If you’ve spent any time online, you’ve likely come across countless ads promoting harrowing tales of posture correctors—those strappy contraptions you wear like a backpack, without the pack. Throw one of those around your shoulders, pull the straps, and you’ll morph from a hunched-over Quasimodo into having a back so straight, you could iron a shirt on it in no time (some even claim to fix your back woes in three days or less!).
The best part about using a posture brace? You don’t have to do any real work to reverse years of damage and bad habits. Simply cinch up. Wear uncomfortably for a few hours a day. Done!
But, could those tales be too good to be true?
Do Posture Correctors Actually Work?
Surely, posture braces must work to correct posture. After all, they’re so uncomfortable, why would anyone wear them if they didn’t (that’s the question we should be considering here)?
To answer this question and finally put it to rest, we need to understand some fundamentals to fixing a crooked frame. When it comes to undoing the damage that is at the root of unhealthy posture, there are three key things that need to happen in nearly every case (where poor posture is the result of bad habits and not medical, past trauma, genetic, etc.)—we call these fundamentals the 3Rs of posture fitness. So, knowing these processes need to take place if you want any hope of standing tall again, it’s only logical when asking if posture correctors accomplish what they claim to, to first determine whether or not they accomplish the three Rs.
If they do, great! Wearing something for a couple of weeks here and there if it fixed your posture would be a no-brainer. If not, well, they’re probably better off in someone else’s shopping cart or, better yet, tossed in the bin.
As an aside, technically speaking, when we’re talking about the posture that back and shoulder braces allegedly cure, we’re talking about the condition of poor posture known as Upper Crossed Syndrome—the condition of having your head forward, your shoulders rounded inward, and hyperkyphosis (excessive curvature) of your thoracic spine.
Now that that’s clear, let’s dig in!
Putting Posture Correctors Head to Head Against the 3Rs of Posture Fitness
In a very condensed, nutshell version, here are the three key things you need to do to correct your Dowager’s Hump and “text neck,” and how posture braces operate, comparatively:
1. Release Tight Muscles
Muscles adapt to the stresses, or lack of stresses placed on them. Put them under heavy load, and they’ll get bigger. Never use them, and they’ll break down and disappear.
As you spend time hunched over, some of them realize, in their own muscly way, that you don’t need to use their full length anymore. So, they shorten, or get tighter. Chief among these tight muscles are muscles in your chest (pectorals) and upper back (upper trapezius and levator scapulae). The problem is, as these muscles get shorter, they pull your skeleton into that all-too-familiar, forward-bending pose. Then, your spine makes some adaptations of its own and things just continue to get worse from there.
To free yourself of the mess you created, and frankly from being held a hunched-over hostage by your own body, you must release, or deeply stretch your tight muscles. Only then will you have the mobility required to comfortably be in proper alignment without having to spend every waking moment focused on what your body is doing.
Do Posture Braces Release Tight Muscles?
Kinda sorta. Posture braces do pull your shoulders back which does give your chest muscles a slight stretch. However, the stretch they provide doesn’t come anywhere close to the intensity needed to release the tightness and help them to lengthen again. On top of that (unless you’ve jerry-rigged it to go around your head), back braces do nothing to pull your head back and release wound-up neck and upper back muscles.
So, in actuality, while they may cause some mediocre stretching, they don’t release any muscles to any satisfactory degree.
2. Rebuild Weak Muscles
Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Of course, that law applies to motion, but bodies behave no differently when it comes to posture. As your chest and upper back muscles tighten over time, other muscles take up their slack, lengthening and becoming weaker. In fact, if you drew diagonal lines from your tight muscles and followed them to the opposite sides of your body, you’d find some overstretched, heavily-taxed muscles, namely those at the front of your neck (neck flexors) and mid-back (rhomboids, lower trapezius, and serratus anterior).
These muscles normally play a huge role in pulling your shoulders and head into their healthy, upright position. However, when you’re stricken crooked by Upper Crossed Syndrome, those muscles become so overburdened by being stretched constantly, they throw in the towel and let everything roll forward. If you want to stand straight again, you’ll have to rebuild your weak muscles so that they can once again do their job.
Do Posture Braces Rebuild Weak Muscles?
Corrective back braces do pull your shoulder blades together, and thereby cause muscle contraction. But, despite some claims to the contrary, this doesn’t mean they rebuild any strength you’ve lost due to your hunch. If this was the case, body builders would be ditching resistance exercises and binding up their arms in a flexed position to get massive biceps. It doesn’t work that way (unfortunately!). If anything, using a device to contract your muscles artificially could even lead to more weakness, since they would be moving less on their own.
3. Retain Your Gains
You can spend an hour or more each day getting serious about your fitness, releasing and rebuilding your problem areas, but if you’re not keeping your achievements by practicing good habits the rest of the day, you won’t see a lot of positive change over the long term. Fixing bad posture and gaining improvements you can hang on to requires a lot of effort, and not just during exercise sessions.
Do Posture Braces Retain Your Gains
Now, you’re probably thinking posture correctors ace this part of the analysis. You might say that their biggest claim to fame is that they maintain a shoulders-back position for hours at a time, and you’d be right in a way, but confused at the same time. To retain isn’t the same as to maintain. The difference is subtle, but meaningful.
To retain is to keep something for yourself—in the case of the third R, that means good habits and any solid gains you’ve earned toward a solid stature. To maintain is to take care of something so that it stays the same—in the case of posture braces, that means the crappy posture you’re trying to rid yourself of (since you’re skipping out on the critical action steps of releasing and rebuilding).
That distinction made, posture correctors, to be fair, can still earn some points here. They may provide some benefit in helping you feel what it’s like to be in better alignment and thus help you maintain that feeling, even when you’re not wearing the brace (at least, that’s the idea). Unfortunately though, without tackling the tight and weak muscle issues head on, you simply won’t be physically able to do so for more than a few minutes at at time whenever you happen to remember.
The Posture Corrector Verdict—Wear Proudly or Toss Out?
The goal of this analysis was to put posture braces up against some fundamentals of posture fitness: release, rebuild, and retain. Then, compare how they address helping the wearer accomplish those things, if at all. To be effective posture correction devices, braces should score highly for each of the three Rs. Not two out of three. Not one. And, certainly not zero!
Posture “correctors” may stretch chest muscles lightly, but they don’t release them as needed to allow for greater mobility, and they don’t do anything for the neck or upper back. They definitely don’t rebuild the muscles that need more strength to pull your skeleton straight again. If anything, they could actually make your lower back muscles weaker. Lastly, braces don’t retain any gains because they don’t help you make any in the first place.
At best, they may help you to feel what it’s like to keep your shoulders back for an extended period of time and they probably help unwitting users feel good because they believe that they’re actually doing something to promote good posture health (ignorance might be bliss, but it’s not going to do anything to alleviate your postural pain or help you look better in the mirror).
In short, the verdict is clear. Sadly, posture braces are not a worthwhile investment and would probably serve you better as a foot warmer or your dog’s chew toy. Your best bet, as is usually the case, is to buckle down and put in some work to improve yourself. It’s not as easy as wearing a contraption, but correcting poor posture shouldn’t be difficult either!