Practical Science on Movement and Pain

Five Misconceptions About Posture

As a Rolfer, I see many people who want to improve their posture. Many are already in the process of applying some questionable advice they may have read on the internet. This post summarizes some of the major misconceptions people seem to have about posture.

Bad Idea #1: Bad Posture Is The Cause of your pain

It is an article of faith that bad posture will result in pain, and that you can cure pain by improving posture. You can read such claims everywhere. Although these claims have intuitive appeal, they are lacking any strong evidence in support. (If you have some, please send it my way, I would love to know about it.)

If bad posture is a major cause of pain, you would expect to find that people with measurable postural distortions would have more pain than people who do not. But that is not what the preponderance of the studies find. As summarized in a previous blog post, the weight of the evidence is that pain does not correlate very well with measurements of posture such as spinal curvature. This is surprising and somewhat counterintuitive, but it should definitely be borne in mind by anyone who plans on investing considerable time and effort trying to correct posture for purposes of pain relief.

Bad Idea #2:  Good Posture Requires Constant Attention

Many of my clients believe their poor posture is the result of failed attention. As a practical matter, we cannot spend all day worrying about our posture. Our bodies are not designed to require conscious monitoring of muscular activity. We can walk without reminding ourselves to activate flexor digitorum longus at the right time, and we can also sit upright without being mindful to activate the core or retract the scapula. In fact, we really have no choice but to allow posture to be dictated by unconscious processes. Even the most vigilant conscious policing of your posture will be abandoned after a second or two, as soon as some other distraction arises. So, if you want good posture, you must somehow make it an unconscious act. (That doesn’t mean that conscious attention to posture is never a good idea, only that it is not a good long term strategy.)

Bad Idea #3: Good Posture Requires Extra Effort

Many of my clients believe their bad posture results from laziness, or possibly poor strength in certain postural muscles. They feel tired after only a few minutes of assuming what they think is a good posture, and then conclude they must increase their endurance at holding the position. This is probably a losing battle.

The solution is usually not to increase your ability to sustain effort, but to find a posture that requires less effort. In fact, the sense of effort associated with movement is a good way to determine whether the movement is right for you. In regard to posture, this means your optimal posture should feel easier, not harder, than your current posture.

Therefore, if a certain posture feels like it requires extra effort, it’s probably not going to work. In any event, your brain, which prefers the most efficient way to do something, will be smart enough to abandon an inefficient postural strategy the very first moment that you stop consciously controlling it. Which should be about three or four seconds.

Bad Idea #4:  Posture Means Holding Still

People think of posture as the opposite of movement – as something that you “hold.” As such, people often become stiff when they assume their “good” posture. This is a bad idea because it interferes with all the movements that must occur constantly during any posture.

Every posture requires ongoing breathing, which is a movement that can involve nearly every muscle in the trunk. This fact works against the common advice to suck in the abs as a means to become more upright and stable. Consciously sucking in the abs might make you feel taller, but it also tends to lock in some of the muscles that must move to allow breathing.

In addition to breathing, static posture (especially standing) involves constant oscillatory movement. Standing is actually a highly unstable position  - it’s like balancing a fifteen pound bowling ball on top of a stick on top of two other sticks on top of two bony feet. Standing is a continual process of tiny falls and recoveries, where the muscles constantly adjust to tip the body one way and then the other. This results in a very small but perceptible oscillating pattern where the head moves above the feet in a figure eight or circle. So, posture is not about preventing movement, but about allowing very small movements around a central balance point. Try to imagine that you are a bobble head doll and you can feel this subtle process of movement and readjustment happening constantly and involuntarily.

Another important aspect of posture is that it is the place from which the next movement will come. Optimal posture allows the next movement with a minimum of preparation and effort. This is of course vitally important in a sporting context, where players wait for the next move in a posture (usually a crouch) that allows quick movement in any direction with little effort or preparation. But such a consideration also applies to everyday life, and you can be sure that your brain is constantly anticipating your next move no matter how small, and making postural preparations for it.

One movement that occurs almost constantly in most sitting and standing postures is turning the head from side to side to scan the horizon and take in sensory information. Each head movement, when executed optimally, requires movement of the neck and more subtle compensatory movements in the trunk and even pelvis. Turn your head from side to side while sitting and you may feel your sit bones shifting slightly on your seat. Holding the head and trunk in a rigid position will restrict the freedom of these movements and make them stiffer and less comfortable. Try adopting your “good” posture and then see if you need to soften it a little to turn comfortably from side to side. Again, your brain won’t let you adopt a posture that prevents a quick and easy scan of the horizon, and therefore any such posture is doomed to fail.

