Chapter 13: Reprogramming Your Posture for Power
Ideal Posture, Spinal Health, and Psychological Well Being
The present chapter provides you with the major tenets of proper posture, communicating exactly how to hold your body in space. Poor posture uses tension to hold you upright – tension that, over time, bends the spine out of shape. Because poor posture is less biomechanically efficient than proper posture it actually takes much more effort to maintain. This inefficiency makes it so that muscles are used even when not needed and do not get a chance to relax. Poor posture keeps muscles throughout the spine in a state of perpetual fatigue. Maintaining good posture while standing, sitting, sleeping, and exercising ensures that the spine is used sustainably. Implementing some key correctives starting today will enhance your empower your ability to engage socially, and enhance your ability to perform activities of daily living for the rest of your life.
As age advances posture generally worsens. The spine curves into a C shaped position and spinal mobility declines. Between young adulthood and older age there is a 20-45% reduction in all planes of neck movement. There is about a 30% reduction in all planes of lower back movement. But poor posture is not an inevitable consequence of aging. If the muscles and their end-range movements are engaged on a regular basis, excellent posture can be retained throughout life.
We are all born with perfect posture and many of us maintain it as far as early childhood. It breaks down because of innattention. Postural neglect, or a lack of body awareness, makes us blind to our protruding head, rounded shoulders, and loss of lumbar mobility. Most people are similarly unaware of the soft tissue adaptations that reinforce these bad habits. When poor posture begins to feel normal, the muscle memory for good posture becomes inaccessible. We permit countless blindspots of overuse and underuse that crumple our bodies. They cause uncoordination, hinder proprioceptive messages sent to the brain, and speed up the formation of dormant muscle. We ignore our stooping posture, and make little attempt to correct it, because we tacitly assume that any attempt to enhance our posture will offend people.
- Ensures that bones and joints are in alignment and working efficiently
- Decreases wearing of joint surfaces that can result in arthritis
- Prevents the spine from being set in abnormal positions
- Prevents fatigue, strain and overuse
- Contributes to improved appearance
- Increases the ability to generate appropriate levels of force at desired joints
- Stabilizes the body against reactive forces and gravity.
Poor Posture is Caused by Chronic Subordination
Bad posture is a social signal that communicates defeat. Slouching forward, bowed head, and forward shoulders signify inferiority in many mammals (especially monkeys and apes). They constitute a mode of operation for looking downward, under the eye line of more eminent individuals. They also declare a defective spine, and a reluctance to challenge. Primates use poor posture to avoid being attacked. They languish letting their spine droop. They are sending a signal that they are already defeated, despondent, and will submit to the wills of others. By impoverishing their posture nondominant mammals promote the formation of dormant muscle in the spine. This makes them more likely to be hunched, distorted, and weak as they grow older.
It is much the same with humans. We slouch either to appease others, or to put them at ease. We try not to appear like our motions are effortless or free, or like we are standing too tall. We attenuate our movements and make ourselves look hurried, stymied, and compacted. This is so ubiquitous that submissive posturing has become a conventional standard of modern behavior. It is another cause of the ubiquity of social stress.
Poor Posture Creates Stress
Solid evidence suggests that poor posture leads to increased stress. Trigger points and muscle shortening cause pain, so the more deviated you are from your most biomechanically efficient posture, the more pain messages are sent to your brain. Also, because we know that dormant muscles are points of weakness that will buckle and collapse if loaded improperly, they make us move with unease and apprehension. This restricted dynamism makes us feel defenseless and semidisabled, turning our personality into that of a cornered animal. There are many methods for increasing stress in lab rats. One of the most effective is to restrain them by shackling their feet. Their stress hormones go through the roof even being restrained for a few seconds. Looking back I know that the curved postural adaptations my spine had made were equivalent to shackles and were a source of restraint stress for me. Like a face holding a grimace, a stiff, stooped spine affects our unconscious appraisals of the environment.
