The Perfect Posture

Chances are we all have an idea in our minds of what constitutes good posture. And, chances are, many of those ideas are rooted in some solid thinking: head in line with the rest of the body, shoulders back and down, chest up, spine in a tall/neutral position, neutral pelvic tilt.

We often think of posture in relatively static terms, as a sort of frozen and unchanging position of various joints of the body.

That’s just my posture…followed by cues to straighten your spine and roll your shoulders back.

And that may be where the problems begin…or where they are at least compounded, because ideally, posture isn’t something you have to think about.

Moreover, posture isn’t actually static and unchanging.

But before we dive into all that, let’s take a moment to explore (to a limited degree) the way we think about posture. I think it might serve us well to give our ideas about posture—and how to improve it—a bit of a rethink.

Rethinking Posture

First, as I mentioned above, we tend to think of posture in relatively static terms. This is my posture…which you may or may not wish to change/improve…for reasons that will be fun to explore and question a bit later.

It’s the static part of our thinking here that deserves some examination.

Posture might be better to think of as a constantly changing thing…or at least a thing that can change over time… because posture is a reflection of all of your movement (or non-movement) variations throughout your day/life.

Limited movement variability throughout your day will be reflected in your posture.

Dr. Stuart McGill has often said “The best posture is the next one”.

We could also think of posture as a muscular and fascial ‘habit’: it’s a product of the relative length and tension in the muscles and fascia that make up your body. What determines the length and tension of your muscles and fascia is how you train them. We should note that “training” in this context means everything from how you sit and stand and sleep to how you strength train and stretch-train. Pretty much everything you do is sending a message to your body about how to hold itself.

Consider the basic ‘upper body crossed’ posture. We have an alternating pattern of long and short tissues.

Upper Body Crossed Syndrome

Notice also that the muscles in question are listed as tight or weak. Actually, it’s probably better to think in terms of facilitated or inhibited because this suggests that the neurological signals to some are more active or “ON” while the others are neurologically less active. (I won’t write “off” here because a muscle is never really ‘off’…that’s just a convenient way for us to characterize downregulated/under-active muscles).

We have the postures you adopt for long stretches of time without moving, such as sitting with your head tilted forward to look at a screen or book. These positions put exert relatively low loads on the muscles that are working (in this case, the extensors on the back of your neck).

And then we have the postures you find yourself in for relatively short stretches of time, such as the ‘tucked chin’ position you would adopt while deadlifting. While the duration of this posture is obviously much shorter, the intensity of effort (and thus, the amount of force) exerted by the deep flexors on the front of your neck is much higher.

Both of these influence your posture. Because your posture is a reflection of the sum of your movement choices…and the duration and intensity of those movement choices.

It’s also worth noting that posture includes more than just what’s going on in your upper body. Posture is also a function of what’s going on at your hips and in your core/lower back.

Why improve posture?

We generally take it as a given that we should avoid certain postures, such as the forward-head, rounded back seated position. But do we know why?

Consider this posture:

photo credit: sanderling photography (and thanks to Ryan for being a good sport!)
the slow death

I’m pretty sure we would all agree this is potentially problematic.

But here’s the thing: this posture isn’t inherently bad.

Take a moment to breathe that in.

What is problematic is the idea of staying in this posture for long stretches of time without moving…and even then, it probably only becomes a problem if you try to do things outside of this position.

Sure, sitting in this position will probably create a whole host of bodily adaptations that you would notice as soon as you stand up and try to extend your hips or straighten out your spine or lift your head up or raise your arms above shoulder height. And those adaptations could possibly predispose you to some sort of injury or pain.

(And if you’re thinking ‘but I want to be able to do all of those things! And without pain!’, then you have good reason to minimize the amount of time you spend in that position.)

But standing for long stretches of time without taking breaks to sit or lie down is also potentially problematic, just for different reasons.

These positions aren’t inherently bad but staying in them for long periods of time and/or not doing anything to counteract them…that’s where the problems can begin.