Another motion that takes place almost constantly while sitting is reaching for a keyboard, mouse, phone, doughnut, remote control, etc. If the scapulae are held to the spine by the conscious retractions recommended by many posture experts, the arm is not ready to reach. And this is again why advice to consciously stiffen certain muscles is likely to fail. The brain knows that sitting at a computer means constant reaching, and it will not allow the scapulae to be constantly pinned back.

The bottom line is that posture is not a static position to be held, but rather a dynamic and constantly changing series of subtle movements that allow breathing, turning and reaching, preserves easy balance, and prepares for the next movement.

Bad Idea #5: Straighter and More Symmetrical is Always Better

Many people assume their posture will improve if they get “straighter” and more symmetrical. However, it is a bad idea to place too much emphasis on how your posture looks. More important is how it feels and what it can help you do. The visual emphasis on posture probably results from spending too much time looking at pictures of platonically ideal posture shown in books. Trying to deform your body into the shapes in these pictures can be a bad idea.

Every person has a unique bone structure and therefore each person has a unique ideal posture. We all have at least some minor asymmetries in the bones from left to right. If you look closely at a model skeleton you will notice that the ribs on the right side are not the same shape as the ribs on the left. You will also notice places where the spine curves from left to right. Bones are not made by machines like interchangeable pieces of Ikea furniture, they are shaped by years and years of an organic process of growth which responds to tensional and compressive forces. Such forces are bound to be different from side to side and therefore asymmetries are the rule not the exception. If the bones of your spine naturally tilt a little to the left near the sacrum, they will have to tilt back to the right at some point to keep the head over the pelvis. The resulting curvature is entirely natural and perhaps optimal for that particular person. Trying to straighten out the curves works against the grain of the bone, and is bound to cause unnecessary stress and tension.

The same principles apply to the size of the forward/back curves in the low and upper back, which are very much determined by the shape of the bones, particularly the sacrum, whose shape varies markedly between different people.

The bottom line is that ideal posture is different for everyone, so don’t rely too much on how your posture looks, judge how it feels. If it doesn’t feel natural, it won’t work.

Conclusion

OK, so there’s a list of things that probably won’t help you improve your posture. In a future post I’ll write about some approaches that might help.

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27 Responses to Five Misconceptions About Posture

  1. Tim says:

    I guess it’s most often muscle imbalances (oftenly caused by SMA) that cause both bad posture and pain, right? So it’s not the bad posture that causes pain, but it’s something else that causes both bad posture and pain.

    “the weight of the evidence is that people with bad posture are not more likely to have pain than those with good posture.”

    This is a little odd. If my first statement is correct, then your statement would mean that SMA will not cause postural changes in about half of the people with pain? Maybe my logic is not 100% correct.

    • Deborah Lotus says:

      Full disclosure, I am a Feldenkrais Practitioner. Dr. Feldenkrais taught us not to look at causality as in linear thinking “Why?” answered by “Because”…In an issue as complex as ‘posture’, the “How” questions are far more fruitful…Moshe Feldenkrais wished to replace the term posture, which implies a rigid posting, with the word “acture”…of course it never made it into the lexicon of common usage, but is far more accurate…the human skeleton is meant to be in constant motion, even in meditation there is movement and sway.
      Excellent article, thank you.
      Deborah Elizabeth Lotus

  2. Todd Hargrove says:

    Tim,

    In a previous post I discussed many studies where back pain and posture weren’t correlated. http://toddhargrove.wordpress.com/2010/06/08/back-pain-myths-posture-core-strength-bulging-discs/. This is in stark contrast to various studies where they easily find correlations between job dissatisfaction and pain.

    I know of at least one study where they induced pain, which caused posture changes. This would suggest that in the few studies where they have found a correlation between pain and posture, it is very possible that pain was causing bad posture as opposed to the other way around.

    I sum, I doubt that bad posture is a major player in causing pain, regardless of whether that bad posture is caused by SMA or pain.

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  4. anand srivastava says:

    Thanks Todd for a very interesting article. I think the posture directly depends on the strength of muscles. The stronger muscles are, the easier it will be to hold straight postures. Trying to hold the so called good postures without the required musculature support will result in pain. Weight training helps in attaining straight postures, but I am not sure that straight postures help in any way other than looking good, and showing that the person is strong.

    • Todd Hargrove says:

      Thanks Anand,

      I agree that all things equals, stronger muscles equals increased ability to hold a straight posture. However, straight posture requires very little muscular work in an optimally efficient body (for example look at a 2 year old). So I think there is more bang for the buck in increasing efficiency as opposed to work capacity.

      Am I right that you are a frequent commenter at Stephan’s blog?