As you might assume, slumping is commonly observed in depression (Michalak et al., 2009). Studies show that slouching posture tends to increase access to helpless, hopeless and depressive thoughts (Peper et al., 2016). Assuming an erect posture results in faster recall of positive memories (Peper et al., 2017), increased energy levels (Peper & Lin, 2012), and improved affect (Wilkes et al., 2017), and body image (Canales et al., 2010), and.
Slumping posture is known to impede the ability of the lungs to expand and inflate fully. Adopting a stooping posture causes experimental subjects to breathe more shallowly because the diaphragm has less room for descent. By suppressing the diaphragm, it also activates the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. It is far more difficult for subjects to learn to breathe with the diaphragm when their posture is collapsed, as opposed to erect (Mason et al., 2017).
Social apprehension causes us to bend our spine forward (flexion), but rarely backward (extension), resulting in difficulty and pain in any motions that require backward bending. Habitual stooping shortens the structures of the joints in the front of the spine and lengthens those in the back reinforcing the “C” shape.
Your Inner Worm is Your “Powerhouse”
The spine, also known as the backbone or vertebral column, gives the trunk stability and protects the spinal cord. The muscles that encase your spine constitute your true “core,” and as a unit are the ultimate module to rehabilitate. The human spine comprises a complex chain of ligaments, fascia, bone, and inter-vertebral discs, and their health is dependent on the tone of the surrounding spinal muscles. These muscles run up and down your spine interdigitating between your vertebrae and connecting them to various other body parts. By pushing and pulling against the vertebral bones, spinal muscles help your core bend, twist, and turn. You want all of the minor muscle groups in and around your spine to be capable of contracting fully, have full range of motion, and move effortlessly during everything you do. When the muscles lining your spine are healthy from the bottom to top (coccyx to atlas), you can’t help but to move nimbly and gracefully. Trigger points and dormant muscle oppose this.
When I think of the spine I envision an inner worm or snake that wants to stretch out, and squirm in all directions. Dormant muscle is like an oppressively tightened straightjacket that warps and restricts the worm’s movement. Large sections of the neck, the hips, and the lower back, are not just braced in most people, they are splinted, as in a body cast. Because of the discomfort, we try to keep these joint configurations as still as possible. We move the rest of the body around these stiffened, wounded areas. It is difficult for any athlete to perform properly without a mobile spine because the neck, shoulders, and hips are anchored in the spine, where they provide a base for the head, arms, and legs. Joseph Pilates referred to the neck, shoulders, and hips as the “powerhouse” of the body and insisted that they provide the foundation for all movement. For this reason, spinal dormancy is a primary limiting factor for people trying to build strength in their arms and legs. Having trouble putting on muscle? You need to rehab your spine first if you want to make lasting gains.
- Spine from the front. B. Spine and ribs from the back. C. Spine from the side.
Backward Spinal Stretches will Straighten You Out
The best way to override the “C” shaped spine is to regularly bend the back in the opposite direction, creating a backward “C.” There are many poses introduced in upcoming chapters to help with this but the best way to start is to lie backwards onto a ball. Start with a large, inflatable, stability ball. Spending 5 minutes in a backwards bend on a stability ball will lengthen the muscles and other structures in the back of the spine, literally straightening you out. Without paced breathing you will resist the curvature of the ball, with paced breathing you will melt into it.
After a few weeks or months try this with a foam roller. Lie on your back on the carpet and place the foam roller in different places under your spine. Very carefully move the foam roller to different areas, relaxing and breathing into the stretches. You are spot-treating your backwards arch. Once you are accustomed to this, try rolling down the length of your back on the foam roller. Please be careful. The probability of a person with a bad back hurting themselves in this way is so high that foam rollers are rarely advertised for this purpose. You can injure yourself by doing this too aggressively without listening to your body. It should not hurt. Rolling down the length of your spine with a basketball is even more ambitious. However, I think that – after working up to it – every person should do it daily as in the exercise below.
A. A backward bend on a stability ball. B. Achieving a full backward bend at different spinal segments using a foam roller. C. Rolling down the length of the spine on a basketball.
