In the first part of this series on fixing poor posture, we covered how slumped, rounded body-positions not only contribute to aches and pains but also affect your stress levels, mood, and confidence.
(If you haven’t read it yet, click here to do that and then come back to this post once you’re done.)
Not to belabor the positive benefits of standing up straight, but your posture has the power to contribute to myriad health benefits. In addition to the ones listed above, correct posture has the potential to reduce muscle tension and pain, eliminate constipation and digestive issues, increase flexibility, improve focus and productivity, free up breathing, improve problem solving abilities, optimize sleep, and generally make you feel like you’re ten years younger.
At this point, you’re probably starting to sit a little straighter and pull your shoulders back. I mean, after all, who wouldn’t want all these amazing mind-body health benefits from something that is so simple and completely free?!
But hold up a sec, kay? Before you go stiffening your spine into a petrified column and paralyzing your shoulders beneath layers of muscular tension that lock them in place, let’s take a moment to talk about what good posture actually is, because I can virtually guarantee that our definitions don’t match.
Seriously, if I read another blog post telling people to roll their shoulders up, back and down before pinning them in place, and then suggesting they brace their abs in some convoluted notion of core strength, I might just gag on my single origin pour over coffee.
There’s a lot of useless mumbo-jumbo floating around out there, so often repeated that everyone assumes it’s true. But let me tell you, the way you’ve been doing posture is probably all wrong.
The good news, though, is that once you fully understand why these common posture tips don’t work, it makes actually getting good posture so much easier!
So, without further ado, here are four super common posture myths that are actually hurting your body:
No. 1 Good Posture Is Static
When most people think of posture, they assume it’s the opposite of movement. Posture is the thing you do when you’re not moving.
Only, you’re never not moving. Your body is a perpetual motion machine. Even when you think that you’re holding still, there is constant variance. Not only do your heart and respiration rates ebb and flow, your muscles are also continually adjusting to maintain upright balance regardless of whether you’re sitting or standing.
Not only are your muscles always moving, your bio-rhythms also vary endlessly. For example, a healthy heart will have a fluctuating rate that shows up as irregular on an EKG. Stasis, on the other hand, is the enemy of health. Before a sudden cardiac arrest, a person’s heart rate increases in regularity, which corresponds to a loss of resilience1.
When most people think of posture, they think of a straight spine, shoulders pulled back, belly sucked in and held tightly, chin tucked. I know this because I’ve been a posture and movement therapist for nearly fifteen years, and every time I tell a group of people what it is that I do, I watch them assume this stiff-backed, rigid position.
But that’s not actually what posture is. Posture is merely the shape that your body is making in this moment. Because we, as modern humans, tend to make the same shapes over and over again, these “poses” become habitual and comfortable. We then assume them more and more regularly, and this ultimately ossifies into what you call your “posture.”
The goal of good posture is not to put your body into an ideal alignment that correlates to a grid and keep it there indefinitely. There is no objective norm that all bodies measure up to. The goal of good posture is actually to facilitate movement so that you can live your life and do the things you love with ease.
No. 2 Good Posture Requires Strength and Tension
One of the biggest reasons that conventional approaches to fixing posture often fail is because they rely solely on creating more effort within the body. You have to literally hold your shoulders, spine and hips in place, contracting muscles to sustain a rigid pose that exhausts your efforts within just a few seconds.
That darn body, always so wayward and in need of direction from the far superior and more sophisticated brain!
But if all of your muscular tension is already engaged in stabilizing your body, you’ll have little left to devote to the tasks of movement and expression. According to Neurologist Daniel Wolpert, the sole reason that humans have brains is to coordinate and execute movement2. That’s it. It’s kind of mindblowing (haha), but true.
The best posture prioritizes ease over tension. A body that is relaxed is conserving energy and available for movement at any moment. Trying to consciously control your body’s position with muscle tension is not only exhausting, it’s impractical. Muscles cannot be both relaxed and contracted at the same time.
If all of your muscles are otherwise engaged in holding your body in place, this leaves little room for movement and expression. It means your body is maintaining an isometric contraction hour after hour, day after day. Even more than poor posture, this kind of static body bracing is a recipe for soreness and pain.
In order to initiate locomotion (movement), you need muscles that can contract, thus propelling your body forward.
No. 2 Good Posture is Something You Consciously Do
If good posture doesn’t require physical bracing, then it also doesn’t require your constant, conscious awareness. A lot of my clients think they need to “work” on their posture. They think that the reason their posture is failing is due to a lack of constant attention and diligence.
The reality is that it’s entirely impractical to pay constant attention to your posture. Your body doesn’t need policing from your brain. It executes many functions just fine on its own. If you had to think about which muscle to contract and in what order every time you took a step, you’d never walk anywhere.
Similarly, you can sit and stand without having to tell your body how to do it. Even the most mindful person will lose focus on their posture as soon as attention shifts to completing a project at work or deciding what to eat for dinner.
This is not to say that mindfulness isn’t beneficial. There are absolutely times where putting your attention on your posture and movement can be exploratory and informative. But the fact of the matter is that constant attention as a long term strategy for resolving postural issues is sure to fail.
This should be a relief, honestly. Your postural problems are not a result of your inherent laziness or lack of willpower. They’re not a function of not paying enough attention, nor of not working hard enough at putting your body into an ideal position.
We’ll get more into what constitutes good posture later in this series, but for now, suffice it to say that good posture is actually easy to maintain, and it doesn’t require the brain to “nanny” the body.
No. 4 Good Posture is One Size Fits All
Many models for good posture assume that all people, when standing straight, look the same. They state that if your spine has wiggles, if your hips are tilted a bit too far in this direction or that, that you do not have good posture.
People are different. The length of your femur (thigh bone) with relation to your trunk will not be the same as mine, nor will its orientation to the pelvis3. Two people of the same height and weight can have drastically different body structures.
Therefore, what your posture looks like is much less important than how it feels. But, alas, most of us have been trained to measure our bodies by external metrics and not by our own internal experiences.
We’ve been taught and it has been long conventionally assumed that structural imbalances impact physical health and propensity for injury, but in fact there has been no such proven link4.
Eek, wait, what are we doing here reading all about how to get better posture if it has no impact on your physical health? Well, as in all things, there’s a catch. You see, if you define posture by hard metrics broadly applied across all people, then no, there’s no link.
But if you redefine the very concept of good posture, which we’ll get into in depth in our next post in this series, then posture very much impacts your well-being.
What I want you to understand here, though, is that your perfect posture is not everyone’s ideal. What works for you will be individual and based on your unique structure. That doesn’t mean we can’t optimize your posture for your life; it just means you’re not going to get much benefit from following arbitrary guidelines.
In summary, good posture is not static, rigid, nor one size fits all. While there are some reasonable, common principles, truly functional posture will be fluid, dynamic, and tailored to an individual’s structure, activities, and lifestyle.
Want more posture goodness? My ebook Perfect Posture for Life goes way more in depth on all of this, plus gives you specific practices to decrease muscular tension so you can stand taller and move more freely. Click here to order it.
1. Claxton, Guy. “Intelligence in the Flesh: Why Your Mind Needs Your Body Much More Than It Thinks. Yale University Press, 2015. Digital.
2. https://www.ted.com/talks/daniel_wolpert_the_real_ reason_for_brains?language=en