Updated: Oct 4, 2022
When you think of posture, what's the first thing that comes to mind? I'm now imagining you standing or sitting tall in your chair right now pulling your shoulders back.
At least that is what happens whenever I ask this question to almost anyone!
At any point in my past, I would have done the same thing, and I can trace that back to my grandmother poking me in the back to sit up straight at the dinner table.
But after well over a decade of experience working with posture and movement, I ask the question: could this whole sitting up straight thing be doing more harm than good? Is there a "right" way to sit or stand?
THE ORIGIN OF POSTURE
I did some research on the origins of "sit/stand up straight" and it took me back to the sixteenth century when it was evoked by the military as a means of proper drill formation and "molding men into soldiers." Eventually, it shifted into civilian culture near the eighteenth century as it was taught to the wealthy and fashionable.
This is what boosted the idea of a "good and bad" posture. It was a symbol of morality and status. Good posture was suggested not to be the natural state of a person, but rather to be the imposed one.
The medical world had taken an interest in posture as a symbol of health and wellness where physiotherapists began teaching people how to sit and stand up straight.
Since then there have been many attempts to codify and quantify posture and it has been a source of controversy over the years with battles over the actual importance of posture when it comes to health.
My career in health and fitness brought me through all of the traditional education of the body regarding movement and exercise science. Posture was not very much a part of that education.
I did learn beyond the notion of just sitting and standing up straight and tall. Some of you may be familiar with the concepts of pulling your shoulders and neck back, turning your feet in when you walk or stand, or tightening your abdominals and bracing your core to keep a neutral spine and pelvis.
Today I refer to this as "posturing," which is the act of consciously manipulating parts of your body to walk, stand, or sit in a more posture or functionally correct way.
But how is posturing really holding up in the fight against poor posture? (did you catch that pun?)
After years of schooling and practice in the health and fitness industry, I always considered myself to have great posture. I spent a lot of time posturing.
But everything changed when I started dealing with chronic pain and recurring injuries over the years that I could never find a long-term solution for. More importantly, I couldn't figure out why I was dealing with them in the first place.
This ultimately led me down a rabbit hole to a very different biomechanical perspective on how the human body works that has continued to evolve ever since.
FORCING GOOD POSTURE MAKES IT WORSE
Humans evolved to stand upright. You develop the neuromuscular patterns for standing as a child, and then from that point, it's pretty much an autonomous process. That is, you don't consciously think about what muscles you are using to stand. You can essentially "relax" in a standing position.
Mostly how we move is autonomous (happening without our consciousness). You move your leg, but you do not consciously control the billions of cells in your leg and the rest of the body to move it.
So I believe real posture is not how you consciously position yourself, it's your natural relaxed position. Remember that the idea of "how" you position yourself was of human creation, not something humans naturally do.
Using relaxed natural posture as a guide was how I was able to alter my approach to the body to finally get myself out of chronic pain for good and help so many others do the same. That's why I believe so strongly that relaxed posture is incredibly important and potentially the root of most physical pain and injury.
Over the years I've tested so many different kinds of training and manipulations of the body against standing relaxed posture, including the act of conscious posturing. This helped me conclude that conscious posturing actually makes natural relaxed posture worse.
FASCIA AND POSTURE
The greatest shift in my perspective happened the more I saw how integrated everything in the body is than what they taught in school. Especially with new research on the role fascia (a webbing of tissue that is interwoven throughout the muscles, bones, organs) plays in connecting everything in our body together.
Traditionally the body is thought to be a simple system of separate muscles that move bones. Like machines that have different working parts. The shoulder is one part, and the ankle is a different part.
It wasn't until I started looking at how the shoulder and ankle are connected through things like fascia that I started to see just how interconnected the body is. Think of how we evolved to walk on two legs. You don't move just your legs. All parts of your body rotate, elevate, depress, and shift as they work together.
WHAT IS POSTURE?
Posture is a byproduct of how muscles and fascia create the tension that positions everything in our body and holds it together. How we move regularly manipulates the balance of that tension.
The perfect balance of tension in the body that provides the most efficient movement, giving us optimal posture, happens when the tension is symmetrical from both identical sides of the body. That is when both sides are doing the same thing.
But when you brush your teeth with the right arm every day, we think that it's only the arm and shoulder that are affected because that's what we are moving. This is the old-school thinking that the arm works independently of the system.
The real question is how does that brushing cause the opposite arm, the shoulders, torso, hips, legs, and feet to adjust, because they do! The muscles and fascia all the way down to your feet are being manipulated just by brushing your teeth. And this isn't factoring in the almost infinite number of other things that our body is adapting to.
address the system, not the symptom
So when you think of those rounded forward shoulders and back, they are not isolated problems of the shoulder and back muscles. They are tied into numerous other changes elsewhere in the body.
The simplistic idea of posturing, like holding those rounded shoulders back and forcing the spine straight, ignores both the number of other postural deviations in the system, and how they affect each other, and doesn't respect how muscles and fascia work together to create balance.
When I realized how much time people spend trying to posture themselves into better positions, I decided to start testing what happens if they stopped doing it completely.
The majority of people experience a reduction of tension as well as pain symptoms. Many who had the strong urge to constantly "fight" with certain parts of their body to relieve tension stopped having those urges.
Stopping posturing isn't meant to correct posture and functional imbalances, but it will take away a major trigger that was adding fuel to the fire.
The key to improving posture then does lie with movement, but not just any movement. Remember you take all of your imbalances with you when you move, which further reinforces them.
Of course, you should still aim to move as much as possible as it will prevent even worse problems that come from lack of movement. You also need to respect that the more imbalances you have, the more thoughtful you need to be with movement to prevent pain and injury.
how to improve YOUR POSTURE
1. let it go
The act of consciously posturing is unnatural. Spend a few days paying attention to how often you may be forcing "good posture" throughout your day. Instead, I want you to let your body relax!
Whether you are standing, sitting, or walking around, let your body do these things in whatever way it naturally happens. When it comes to sitting, I made this short video on how I would approach it.
2. measure relaxed posture
Measure and track your natural relaxed posture improvements. In truth, all exercise practices should use relaxed natural posture to measure improved function instead of the traditionally used performance metrics like improved strength and mobility.
Why? Because you can train your body with any form of exercise or movement and improve performance, while also becoming more imbalanced. This is how people find themselves joining a fitness or movement program, getting stronger and more mobile, and then BOOM. They get injured or start dealing with pain.
When you improve relaxed natural posture, however, the byproduct is always improved performance.
3. Use targeted movement and exercise
When I refer to "using movement and exercise" I am referring to a regimen of exercises that you do each day at a designated time that is purposed towards correcting your mechanics.
Then you take those better mechanics with you throughout the day, where you can improve your body simply by moving as much as possible with as much variety as possible.
This is why I created the Symmetry of Motion Online Program, because this is such an uncommon way to train the body, and yet I believe it's the most important thing you can do to prevent and/or get out of pain and injury.
In the program, we analyze your unique posture and biomechanics so that we can give you the right movements to bring your body back into balance.
When you do this the right way, instead of "trying to have" good posture, your body will already have it naturally as the tension in your body becomes more balanced. All on its own!
Note: The information on this site is not intended as medical advice. If you feel like you have a medical condition, please consult a licensed medical professional.