Self-Assess and Recalibrate Your Posture
Ideal posture is normally defined as occurring when the body’s segments are aligned so that the least amount of energy is required to maintain a desired position. You have three major weights in your body, the head, the chest and the pelvis. Whether you are sitting or standing you want to use the curves in your spine to ensure that these three weights are neatly stacked on top of one another. Your earlobes should be in line with shoulders, and shoulders in line with your hips (Pavilack & Alstedter, 2016). If they are not aligned you will be out of balance and in pain.
A “neutral” or properly aligned spine exhibits three curves from the profile. These natural curves can be excessively pronounced or not pronounced enough. For most people, they are excessively pronounced (Bond, 2007). Proper posture in any of these curves will complement and reinforce the others. The curves are: 1) A backward curve (convex anteriorly) in the neck region known as “cervical lordosis,” 2) A forward curve (convex posteriorly) in the upper back called “thoracic kyphosis.” 3) A backward curve (convex anteriorly) in the lower back called “lumbar lordosis.” To support these natural curves and ensure that they are not under or over pronounced use the proper posture protocol.
Proper Posture Protocol:
Keep your feet shoulder width apart, pointing forward. Have the knees slightly bent. Let your arms hang down the sides of the body. Relax. Then use the following four postural tenets:
- Tilt your hips backward and contract your gluteus muscles, rather than tilting your hips forward, arching your back, and sticking out your butt.
- Tighten the abdominals and tuck the stomach in slightly.
- Pull your shoulders back and down. Spread your chest, and then lean your mid-back backwards, instead of shrugging and slumping forwards.
- Make sure that your head is pulled backwards and your chin is tucked down toward your chest. You do not want your head hanging forward and your jaw jutting out.
Four main postural fixes: A. Contract the gluteus muscles and allow this to roll the hips backward out of anterior pelvic tilt. B. Flex the abs and pull the belly button to spine.
C. Lean the torso back, pulling the shoulders back and down. D. Lean the head backwards with the chin tucked down toward the chest.
These four tenets should be used at all times during standing. They will feel oppressive and phony at first, but pairing them with full breaths using the exercises in the next section will make them your new set point.
Temporarily Bracing Proper Posture Will Strengthen It
The exercises in this section involve lightly bracing postures that are integral to postural strength. Up to this point I have vilified bracing. However, this form of temporary bracing is not counterproductive because you will be taking breaks, and pairing it with proper breathing.
Many body movements increase the stress response. In Chapter 4 we discussed that widening the eyes causes a spike in sympathetic activity. It is the same with contracting the buttocks, clenching the jaw, flexing the abdominals and even the biceps. This link between stress and contraction keeps our muscles from having favorable tone. Forceful contractions make us feel like we are showing off or like we are doing something that is unnatural. This in turn, makes us breathe shallowly. The following exercises will override this by asking you to pair paced breathing with different forms of muscular contraction.
In chapter 5 I said that we lightly brace our hands all day in the form of a claw. But we are afraid to ball our hands up in tight fists because we are concerned that other people may notice and get the wrong idea. Simply clenching the fist raises the heart and breathing rate. The exercise below will heal this priming your fingers and forearms for building strength. The exercises that follow do the same for other important postural systems. Perform each exercise with your breath metronome.
Within a minute of performing exercise 4 you should notice your back round forward and your chest cave in toward your stomach. You don’t want to reinforce this. Continue to perform the exercise but with the midback extended and the chest puffed up and out. This will overhaul your tendency to collapse your thoracic spine. Combining this with a contraction in your glutes will align your ribcage with your pelvis. Combining it with the next exercise will align these with your neck.
Start out performing exercises 4, 5, 6 and 7 on your back on the floor. This remedial position will help you isolate, relax and focus. Next try them standing up, all together.
These four tenets (4, 5, 6 and 7) take tension to maintain, so you don’t want to brace them for hours at a time. The more frequently you assume these postures while giving them generous microbreaks the quicker they will become your new set-points. The process will build the endurance of your deep postural muscles. You want to fatigue these muscles again and again throughout the day without overfatiguing them. All programs aimed at improving posture tell you not to stand unnaturally erect, like a soldier. They are right that this creates tension, fighting against the natural curves of the spine. But they are wrong to think that it shouldn’t be done. In fact, it is the best way to augment posture, as long as you limit it to minute at a time and allow at least a 10 second regenerative break. You can do it for much more than a minute if you include ample breaks, diaphragmatic breathing, massage – and to be discussed in upcoming chapters – counterposes, and antifrialty techniques.