This distinction may be rather academic, but it serves to relieve us of any guilt associated with having to sit and work on a computer and at the same time, it provides a new way of thinking about the importance of getting up and moving around more often.

How to improve posture: a synergistic approach

One of the more common approaches to improving posture is mindfulness. During the day, you make a conscious effort to reposition yourself: roll those shoulders back and down, fire up those external rotators…

And this might be a helpful practice—as long as it’s just one piece of the posture-improvement puzzle and as long as you’re actually targeting the right things.

Posture may not correlate well with poor movement patterns but resting posture still gives us a clue. When we’re evaluating a new client, we use standing static posture as one piece of the puzzle because it gives us an idea of the sort of positions your body is accustomed to adopting.

Posture is a habit.

The thing is, just looking at posture doesn’t tell us why your posture is the way it is. Let’s use the common example of forwardly-rounded shoulders.

(c) 123rf.com/Roman Samborskyi

Common guesses are that their chest muscles are “tight” and that their arms are internally rotated, indicating underactive external rotators.

Maybe.

We also sometimes think it might be excessive stiffness in the lats that causes the internally rotated resting position of the arm.

But the arm might just appear to be internally rotated. It could also be a lack of internal rotation range of motion in the shoulder, related to stiffness in the posterior rotator cuff. This would lead to scapular winging to make up for the deficit.

Or it could be a function of the position of the thorax—your ribcage. Since the shoulder blades sit on top of the ribcage and the shoulder blades determine the position of your arms…the internal and external rotation range of motion of the shoulders could be fine and it could be that re-positioning the ribcage is what is called for here.

The point here is that if we’re going to engage in efforts to improve posture, we should take some steps to figure out what it is that needs improving.

Remember also that posture is ideally something you don’t have to pay conscious attention to.

Once you know what’s causing the posture that you seek to improve, it becomes easier to implement a strategy that will work.

Re-balancing.

If you’ve spent a bunch of time with your body in one position, the basic idea here is to spend some time reversing that. Specifically, if you’ve got a lot of computer work to do, you would ideally shift positions every so often (let’s say every 20 minutes or so) and every hour, you would take a break and spend a minute or so doing one of:

Cobra pose

(c) 123rf. com/ Aleksandr Davydov

Or Bruegger’s Exercise.

Train more

Assuming that your strength training plan includes exercises that address the starting position of your ribcage, mobility through your thoracic spine, soft-tissue care for the tissues that impact your posture, along with targeted strengthening of the tissues that support your posture, then a key part of improving your posture could just be training more often.

Balance out your training.

In the event that your training does not include a variety of exercises aimed at keeping your joints and your body as a whole balanced, then training more often won’t quite cut it. First, you’ll need to balance out your training plan…and then you can work on training more often.

Train well.

Of course, the devil is in the details.

Technique matters.

I have a feeling that if you’ve been so kind as to read this far, you’re already sold on the idea of doing exercises with proper technique so that you can avoid injuries. Conveniently, proper technique can also help you to improve your posture.

An easy example is a push-up. We tend to advocate for doing push-ups with your arms at a 30 to 45 degree angle to your torso—rather than the popular arms-in ‘yoga’ push-up—because it tends to minimize the chances of your arm bone gliding forward in the shoulder socket (and the forward-tipping of the shoulder blades) at the bottom of the movement.

Synergy

It would be nice if you could do just the one thing—perhaps just mindfully remind yourself to roll your shoulders down and back (does anyone else shudder just a little bit every time you read or hear that phrase?)—combined, of course, with a cat meme, but that tends not to be how we make lasting physical changes.

What actually tends to happen is that there is a synergistic effect that results from the combination of all of the exercises in your training plan—and in this case, the combined effects of all of your posture-adjusting strategies.

Now then, I’m well over 1600 words for this post, so that probably means you’ve been reading this in one position for a while. It’s time to get up and move.

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