Since we’ve covered some of the common myths that make achieving good posture an exercise in frustration — not to mention causing more damage to your body than even doing nothing at all — let’s switch gears and talk about a more constructive model for good posture.
(This is the third post in a series on fixing bad posture. If you missed the first two, click here to read those first, then come back).
I know you’re probably jonesing to get ahead and start the actual process of fixing your posture, but let me assure you that understanding these principles is essential to the health of your body. If you jump into the how-to before you understand the why, you’re just going to wind up frustrated because understanding how something works can be imperative to its success.
Posture is one such thing where this definitely applies.
If pressed to define good posture, I would honestly say that after thirteen years of treating clients, I don’t believe it truly exists, which puts us in a bit of a conundrum since here I am writing a whole series about good posture—and here you are, reading it.
It’s a bold assertion, for sure, to say that I don’t believe in good posture while simultaneously writing about it, but if you examine the previous post covering what good posture is not, you’ll start to see a pattern emerging.
Note that I didn’t talk about specific types of alignment, angles of shoulders, or metrics for your spine. I didn’t address rotations and counter rotations of limbs, pronation and supination of your feet, or reverse curvature of the neck.
Do I look at these things when I’m treating clients? Sure. They’re great sources of information. But addressing these specific, objective metrics of posture without also considering the principles of healthy alignment is ultimately futile.
I am not so much concerned about your body’s static alignment (although this is certainly one cornerstone of good posture) as I am focused on your potential for movement.
My concept of good posture has less to do with standards and rules and more to do with a broad scope of principles about the ways in which healthy bodies stand and move. The conventional view of posture as a static “pose” that your body holds is only a small piece of this broader view.
In order to understand this fresh take on posture, it’s helpful to view your body not as an object that can be in binary states, like broken or fixed, but as more of a process that is always becoming something.
Your body isn’t just a dumb machine carrying your brain around. Rather than viewing your body as an object, like a car, I encourage you to shift toward seeing yourself more as an information system. Your body is always taking in data about its environment, then shifting and responding accordingly.
It does this through cells in your muscles and fascia—or connective tissue—called proprioceptors that sense position and movement and make adjustments to balance, coordination, and muscle tone accordingly.
The input that you give your body in this moment will influence its output — or posture. Your brain is always “listening” to your body and then sending directives back as necessary. Posture, therefore, isn’t a mind-over-body phenomenon, but rather a mind-body integrative experience.
With this novel view of your body as a process instead of an object in mind, let’s define new parameters for what constitutes “good posture.”
Good Posture Treats the Body as a Synergistic Organism That Is Entirely Connected
It’s not unusual in my office to hear complaints about specific body parts with relation to posture. People generally focus on shoulders or hips, and they want to know which muscle is causing all their ills.
However, every part of your body is connected to the rest of you. This seems obvious, right? I mean, if you weren’t connected, you really would lose your head on the regular.
But you would be surprised at what a revelation this concept can be. I mean, you “know” intellectually that things are connected, but but when you experience the effect your gait has on your neck and shoulders, for example, it can be kind of eye opening.
That pain in your back may actually be related to immobility in your hips, or your neck strain is due to a fixation in your ankle. You can’t change the movement in any given joint without affecting the whole body.
Symptoms are not causes. Pain in one area does not necessarily indicate a localized problem. When addressing your posture, it’s important to keep in mind that hunched forward shoulders aren’t just a shoulder problem, and back pain isn’t localized in your spine.
This is where the pain is, but it may not be the place that needs attention in your body. Truly functional models for good posture take a holistic approach to correcting physical imbalances, looking at how all the various elements of your body work together to create function or dysfunction.
Good Posture Prioritizes Ease over Tension
Most people have enough stuff on their to-do list, right? We don’t really need to add “mind your posture” as another note on the pink post-it in your pocket.
And besides, we as humans are already way too good at being tense. People don’t need to learn to be more tense; we’ve got that one down. We need to learn to relax.
As a society, we have a cultural addiction to tension, as evidenced by all the “hard bodies” on magazine covers and in the media. Somehow, we’ve conflated health with tone, when in actuality, the two are quite different.
(Strength is also not the same as tone, but that’s a topic for another day.)
Excessive tension and muscle mass limit your range of motion and dull your sensory input. Tight, restrictive muscles prohibit free movement of a joint, which results in a diminished number of available movement patterns. These limited neuromuscular patterns become dominant due to overuse, until other available movements shrink away.
In short, you get stuck in one way of moving to the exclusion of all others. That pattern becomes fixed, like a prison you can’t escape, until you’re stuck in what you might call “bad posture.” In reality, it’s not the posture that’s bad, it’s the loss of other available movement options due to too much tension in your muscles and the ensuing restricted joint mobility.
Many of my clients report that they had no idea how tight something was until the tension was dissolved and movement restored. This is because the body feels itself through movement. If a part of your body doesn’t move, your brain isn’t getting proprioceptive input from the sensory nerves.