Using Good Posture in Public
Whenever we encounter someone the first impulse is to query: “friend or foe?” Unconscious circuits in the brain work to decide: “Are they going to attack me?” “Are they easily provoked?” “Are they analyzing me waiting for me to submit before they decide whether to be hostile?” Then we try to determine if they did have ill intentions would they have the power to enact them? In other words, we size them up to see which one of us would prevail in a physical altercation. Often regardless of whether we think we could win, we let our posture cave in. Don’t do any of this.
Psychologists, criminologists, and law enforcement personnel agree that walking like a victim increases the likelihood that you’ll be mugged, or assaulted. They recommend that we “walk with a purpose.” Studies have shown that criminals can identify people with histories of victimization by their gait. They walk like an easy target: asynchronously, timidly, with short strides. Depressed people also have a characteristic way of walking. They have a sluggish gate, reduced walking speed, reduced vertical head movement, reduced arm movement at the shoulder and elbow, and reduced stride length (Michalak et al., 2009). When you walk, do the exact opposite. People that walk like depressed victims are advertising their victimization so that people can see that they don’t want to compete. They are communicating that they will give in to a bully. But the same self-handicapping that will repel a competitor will attract a predator. There’s a fundamental trade off to posture intended to avoid competition, and that is being ripe for predation.
Walk spryly with non-chalant control and balance. Expand your body. In becoming more expansive channel a peacock fanning its tail feathers, a cat galloping sideways, or a chimpanzee asserting rank through bulging its chest. Openly display your chest, this gives a signal to others that you are not afraid of being attacked. Hands placed near the hips show readiness for action, hands behind the back signify confidence. Head erect, demonstrate the posture of a military general, an elite athlete, or royalty. Think regal, dignified, imperial. Visualize yourself emanating gravitas and a commanding presence. Good posture leads others to assume that you must have much to be confident about, and they will accept what you project.
When I first went out on long walks exaggerating my posture, standing tall, and looking upwards, I could tell that other pedestrians questioned my motives, looking suspicious or even offended. Some people seemed incensed seeing me standing erect and looking upwards. My posture looked fake because I was forcing myself to stand straight without the healthy postural tone that should accompany it. Ironically the best way to develop this musculature is to fake it, standing straighter and taller than our body is used to.
Don’t take it overboard. Other pedestrians may be provoked if they can tell that some of your nonverbals are consistent with overcompensation. They may assume that you are putting on a ruse and feel compelled to put you back in your place. You don’t want this either, this is why it is important to be measured and conservative as you gradually transform your victim walk into a victor walk. This is why, at first, I chose to walk and stretch in uncrowded, outdoor places either at dusk or after dark. Find a safe, well-lit park or boulevard where you still have the bit of privacy you need to really strut and swagger. Once the postural muscles become stronger, standing erect will look genuine, and people will not question it.
Be thoughtful when passing people, share space, open doors, move over to accommodate couples or to make room for families. However, don’t displace yourself to appease an imposing person any more than you would for someone who wasn’t imposing. Hold your ground and don’t move out of the way more than the other person does. Own not only your immediate space but when walking, your entire forward trajectory through space. It may feel like you are flouting social customs, but remember that you are not doing anything illegal. You are actually doing invaluable internal work increasing the boundaries of your comfort zone. When you inevitably bump into someone, be congenial about it.
Many people have told me that my cat is the calmest they have ever seen. This may be because I am calm around him, I try to treat him like a friend, and I pet him firmly, fluidly, and slowly. But I think the main reason for his composure is I respect his space. I make an effort not to step over him or walk so close to him that he fears being trampled. I give him authority over his immediate area and this gives him a bubble, a shield of certainty and control. Take his shield for yourself, and feel it around you wherever you go. Feel complete ownership of the space around you. Wherever you are is your territory because you are in it.
