Posture is the position in which you hold your body while you’re doing stuff. And if the stuff you’re doing every day involves a lot of time in front of a computer, you probably already know that your posture could use a little help.
Sitting in front of computers has an uncanny way of causing our backs to scream in pain. However, it might not necessarily be the sitting that’s the problem, but rather the way in which we sit.
There are a lot of common misconceptions about what constitutes “good” posture. I find that the majority of my clients are making these critical mistakes, actually making their bodies more tense and causing extra muscle aches along the way.
So here are three mistakes you’re probably making when trying to fix your posture, and how to quickly fix them:
1. Pulling your shoulders back.
This is number one for a reason. When I say “posture,” the first thing that probably pops into your head is “shoulders back!” And anyone who sits in front of a computer knows that the struggle is real when it comes to keeping those shoulders in line with your ears. They just have a way of wanting to creep forward.
While keeping a nice vertical line from ears to shoulders is really ideal, straining to keep your shoulders back usually won’t help. Why? Because your shoulders aren’t actually the problem.
Your shoulder girdle — the bony structures that connect your arm to your ribs and spine — rests on your rib cage. Yes, you have ribs all the way up to your neck. They form the foundation for your shoulders.
Like any foundation, if it’s all caddywompus, so too will the structure be that sits upon it. Hours spent hunched in front of a computer cause tension in your hip flexors and abdomen that pull your rib cage down. This, in turn, causes your shoulders to round forward.
Pulling your shoulders back doesn’t fix the underlying problem — a depressed rib cage.
Try this instead: put your hand on your chest, just beneath your collar bones. Lift your chest up and forward (the forward is important!). You can pretend someone has a hook in the collar of your shirt and is pulling upward if that helps.
Notice how when your chest lifts your shoulders drop back automatically and without you having to hold them in place. Magic!
2. Bracing your core muscles.
Core strength is something of a trend right now, and for good reason. A strong core will help to support your spine, especially in bending and twisting movements.
But a braced core is not a good thing, and unfortunately, a lot of core strength practices get conflated with bracing. In fact, I often see advice to “brace your core” when sitting.
Bracing your abdominals is not only impractical (really, how much attention can you put on what your abs are doing while you sort through complex mathematical spreadsheets for your upcoming presentation at work?), it’s downright harmful.
Too much tension makes you brittle, like the proverbial dry branch versus a nice, springy green twig. This is why I prefer the term “core integrity” over core strength. Core integrity is about having the muscles of your back and abdomen online and accounted for, but not so taught that they’re preventing your body from absorbing shock, moving, bending, or twisting.
Remember, your spine is not a column. It’s more of a spring, or a slinky even. If you splint it with muscular tension, you lose mobility, and that mobility has to come from somewhere else. That means that other joints are moving too much to accommodate joints that don’t move at all.
Be the twig. Lighten up on your dear core muscles. If you’re so tight in your abs that you can’t take a full breath, you’re clenching too much.
3. Forgetting about your legs.
So many people focus on just their shoulders and backs when it comes to posture. And sure, this is where posture shows up. As in, when you look at someone standing or sitting, you’ll notice the alignment of their back or shoulders before you think much about their legs (unless you’re me, and then you see bent people everywhere — it’s a curse).
But those shoulders and backs are connected to two very useful sticks called legs. Legs, as it turns out, have some of the biggest and most powerful muscles in the human body! Those muscles are absolutely essential to the function of your core.
Just try pressing a weight overhead in the seated position versus in standing. You’ll find that when you can contract your glutes, quads and hamstrings, you can push a whole lot more weight up than when you take your legs out of the equation.
Your legs work in conjunction with your abdominal and back muscles to support your spine. So, instead of flopping those legs out in front of you like limp noodles or tucking them under your seat like a pretzel, try putting your feet flat on the floor.
You’ll notice that with feet on the floor, your spine has a lot more support when you lean forward, which is what people do a lot of while sitting in front of computers. Over the course of eight-ish hours a day, five or so days per week, using your legs adds up to a lot of saved energy — and a much happier spine.
I’m not sure why there are so many misconceptions about good posture and how to properly sit in front of a computer. But, if you want my complete guide to getting good posture even if you sit at a computer all day, check out my ebook Perfect Posture for Life.
Not only does it have a whole section on sitting and standing desks, it also has gobs of good exercises for releasing the tension you’ve got built up in your body from years of sitting improperly.2