  5. Vizeet Srivastava says:

    I also disagree high heels are are hazardous for health. We are not designed to walk on flat floors. There are two classes of injuries that happen due to high heels:
    1. Joint injuries that are due to weak bones, joint or muscles
    2. twisted an… ankle, smashed teeth and broken bones are similar to one that happens when some one falls from staircase.

    They also can have positive affect:
    1. they may improve the tone of a woman’s pelvic floor
    2. They strengthen your back muscle

    I agree more with positive effects because in pre-historic times humans must be walking mostly up or down hills and very less plain surface.

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  8. Anoop says:

    Posture is one the concepts which crept into the field without any experimental evidence and just through some it “makes sense” logic.

    I wrote an article about posture long back. Correcting Posture: Myth or Reality?

    http://www.mindandmuscle.net/articles/a_balachandran/posture

    • Todd Hargrove says:

      Thanks for the link to the article, I will check that out. The posture/pain idea does make sense, I was surprised to see that it is not supported by convincing evidence.

  9. [...] a previous post I wrote about several common misconceptions about posture. In this post I’ll try to explain some [...]

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  11. h says:

    this article is totally wrong. as someone who had bad posture i can tell you that it takes conscious discipline to improve posture. this is simply due to the fact that it takes good muscle tone to have strong posture. you must slowly train your muscles to hold better posture and you will slowly develop. only after devotion will good posture become natural. another point that blatantly stood out to me was that you say you have to suck in your abs to improve posture. no. your abs should be stretched with good posture, like you’re pushing them out, but still keeping them taught. this is done by having a straight back, starting from the butt. the small of your back should be taught, and your butt should be clenched, naturally, your abs are now out and stretched. this is good posture.

    • H,

      This is one of the first negative comments I have ever received! Thanks you for keeping me on my toes.

      I disagree that the article is totally wrong. In all likelihood, I have made numerous true statements in there.

      In regard to muscle tone, I’m sure it takes good muscle tone to have good posture, but that does not mean it takes any significant strength. Little toddlers have excellent posture and they are very weak. When the body is not fighting itself, it takes very little effort to remain upright and comfortable.

      Your approach seems to be that good posture requires that you train your willpower to stiffen the musculature. Mine is that posture is about skill not will. If you compare the postures of young children with soldiers standing at attention, you can see the difference the two approaches yield.

      I’m surprised that one of the points that blatantly stood out for you was my claim that you should suck the abs in. Because I didn’t make that claim. Instead I said that sucking in the abs was poor advice.

      I agree that the small of your back should be taught (to relax), but not taut.

      I disagree that good posture requires clenching your butt. There’s a reason that the phrase tight ass isn’t used to describe someone who is relaxed and at ease with himself.

  12. [...] 13, 2011 by Todd Hargrove 0 Comments You may have noticed that your mood can affect your posture. For example, if you are feeling depressed, defeated, or submissive, you may slump. If you are [...]

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  14. [...] writes: this article is totally wrong. as someone who had bad posture i can tell you that it takes conscious discipline [...]

  15. [...] other. This arrangement of the bones might look good in a picture or be appealing to a coach who is overly concerned with alignment. But it will probably have several drawbacks: it might require extra muscular effort to hold the [...]

  16. Great info! In response to one of the other readers comments above about needing “good” muscle tone; it’s probably much more important to have balanced muscle tone. It makes no difference if some of your muscles are super strong if their antagonist is weak. As you already know, a balanced system is much more the point in having “good” posture. Keep up the good work.

    • Marilyn says:

      I agree and disagree. See Peggy Hackney’s book Making Connectios. It’s all about Orchestraton. Posture is indeed dynamic and as a Movment Analyst I first just note whatever I see, what is there. Then I need context for understanding why..which enables me to make meaning. Then I have to consider basic alignment formation to see here connection are and are not being made along the chain. Then we can start to look at how this body is lived in,and what kinds of movement would support more easeful connection to take excess strain off any one area,to enable all parts to do their share in supporting movement of the whole. It is a gross mistake to confuse such a thing as posture suggesting a static form with platonic perfection somewhere, with alignment- a dynamic and constant organization and reorganization of parts moving in ongoing changing relationship. Key words here: part/whole, static/dynamic, posture/alignment, orchestration and connection/strength and will power. I would be careful to exclude any of it . It always depends on who,what,why,where,when. And it requires flexible perspective and a big toolbox to facilitate awareness,elegance and change.

  17. Stephan Casey says:

    So would you that instead of trying to force yourself to sit/stand up straight. Instead sit as straight as possible without pulling yourself straight. So instead of sitting all the way back just put your bum further back and sit with less of a slouch but not more effort. And to sleep in a better position etc

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