NBA star Dwight Howard has worn one, so hasPeyton Manning. Major league pitchers have worn them. NBA player Eric Gordon of the New Orleans Pelicans was wearing one last Monday when he returned from a 21-game layoff with a torn labrum.
It's a "Posture Shirt," made by a company called Alignmed, and its job is to help keep the wearer's shoulders properly positioned, a key to reducing fatigue.
HOW IT WORKS
Posture shirts do basically the same work as kinesio tape — the black strips seen pulling Olympians' shoulders and backs into place on the volleyball court. Unlike the tape, there's no precise spots or application — just put the shirt on. Variable stretch sections in the back of the shirt — the company calls them "neurobands" — work on the postural muscles in the upper body, including stimulating the muscles to hold your shoulder blades pressed against your rib cage.
When the shoulder blade begins to pull away from the rib cage due to fatigue, the socket in which the shoulder rotates isn't set up right — the arm angle changes, which reduces the accuracy and power of throws while also increasing risk for injury. With the shirt on, the stretch bands encourage the shoulders to return to the correct position.
While use of the shirts by professional athletes is on the rise, people who sit at a desk all day and use a computer are actually the ideal customer, says Craig Morgan, an orthopedic surgeon in Wilmington, Del., and a doctor for the Kansas City Royals. "That's probably 30% of America."
The garment "takes the place of Mom yelling at you about your posture," says Tom House, a former major league pitcher and a coach at USC who works with NFL quarterbacks and professional baseball players.
Morgan says Royals pitcher Greg Holland "wears it every game." Holland saved 46 games in 2014, posting a 1.44 ERA. One year at spring training, Morgan dropped off Alignmed garments for Royals players to try. "It's my understanding that he put one on, and he's never taken it off."
Morgan says he uses the shirt to rehab pitchers in the Royals organization who have strength issues associated with control of their shoulder blade – an issue that, when fatigued, can cause changes in a pitcher's arm angle that lead to a drop in velocity and accuracy. He said he partially credits its use with the team's low injury numbers among pitchers. In 2014, only one Royals pitcher, Tim Collins, spent time on the disabled list with an elbow- or shoulder-related injury. And he's been able to use the shirt to maintain velocity and control where, in the past, surgery might have been needed.
"Noel Arguelles was a Cuban defector who was signed three years ago by the Royals for $7 million," Morgan says. "He shows up at (Wilmington, N.C., the Royals' high-A affiliate), and his first two starts were spectacular. His third start … in the third inning, all of a sudden, this guy can't throw a strike, and he's lost 10 mph on his fastball."
In previous experiences, Arguelles' problem – weakness of muscles around the shoulder blade – would take Morgan about three months to rehab. By using the posture shirt, Arguelles recovered faster and pitched a complete game shutout just two weeks later.
A PRESCRIPTION SHIRT?
Professional athletes tend to talk up any product they feel helps them play better, even if it invites skepticism — energy necklaces, pressure point bracelets, copper-infused elbow sleeves.
And it's not as if Alignmed garments aren't readily available — they sell for $80 and up from the company's website. So why aren't the shirts better known among the general public?
Morgan says athletes, noting that the shirts' stretchy bands have a level of compression, may be reluctant to be too public about using them, lest they run afoul ofUnderArmour, Nike or other major sponsors who also manufacture compression garments.
The makers of Alignmed say they don't want to compete with the likes of Under Armour. Though both types of garments feature compression, CEO Bill Schultz says the Alignmed shirts are medical devices and have been classified as such by theAmerican Medical Association. The highest-level and most sophisticated shirt in the Alignmed line can be obtained with a prescription, and as such, the shirts have been subjected to medical studies by sports scientists as well as physical therapists and medical schools.
In one study of college and high school pitchers, Morgan found that pitchers' accuracy can be maintained for 20 percent longer when wearing an Alignmed shirt. In another study at USC, House found an increase in accuracy among pitchers who wore the posture shirt. Morgan and House are both medical advisers to the company.
Eric Cressey, the owner of Cressey Performance in Jupiter, Florida, is a baseball training specialist who works with Major League pitchers including reigning AL Cy Young winner Corey Kluber. "(With pitchers,) you have to be careful about anything that's 'one-size-fits-all,' " Cressey says.
He acknowledges a posture shirt could be good for certain pitchers with certain shoulder problems, but he thinks it's more useful for the regular office worker.
"If you were going to generalize and say, 'You need this,' I'd say it'd be for them … they have a lot of utility in the general population who spend too much time sitting at a computer."
Studies back up Cressey's opinion. In a four-week study of office workers conducted at the Utilities Center for the city of Colorado Springs, those wearing the Alignmed shirt decreased their overall fatigue by 21 to 29 percent, and increased productivity by as much as 20 percent.
"If you're sitting at a desk, working at a computer, that's going to create a compensation that creates postural dysfunction," says Gary Vitti, athletic trainer for theLos Angeles Lakers. "If you're an airline pilot, if you drive a truck, if you sit in a car a lot, whatever it is … a garment like this can help you."
It also can be tiring. Posture shirts not only squeeze the wearer, the stretch bands encourage use of muscles that a person may "cheat around" if poor posture is a habit.
The reason may be as simple as time. Posture exercises or workouts attempt to overcome eight hours of poor, desk-bound posture with 10 minutes of correction – a balance that, without fixing the posture problem, is virtually impossible to overcome.
The shirt evens out the clock by stimulating the muscles to practice proper position throughout the day, as House says, "reminding" your body of the neutral position "to start any movement," an optimal position that will increase power and reduce injury risk.
That means, Vitti says, that when worn while training – whether for the NBA or for a half-marathon or just to look better – the shirt can improve most of the exercises you do, because you're training them in the position that's ideal for those exercises.
Vitti wears a posture shirt garment while running and lifting weights, when trainers and other coaches aren't there to correct his position.
So while it's great for training the Lakers and other pros, Vitti says, if athletes can get such benefits "as easily as wearing the correct garment, why wouldn't everyone want to do that?"