Maintain Good Posture in Bed and When Waking
The best sleeping posture is limp and linear. Avoid sleeping in a position that will reinforce the “C” shaped spinal configuration. Sleep with a straight back and neck. Attaining proper support can help. When sleeping on your back try placing a pillow under the knees or a lumbar roll under the lower back. When sleeping on the side place a pillow between the knees. If you sleep predominantly on your side buy a body pillow and hug it, straddling it with your arms and legs. You also want a very firm mattress that does not sag or contour your existing posture. An extra firm mattress may take weeks to get used to, but it will straighten your spine as you slowly learn not to brace against a flat surface.
A. Lay on stomach head to the side B. L shape stretch for hips. C. Pillow under thoracic spine. D. Neck sit ups.
A. Kneeling back stretch with full lordosis in the neck and lower back. B. Kneeling shoulder shrug with full kyphosis in the neck and lower back. C. Sitting forward stretch with full kyphosis in middle back.
Sitting Causes Muscle Tension
It is estimated that 90 percent of office workers use computers with 40 percent reporting usage of at least 4 hours per day. Computer usage of 4 hours or more a day greatly increases the risk of musculoskeletal disorders (Sjogaard et. al., 2000). Office workers sitting in chairs garner more musculoskeletal injuries than any other industry workers, and have the highest risk of heart disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, cancer, back and neck pain. Everyone has developed misalignments from sitting whether at school, work, in the car or in front of the television.
Keyboard use is a major cause and contributor to “shoulder impingement syndrome.” I had a particularly bad case of this. In shoulder impingement the shoulders, neck, and back can be significantly thrown out of alignment from sustained reaching for the keyboard and mouse. Participants in related studies automatically raise their shoulders, maintain tension in their forearms, and breathe shallowly when sitting at a desk behind a keyboard (Peper, Harvey, and Tylova, 2006). All participants demonstrate increased respiration rate (Peper, Burke & Peper, 2001) and distressed breathing while working at a computer. This happens because sitting positionally inhibits the diaphragm. The slumped back makes it so that the diaphragm cannot move through its natural range of motion, forcing you to breathe shallowly, which in turn causes the release of stress hormones.
Our ancestors rarely sat on a raised surface like a chair. Rather than sitting they knelt, or squatted. In other words, sitting is unnatural for humans. Yet Americans sit for an average of 13 hours a day (Levine, 2014). This is the second reason why their bodies are bent into a rounded C shape. When the spine is rounded the weight distribution changes, creating a perpendicular shear force. This “resting tension” compresses the spine and weakens crucial muscles robbing you of the mobility and strength you need to stand and walk properly. Because your body adapts to the position you assume throughout the day, the more you sit, the more you want to sit.
Kelly Starrett (2013) calls sitting a “toxic position that feasts on athletic potential.” It truly is. The best recourse is to take regular breaks, make sure that you are breathing diaphragmatically while you sit, and to vary your posture to get blood to stagnant, poorly perfused muscles. You should slightly shift positions every 2 minutes from one neutral position to another. Every 20 minutes, straighten your legs, squeeze your thighs together, and flex your glutes. You should also get up and take a 5 minute stretching break every thirty minutes. Grab the back of the chair behind you and use it to twist.
How to Sit in Your Chair
To sit correctly you must maintain the natural lordosis in your neck and lower back that is present while standing. Sit up in your chair with your back straight. Shoulders should hang straight down, elbows should not be in front of the torso, and the hands should be below the level of the elbows. Place your keyboard accordingly.
Distribute the weight equally on both hips. Don’t sit on your wallet. When sitting keep your knees a few inches wider than your hip sockets to stabilize your pelvis. Keep the toes pointed forward. Your knees should be level with or slightly below the hips; feet flat on the floor. If your back is leaning against the chair, the buttocks should be pressed up against the back of the chair. If not, sit at the edge of the seat. This keeps the weight off of the femurs, and hamstrings. When sitting this way you should place about 40 percent of your weight on the ground through your feet.