The more ease there is in your body, the more resilient you will be, like the proverbial green twig. A body that is rigid and tense quickly loses its springy elasticity. The tissue quality becomes dry and fibrous, like stiff beef jerky instead of the juiciness of a fresh steak.
So, truly good, functional posture will prioritize relaxed, supple, available muscles over rigid, tense, uptight ones.
Good Posture Employs Dynamic Alignment
I may not believe in good posture, but I do believe in optimal alignment. However, the way in which I define this differs slightly from the conventional view of a properly aligned body.
There is a central axis around which your body organizes (your core). When all of the “blocks” of your body are stacked up optimally, your muscles require very little physical energy to maintain an upright stance.
This organized place is the sweet spot where your musculoskeletal system is perfectly balanced in gravity, where your bones are stacked, distributing compressive force throughout your skeletal structure with the least amount of impact on joints and soft tissue.
I call this place “neutral alignment.” It’s the center of your balance, a mid-point through which you move into and out of as you go about your day. It’s not a static spot in which you place your body and hold it, but rather a “rest within the work” of your perpetual movement.
While this place of ease with respect to gravity is optimal for diminishing strain throughout your body, it’s also fleeting because you are in constant motion. Even when seated and relatively static, your body is performing complex calculations and cycling through the firing of various muscle fibers to keep you in position.
While staying in this perfect place of equilibrium is impossible, exploring it is essential. Giving your body an experience of effortless balance allows you to release muscle tension that frees your limbs up for movement. The more experiences like this that your body has, the more easily you’ll be able to return to balanced, upright posture when you notice strain starting to form in your muscles — ideally before the pain sets in.
Good Posture Focuses on Diversifying and Repatterning Neural Pathways
Multiple studies have shown almost no correlation between pain, injury, and posture1. But we also know that certain postures do cause measurable musculoskeletal strain2 and the Center for Disease Control reports that 32% of injuries resulting in missed work are related to occupational over-exertion or repetitive strain3.
So, while no given posture may be proven to be connected to any one type of pain, it’s certainly likely that imbalances in your body paired with the strain of sitting or standing for long periods of time at a stretch can result in physical pain.
Sitting and standing in fixed positions causes compressive force to travel through a very limited number of vectors in your body. Basically, it puts all the strain on very small points that take the brunt of the burden of supporting your body day after day.
It doesn’t take a brain leap to understand how this will result in tissue breakdown, muscular strain, joint degeneration, inflammation and any number of other “normal” conditions that people suffer with all the time.
But what is there to do? Well, changing posture in the conventional sense doesn’t help, as per the above noted studies. But optimizing movement does. The more you move your body in novel ways, the more well-distributed strain is throughout your joints and soft tissue network (and the less likely you are to get stuck in that one, single position).
Movement isn’t probably the first thing you think about when you consider your posture, but it might actually be the most important.
Good Posture Works on Shaping Rather Than “Fixing” Poor Alignment
When you start to observe your body more as a process that is unfurling which you can shape in any direction you choose, correcting your posture becomes less about “fixing” postural ills and more about supplying the right input to move in a more healthy direction.
Two, ten, or thirty minutes of postural training aimed at targeting your stooped shoulders can’t compete with a lifetime spent in a perpetual stoop.
Everything you do has the potential to support damaging posture or create new, beneficial neural patterns. And it’s not just what you do, but rather how you do it.
Generating optimal posture and movement is less about doing a particular type of exercise and more about optimizing what you’re already doing. In all frankness, I can give you every postural correction exercise in the known world. I can give you the exact maneuvers that will make your pain vanish. And I would still put money down that, after an initial period of interest, you won’t do them.
I cannot tell you how many people come to my practice with painful symptoms and, when I inquire as to the things that helped them to feel better, they tell me that physical therapy was useful. When I ask if they’re still doing their physical therapy exercises, a sheepish look comes over their faces and they admit that they’re not.
It’s not that the exercises fail. Like diets, it’s the doing that’s the problem. Life is busy. It’s full of stressors and to-do lists and children who need attention, holidays, families, friends and late night work projects. While therapeutic exercises seem initially vital, their importance fades to the background along with the symptoms they treat.
None of us has time to make posture a second, third or fourth job. But if you can incorporate the principles of healthy posture into your daily life, bringing alignment and diversified movement to what you’re already doing, you’ll have much more sustainable, long-term results.
These principles can apply to anything from yoga to running, weight lifting, gymnastics, rock climbing, horseback riding, or even simply how you sit or stand in front of your computer.
Creating diverse movement patterns that shape your body in beneficial ways helps you to not get stuck or fixed in suboptimal posture. There really is no “bad” posture, since posture is merely a temporary shape that your body is making in a moment. But if you make the same shape repeatedly, you run the risk of becoming stuck in it.
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1. https://www.bettermovement.org/ blog/2014/does-bad-posture-cause-back-pain?rq=posture
3. https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/97-141/ pdfs/97-141.pdf?id=10.26616/NIOSHPUB97141