The Myth of Recovery Posture – Your Coach Taught You Wrong

If you ever played a sport growing up, chances are you heard a coach yell, “Get your hands off your knees!” while you and your teammates were gasping for air.

Said coach would then insist you put your hands on your hips or on top of your head, instead. Their reasoning was that one, standing tall allowed their team to open their lungs and take in more oxygen, and two, bending over is a sign of weakness to be avoided at all costs.

The funny thing about this is that a recent study found bending over to be the superior recovery posture compared to the classic “hands on the head” pose.


The study (Michaelson et. al, 2019) compared two postures (“hands on knees” vs. “hands on head”) to see how they impacted athletes’ recovery from high-intensity interval training.

The study found that the “hand on knees” posture resulted in superior heart rate recovery and greater tidal volume (the amount of air inhaled into the lungs with each breath) compared to the “hands on head” posture.

How could this possibly be? After all, doesn’t having your hands on your head “open up your lungs” while bending over close them off?

Not quite. The problem with the hands on the head posture is that it flares your ribcage upwards, extends your back, and closes off your posterior ribcage so it cannot effectively expand during inhalation. The posterior ribcage actually contains a large volume of your lung tissue, so closing it off is far from ideal. This inhibits the diaphragm, the primary muscle of inhalation, from working effectively. To overcome this, many of your back and neck muscles will try to make up for the lack of diaphragm function during inhalation.

This is a textbook example of inefficient breathing.

A more optimal position would be to place your hands on your knees and look slightly upwards. Unfortunately, the athlete in the above photo from the study is looking down instead of up, but is she were looking up, she’d be in a more efficient position for her airway, as the cervical extension would allow proper airflow into her lungs.

There’s a reason your body naturally gravitates to the “hands on your knees” position when you’re absolutely gassed during a workout. When you’re really tired, your body will want to bend over and put your hands on your knees. The body knows best when it comes to these things, so why fight it? With your hand on your knees, your lungs are allowed to fill with a greater volume of air. This in turn supplies more oxygen to the working tissue so you can more quickly clear the oxygen debt you’ve accumulated through exercise. Your oxygen debt is essentially the specific amount of oxygen you need to recover when fatigued post-activity.

Why You Must Reach During Exercise

Why You Must Reach During Exercise

Reaching is one of the most important activities to have in any exercise program.

There, I said it. Let me tell you why.

Plenty of programs have bench press, often times at high volumes. They’re constantly doing upper body pressing and pulling exercises to stimulate hypertrophy and/or strength adaptations.

A common idea is that if you balance out the amount of pressing and pulling exercises you do, your shoulders will be healthy.

But does that actually work? How many people still get nagging shoulders despite thinking they exercise properly?

A lot.

The answer is not more pulling. The answer is not “shoulder stabilization” exercises.

The answer is maintaining a scapula that moves freely on a ribcage in a healthy and productive manner.

Image result for scapula on rib cage

Notice that there is a normal degree of thoracic flexion in a normal human spinal curve.

A scapula is a concave (rounded) bone that needs to sit on a convex (pushing out) thoracic ribcage. Pulling the shoulder blades back & down, extending the lumbar spine, and elevating the anterior ribcage does not allow for optimal shoulder-scapula mechanics.

Image result for cable row

But this is often how individuals perform upper body pulling exercises.


Reaching is immensely important for shoulder health. Proper reaching involves the following:

  • Retraction of the posterior ribcage + Forwardly reaching arms – Activation of the serratus anterior
  • Depressed and internally rotated anterior ribcage – Activation of the obliques
  • Dorsiflexion of the ankles – Facilitation of flexion and ribcage retraction
  • Proper respiration to maintain all of the above

The serratus and oblique muscles are often weak and under-utilized in nearly all trainees that don’t actively train them properly. The result is a scapula that cannot move properly on a ribcage. It’s a ticking time bomb.

You can do all the “rotator cuff” stabilization exercises you want. They won’t do anything significant if your ribcage isn’t working well with your scapula in the first place.

If we can achieve a good reaching position, we can restore a healthy and necessary Zone of Apposition:


There are many ways to add reaching. You can have individual exercises that target reaching specifically (a good place to start), and once you understand the above principles of good reaching, you can add it to many exercises.

It’s essential that breathing is the top priority of these exercises. Ensure that you are inhaling through your nose (feeling the ribcage expand 360 degrees) and exhaling through your mouth fully to ensure activation of the obliques.

Once you feel your obliques turn on, keep that abdominal compression and keep breathing slowly. Air will follow the path of least resistance. Obliques that are “on” causes air to go backwards into the posterior ribcage, facilitating good thoracic flexion and a Zone of Apposition.

Here is one exercise I like to start people with to teach them how to reach:

neck pain and headache relief

1. Stand facing away from a door, and place your heels 7-10 inches from the wall.

2. Stand up straight with a ball between your knees and feet shoulder width apart.

3. Bring your arms out in front of you as you round out your back, performing a pelvic tilt so your lower back (mid-back and down) is flat on the wall.

4. Squat down slightly as you squeeze the ball.

5. Keeping your lower back flat on the wall, inhale through your nose.

6. As you exhale through your mouth, reach your arms forward and down so your upper back comes off the wall (your lower back should stay flat on the wall).

7. Hold your arms steadily in this position (reach), as you inhale through your nose again and expand your upper back. You should feel a stretch in your upper back.

8. Exhale and reach further forward. You should feel the muscles on the front of your thighs and outer abdominals engage.

9. Repeat this breathing sequence for a total of 4-5 deep breaths, in through your nose and out through your mouth.

10. Slowly stand up by pushing through your heels, keeping your lower back flat on the wall.

11. Relax and repeat 4 more times.

And here is an example of how you can add a reach to just a basic side plank. It’s so easy and beneficial that  it doesn’t make sense NOT to add it!