It is important to sit with the majority of your weight transferred to the chair through your sitz bones (ischial tuberosities). The sitz bones are two protuberances at the lowest point of the hip bone. When sitting on a hard surface you should be able to feel them. The cushion on many chairs makes it difficult to find your sitz bones. If you are not sitting on them, the spine is likely curved. Curved pillars have no structural integrity. Rock back and forth on your sitz bones to find a strong upright posture. This is active sitting. It helps to sit on the edge of the chair, sit on a hard wooden or metal chair, or place a hard object like a book underneath the sitz bones. Most people actively avoid sitting on the sitz bones, sitting instead on the fatty space above them and tucking the pelvis like a shrimp. This is known as “posterior pelvic tilt.” A tucked pelvis keeps our hip flexors out of the posture completely putting all of the strain of sitting on the lower back. Avoid this by pretending you have a vestigial tail extending from the base of your spine. Don’t sit on the base of your tail. Rather, sit below it (on the sitz bones), allowing your tail bone to emerge above your place of contact with your chair.
A. Pelvis with sitz bones at bottom. B. Skeleton sitting on sitz bones.
C. Pelvis seen from the side, resting on tail bone. D. Pelvis resting on sitz bones.
I don’t sit on my sitz bones all day. In fact, I do what all postural experts advise against, which is to sink down in my chair and tuck my pelvis, for at least for 2-5 minutes every hour. Put yourself in this position, as a brief counter pose. When you do so, stretch lordotically and kyphotically, and swivel the hips. Also, if your seat reclines, spend a portion of your sitting time leaned back at a 135 degree angle.
Most seats and chairs are molded to conform to the average person’s poor posture. Buy an ergonomic, posture-conscious computer chair, pull the mouse and keyboard to the end of the desk closer to your stomach, and buy a lumbar pillow or roll specially designed to support the low back while sitting. You might intermittently use a cylindrical pillow to place vertically down the spine which will allow you to push your shoulders back.
Daily sitting time has been shown to be a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. This is the case even in people that exercise daily. Studies have shown that regular exercise cannot counteract the effects of sitting and sedentariness. However, I think that diaphragmatic breathing, postural awareness and antifrailty (discussed in the next chapter) may. Remaining in any static position for too long, even a comfortable one dramatically reduces circulation. Without blood, tense muscles start to hurt. To avoid this you want to refresh your muscles throughout the day. This involves getting a hardy stretch and contraction. Vary your position often.
I learned to neglect my posture and breathing in order to concentrate better on work. Putting your posture and breathing first will make it harder to concentrate on your tasks and duties, but only at first. There are many postures that serve as great alternatives to traditional seating. Try kneeling for a while. Try sitting on a stability ball, or kneeling while straddling an inflatable peanut.
A number of different positions for working or reading that are good alternatives to conventional sitting.
I believe that in classrooms, in the workplace, and even within families, we are constantly sending each other nonverbal feedback, practically bullying each other into slouching. When someone else stands straight, we have a natural inclination to be offended. We feel we must pull them back down. What we should do is applaud them while being reminded to better monitor our own posture. If you notice people trying to bully you back into slouching just ignore it, and reassure yourself that they are in the wrong.
This chapter guided you to brace within certain postures and pair this bracing with diaphragmatic breathing. While doing so you should have noticed that some points within each posture were marked by weakness and pain. Holding your back, neck, and shoulders in firmly upright positions probably feels tight, and somewhat intense. It is a brittle, aching pain almost as if the muscles are asking you to leave them alone – warning you that excessive use will lead to injury. This aching is the signature of dormant muscle and the next chapter will show you how to contract into this ache to rehab dormant muscle. If you choose to do so, you will be pain free, and your posture will become ideal.
Chapter 13: Bullet Points
- Mammals signal submission with their body language, straining the spine.
- Stooping to look nonthreatening will collapse your spine into a “C” shape over time.
- Postural concessions lead the muscles that support confident posture and dominance poses to become frail, shortened and stuck in partial contraction.
- Building postural muscles and retraining posture can be accomplished by pairing paced breathing with: 1) clenching the buttocks, 2) engaging the abdominal muscles, and 3) pressing the shoulders back and down while opening the chest, and 4) leaning the head backwards while bringing the chin into the chest.
- Be mindful of your posture during everyday activities.