- Chest up, shoulders back and down is the best posture
Most people think of posture as simply the need to keep your chest up and your shoulders back and down. Sounds like a simple feat right?! Then why will most people admit that they think they have bad posture? The answer to that is because good posture is not a simple thing, it is actually a learned, coordinated skill that encompasses the whole body. We are what we repeatedly do and our posture is a reflection of our childhood, our sports, our jobs, our emotions and our attitudes.
There is a continuum of flexibility and mobility among the population. Some people are naturally very loose jointed and hypermobile while others are compressed and stiff as a board. Where you end up on the spectrum seems to be partly genetic and partly personality. The people that fall in the middle or the average/normal people tend to have the least pain and injury problems. The further a person strays in either direction from the average the more and more posture, movement and pain problems they tend to develop. There is not one perfect posture for everybody, but there is a norm that we should all be trying to achieve no matter which side of normal we are on.
“Stiff as a board” “Normal” “Loosey-goosey”
Our bodies are brilliantly built to deal with gravity as a constant downward force, unfortunately most people don’t know how to use their bodies properly or efficiently and end up with muscle imbalances, pain and dysfunction. Posture should be looked at as a life skill not a genetic trait we can blame on our parents. A very basic understanding of anatomy and biomechanics can save people a lot of grief throughout life.
Here you can see a model of a spine, pelvis and hips. The skeleton is the structural foundation of your body and it is built for both stability and mobility. Weight gets distributed down your spinal column, to your sacrum, through your SI joints, into your hips, down to your knees and out your ankles and feet. All of these joints allow us to move freely, but if we want to carry something or push something heavy we need to use our muscles to line our skeleton up properly to distribute load and create stability. This is the concept that most people don’t understand and is the basis of having good posture for standing, sitting, walking and higher level activities. For what you would consider “normal” posture and good stability the pelvis should be slightly tipped forward, there should be a slight inward curve in your low back, a gently rounded curve from the top of your low back to your neck and then another inward curve in your neck. Your ears should be over your shoulders and your arms should hang relaxed down the midline of your torso.
*Good standing & sitting posture. I have a bit of a head forward position*
Our bodies are inherently lazy and will usually take the plane of least resistance when it comes to moving and dealing with gravity. Over time we usually develop specific muscle imbalances that pull us in one direction or another away from the ideal “normal” posture. This process starts when we are young children, becomes strongly engrained and is affected by our parents, our friends, our sports, our emotions, our shoes and our injuries. Some muscles tend to get really strong and tight while others can get quite long and weak; this can make it a lot more challenging to effectively stack and balance your skeleton. The result is we tend to hang off of certain joints and ligaments instead of using postural muscles to hold us up. It is this practice that results in most chronic pain issues. Your body starts being controlled by gravity instead of you and you end up stretching ligaments, compressing joints, overworking muscles and generally feeling sore and tight all the time.
*Standing and sitting well are a skill that should be learned
The area where most people tend to go wrong with posture is how they attempt to balance their upper body on their lower body. The pelvis should be balanced on the hips by two big ball and socket joints. These joints have available movement in all directions so if you have really flexible hips it can be challenging to effectively balance your upper body on your lower body. You see this all the time with young girls and people that have done a lot of yoga, dance and gymnastics. Ask them to stand in one place for a while and you will see them jut a hip out to one side, cross their legs, and/or hang their pelvis forward because they can’t figure out how to vertically stack their spine. The usual strategy is then to attempt to use their back, spine and shoulders by lifting their chest up, pulling their shoulders back and down, and hyperextending their knees. This group will end up with chronically tight back and shoulders and have very vulnerable knees because they are only using their back, thighs and spine. Figuring out how to use their hamstrings, butt and abs together would do them a world of good.
On the other hand, some people will go the other way. They get really tight hips and make up for the lack of hip movement by too much back movement. Forces and loads that should be transferred through the big, tough hip joints end up beating up on the joints and ligaments of the low back and knees. The relative tension required to move in the stiff hips is much less than it takes to move through the loose spine, so the person subconsciously takes the plane of least resistance and the spine gets beat up. This is a common phenomenon throughout the body and it is what I call the tail that wags the dog syndrome. Peripheral joints stiffen up so it becomes easier to move in the spine instead. This is the concept that core stability tries to correct; learning to keep your spine in a good position while you move. Unfortunately people think it is just something they need to do more of to get stronger, but it really is a skill that you first need to learn before you can work at getting it stronger. Attempts at strengthening your core before you figure out how to use it properly usually just end up strengthening your muscle imbalances, which is why a lot of people get hurt at the gym.
The upper part of your back is the stiffest part of your spine and the part that tends to round the most on some people. It is supposed to be slightly rounded, but when it starts going too far it will push your head forward. Our brains have a head righting reflex that tries to keep our eyes looking straight forward and our mothers have a tendency to tell us “chest up, shoulders back and down.” The combination of these factors usually ends up causing most people to lean backwards when attempting to stand up straight. The mid and low back have a lot less relative tension than the upper back, so most attempts to stand up straight end up tipping your upper torso backwards instead of straightening out the curved upper back. This in turn usually causes the pelvis to push forward and the head to relatively move forward. It looks good from the front, but if you turn and look at your side profile you may be in for a surprise. It is this postural concept that creates a lot of pain and stiffness. It is also related to the hump you can develop at the base of your neck, the bulge in your lower stomach you can’t get rid of, and the bunions on your feet you thought were genetic.
*Concept best illustrated in the video below…
Throughout this site I will touch on more specific elements of posture as they relate to certain pains and body parts, but for now start looking at your side profile in a mirror and start watching how everybody else stands. You will gain an appreciation for how challenging and uncommon good posture is.