Back on track

The spine is the fitness industry’s latest obsession. If you want to train safely, start with your posture

WHENEVER you go for a run, hit the gym for a hard session or play a game of squash, you probably feel pretty pleased with yourself, and think you have done your body a power of good. Not necessarily. If your running is wonky or your weightlifting one-sided, you might just be adding to the imbalance of your body. So if you want to get your training right, the experts now say you must start with your spine.

Posture, alignment and biomechanics have become the biggest buzzwords of the fitness industry, and it’s hardly surprising when most of us sit at desks or hunched over phones all day, then tip up at the physio complaining of tight shoulders, stiff necks, hamstring injuries, tight hips and lower-back pain. Even models can’t stand up straight, with slouchers seen on the catwalks of Acne, Sacai and even Prada in the recent SS16 shows. “The chair is our problem,” says Oliver Patrick, director of the health and wellbeing clinic Viavi. “You become wasted, because you hand over all the support of your body to the chair.”

I have come to see Patrick for a spinal analysis. It’s the first step he takes with every client to determine how they should proceed with a fitness programme. “I see people who train a lot but who are not fit because their spine is not functioning optimally. Having better control over the spine makes you stronger, whether you’re looking to eliminate aches and pains or achieve a 10km run in under 45 minutes.”

Patrick is not alone in this philosophy. Top trainers are subscribing to what he describes as the need to “stabilise before you mobilise”. Ivana Daniell, a posture expert who works with Prince Andrew and the Duchess of York, has been espousing the benefits of posture-led training for years, but has noticed a huge shift in the fitness industry towards her way of thinking. “People must have a postural analysis before they embark on a physical programme,” she says. “Some 80% of the injuries I treat have come from incorrect exercise programmes, because people are not doing the right activity for them.”

Tristan Pearce, a physiotherapist at the London-wide health and fitness studio Ten, agrees. “In every exercise, if you don’t start from a good postural position, you won’t achieve optimum strength, you may use the wrong muscles and, eventually, something in your body will give.” Pearce films clients doing their chosen activity — whether running, squatting or deadlifting — to show them where they are going wrong. He has noticed that personal trainers want to apply some of his physiotherapy methods with their clients. “There’s so much emphasis now on posture and spinal positioning, it would be neglectful for personal trainers not to have some knowledge,” he says. Indeed, up and down the country personal trainers are being offered courses in how to make postural assessments and adapt fitness programmes accordingly.

Spinal analysis is key to the approach of the celebrity personal trainer Dalton Wong, who has worked with stars including Jennifer Lawrence and Amanda Seyfried. At his fitness studio, Twenty Two Training, in London, all new clients start with a spinal analysis to measure the angles of the spine while still, and test the function while moving, in order to develop a personalised training programme and to improve posture.

“It is such a hot topic due to our sedentary and high-tech lifestyle. We spend more time working than we do moving, so we’re trying to find a solution to counter the decline in good posture,” Wong says. “It is important to know what postural issues you have before embarking on a training programme. Bad technique, wrongly selected weights or simply overloading an already tight and weak system can cause serious injury.”

Back at Viavi, Patrick runs a roller down my spine to create a digital picture of its function on a screen. I already know I have a scoliosis, but Patrick isn’t looking for this. He wants to know how my spine is operating while I stand, bend forward and have to stabilise under pressure, holding dumbbells. He says that “test results make the problems real, which motivates clients”.

In a standing and weight-bearing position, happily, things look pretty good for me (thanks to yoga, no doubt), but certainly when I see how immobile parts of my spine are in a forward bend, I’m shocked.

His first suggestion is Pilates, the activity most frequently prescribed for core strengthening and correcting alignment. He also wants me to add a daily stretch of my stiff thoracic spine (upper back) to my routine. And under no circumstances should I be lifting any weights in a bent-forward position, as this would put strain on a few overloaded discs.

Patrick doesn’t want to overwhelm me with too many changes, though. “If they’re unachievable, you won’t do them and you won’t improve — you’ll just feel guilty.”

Fine by me. I don’t mind being let off going to the gym to lift weights. After all, it’s for the good of my spine.