easy to adopt a forward head, slumped position. This position mimics sadness, anxiousness and depression. We are literally deflating ourselves every time we slump on the couch or the chair between sessions and classes and dive onto our phones.
It’s unlikely that many of us would be able to significantly reduce the amount of time we spend on our devices, but we can be mindful of how much of our work time we occupy in these ‘negative’ positions. This awareness can enable us to dramatically change our energy throughout our working day. A happy, engaged, and present PT, coach or instructor is there for their clients, participants and members. How we show up to our sessions is the first step in creating trust, and in creating a safe space.
If we can minimise our time in negative postures and start to utilise some postural changes throughout our lives and our sessions, we can see a big shift. A shift in energy and mood, as well as a decrease in pain and an increased sense of contentment. To underestimate the power of the body-mind connection is to dismiss how much our motion is linked to emotion and vice versa.
As trainers, we know that exercise makes us happier. By also focusing on posture and mood, we can further increase this benefit, and positively impact both our own lives, and the lives of those we teach and train.
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